There is much discussion nowadays about the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the Reconstruction Era and how similar today’s racial climate is to that distant past with the widespread police brutality and political repression.
It is highly unlikely that Mary Elizabeth Bowser’s name will surface at any time during these reflections, but this is a perfect time to recall this remarkable woman, who was born a slave in Richmond, Va., March 30, 1840.
Her story begins in servitude and ends in gratitude, given her ability as a spy for the Union forces during the Civil War. As the slave of John Van Lew, a wealthy hardware merchant, Bowser was freed upon his death in 1843. Though no longer forced to work in the Van Lew household, she chose to remain there for several years, well into the late 1850s. Later, Elizabeth Van Lew, aware of Bowser’s native abilities and intelligence, sent her to the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia.
After graduating, Bowser returned to Richmond and was subsequently married to Wilson Bowser, a free Black man. They were married in 1861, four days before Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, beginning the Civil War.
Her marriage did not end her association with the Van Lew family, and since the matriarch of the family was a prominent member of Richmond’s upper class and political circle, this afforded Bowser the singular opportunity in the nation’s history of espionage.
Months before enlisting Bowser into the world of spies, Elizabeth Van Lew had often demonstrated her sympathies for the Union forces, at times visiting them in prisons, helping some of them to escape and hiding them in secret rooms in her vast mansion.
To get Bowser into the elite of Confederate society, Van Lew first made her out to be a bit feeble-minded, unable to read and write—which she could—but a loyal and dutiful servant. Under the assumed name of Ellen Bond, Bowser, through Elizabeth’s maneuvers, gained entrance and acceptance as a servant for Varina Davis, the wife of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president.
Soon, Bowser was a trusted servant in the Confederate White House, preparing meals, cleaning rooms and generally having the run of the White House. It was in this capacity that she was often in Davis’ office with a chance to see many of the papers and documents on his desk—all of this occurring in the latter days of the Civil War.
Because Bowser was deemed an ignorant housekeeper and maid, Davis took no extra precaution in securing important information. What he wasn’t aware of was Bowser’s photographic memory. With this gift, she was able to memorize many of the important papers on his desk and in his study, and report back to Van Lew what she had seen. She also overheard and remembered a number of conversations between Davis and his associates and advisers.
When she wasn’t delivering this information to Van Lew, she was relating it to Thomas McNiven, a local baker who then passed it on to Union officers and others in the spy network. Some of this activity was duly recorded in McNiven’s journal, in which he noted that Bowser “was working right in the Davis home and had a photographic mind. Everything she saw on the Rebel President’s desk, she could repeat word for word. Unlike most colored, she could read and write. She made a point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis home to drop information.”
When Davis discovered there was a leak of information from the White House, the first suspicion was McNiven and then, by association, Bowser. She became aware that she was about to be apprehended and questioned, and quickly left the White House in January 1965. As a last act, she unsuccessfully attempted to burn down the White House.
What was later burned by the federal government were any papers indicating Bowser or McNiven’s spy activities, thereby protecting them from any future problems. While Bowser at one time kept a diary of her experiences, particularly the valuable military information that proved vital to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and other Union officers, that journal was accidently discarded by her family nearly a century later.
Other than the research and books of Lois M. Leveen, especially “A Black Spy in the White House” and her novel “The Secrets of Mary Bowser,” there are very few details about her life and legacy. The year and circumstances of her death are unknown.
From several websites we learn that Bowser, in 1995, was honored by the U.S. government for her dedication, sacrifice and her daring risk by inducting her into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in Fort Huachuca, Ariz. Some of Bowser’s exploits are captured in the play “Lady Patriot,” written by Ted Lange, the actor of the television series “Love Boat.” The play was produced by Mary Lange and premiered in Santa Monica, Calif., at the Hudson Backstage Theatre.