Victorian Death, Mourning, & Haunted Occult Cultural History

Drawing of Mary Elizabeth Bowser

Women History Forgot Part Two

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#2 Mary Elizabeth Bowser

During the horrors of the Civil War, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, born Mary Jane Richards, was a slave on the Van Lew family plantation in Richmond, Virginia. When the Master, John Van Lew passed away, his wife, Elizabeth Van Lew, outspoken abolitionist and spy for the Union also, secretly set the slaves free, but Mary would allow herself to stay in bondage to infiltrate the Confederate government. Mary was well educated and gained the confidence of the prison guards and even Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ household, where she began her espionage, feeding information back to the leaders of the Union army. Mary also worked to bring food and medicines to the Union prisoners held near her and is responsible for saving the lives of countless men who would have died in prison.

Together Mary and her former Mistress would work tirelessly on behalf of the Union and truly have earned more than the minor mentions that history affords her. Mary was extremely intelligent and highly educated, yet Jefferson Davis never suspected that Mary could read or write and carelessly left his papers out in plain view of Mary who gleaned valuable intelligence. Anyone appreciating the freedoms and end of slavery that helped to make our nation greater than it was, must appreciate this brave woman who risked her life for the Union cause. Historians know very little regarding Mary after the war beyond the exploits that should have earned her a far bigger spot in the history books for her bravery in the face of a return to slavery or death for treason.