Very little is known about Mary Elizabeth Bowser, save for her contributions to the American Civil War effort.
Bowser was born Mary Jane Richards, circa 1846, likely near Richmond, Virgina. She may have been a slave of Eliza Baker and John Van Lew or their extended family. She was supposedly baptized in 1846 at a white church. This was unusual at the time, as most other Van Lew slaves were baptized at Richmond’s First African Baptist Church.
Elizabeth Van Lew, the daughter of Eliza Baker and John Van Lew, further sent Bowser to school. It is unclear where she was sent, beyond somewhere in the North.
in 1855, Bowser spent some time in Liberia with a missionary community, before returning to Virginia sometime before the spring of 1860.
During the civil war, Bowser took advantage of white supremacist beliefs that Black women lacked the intelligence to be a threat to take a job as a servant to Jefferson Davis’ family in the Confederate White House. She used her access to glean information she then passed on to Elizabeth Van Lew.