Elizabeth Van Lew

Elizabeth Van Lew

Portrait of Elizabeth Van Lew
Born (1818-10-25)25 October 1818
Richmond, Virginia
Died 25 September 1900(1900-09-25) (aged 81)
Richmond, Virginia
Cause of death Natural death
Resting place Shockoe Hill Cemetery
37.551816, -77.432016
Residence 2301 E. Grace Street, Richmond, Virginia (now Bellevue Elementary School)
Nationality American
Other names "Crazy Bett"
Known for Espionage during the American Civil War
Home town Richmond, Virginia

Elizabeth Van Lew (October 25, 1818  September 25, 1900) was a Richmond, Virginia abolitionist and philanthropist who built and operated an extensive spy ring for the United States during the American Civil War.

Early life

Elizabeth Van Lew was born on October 25, 1818, in Richmond, Virginia to John Van Lew and Eliza Baker,[1] whose father was Hilary Baker, mayor of Philadelphia from 1796 to 1798. Elizabeth's father came to Richmond in 1806 at the age of 16 and, within twenty years, had built up a prosperous hardware business and owned several slaves.

Her family sent Elizabeth to Philadelphia for her education at a Quaker school, which reinformed her abolitionist sentiments.[2] When her father died in 1843, Elizabeth's brother John Newton Van Lew took over the business and the family freed their nine slaves, despite John's misgivings. Many of the emancipated slaves continued as paid servants with the family, including the young future Union spy Mary Bowser. In the depths of the 1837-44 depression, Elizabeth used her entire cash inheritance of $10,000 (nearly $200,000 in current money) to purchase and free some of their former slaves' relatives.[3] For years thereafter, Elizabeth's brother was a regular visitor to Richmond's slave market, where, when a family was about to be split up, he would purchase them all, bring them home, and issue papers of manumission.

The American Civil War

Upon the outbreak of the war, Van Lew began working on behalf of the Union. When Libby Prison was opened in Richmond, Van Lew was allowed to bring food, clothing, writing paper, and other things to the Union soldiers imprisoned there. She aided prisoners in escape attempts, passing them information about safe houses and getting a Union sympathizer appointed to the prison staff.[4] Recently captured prisoners gave Van Lew information on Confederate troop levels and movements, which she was able to pass on to Union commanders. She even helped hide escaped Union prisoners and Confederate deserters in her own mansion.[5]

Van Lew also operated a spy ring during the war, including clerks in the War and Navy Departments of the Confederacy and a Richmond mayoral candidate. Van Lew reportedly convinced Varina Davis to hire Bowser as a household servant, enabling Bowser to spy in the White House of the Confederacy.[4] Varina Davis adamantly denied ever hiring Bowser, although it would be unlikely she would have known of Bowser's real identity or admitted hiring her after the fact.[6] Although Bowser used several pseudonyms during and after the war, making her contributions especially difficult to document, newly uncovered sources confirm her involvement in the Union espionage circle run by Van Lew.[7] Van Lew's spy network was so efficient that on several occasions she sent Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant fresh flowers from her garden and a copy of the Richmond newspaper.[4] She developed a cipher system and often smuggled messages out of Richmond in hollow eggs.[4] Union commanders highly valued Van Lew's work; George H. Sharpe, intelligence officer for the Army of the Potomac, credited her with "the greater portion of our intelligence in 1864-65."

In 1864, Van Lew risked her entire spy network to see that the corpse of Union Col. Ulric Dahlgren, who died trying to free Union prisoners in Richmond, was properly buried. Reports of disrespectful display of his corpse had outraged Northern public opinion, and Van Lew herself. Furthermore, during the long siege of Petersburg, Van Lew assisted civilians of both sides.[1]

Postwar life

When Richmond fell to U.S. forces in April 1865, Van Lew was the first person to raise the United States flag in the city.[5]

On Grant's first visit to Richmond after the war, he had tea with Van Lew, and later appointed her postmaster of Richmond.[8] Grant said of her, "You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war." Van Lew modernized the city's postal system and employed several African-Americans until new President Rutherford B. Hayes replaced her in 1877.[9] She was allowed to return as a postal clerk in Richmond, where she served from 1883-1887.[1]

After the Reconstruction, Van Lew became increasingly ostracized in Richmond. "No one will walk with us on the street," she wrote, "no one will go with us anywhere; and it grows worse and worse as the years roll on."[5] She reportedly persuaded the United States Department of War to give her all of her records, so she could hide the true extent of her espionage from her neighbors. Having spent her family's fortune on intelligence activities during the war, she tried in vain to be reimbursed by the federal government.[8] When attempts to secure a government pension also failed, the elderly spinster turned to the family and friends of Union Col. Paul Joseph Revere, whom she had helped at the Henrico County Jail in 1862. These Bostonians gladly collected money for the woman who helped so many Union soldiers during the war.[10] However, neighborhood children, including future novelist Ellen Glasgow, were told to consider her a witch.[1]

Death and legacy

Grave of Elizabeth Van Lew

Van Lew died on September 25, 1900 (aged 81), and was buried in Richmond's Shockoe Hill Cemetery. She was purportedly buried vertically, facing the north, and relatives of Union Colonel Paul J. Revere, whom she had aided during the war, donated the tombstone. Even into the twentieth century, however, many Southerners regarded Van Lew as a traitor.

In her will, Van Lew bequeathed her personal manuscripts, including her account of the war, to John P. Reynolds, Col. Revere's nephew. In 1911 Reynolds was able to convince the scholar William G. Beymer to publish the first biography of Van Lew in Harper's Monthly. The biography indicated that Van Lew had been so successful in her spying activities because she had feigned lunacy, and this idea won Van Lew the nickname "Crazy Bet". However, it is unlikely that Van Lew actually did pretend to be crazy. Instead, she probably would have relied on the Victorian custom of female charity to cover her espionage.[11]

The city of Richmond acquired and demolished the Van Lew mansion, her former home, in 1911, during a period of increasing racial polarization.[12] Bellevue Elementary School (which still remains) was erected on the site the following year. Historical plaques and a marker now memorialize her activities, and those of Bowser (a/k/a Mary Jane Richards).[13] Furthermore, the daughter of two of Van Lew's servants, Maggie Walker, became a prominent Christian entrepreneur in Richmond, founding the country's first African-American-woman owned bank.

Elizabeth Van Lew was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1993.

Books and films

Elizabeth Van Lew was a significant character in the 1944 book Yankee Stranger by Elswyth Thane, the second in her Williamsburg series,[14] and a major character in The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a novel by former college professor Lois M. Leveen.[15] Her story was also fictionalized in 1995 children's book The Secret of the Lion's Head by Beverly Hall,[16] the 2005 novel Elizabeth Van Lew: Civil War Spy by Heidi Schoof,[17] the 2006 novel Only Call Us Faithful: A Novel of the Union Underground by Marie Jakober, and the 2013 novel The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini.[18]

The 1987 television movie A Special Friendship tells a fictionalized story of the friendship and pro-Union collaboration of Van Lew (who is presented as a young, rather than middle-aged, woman in the film) and her former slave Mary Bowser. The 1990 television movie Traitor in My House tells the story of Elizabeth Van Lew from the perspective of her niece; Mary Kay Place portrays Elizabeth.


  1. 1 2 3 4 DeMarco, Michael (24 February 2014). "Van Lew, Elizabeth L. (1818–1900)". Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved 2016-07-06.
  2. "Elizabeth Van Lew". National Park Services. Retrieved 2016-07-06.
  3. Loewen, James W. "One of the Great Female Spies of All Times." Lies Across America. New York: Touchstone, 1999. page cite needed
  4. 1 2 3 4 Loewen, unknown page
  5. 1 2 3 "Elizabeth Van Lew Biography". www.civilwarhome.com. Retrieved 2016-07-06.
  6. Varon, Elizabeth: Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew. unknown page
  7. Leveen, Lois (21 June 2012). "A Black Spy in the Confederate White House". The New York Times. Retrieved 2016-07-06.
  8. 1 2 Loewen, James W. "One of the Great Female Spies of All Times." Lies Across America. New York: Touchstone, 1999.
  9. Markle, Donald E. "Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War" Lies Across America. New York: Hippocrene Books, 2004. page cite needed
  10. Varon, unknown page
  11. Varon
  12. "Van Lew House". www.mdgorman.com. 11 July 2008. Retrieved 2016-07-06.
  13. "Adams Van-Lew House SA-69". Marker History. 1802-01-01. Retrieved 2016-07-06.
  14. Thane, Elswyth (1944). Yankee Stranger.
  15. Leveen, Lois (2012-05-15). The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Harper Collins. ISBN 9780062107916.
  16. Hall, Beverly B. (1995-01-01). The Secret of the Lion's Head. White Mane Publishing Company. ISBN 9780942597929.
  17. Schoof, Heidi (2005-07-01). Elizabeth Van Lew: Civil War Spy. Capstone. ISBN 9780756518516.
  18. Chiaverini, Jennifer (2014-03-25). The Spymistress. Penguin Publishing Group. ISBN 9780142180884.

Further reading

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