Posted on 02/14/2008

Photo taken on February 13, 1900

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Incorrectly id'd as a spy
Name unknown
African American Woman
Petersburg, VA
Cabinet Card
This is NOT Mary Elizabeth Bowser
Author Lois Leveen made the discovery
'The Secrets of Mary Bowser'

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Photo replaced on July 10, 2013
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Who Is The Real Mary Elizabeth Bowser?

Who Is The Real Mary Elizabeth Bowser?
This woman for years was assumed to be the infamous spy, Mary Elizabeth Bowser. However, its of a different Mary Bowser, photographed by C.R. Rees, in Petersburg, VA in 1900 (when Mary Elizabeth Bowser the spy would have been in her 60s). This discovery was made by author Lois Leveen, "The Secrets of Mary Bowser." I choose to use this image as a representation of the spy Ms. Bowser and her monumental role in history.

Mary Bowser was born into slavery in the household of John Van Lew, a wealthy hardware merchant in Richmond, Virginia. Van Lew's daughter Elizabeth freed Mary Bowser and all her father's other slaves after he died. Elizabeth Van Lew, who never married, was known as an eccentric who sometimes walked down the streets of Richmond, head bent to one side, holding conversations with herself. Some called her "Crazy Bet".

"Crazy Bet" Van Lew inherited a lot of money and her father's society connections. She used some of the money to send her former slave Mary Bowser to school in Philadelphia and later Elizabeth used her connections to get Mary Bowser a servant job in President Jefferson Davis' Confederate White House. To many Mary Bowser appeared to be uneducated and dull-witted. But she worked hard.

Sometimes Mary Bowser met with her old patron "Crazy Bet" at a farm outside Richmond. The spinster and the servant were not just exchanging recipes. Oh, no. They were spies.

"Crazy Bet" was the spymaster and Mary Bowser was one of her best agents -- part of a spy ring -- white, black, slave and free -- made up of servants, farmers, seamstresses, storekeepers, undercover Scottish abolitionists -- working in plain sight in the South for the North.

As the educated Mary Bowser dusted and served in the Confederate White House, she used her photographic memory to record military documents she found on the president's desk and conversations she overheard in the dining room.

Daily tasks could hide secrets -- in a basket of eggs one empty shell filled with military plans; a serving tray loaded with food and messages concealed in its false bottom; wet laundry hung up in code. For example, a white shirt beside an upside-down pair of pants meant "Gen. Hill moving troops to the west."

When the Civil War ended, the first Union flag in Richmond was raised from the roof of Crazy Bet's mansion. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant praised her service to the Union cause.

But Mary Bowser's story remained mostly untold, even in her family. Then in the 1960s an elderly cousin asked Mrs. McEva Bowser if she had ever heard of her husband's great great aunt Mary.

McEva Bowser: "And she said, 'Do they ever talk about Mary Elizabeth?' And I said, 'No, never heard of her.' And she said, 'Well, they don't ever talk about her 'cause she was a spy.'"

And she left a diary, a diary that McEva Bowser may have found in 1952 when her husband's mother died.

McEva Bowser: "I was cleaning her room and... I ran across a diary but I never had a diary and I didn't even realize what it was... And I did keep coming across (references to) Mr. Davis. And the only Davis I could think of was the contractor who had been doing some work at the house. And the first time I came across it I threw it aside and said I would read it again. Then I started to talk to my husband about it but I felt it would depress him. So the next time I came across it I just pitched it in the trash can."

But Mary Bowser's story survived anyway. It was retold by black researchers and recalled in the memoirs of others involved in the spy ring.

In 1995, 130 years after the War Between the States ended, Mary Bowser was admitted to the U.S. Army Intelligence Hall of Fame.

Bio and Photo: Gibbs Magazine: News, Opinions, and Ideas of African Americans

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