Mary Elizabeth Bowser (a.k.a. Mary Jane Richards), Union Spy
Mary Elizabeth Bowser, likely born Mary Jane Richards, was a slave of the Van Lew family in Richmond, Virginia. When John Van Lew died in September 1843, his will stipulated that his wife, Eliza, could not sell or free any of the family’s slaves. Eliza and her daughter Elizabeth Van Lew were against slavery and seem to have secretly granted their slaves, including Bowser, freedom.
When the Civil War broke out, the Van Lews brought food, medicine and books to Union soldiers at nearby Libby Prison. Elizabeth conveyed messages between the prisoners and Union officials and helped prisoners escape. To do this, she relied on an informal network of women and men, white and black, all drawn from Richmond’s clandestine Unionist community to help her. The most noteworthy of these individuals was Bowser, who had married a free black man named Wilson Bowser in 1861 and taken his name.
In the fall of 1865, Bowser gave an address in Brooklyn alluding to her infiltration of the Confederate White House during the war. Though the story has been difficult to document, Bowser’s willingness to risk her life as part of the Richmond underground is certain.
Details of Bowser’s life after the war are unknown.