Mary Richards Bowser was a badass slave-turned-spy who was born sometime after 1839 in the Van Lew household in Richmond, Virginia. After the patriarch, John, died, two of his children, Elizabeth and John Jr., set about freeing the family slaves, including Mary. Then they went around buying other slaves and freeing them.
Mary began her adventures when Elizabeth Van Lew sent her off to the North to get an education, because a) she was bright, and b) it was actually illegal for freed slaves to stick around in Virginia. (Can’t have the property getting ideas, you know.) Afterwards, Mary spent five years in Liberia as part of a missionary group. Then she returned to Richmond and married Wilson Bowser just in time for a Civil War.
Elizabeth thought the whole idea of the Confederacy was deeply stupid and set up a spy ring to sabotage it. She quickly realized that slaves would make fantastic spies because they were largely invisible and most assumed they were dumb as rocks.
So she asked Mary if hey, maybe she’d like to pose as a slave in the Confederate White House and spy on Jefferson Davis. Mary, as a BAMF, went for it. And she did it well. Records of exactly what intelligence she and other spies gathered were destroyed after the war to prevent bitter losers from taking revenge, but her work was acknowledged by such folks as General Grant.
After the war, she worked as a teacher and a speaker, making liberal use of pseudonyms. The last record of her was in 1867. My guess is that she changed her name again and moved to the West Indies.
I did not use a photo of Bowser, because unfortunately, none exist. There is one that was thought to have been her, but it was of another Mary Bowser, taken three decades after our Mary’s last appearance.
“When I open my eyes in the morning, I say to the servant, “What news, Mary?” and my caterer never fails! Most generally our reliable news is gathered from negroes, and they certainly show wisdom, discretion and prudence, which is wonderful.” – Elizabeth Van Lew