Even now, it’s hard to get a clear description of Mary Bowser, who greatly aided the North by spying on the Confederate White House during the Civil War. Maybe that’s because she wanted it that way.
Here is the closest we can come to facts about her life. Mary Bowser (AKA Richards) was born a slave to the Van Lew family in Richmond, VA, and later freed by Elizabeth Van Lew, heiress to the family fortune. Van Lew sent Bowser to school in the North and later as a missionary to Liberia, a nation of free blacks. Upon her return to the U.S., she lived in Van Lew’s household as a servant and was eventually hired out to work in the Confederate White House.
Successful Spy Network
Van Lew disguised her activities by presenting herself as mentally ill—“Crazy Bet,” they called her. She had a very successful spy network of a dozen men and women who were both white and black. Even though Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina knew that there was a spy in their midst, they never suspected Bowser, who appeared as an illiterate, dumb servant. After all, very few black men in the South could read and write, even less likely a woman.
Van Lew said, “Most generally our reliable news is gathered from negroes, and they certainly show wisdom, discretion, and prudence which is wonderful.”
Teacher of Former Slaves
After the Civil War, Mary Bowser quickly went to work educating formerly enslaved people for the Freedmen’s Bureau; her only known correspondence was from this period of her life. During this time, she single-handedly taught a hundred Sunday school pupils as well as 70 day students and 12 adult night students. Two years later, after meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, she disappeared entirely from the historical record.
Here is a link to a historical novel about Bowser.
Here is a link to a historical novel about Van Lew.