Mary Elizabeth Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew, a former slave and a wealthy white woman in Richmond, Virginia, might seem unlikely members of a successful espionage ring. Thanks to Hollywood, the typical images surrounding spies include scantily clad women, technological gadgets, and Pierce Brosnan—but this equation would hardly have gone unnoticed during the Civil War. Bowser and Van Lew used society’s assumptions about them to their advantage, passing key information along to the Union Army and contributing to the demise of the Confederate States.
Bowser was born as a slave in approximately 1839 in Richmond, Virginia, where she worked for the Van Lew family. Van Lew, born in 1822, attended school in Philadelphia, where she developed a strong sense of Union patriotism and abolitionism. After her father’s death in the late 1840s, Van Lew convinced her mother to free all of their family’s slaves, including Bowser. Bowser worked as a paid servant for the family until Van Lew agreed to pay for her education. Bowser graduated from the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia and returned to Richmond to marry William/Wilson Bowser shortly before the Civil War began.
Van Lew remained involved in Richmond society due to her family’s wealth and name, but she was considered eccentric because she was vocal about her antislavery beliefs. She played up the view of herself as “odd” in order to avert suspicion, earning herself the nickname “Crazy Bet.” Meanwhile, she delivered food, medicine, and books to Union prisoners, concealing coded messages in hollowed eggshells and the soles of shoes, and she even helped some prisoners escape from Libby Prison. When Bowser returned to Richmond, Van Lew recommended her for a position in Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s house, a position that made Bowser a crucial member of Van Lew’s spy ring.
The Davis family and their guests regarded Bowser as a slave, and, like Van Lew, Bowser used their assumptions to conceal her true identity as a conspiratorial mastermind. The Davises presumed that Bowser was uneducated, illiterate, and unintelligent; therefore they spoke openly in her presence and took no care to conceal documents and letters concerning war strategy. Bowser, who had a photographic memory, would memorize what she read and convey messages via code (such as by hanging wet laundry in certain patterns) or by speaking to Thomas McNiven, a baker who delivered to the Davis home and was also a member of the spy ring. Davis became aware that there was a leak in his household long before Bowser came under suspicion, though she finally did in January 1865. At that point she fled, although not before (allegedly) attempting to set fire to the Confederate Capitol!
When the war ended and General Grant entered Richmond, Van Lew was the first to hoist the American flag above her house. Grant soon visited to thank her over tea, and later appointed her postmaster of Richmond. Van Lew lived out her days in the city, but she died ostracized and impoverished in 1900—her views and role during the war remained unpopular among the city’s residents, and she had spent all of her inheritance helping slaves and Union soldiers. Nothing is known of Bowser after her escape; the government sealed most records about her for her protection and the diary she is said to have kept was apparently either hidden or destroyed by her family for the same reason. However, Bowser was recognized on June 30, 1995, when she was inducted into the US Army Intelligence Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca in Arizona.