Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew
Written by Erica Taylor, The Tom Joyner Morning Show Wednesday, 26 January 2011 10:02
EDITOR'S NOTE: This "Little Known Black History Fact" was sent in by "TJMS" listener Eileen Miller of Camden, New Jersey.
Mary Bowser was a freed slave of the mid-1800s who made a formal career out of spying for the Union Army against the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Richmond, Virginia native was owned by John Van Lew, who died in 1851, leaving his plantation to his daughter, Elizabeth. After he passed, Elizabeth, an abolitionist, freed all the slaves and offered Bowser education. She also re-purchased Bowser’s family, who had been sold when she was a child.
When Elizabeth Van Lew recognized Bowser’s intelligence level, she offered her a job in espionage against the Confederacy. She taught Bowser how to be a spy; Van Lew had earned the nickname “Crazy Bet” by others, always mumbling to herself and acting disoriented. She worked at the local prison and used the behavior as a cover-up. Van Lew would teach Bowser her methods of acting to appear incapable of being a spy and later would give her a fictitious name of Ellen Bond.
In 1863, Bowser got her first spy gig. Van Lew convinced the family of then-Confederacy President Jefferson Davis to hire Bowser full-time. Bowser read secret documents pertaining to the war and overheard many conversations about military strategy. She went unsuspected by the Davis family because slaves were supposedly unable to read or write, and Bowser acted a bit disoriented and mentally challenged on purpose. Bowser carried the secrets back to the Union Army through Van Lew.
Toward the end of the war, suspicion came over the Davis household, and Bowser fled. Though she was never heard from after 1865, she attempted to burn down the Confederate Capitol Building before she left town. The U.S. Government destroyed the evidence of spies, and there was very little record of her work.
In 1995, the U.S. government honored Bowser for her efforts by inducting her in the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
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