SWHM Mary Bowser: Former Slave, Union Spy

Hi Ladies! So as a surprise to everyone… it’s just me today! [So … are we surprised this is coming in late? 😛 Not my fault though. Ahem.] Anyway, since it’s Women’s History Month, and I am determined to make this shit work … I want to share some facts about a totally badass woman. Mary Bowser. I first heard about her near the end of summer last year, on NPR. Karen Abbott, the author of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy was being interviewed. (I still need/want to read the book. Has anyone read it?)

Anyway … Mary Bowser.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, SpyMary Elizabeth Bowser was born in 1839. She was born in Richmond, Virginia, as a slave to John Van Lew. Mary (and all the other slaves) was ~freed upon Van Lew’s death by his daughter. Mary remained as a servant to the family, but was then sent by Elizabeth Van Lew to be educated in Philadelphia at the Quaker School for Negroes. However, almost from birth Mary was special. While it isn’t certain this was her… “on May 17, 1846, “Mary Jane, a colored child belonging to Mrs. Van Lew,” was baptized in St. John’s.” While most of the other slaves were baptized elsewhere. Incidentally, St. John’s is where Patrick Henry gave his “give me liberty, or give me death” speech.

While Elizabeth Van Lew was a really cool figure herself in the Civil War, I’m going to focus more on what Mary Bowser did. According to Richamond’s former spymaster Thomas McNiven, Mary Bowser had a photographic memory, you guys! Imagine – a Black woman in the South who could not only read, but had a photographic memory. Imagine how people in the South treated African Americans, especially females. She got shit done.

Mary was deployed to work at functions held by Varina Davis. Yes, Davis. As in the wife of Jefferson Davis. She had them so snowed they hired her full time to work in the Davis household right before the war ended. (There is a question as to whether or not she did so using the name “Ellen Bond.”)

Finally Mary was found out, so she fled in January 1865. Rumor has it she also tried to burn down the Confederate White House. I mean, I get chills just thinking about it. What an incredibly brave, and bold woman. Mary Bowser did write a journal about what she did … but the journal is either unavailable, or lost. Sad. (Harvard said her family “inadvertently discarded it.” Ouch. O_O Although one of her descendants has freely said she “pitched it in a trashcan” which just… infuriates me. She didn’t know what it was… but still.)

Mary Bowser’s efforts weren’t discovered until 1911, when Van Lew’s niece told the story in Harper’s Monthly. I can’t access it and it is driving me crazy.

Mary Bowser was eventually inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.

There’s also a really interesting article on … misinformation and how the common photo of Mary Bowser is not Mary Bowser of Civil War espionage fame.

What’s really sad to me is how little is known about Mary. (Or even those around her? For example, John Van Lew died in either 1843, or 1851. That is a really big difference.

Had you ever heard of Mary Bowser before? It doesn’t seem like we ever really learn or hear about female American spies. (Other than Belle Boyd…) Do you have a favorite female American spy? 😀 And as usual, I’ve hidden my source links throughout this post. Now you get to play spy too. 😉

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