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Mon, 03.30.1840

Mary Elizabeth Bowser, Undercover Agent born

*This date in 1840 celebrates the birth of Mary Elizabeth Bowser.  She was a Black undercover agent during the American Civil War.

Bowser was born a slave on a plantation near Richmond, Virginia, to owner John Van Lew, a hardware businessman. Van Lew's daughter, Elizabeth, and her mother freed the slaves after his death in 1851. Mary Elizabeth stayed with the Van Lew family as a servant; the family had her educated in Philadelphia.  She married William or Wilson Bowser, a free Black man, while she worked at the Van Lew home.

During the Civil War, Bowser served as a spy for Ulysses S. Grant. She operated as a servant in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, where she gathered important military information to pass on to the Grant administration. To avoid suspicion, she pretended she was crazy and went by the nickname "Crazy Bet." While acting this way, she nursed Union soldiers and later housed Union soldiers who escaped prison in her own home. While the soldiers were there, they told her information overheard from their Confederate captors; she wrote the information in cipher code and passed it on through the Union lines to Grant and other officers.

Bowser recorded the details of her espionage in a diary; this diary is now owned by a Black family who will not release it. Her date and place of death are unknown.


Womens History

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Photo provided by James A. Chambers, U.S. Army Deputy, Office of the Chief, Military Intelligence

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