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Mary Elizabeth Bowser and The Art of Layered Espionage
Within less than 100 years of gaining its independence from British rule, the United States was still standing on the necks of millions of people whose freedom was ripped from them. At a time where slaves were only thought of as mere property instead of intelligent and well-rounded human beings, an educated African-American woman in her mid-twenties used these deep-seeded stereotypes to her advantage to relay Confederate secrets to Union intelligence and sympathizers in the hopes of granting freedom for all.
Bowser was born a slave in 1839 in what would become the Confederate South on a plantation owned by John Van Lew, a hardware merchant, in Richmond, Virginia. Van Lew was married to a Quaker, Elizabeth Van Lew, who was against slavery. Upon John’s death, she freed all of their slaves, including Mary, who chose to continue to work in the Van Lew hardware store as a paid employee.
At this time, “Virginia enacted a number of harsh laws against free people of color…and in principle all freed people were supposed to leave the state. This law was widely flouted by masters who wanted to keep their former slaves around them, and nobody appears to have troubled Van Lew and Bowser. Bowser did leave the state for several years between 1850 and 1860 to be educated at the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, one of the first institutions in the United States to offer advance education to black women.” (Encyclopedia of Free Blacks and People of Color in the Americas)
After finishing her education, Mary returned to Richmond, Virginia where she married William Bowser, a free black man, while remaining close to Elizabeth Van Lew, a long-time supporter of the Union, an abolitionist, and daughter of John and Elizabeth Van Lew.
Van Lew developed a network of Union spies under the guise of being hailed as the “town eccentric,” which kept her out of suspicion of being in support of the Union. In 1863, Van Lew recruited Bowser for her operations eventually leading to Bowser’s part-time employment in the Confederate White House under Jefferson Davis.
Being impressed with her servitude, the Davis’ hired Bowser full-time. Utilizing societal assumptions in regard to the intelligence of Black people, Bowser pretended to be an illiterate slave. She “adopted a cover identity as Ellen Bond, a dull-witted but reliable free black house servant” (Encyclopedia of Free Blacks and People of Color in the Americas). Along with her “housekeeping and childcare duties, her impeccable photographic memory enabled her to remember details of the most sensitive Confederate military and government documents that she found within the household” (Harper). Bowser would regularly report her findings to Van Lew and to “Thomas McNiven, a baker who made deliveries to the Davis house. In his stops at the Davis household, [Bowser] would greet him at the wagon and briefly talk about what she observed” (Cotton).
In terms of how valuable her information was to the Union army, General Ulysses S. Grant reportedly stated that “[Bowser] had provided him with the most valuable information during the war.”
Under “Ellen Bond”, any suspicions of Bowser being the cause of Confederate military leaks weren’t raised until 1865. Bowser made her escape as well as an unsuccessful attempt to burn the Confederate state capital building.
Unfortunately, there’s little about her story after she fled. According to the author, Nzinga Cotton, of Mary Elizabeth Bowser: The First Black Female Spy in History, a journal that Bowser kept was thrown out by her family in 1952. The Encyclopedia of Free Blacks and People of Color in the Americas sites Van Lew’s biographer as detailing Bowser’s escape to Philadelphia where she remained for the rest of her life.
Recognition of her services can be found in the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in Fort Huachuca, New Mexico, in which Bowser was inducted in 1995.
About Jackie McGrif
Jackie McGriff is a senior portrait photographer and an aspiring documentary filmmaker focused on sharing stories of women, people of color, and teens. She is also pursuing her Masters of Business Administration degree at Simon Business School to transform her business into a full-time production and photography studio.
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