Haunted Histories - Mary Bowser

There are many reasons why doing a podcast on a station like Parasearch Radio is rewarding, getting to meet and become friends with some amazing people, having a justifiable reason to sit and spend hours researching a subject but also, the discovery of some parts of history that I didn’t even know existed.


Which brings me to this blog, I was watching an episode of the brilliant Horrible Histories – I would like to say with my 9yr old son, but that would be a lie – and they mentioned this woman and her role in the American Civil War, her name was Mary Bowser.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser was born in 1839 in the area of Richmond, Virginia. Although she was born as a slave to the Van Lew family and following the death of her “owner” (I do hate that word but history is history) John in 1843, all the household bonded servants were freed by the women of the Van Lew family who were Quakers and did not believe in slavery. In fact, the Quaker movement was fundamental in the abolition of slavery, fighting for it from the 1670’s in the colonies. The state of Virginia was not to become a free state until at the end of the Civil War in 1865, which is why the women of the Van Lew family and their treatment of Mary was so forward thinking.


After John’s death, Elizabeth Van Lew sent Mary to an African American Quaker School in Philadelphia after she noticed how intelligent her former slave was. It has to be reiterated however, that it was illegal for slaves to know how to read in Virginia, so both Mary and Elizabeth were taking a very big risk. At the start of the Civil War in 1860, Mary had to be sent back to Richmond, however shortly after this, Mary was asked to be a spy to help the Union. Elizabeth Van Lew herself had been asked to partake in the espionage, but due to her role as an important member of the Richmond elite, this was not possible although she did not stand back and do nothing, oh no, this amazing lady ended up helping the Union by saving prisoners and helping them escape. As with any war, each side had to look at alternative ways to gain an advantage over their opponent, spying and the suchlike is nothing new.

Amazingly, Mary went to work in what was known as the Confederate White House and managed to stay undercover until the very end of the civil war, partly by changing her name to Ellen Bond and also by disguising her intellect and pretending to be simple so that she could pretend not to understand what she was over hearing. But that wasn’t the end to her skills, she realised that by listening in to the various troop strategies and movements that were being planned was not going to make sufficient enough of an impact on the Confederate armies. She would pretend to be cleaning the house, whilst going into President Jefferson Davis’ office and look through the various documents there so that she could recount the information back to Elizabeth. One of Mary’s many talents was a photographic memory which was put to good use in her role as a Union spy.

Davis noticed quite early on that there was a leak in the Confederate White House, but with their inbuilt possibly archaic view of both women and slaves, Mary wasn’t even suspected until the very end of the war. In January 1865, a mere 5 months before the
end of the war, Mary fled after finding out that Davis had realised she was no mere slave. Her parting shot to help the Union was to try and torch the Confederate Capitol, albeit she was unsuccessful.
Nobody knows what happened to the amazing Mary as the records of southern spies were all burned by the federal government to avoid potential retaliations against them by Confederacy sympathisers. With this we lost the details of people like Mary, Elizabeth and Thomas McNiven – who was a fellow spy leader like Elizabeth – and it means that nobody knows for sure what happened to this astounding, brave and incredibly resourceful woman.

If you would like to hear the Haunted Histories show on Gettysburg with the wonderful Cheryl Szewczyk, listen here https://www.spreaker.com/user/parasearchuk/haunted...

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