F. Haywood Glenn
On The Frontline of the Anti-Slavery Movement
Mary Elizabeth Bowser - A Hero
Harriet Tubman is probably the most well-known African American woman recognized for leading slaves to freedom and fighting for the total abolition of slavery. Before Harriet Tubman, there was Sojourner Truth, born Isabella Baumfree in 1797, who after escaping slavery became a Christian, a speaker for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. However, there were many other lesser known women who became warriors in the fight for the abolition of slavery. One such brave woman was Mary Elizabeth Bowser.
She was born a slave, Mary Elizabeth Richards, on the plantation of Eliza and John Van Lew in Richmond, Virginia, around 1839. A specific birthdate is unknown. The Van Lew’s were the parents of Elizabeth Louise and John Newton Van Lew. The elder John Van Lew was a wealthy merchant of hardware. This afforded his family a prestigious living in Richmond.
However, Eliza was from Philadelphia and educated in a Quaker school. She later sent her daughter to be educated in Philadelphia. Both mother and daughter were staunch advocates for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. Many believe that their views may have come from the education they received in a Philadelphia Quaker school. Mother and daughter may have hidden their views on slavery and women’s rights until the death of John Van Lew. After her father’s death, Elizabeth convinced her mother to free all of the Van Lew slaves, including Mary Richards. Even though free, the Van Lew slaves continued to work the plantation.
Mary Richards was very smart and her intelligence did not go unnoticed. Elizabeth sent Mary to Philadelphia to be educated in the same Quaker school that she had attended. By the time Mary returned to Virginia in 1861, Elizabeth and John were already doing what they could for the cause. John Newton was often seen at slave auctions buying back the relatives of Van Lew slaves in an effort to reunite families that had been torn apart. He even bought entire families to keep them from being separated and subsequently freed the family.
Upon her return, Mary met and married William Bowser. About the same time Civil War had just begun and Elizabeth began recruiting a network of spies for the Northern cause. Mary, now Mary Elizabeth Bowser, agreed to serve as a maid in the Confederate White House. This meant that Mary was willing to be a slave again to serve in the household of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy.
Although an educated woman, Mary skillfully played the part of a dim-witted slave named, Ellen Bond. This farce allowed her to over-hear confidential conversations about troop movement and other war plans. She could also read, understand, and remember the letters and documents that she encountered as she cleaned or served the family. She listened as she served during military dinners held by President Davis. Her information was then passed back to Elizabeth in a variety means. Messages were sometimes written into dress patterns, hidden in baked goods or false eggs. Thomas McNiven was a baker and another spy for Elizabeth Van Lew. Messages were often hidden in the baskets that Mary returned to him after a delivery of baked goods.
Eventually, Jefferson Davis began to suspect that there was a leak in his household. Mary escaped before she could be confronted but not before she unsuccessfully attempted to burn down the house.
There isn’t much information on Mary Elizabeth Bowers after the war. The government destroyed all files on Union Sympathizers and Spies for their protection. Some believe that Mary changed her name and moved to the West Indies with her husband. Others say that she changed her name and began to speak for the cause of equal rights. It is also believed that Mary may have kept a journal detailing her time as a Union spy. However, that the journal is said to have been later destroyed by a family member.
In 1995 Mary Elizabeth Bowser was inducted into the Military Intelligence Corp Hall of Fame in honor of her service to the United States.