Mary Bowser is cooler than you; and not just a little, but infinitely cooler! I’m sorry. You’re my friend and I like you bunches, but I have to give it to you straight. Here, let me explain.
Mary Bowser was born a slave. Her master, John Van Lew, was a prosperous hardware merchant in Richmond, Virginia. Following his death, Van Lew’s daughter Elizabeth set the family’s slaves free. Though Mary was free, she continued working for the Van Lews. When Elizabeth realized Mary’s cleverness, she financed her education at the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Mary remained close to the Van Lews after returning from school. Employing her contacts in high society, Elizabeth secured Mary a servant’s job with the household of Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. Her employers thought Mary was slow on the uptake, but otherwise hard-working. As I’m sure you’ve surmised, it was a ruse; in reality, Mary and Elizabeth were…get ready for it…spies!
If it’s helpful, picture Elizabeth as M and Mary as 007; though she was pouring drinks instead of knocking them back, that didn’t make her less badass. Mary’s responsibilities were cleaning and serving meals; her innocuity made it easy to operate in plain sight. Check this out:
Daily tasks could hide secrets -- in a basket of eggs one empty shell filled with military plans; a serving tray loaded with food and messages concealed in its false bottom; wet laundry hung up in code. For example, a white shirt beside an upside-down pair of pants meant ‘Gen. Hill moving troops to the west.’
-From “The Spy Who Served Me: A Tale of Espionage from the ‘White House’ of Jefferson Davis”
But, how was Mary able to gather these secrets? Slaves weren’t thought capable of reading or writing, and were presumably too stupid to understand any information casually disclosed over meals. So, Mary used this assumption, coupled with her photographic memory, to accrue the knowledge she relayed.
The breadth of material she transmitted is lost, but many of her insights shaped decisions made by Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Eventually, Davis became suspicious of Mary and she bolted. Oh yeah, before she escaped, she also tried to burn the house down!
Post-Civil War, Mary became a schoolteacher. Sadly, there’s no record of Mary’s life afterwards, and her story is widely unknown. But now, she’s back in the spotlight because a photograph commonly thought to be Mary, was recently confirmed to be a case of mistaken identity (see topmost picture). The inaccuracy was exposed by Lois Leveen, author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser. The resulting article and some others about Mary are linked below.
I’m hoping that after reading this post, you can agree that Mary’s cooler than me, you, and most likely everybody you know (she tried to set Jefferson Davis’ house on fire!). Her's is a story worthy of an Oscar-season movie and truly deserves to be publicized! So, please share what you’re read here with someone and help me spread the word about the much cooler Mary Bowser.
To read more about Mary Bowser, check-out:
“The Spy Who Served Me: A Tale of Espionage from the 'White House' of Jefferson Davis” by Vertamae Grosvenor
“A Black Spy in the Confederate White House” by Lois Leveen
“The Spy Photo That Fooled NPR, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, and Me” by Lois Leveen
The History Bitch
Podcaster, tea aficionado, Anglophile, 'Game of Thrones' enthusiast.