The Spy Who Served Me
A Tale of Espionage from the 'White House' of Jefferson Davis
Listen to Vertamae Grosvenor's report.
Vertamae Grosvenor also presents this story on NOW with Bill Moyers, airing on PBS at 9 p.m. ET Friday (check local listings). The public affairs program is a collaboration with NPR.
This undated photo is believed to be of Mary Bowser.
Photo: James A. Chambers, U.S. Army Deputy, Office of the Chief, Military Intelligence
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Elizabeth "Crazy Bet" Van Lew
Photo: National Park Service
Vertamae Grosvenor in the dining room of Jefferson Davis' White House of the Confederacy. Photo: NOW with Bill Moyers
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White House of the Confederacy
Photo: Library of Congress, copy print the Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Va.
Photo: National Archives
April 19, 2002 -- Vertamae Grosvenor was looking at the history of servants at the White House in Washington and came upon a story of espionage at another executive mansion -- in Richmond, Va. It happened during the Civil War. Here is Grosvenor's essay for Morning Edition:
I started researching the history of servants in one White House and came upon a tale of intrigue and espionage inside another one. It happened during the Civil War.
Mary Bowser was born into slavery in the household of John Van Lew, a wealthy hardware merchant in Richmond, Va. Van Lew's daughter Elizabeth freed Mary Bowser and all her father's other slaves after he died. Elizabeth Van Lew, who never married, was known as an eccentric who sometimes walked down the streets of Richmond, head bent to one side, holding conversations with herself. Some called her "Crazy Bet".
"Crazy Bet" Van Lew inherited a lot of money and her father's society connections. She used some of the money to send her former slave Mary Bowser to school in Philadelphia and later Elizabeth used her connections to get Mary Bowser a servant job in President Jefferson Davis' Confederate White House. Mary Bowser appeared to be uneducated and dull-witted. But she worked hard.
Sometimes Mary Bowser met with her old patron "Crazy Bet" at a farm outside Richmond. The spinster and the servant were not just exchanging recipes. Oh, no. They were spies.
"Crazy Bet" was the spymaster and Mary Bowser was one of her best agents -- part of a spy ring -- white, black, slave and free -- made up of servants, farmers, seamstresses, storekeepers, undercover Scottish abolitionists -- working in plain sight in the South for the North.
As the educated Mary Bowser dusted and served in the Confederate White House, she used her photographic memory to record military documents she found on the president's desk and conversations she overheard in the dining room.
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."
When the Civil War ended, the first Union flag in Richmond was raised from the roof of Crazy Bet's mansion. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant praised her service to the Union cause.
But Mary Bowser's story remained mostly untold, even in her family. Then in the 1960s an elderly cousin asked Mrs. McEva Bowser if she had ever heard of her husband's great great aunt Mary.
McEva Bowser: "And she said, 'Do they ever talk about Mary Elizabeth?' And I said, 'No, never heard of her.' And she said, 'Well, they don't ever talk about her 'cause she was a spy.'"
And she left a diary, a diary that McEva Bowser may have found in 1952 when her husband's mother died.
McEva Bowser: "I was cleaning her room and... I ran across a diary but I never had a diary and I didn't even realize what it was... And I did keep coming across (references to) Mr. Davis. And the only Davis I could think of was the contractor who had been doing some work at the house. And the first time I came across it I threw it aside and said I would read it again. Then I started to talk to my husband about it but I felt it would depress him. So the next time I came across it I just pitched it in the trash can."
But Mary Bowser's story survived anyway. It was retold by black researchers and recalled in the memoirs of others involved in the spy ring.
In 1995, 130 years after the War Between the States ended, Mary Bowser was admitted to the U.S. Army Intelligence Hall of Fame.
Previous NPR Coverage
The Lady Was a Spy
NOW with Bill Moyers
Museum and White House of the Confederacy
A profile of Mary Elizabeth Bowser
The Civil War: Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence
Elizabeth Van Lew biographical information