Spy Duster

There was a time when slavery was legal in our country. In fact, in most cases, it promoted the “social” status of whites. The more slaves you owned, the more wealth you had. The mentality behind that is terribly disturbing. If we take a moment, to look any person in the eye, we can see equality. Clearly.

And thankfully, back then, many people were able to see just that.

But unfortunately, it took a bloody and horrific Civil War to abolish slavery. Things would have been better if it could have been achieved peacefully. Yet, a war broke out, and lines were drawn.

The leader of the South, the “President” was Jefferson Davis. And he set up his home, his Confederate White House, in Richmond, Virginia. The base of operations. The highest home in the South.

But the Civil War was certainly steeped in the art of espionage. There were spies everywhere, on both sides. Working for their cause.

Two, which have gone largely unrecognized, were women. They were Elizabeth “Crazy Bet” Van Lew and Mary Bowser. They worked together to bring down the political fixtures of the South from the inside out.

They put up quite a charade in all of this. Both were very bright women. Van Lew organized a spy ring in the heart of the Confederacy. And then there was Bowser. She had a stunning photographic memory and incredible acting skills. But they needed to fool society around them. Especially the most elite members of the Confederacy, which ‘frequented’ the Confederate White House. So they each put on acts of being senseless and stupid. This completely masked the fact that they were cunning operators of the spy ring.

It started like this. Van Lew was the daughter of a very wealthy slave owner. Thousands. When her father died, Van Lew and her mother released all their slaves to freedom. They even took extra money, to buy the families of the slaves they had released. And Mary Bowser was one of them.

Van Lew, went from there. She began volunteering as a nurse at the tobacco warehouse in Richmond—the capital of the Confederacy—that housed Union prisoners. This was later the famous Libby Prison. And, in 1861, she and her mother started to bring food, clothes, books, medicine and other materials to the prisoners.

But she was doing more. Unbeknownst to the guards. Van Lew was secretly helping the Union with her deliveries. She would hide messages and plans for escape in her deliveries. She even housed escaped Union soldiers, helping them as they tried to make their way back to the North. But she would talk out loud in unhinged nonsense to herself. Her act of madness fooled the Confederate guards. Hence the name “Crazy Bet.”


There was Mary Bowser, the freed slave. She spied for the Union in an entirely different way. She went to work as a domestic servant. First, she did little jobs. And, after cleaning and cooking at several functions for the family of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Bowser was hired as a full-time servant. There, at the Southern White House.

So once she was “in” she did all her duties very well. But while she cleaned, and swept and dusted, she also snooped. She read the plans and documents that were laid out or hidden in desks, and reporting her findings to Van Lew. Again, with that photographic memory. She was a snap-happy asset to have in the Spy World.

They kept this up for years.

As the war came to a close, in 1865, Van Lew was thanked personally by Union General Ulysses S. Grant. “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war,” he reportedly told her.

So another good story from our history. The good guys winning out. Yet. The thing that saddens me most, is that in our current culture, we still have many, many people who believe that Whites are supreme. And they work very hard to set that whole ball in motion. Just today in the news, there were several accounts of Neo-Nazis, attacking men in Washington, spreading hate-crime pamphlets from coast-to-coast, plotting to kill Jewish people in Ohio. Flying Confederate Flags proudly.

I am not sure how this mentality still exists, but it does. I am also not sure how we squelch it? How we can be the Van Lew’s and Bowser’s? I know we must be vigilant and aware. We must not tolerate this hatred. These crimes.

I wish there were a way to enlighten those who discriminate and mistreat others.

I think, in each day, we can begin with being the best that we can be. In compassion, in goodness, and in kindness. If enough of us steer on the right course, we might get this big blue ball spinning in the right direction.

(News Report:  4 days, 5 reports of hate crimes, and a disturbing trend developing in America  https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/11/us/hate-crimes/index.html )


“It takes no compromise to give people their rights…it takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression.” — Harvey Milk


“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
― Aristotle, Metaphysics


“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”
― William Wilberforce