Born in Richmond, Virginia around 1839, Bowser began her life as a slave on the plantation of John Van Lew, a wealthy hardware merchant. When Bowser was very young, her family members were traded away to other masters. John Van Lew died in 1851. His daughter Elizabeth, a strong abolitionist, freed Bowser and bought her family members. Bowser would stay with the Van Lew family until the late 1850s. Elizabeth Van Lew noted Bowser's intelligence and arranged her education at a Quaker school in Philadelphia, where she was studying as the Civil War began.
Bowser’s espionage work began in 1863. Van Lew convinced a friend to bring Bowser along to work as a servant for Varina Davis, the wife of the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. She was eventually hired full-time. Jefferson Davis’s home was located in Richmond, where Bowser had grown up. As a spy for the Union, Bowser read a number of military documents she had access to, including lists of troop movements, reports on moving Union prisoners, military strategies, and treasury reports. She passed the information along to Van Lew and others in the Union intelligence operation.
Bowser had many advantages as a spy. At Davis’s house, the servants were taught to be unobtrusive, so it was easy for her to gain information without being noticed. As a slave, she was not expected to be able to read and write. Her colleagues in the Union intelligence operation praised her excellent memory for the information she discovered.
Disappearance and legacy
In January 1865, as the war was coming to a close, Mary Bowser fled from Richmond, never to be heard from again. Her sudden disappearance remains unexplained. Some think that her work was suspected. Before she left, Mary attempted to burn down the Confederate White House, but was unsuccessful. In 1865, the year that Mary Bowser disappeared, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.
Her story was reconstructed from research into the Union intelligence operation during the Civil War, and from memoirs of her colleagues in the operation. In 1995 Bowser was admitted to the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame