ENTRY

Elizabeth L. Van Lew (1818–1900)

SUMMARY

Elizabeth Van Lew was a Richmond Unionist and abolitionist who spied for the United States government during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Leading a network of a dozen or so white and African American women and men, she relayed information on Confederate operations to Union generals and assisted in the care and sometimes escape of Union prisoners of war being held in the Confederate capital. Van Lew, who worked with invisible ink and coded messages, has been called “the most skilled, innovative, and successful” of all Civil War–era spies. While some historians have claimed that she was open about her Unionist politics, deflecting suspicion by behaving as if she were mentally ill, others have argued that these “Crazy Bet” stories are a myth. After the war, Van Lew served as postmaster of Richmond during the administration of U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, one of the generals to whom she had once fed information.

READING LEVEL
Grade 4

Early Years

Van Lew was born in Richmond on October 15, 1818. Her father was named John Van Lew. He was from Long Island, New York. Her mother was named Eliza Baker. She was from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Even though they were from the North, the Van Lews owned enslaved people. They lived in a mansion on Church Hill. They were part of the Richmond elite. Elizabeth Van Lew went to a Quaker school in Philadelphia. While there, she became fiercely opposed to slavery. After her father died, her mother freed some of the family’s enslaved laborers. Virginia seceded from the Union in the spring of 1861. Van Lew was opposed to this idea as well. She did not agree with Confederate beliefs. Instead, she began finding ways to support the Union.

Early in the war, Van Lew and banded together with other people in Richmond who agreed with her views. They formed an underground network. This group included John Minor Botts, F. W. E. Lohmann, and William S. Rowley. They wanted to target the prisons in Richmond that were holding Union soldiers. During the summer of 1861, Van Lew and her mother visited the prisoners. They wanted to help. They brought the men food and tended to their wounds. Their visits were also tactical. Prisoners were an important source of information. Libby Prison housed hundreds of Union officers in harsh conditions. It was located just six blocks from the Van Lew home. Van Lew could not get inside the prison. Instead, she bribed guards to get what she wanted. She asked to have prisoners moved to hospitals where she might visit them. Many times, she passed messages to inmates using a custard dish. The dish had a secret compartment. In 1864, Van Lew may have helped some of the 109 prisoners who tunneled out of Libby. She was the head of a Richmond spy ring. Union general Benjamin F. Butler managed this network. 

Crazy Bet

Van Lew’s codename was “Babcock.” She was very careful and precise. During the war, she made her own cipher. A cipher is code, or a secret way of writing messages. Before that, she tore important messages into pieces. She sent the pieces with different people. They would take the pieces to different relay stations. One station was a small family farm south of the city. She also hid messages in the soles of shoes and the shells of eggs. 

Still, people in Richmond did not trust Van Lew. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy. Van Lew was fiercely opposed to slavery. She did not think the South should have left the Union. Some say used people’s beliefs to help keep her work secret. They say she let people think her opinions were a sign of mental illness. They say she walked around Richmond in shabby clothes, muttering to herself or singing nonsense songs. Supposedly she was called “Crazy Bet.” Historian Elizabeth R. Varon disagrees with these stories. She says that there is no evidence to support them. She wrote a biography of Van Lew in 2003. In it, she says, “To remember Van Lew as Crazy Bet is misleading, counterproductive, and indeed unjust.” She argues that Van Lew did her best to look like a loyal Confederate. She let people think that a Southern “lady” would never spy for the North. Varon writes that the Crazy Bet stories do not show how intelligent and careful Van Lew really was. Perhaps the stories were meant to make Van Lew seem crazy instead of smart. 

Mary Richards Bowser had been enslaved by Van Lew’s family before the way. Van Lew helped her go to school in the north. She arranged for her to go to Liberia as a missionary. Bowser was part of Van Lew’s spy ring. She may or may not have used the “crazy” technique in her spying. During the war, Bowser worked as a spy in the Confederate White House. She was placed as a servant for Jefferson Davis‘s family. There she collected information. She passed what she learned on to Van Lew or other spies.

A month after the Libby escape, the Union tried to free more prisoners. In March 1864, raiders attempted enter Richmond. The raid failed. Colonel Ulric Dahlgren was killed in the raid. Confederates found papers on his body. They claimed the papers showed a plan to murder Davis and burn Richmond. Historians believe these claims are true.  At the time, people in the North were very angry. Dahlgren was the dashing son of a Union rear admiral. He had lost his right leg at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Anger grew hotter when people heard that Dahlgren’s corpse was handled cruelly. Van Lew was outraged. She made sure Dahlgren’s body was secretly exhumed and properly reburied. She took great risks to do this.

Van Lew worked as a spy until Richmond fell. The nearby city of Petersburg had suffered a long siege. When the war ended, she went there to help people who were hurt. She did not care which side they had supported during the war. She helped anyone who was wounded.

Later Years

After the war, Van Lew worked with the Republican Party of Virginia. In 1869, Grant made her postmaster of Richmond. She served in this role during his two terms. She worked to improve the city’s postal system. She employed a number of African Americans. She also sponsored a library in Richmond for Black people. It opened in 1876. She continued to support African American rights and woman suffrage for the rest of her life.

Many people in Richmond were upset that Van Lew helped the Union during the war. They treated her as an outcast. Her family doctor said they “shunned her like the plague.” Her neighbors encouraged their children to see her as a witch. Her Church Hill mansion was said to be haunted after her death. Varon thinks that the Crazy Bet stories may have started during Van Lew’s later years. When she died on September 25, 1900, she was still an outcast. Her inheritance was long gone. She spent her money to help her family’s former enslaved laborers. She also spent money to support her work as a spy. A circle of her friends in Boston, Massachusetts paid for her funeral. These friends included the family of Paul Joseph Revere. Revere was a soldier that she helped at Henrico County Jail in 1862. Van Lew was buried in Shockoe Cemetery in Richmond. The City of Richmond bought her mansion after her death. They quickly tore it down and built a school on the site.

Grade 8

Early Years

Van Lew was born in Richmond on October 15, 1818. Her father, John Van Lew, was from Long Island, New York. Her mother, Eliza Baker, was from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Despite their Northern roots, the Van Lews owned enslaved people. They lived in a mansion on Church Hill and belonged to Richmond society. Elizabeth Van Lew attended a Quaker school in Philadelphia. During this time, she began to develop antislavery views. After her father died, her mother freed some of the family’s enslaved laborers. Virginia seceded in the spring of 1861, but Van Lew did not agree with Confederate patriotism. Instead, she committed herself to finding ways to undermine Confederate war aims.

Early in the war, Van Lew and other Richmond Unionists banded together to form an underground network. This group included John Minor Botts, F. W. E. Lohmann, and William S. Rowley. They wanted to target the Confederate prison system. During the summer of 1861, Van Lew and her mother visited captured Union soldiers who were being held in Richmond prisons. They wanted to help the prisoners. They brought the men food and tended to their wounds. Their visits were also tactical. Prisoners were an important source of information, and Libby Prison was located just six blocks from the Van Lew mansion. Libby Prison housed hundreds of Union officers, often in desperate conditions. Van Lew never was able to get inside the prison. Instead, she bribed guards for various reasons, such as having prisoners moved to hospitals where she might visit them. In several cases, she passed information to inmates using a custard dish with a secret compartment. In 1864, she was the head of a Richmond spy network managed by Union general Benjamin F. Butler. That year she may have helped some of the 109 prisoners who tunneled out of Libby.

Crazy Bet

Van Lew’s codename was “Babcock.” She was very meticulous. During the war, she developed her own cipher. A cipher is code, or a secret way of writing messages. Before that, she tore important messages into pieces. She sent the pieces by multiple couriers. These people would take the pieces to different relay stations. One station was a small family farm south of the city. Messages also were hidden in the soles of shoes and the shells of eggs. Still, Van Lew’s politics always made her suspect in the Confederate capital. Some say that she turned this to her advantage. They say she exploited people’s belief that her Unionism was a symptom of mental instability. Supposedly nicknamed “Crazy Bet,” she is said to have wandered Richmond in shabby clothes, muttering to herself or singing nonsense songs. Historian Elizabeth R. Varon, however, disagrees. She argues that no evidence exists for this account of Van Lew’s methods. She wrote a biography of Van Lew in 2003. In it, she says, “To remember Van Lew as Crazy Bet is misleading, counterproductive, and indeed unjust.” She argues that Van Lew did her best to look like a loyal Confederate. She exploited people’s belief that a Southern “lady” would never spy for the North. Varon writes that the Crazy Bet stories do not show Van Lew’s intelligence and meticulousness. Indeed, that may have been their point.

Mary Richards Bowser had been enslaved by the Van Lew family. She also may or may not have used the “crazy” technique in her spying. Van Lew arranged for Bowser to be educated in the north and sent as a missionary to Liberia. During the war, Bowser worked as a servant for Jefferson Davis‘s family in the Confederate White House. There she collected information and passed it on to Van Lew or other spies.

In March 1864, a month after the Libby escape, Union raiders attempted enter Richmond and free more prisoners. The raid failed. Colonel Ulric Dahlgren was killed in the raid. Confederates claimed to find evidence on his person of a plan to murder Davis and burn Richmond. Historians have uncovered support for the charges.  At the time, Northern public opinion was inflamed. Dahlgren was the dashing twenty-one-year-old son of a Union rear admiral. He had lost his right leg at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Northern anger grew after reports that Dahlgren’s corpse was handled disrespectfully. Van Lew was outraged. She made sure Dahlgren’s body was secretly exhumed and properly reburied. She did so even though it put her entire operation at risk.

Van Lew continued her work as a spy until Richmond fell and the war ended. After the long siege of nearby Petersburg,  she came to the aid of wounded civilians, regardless of their politics.

Later Years

After the war, Van Lew became involved in Republican politics. In 1869, Grant made her postmaster of Richmond. She served in this role during his two terms. As postmaster, she helped to improve the city’s postal system. She employed a number of African Americans. She also sponsored a library for African Americans that opened in Richmond in 1876. Van Lew was dismissed as postmaster in 1877 when Grant’s second term ended. In her later years she continued to support African American rights and woman suffrage.

The elderly Van Lew was treated as an outcast by Richmonders. Her family doctor said they “shunned her like the plague.” Her neighbors encouraged their children, including the future novelist and social critic Ellen Glasgow, to see her as a witch. Her Church Hill mansion was said to have been haunted after her death. Varon thinks that the Crazy Bet stories may have begun in response to the elderly Van Lew. When she died on September 25, 1900, she was still an outcast. Her inheritance was long gone. She spent her money to help her family’s former enslaved laborers and to support her own espionage. A circle of her friends in Boston, Massachusetts paid for her funeral. These friends included the family of Paul Joseph Revere, a soldier she had assisted at Henrico County Jail in 1862. She was buried in Shockoe Cemetery in Richmond. The City of Richmond bought her mansion after her death. They quickly demolished it and built a school on the site.

Grades 11+

Early Years

Van Lew House

Van Lew was born on October 15, 1818, in Richmond, to John Van Lew of Long Island, New York, and Eliza Baker of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Despite their Northern roots, the Van Lews owned enslaved people, lived in a mansion on Church Hill, and belonged to Richmond society. After attending a Quaker school in Philadelphia, however, Elizabeth Van Lew began to develop antislavery views, and following the death of her father, her mother freed some of the family’s enslaved laborers. When Virginia seceded in the spring of 1861, Van Lew did not succumb to Confederate patriotism as so many other Southern Unionists did. Instead, she immediately committed herself to finding ways to undermine the Confederate war effort.

Early in the war, Van Lew and other Richmond Unionists—including John Minor Botts, F. W. E. Lohmann, and William S. Rowley—banded together to form an underground network, which eventually targeted the Confederate prison system in particular. During the summer of 1861, Van Lew and her mother visited captured Union soldiers being held in Richmond prisons. If their motivation was at first compassionate—they brought the men food and tended to their wounds—it soon turned tactical. Prisoners were an important source of information, and Libby Prison, which housed hundreds of Union officers, often in desperate conditions, was located just six blocks from the Van Lew mansion. Van Lew never was able to gain entrance there, however, and instead bribed guards for various purposes, such as having prisoners transferred to hospitals where she might visit them. In several cases, she passed information to inmates using a custard dish with a secret compartment. In 1864, as the head of a Richmond spy network managed by Union general Benjamin F. Butler, she may have helped some of the 109 prisoners who tunneled out of Libby.

Crazy Bet

Libby Prison Interior

Van Lew, codenamed “Babcock,” was always meticulous. Before developing her own cipher, she tore important messages into pieces and transported them by multiple couriers and through various relay stations, including a small family farm south of the city. Messages also were hidden in the soles of shoes and the shells of eggs. Still, Van Lew’s politics always made her suspect in the Confederate capital. According to many histories, she turned this to her advantage by exploiting people’s belief that her Unionism was merely a symptom of mental instability. Supposedly nicknamed “Crazy Bet,” she is said to have wandered Richmond in shabby clothes, muttering to herself or singing nonsense songs. Historian Elizabeth R. Varon, however, has argued that no evidence exists for this account of Van Lew’s methods. “To remember Van Lew as Crazy Bet is misleading, counterproductive, and indeed unjust,” she wrote in her 2003 biography of Van Lew. She argues that Van Lew did her best to maintain a facade as a loyal Confederate, instead exploiting people’s belief that a Southern “lady” would never spy for the North. In the end, Varon writes, the Crazy Bet stories fail to credit Van Lew’s intelligence and meticulousness. Indeed, that may have been their point.

Mary Richards Bowser, who had been enslaved by the Van Lew family, also may or may not have used the “crazy” technique in her spying. Van Lew arranged for Bowser to be educated in the north and sent as a missionary to Liberia. During the war, Bowser worked as a servant for Jefferson Davis‘s family in the Confederate White House, where she collected information and passed it on to Van Lew or other spies.

In March 1864, a month after the Libby escape, Union raiders failed in an attempt to enter Richmond and free additional prisoners. Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, the dashing twenty-one-year-old son of a Union rear admiral, who had lost his right leg at the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), was killed, and Confederates claimed to find on his person evidence that he and his men planned to murder Davis and burn Richmond. Contemporary historians have uncovered support for the charges, but at the time Northern public opinion was inflamed, especially after reports that Dahlgren’s corpse was handled disrespectfully. Van Lew herself was so outraged that she risked her entire operation to see that Dahlgren’s body was surreptitiously exhumed and properly reburied.

Van Lew remained active in intelligence gathering until end of the war, and when Richmond fell, after the long siege of nearby Petersburg, she came to the aid of wounded civilians, regardless of their politics.

Later Years

Following the war, Van Lew became involved in Republican politics. In 1869, Grant appointed her postmaster of Richmond, a position she held during his two terms, helping to modernize the city’s postal system and employing a number of African Americans. She sponsored a library for African Americans that opened in Richmond in 1876. Van Lew was dismissed as postmaster in 1877, a victim of gender and partisan politics. Partly as a result, in her later years she supported African American rights and woman suffrage.

Elizabeth Van Lew as an Old Woman

The elderly Van Lew was treated as a pariah by Richmonders, who, according to her family doctor, “shunned her like the plague.” Children, including the future novelist and social critic Ellen Glasgow, were encouraged to see her as a witch, and her Church Hill mansion was said to have been haunted after her death. According to Varon, it was in response to the elderly Van Lew that the Crazy Bet stories may have originated. Van Lew’s inheritance, meanwhile, was long gone, spent in the aid of her family’s former enslaved people and her own espionage. When she died on September 25, 1900, a circle of her friends in Boston, Massachusetts, including the family of Paul Joseph Revere, a soldier she had assisted at Henrico County Jail in 1862, paid for her funeral. She was buried in Shockoe Cemetery in Richmond. The City of Richmond acquired and demolished her mansion soon after her death, allegedly out of spite, and built a school on the site.

RELATED CONTENT
MAP
TIMELINE
October 15, 1818
Elizabeth Van Lew is born in Richmond.
Summer 1861
Following the First Battle of Manassas, Elizabeth Van Lew begins ministering to Union prisoners.
September 1861
Elizabeth Van Lew, as a key player in Richmond's Unionist underground, begins providing funds and related assistance for the bribing of Confederate prison guards in order to let Union prisoners escape from Libby Prison and other Confederate prisoner-of-war camps. Van Lew keeps up these activities throughout the war.
December 1863
Elizabeth Van Lew becomes the head of Union general Benjamin F. Butler's spy network, a position she maintains until the end of the war.
March 17, 1869
President Ulysses S. Grant appoints Elizabeth Van Lew postmaster in Richmond, an office she will hold until 1877.
1883
Elizabeth Van Lew is appointed a post office clerk in Richmond. This is her final civil service position.
1887
Elizabeth Van Lew gives up her clerkship, refusing to accept another civil service position.
September 25, 1900
Elizabeth Van Lew dies in Richmond.
FURTHER READING
  • Harper, Judith E., and Elizabeth D. Leonard, Women During the Civil War: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2004.
  • Van Lew, Elizabeth. A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew. Edited by David D. Ryan. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1996.
  • Varon, Elizabeth R. Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
DeMarco, Michael. Elizabeth L. Van Lew (1818–1900). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/van-lew-elizabeth-l-1818-1900.
MLA Citation:
DeMarco, Michael. "Elizabeth L. Van Lew (1818–1900)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 12 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2023, July 06
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