“I felt that I had the advantage…
and that it was my duty if possible to
work where I am most needed.”
Mary Bowser was so good at espionage that, to this day, we know almost nothing about her. What historians do know is that she existed (probably); she operated under three different pseudonyms in Virginia in the 1860s (also probably); she got married (Once? Twice? Probably twice. Maybe.); and she had a photographic memory (definitely maybe). Oh, and the shadowy photo that comes up when you google her name? That’s not even her. Despite the hazy details, however, when we piece together all the widely contested and conflicting evidence, a picture (or, okay, a mosaic) does form, and it looks something like this.
Mary was likely born a slave around 1841 near Richmond, Virginia. Of her birth family we know little, but she was probably purchased by a Southern family called the Van Lews to serve as a companion for their daughter Elizabeth. “Bet” (as Elizabeth was called) and her parents must have noticed early on that there was something special about Mary because in May 1846, Mary Jane, “a colored child belonging to Mrs. Van Lew,” was baptized at St. John’s Episcopal church. Most enslaved Africans in Virginia were baptized at Richmond’s First African Baptist Church, but the Van Lews were no ordinary Virginia family: they were abolitionists and pro-Unionists hiding in plain sight in the middle of the American South. When Bet’s father died, her family freed their workers (or tried to, since Virginia law, and her father’s will, made it virtually impossible to grant slaves freedom) and Mary was taken north to be educated, though it’s unclear exactly where. In the vast majority of the South at that time, it was illegal for slaves even to be literate.
A few years later, the Van Lews decided that fourteen-year-old Mary, then going by Mary Jane Richards, would be happiest living outside the United States. Hoping she would use her education to become a missionary—without asking Mary how she felt about that—the family helped her board a ship to Monrovia, Liberia, an American colony in Africa established for freed slaves by a group called the American Colonization Society (ACS). (The ACS probably thought this was a great idea, but a bunch of white slave owners deciding to make a freed-slave utopia in Africa will never end well.) After Mary spent five miserable years in the disease-ridden, unfamiliar land, the Van Lews became aware that she hated her life overseas; she returned to Baltimore, thanks to a special request from Bet to the ACS. Mary made the 125-day voyage in steerage (against Bet’s wishes that she travel first class) and, after landing in Baltimore, headed back to Richmond—a bold move considering free Black people were 100% unwelcome in Virginia (and educated free Black people were about 1000% unwelcome). Sure enough, Mary was arrested in August for traveling on her own without identification papers—but she didn’t go submissively. She gave the cops the names “Mary Jones” and “Mary Jane Henley,” instead of her real name to avoid harsher punishment, and sat in jail for nine days until Bet arrived to bail her out, claiming that Mary wasn’t technically a free woman and paying ten bucks for her release. Mary then headed home with Bet…probably. The 1860 census tells us that the only free Black servant in the Van Lew household was a “Mary Jones.” Then there’s the recorded marriage of a Mary, “colored servan[t] to Mrs. E. L. Van Lew,” to a man named Wilson Bowser one day before Virginia seceded from the Union—but then we never hear a word about him again. So what is the truth?
In short: it’s complicated. For one thing, Bet Van Lew wasn’t just an abolitionist—she was a spymaster. During the war, she ran one of the most comprehensive railroad and espionage rings in the South. Carefully maintaining a wacky public persona (talking to herself, spacing out, and so on), so-called Crazy Bet was in fact helping Union soldiers escape from prison, using men and women—Black and white alike—to gather sensitive information that she would then send in code to the Union general. It was dangerous work that needed top-notch operatives—and wouldn’t you know it, Bet had an educated and super-smart candidate in Mary. Not only was Mary sharp and sly, but she could also work “invisibly” as a domestic servant in white households. Who would suspect that the enslaved woman serving you dinner would later be in your dressing room, memorizing your battle maps and secret letters and sending all that information to the enemy?
Well, definitely not the Confederate States of America president Jefferson Davis. When Davis and his wife set up the Confederate White House in Richmond in 1861, they brought on enslaved workers—among them, possibly, Mary. From that post, she apparently sent Northern leaders as much military information as she could…“apparently,” because we lack an ironclad source to verify the facts. Thomas McNiven, a Richmond baker who claimed his business was a major hub for the Van Lew spy ring, did say that Mary “had a photographic mind” and “could repeat word for word” everything she heard in the Davis household—which is awesome, except that his claim was recorded in 1952 by Robert Waitt, who heard the story from his aunt Jeanette, who heard it from her father, Thomas McNiven. In other words, not exactly from the horse’s mouth.
Still, we do have a more reliable primary source that records details of Mary’s key role. Bet reported in her diary that Mary was the one she would ask for news each morning. In addition, in July 1900 an elderly Bet spoke to a reporter for the Richmond and Manchester Evening Leaderabout one of her (unnamed) maids: the woman had been educated in the North, lived in Liberia, and then returned to Richmond to work as a domestic slave—and spy—in the Confederate White House. Sounds an awful lot like Mary, a suggestion further confirmed by a June 1911 article in Harper’s, for which Bet’s niece Annie (only ten years old during the Civil War) gave an interview, corroborated by Bet’s journal, saying that this maid of “unusual intelligence” was named Mary Elizabeth Bowser, and that she “was installed as a waitress in the White House of the Confederacy.”
Perhaps most convincing is that Mary reported on some of her best spy moments in her own words. In various letters and speeches after the Civil War, Mary mentioned exploits that included sneaking into a secret session of the Rebel Senate, capturing Confederate officers, helping imprisoned Union soldiers, even tracking down smuggled tobacco. Again, not a lot of these details are verifiable—that is, we can’t say for sure exactly where Mary was, what she did, or how she pulled it all off—but that’s pretty much the standard MO of being a good spy.
Described by newspaper articles and in friends’ journal entries as “very sarcastic and at times quite humorous” and “quite a character,” Mary spent her life after the war traveling the country, giving speeches and lectures about her time in the South as a “detective” and “secret service” agent. To protect her identity, Mary spoke under false names (like “Richmonia Richards” and “Richmonia R. St. Pierre”) and changed details of her history, sometimes claiming she was sold to the Van Lews after returning from Liberia, or giving mixed accounts of her parentage. She taught freed slaves across the South under the alias Mary J. R. Richards, established her own freedman’s school in Georgia, and remained fearful of white Southerners, who had “that sinister expression about the eye, and the quiet but bitterly expressed feeling that I know portends evil,” as she wrote in one of her letters to the superintendent of education for the Georgia Freedmen’s Bureau, with whom she corresponded while teaching in the state. In 1867 she wrote to the superintendent, with whom she corresponded while teaching in the state, that she had married a man with the surname Garvin who was working in Cuba; her final letter to him says that she planned on leaving the South since her husband was “in the West Indies.” And then we never hear from her again.
Nevertheless, some of the most widely reported “facts” about Mary are patently untrue. No primary sources indicate that she ever went by the name “Ellen Bond.” It’s unlikely she kept a diary that was later lost by the Bowser family, especially since Mary ditched that particular surname and remarried. Jefferson Davis’s wife never recalled an educated slave in her household (but then she probably wouldn’t, would she?), and Mary probably didn’t try to burn down the Confederate White House in 1865, an oft-cited tale published in countless books and articles but having no basis in the historical record (she was teaching in Richmond at that time). But who gives a good gosh-darn? All those myths aside, Mary was still one of the most consistently brave women of the Civil War, and it’s a shame we don’t know more about how she felt instead of how those around her felt about her. What was it like to be free in name only, technically still the “property” of Bet, the woman who cared about her and funded her education? What was it like to take down the Confederacy by being a part of the very institution that denied her own humanity? We’ll never know Mary’s answers to these questions, but we can honor the sacrifice of the many amazing Black female spies in the Civil War by every once in a while remembering the incredibleness of Mary (Jane Elizabeth Richmonia Jones Henley St. Pierre Garvin) Bowser.