History Mystery 

Is a Union spy buried here?

It is believed that Bowser, during the Civil War, worked as a maid for Jefferson Davis and managed the dining room at the Confederate White House. Meanwhile, she secretly passed along strategic information to her good friend, the socialite and famous Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew and other Union officials. Bowser is considered to be one of the most important Union spies in the war.

For more than two years, Davis, through her business called Virginia Roots, has been researching local black history and culture. She wants to raise $100,000 to set up a trust fund that will provide perpetual care for the city's seven principal black cemeteries, which date to the early 1800s.

"I've found the resting place of Mary Elizabeth Bowser," Davis declares, "and I've pieced together her life from her birth through the Civil War to her death."

If Davis' findings are authenticated, they could provide a missing link in history.

Nelson Lankford, director of publications and scholarship with the Virginia Historical Society says verification is important, and it can be difficult to prove. For instance, he notes there isn't any official documentation from the Civil War era that places Bowser in Jefferson Davis' household. Still, this doesn't mean she wasn't there or that Davis' findings are untrue. "If she's identifying the grave … it's all quite possible," Landford says. Just be cautious, he points out.

Existing accounts of Bowser's life have been sketchy. Some biographies indicate she was born as early as 1822; others report she was born circa 1839. And because of the destruction of Union spy records after the Civil War, most historical accounts of Bowser don't include information about what happened to her after the war.

Davis came upon the information, she says, as she was researching a book she has written on Rosa Bowser, an educator, black community activist and close friend of Maggie L. Walker. Rosa Bowser is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Richmond's East End.

Davis says scrutinizing volumes on Jefferson Davis, Unionist Benjamin Butler and Elizabeth Van Lew, and perusing piles of cemetery records led her to where she says Bowser is buried.

But for now, she won't say which Richmond East End black cemetery holds Bowser.

Davis says she wants the approval of Bowser's only living relative, McEva Bowser, before she makes her announcement public. McEva Bowser, who lives in Richmond, could not be reached for comment.

"I think it's going to hit me in six months that I've found something really huge," Davis says. "What do you do when you find someone you thought couldn't be found?"

For Davis it meant a solitary celebration. "I'm not a drinking woman," she says. "But I made one of those virgin Bacardi daiquiris and drank it so fast I got one heck of a brain freeze." S


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