There was much more to this house servant than just serving tea. She was one of the Union’s most important spies during the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew engaged in an ingenious and elaborate spy mission during the Civil War, giving crucial information to the Union Army.
Details of Bowser’s life are sketchy, but it is believed she was born into slavery around 1839 in Richmond, Va. She was owned by John Van Lew. Upon his death, his daughter Elizabeth freed all of her father’s slaves. Bowser was kept on as a paid servant. Van Lew sent her to Philadelphia to attend the Quaker School for Negroes in the 1850s. Upon her return to Richmond, Mary married William Bowser, a free Black man, and continued to work for the Van Lews.
Van Lew was a staunch abolitionist and Union supporter. She used her family’s wealth and prominence to help facilitate her plan but came under fire from her neighbors and other Confederate supporters. She started by taking food and medicine to captured Union soldiers held at Libby Prison. To divert attention from her very serious mission, she took on a slovenly, slightly crazy persona, which earned her the nickname “Crazy Bet.” It was also around this time that she developed a scheme to help the Union soldiers by spying on the Confederate Army, but she needed help. What better place to pull this off than right at the source, in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and who better to help her than the seemingly dimwitted Bowser?
“Crazy Bet” helped captured Union soldiers escape. She hid coded messages in their shoes and in hollowed-out eggshells. She hid escaped prisoners in a secret room in her family’s mansion.
For her part, Bowser became “Ellen Bond,” an able-bodied but not-too-bright servant. She went to work in the Davis home, serving at functions hosted by Davis’ wife, Varina. The Davis family liked “Ellen’s” work and hired her full time, believing that she was nothing more than an illiterate servant, as most slaves were. It was an assumption based on prejudice, and it proved to be a gross mistake.
In the course of doing her job, the smart and cunning Bowser was able to gain invaluable information. She overheard conversations between Davis and his advisers and military officers about troop strategies and planned movement. She was able to read letters and other documents that were left out in plain sight in the president’s private study. Unbeknownst to her employers, Bowser had a photographic memory and could recall everything she read, saw and heard, word for word. By the time Davis realized there was a leak in his house, it was too late to do anything about it, as crucial information had already been leaked.
Bowser passed what she had learned to Van Lew during visits to the Van Lew farm and to Thomas McNiven, a baker who made deliveries to the Davis house. Before McNiven’s death in 1904, he told his daughter about these meetings.
“Everything she saw on the rebel president’s desk, she could repeat word for word. She made a point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis’ home to drop information,” he said.
During the last days of the Confederacy, it was finally suspected that Bowser was the mole. She fled the scene in January 1865 but not before making an unsuccessful attempt to burn down the Confederate White House. No one saw or heard from her again. There is no record of her life or death after she left Richmond. She simply disappeared.
Just how good was the information she provided? When the city of Richmond fell during the Civil War, Union General Ulysses S. Grant said to Bowser over a cup of tea, “You are the one person who has sent me the most useful information I have received from Richmond during the war.”
“Crazy Bet” paid dearly for her Union loyalty. Her inheritance was gone and she was ostracized for her actions against the Confederacy. She died in poverty in 1900.
Government records detailing Van Lew’s activities and Bowser’s information were destroyed for the pair’s protection and a journal that Bowser purportedly kept was inadvertently thrown out by her family in 1952.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser was honored for her contributions with an induction into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame.
- Look it up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about the Confederacy, 13 states whose attempt to secede from the Union led to the American Civil War. Learn about the key battles of the war.
- Talk about it: Why were Bowser and Van Lew successful in their plans? How would you have planned and carried out such a mission?
- Write it down: Strategy is crucial in achieving any goal in life as well as solving problems. Write an essay on the importance of planning and executing a strategy. Choose a problematic situation and create a plan for solving that problem.
This Week in Black History
- Feb. 27, 1933: Maria W. Steward becomes the first American woman to give public speeches. She gave four lectures that focused on education and political rights for Blacks.
- Feb. 27, 1869: Charlotte Ray graduates from Howard Law School, becoming the nation’s first African-American lawyer.
- Feb. 29, 1940: Hattie McDaniel becomes the first African-American to win an Academy Award for her role as Mammy in the movie “Gone With the Wind.”
- March 3, 1932: South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba is born in Johannesburg.