Mary Bowser. Born a slave on a plantation near Richmond, Va., she was owned by the family of John Van Lew, a wealthy businessman originally from the North. Along with other slaves of the Van Lews, Mary was emancipated sometime in the 1840s.
Yet she remained a household servant until a Van Lew daughter, Elizabeth, arranged for her to attend a Quaker school for blacks in Philadelphia. In April 1861, she married Wilson Bowser, a free black man. Records list them as “servants” of Elizabeth Van Lew and the couple settled outside Richmond.
Even if Mary Bowser believed herself to be free (although by law she may have still been a slave), some people today might wonder why she bothered to return to a slave state after living in the Quaker circles of Philadelphia.
It turns out, in fact, she did not return directly from the North to the Van Lew household in Virginia but rather spent five years in the African nation of Liberia. There she grew homesick and, perhaps through continued correspondence with Van Lew, arranged to return to Virginia in early 1860, well before Abraham Lincoln’s election as president or the attack on Fort Sumter that ignited the Civil War.
The full extent of the relationship between Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew is not entirely clear, but at some point early in the war, the two women agreed to collaborate with the Union spy network in the Confederate capital of Richmond. Well known as a staunch Unionist and abolitionist before the war, Van Lew came to adopt a distracted, muttering persona as “Crazy Bet” to deflect Confederate concern. This way she could visit the city’s prison for Union soldiers with care packages of food and medicine and also pass along messages and establish a network of contacts.
To infiltrate the Confederate White House, the home of President Jefferson Davis and First Lady Varina Davis, however, required a different type of talent: the ability to act as a dimwitted yet loyal and hardworking domestic servant even while observing the Confederacy’s first family up close.
Mary Bowser, it seems, took to the role like a natural. After working at several Davis functions, she was hired full time and cleaned and served meals in the Confederate White House from about 1862 until almost the war’s end. She was known as “Little Mary,” according to Thomas McNiven, the Scottish-American baker whose business deliveries throughout Richmond, including to the Confederate White House, served as a cover for his activities as a member of the city’s Union spy ring.
McNiven’s recollection, provided late in life to his daughter, Jeanette, was that Mary Bowser “had a photographic mind” so that “everything she saw on the Rebel president’s desk, she could repeat word for word.”
He also observed, “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.
” At the time of one bakery delivery, McNiven claimed, “little Mary had the terms that the rebels were offering at Hampton Roads to Lincoln’s men to end the war” and Elizabeth “Van Lew plastered [the information] all over town. The rebels … were sick about it.”
The Davis family eventually learned a spy had entered their midst, but Mary Bowser appears to have avoided detection. She must have played her role well, although Jefferson and Varina Davis and other White House officials were also playing theirs—behaving as Southern whites who saw their slaves as present in body but invisible.
As Lois Leveen, historian and author of the novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser, deftly put it, “By pretending to conform to slaveholders’ expectations of an enslaved black woman in domestic service, Bowser rendered herself not so much above suspicion as below it. Playing on the foundational belief of slavery—that blacks were not fully human and therefore incapable of intelligence—she became an intelligence agent who successfully undermined the institution of slavery.”