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Mary Bowser
4.19.02
Arts and Culture:
Vertamae Grosvenor on a Civil War Spy


Mary Bowser was born a slave of John Van Lew, a wealthy merchant who lived in Richmond, Virginia. When he died, his daughter Elizabeth freed Mary and all his other slaves.

View the Commentary
Vertamae Grosvenor
Vertamae Grosvenor
on a Civil War Spy

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" inherited a lot of money. She used some of it to send Mary to school up North and later used her social connections to get Mary a servant's job in President Jefferson Davis' Confederate White House. Mary appeared to be hard-working, but dull-witted and uneducated. She was, in fact, a spy.

Daily tasks could hide secrets in a basket of eggs; one empty shell filled with military plans; a tray loaded with food and messages concealed in its false bottom; laundry hung on the line in code. A white shirt next to an upside-down pair of pants meant "General Hill moving troops West."

As Mary Bowser dusted and served she used her photographic memory to record military documents she found on the President's desk and conversations she overheard in the dining room.

When the war between states ended General Grant paid tribute to "Crazy Bet" and her effort to the Union's cause but Mary Bowser's story went largely untold.

More then a century later during Black History Month, a soldier's daughter read a pamphlet about Mary Bowser, showed it to her father who showed it to his commander, who researched the story.

In June, 1995, Mary Bowser was inducted into the US Army's Intelligence Hall of Fame.

Read more on the story at npr.org

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

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