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Elizabeth Van Lew
Portrait of Elizabeth Van Lew
Born 25 October 1818(1818-10-25)
Richmond, Virginia
Died 25 September 1900 (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 Bet"
Known for Espionage during the American Civil War
Home town Richmond, Virginia

Elizabeth Van Lew (October 25, 1818-September 25, 1900) was a well-born Richmond, Virginia resident 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[1] and Elizabeth Baker. Van Lew's father ran a hardware business and owned several slaves. Van Lew was educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she was first exposed to abolitionism. After the death of her father, Van Lew and her mother freed the family's nine slaves even though her father had forbidden it. (The slaves included Mary Bowser.) Then, they bought and freed some of their former slaves' relatives.[2]

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.[2] Prisoners gave Van Lew information on Confederate troop levels and movements, which she was able to pass on to Union commanders.[3]

Van Lew also operated a spy ring of 12 people during the war, including clerks in the war and navy departments of the Confederacy and a Richmond mayoral candidate. It has even been suggested that Van Lew was able to have Bowser hired by Varina Davis, which allowed Bowser to spy in the White House of the Confederacy. [2] However, Varina Davis adamantly denied ever hiring Bowser, and no hard evidence exists for either side.[4] Van Lew's spy network was so efficient that on several occasions she sent Ulysses S. Grant fresh flowers from her garden and a copy of the Richmond newspaper. [2][3] She developed a cipher system and often smuggled messages out of Richmond in hollow eggs. [2][3]

Van Lew's work was highly valued by the United States. George H. Sharpe, intelligence officer for the Army of the Potomac, credited her with "the greater portion of our intelligence in 1864-65." On Grant's first visit to Richmond after the war, he had tea with Van Lew, and later appointed her postmaster of Richmond.[2] Grant said of her "You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war."[3]

The end of the war and her later life[]

When Richmond fell to the United States, Van Lew was the first person to raise the US flag in the city.[3] After Reconstruction, Van Lew became increasingly ostracized in Richmond. She 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.[2] When the government failed to provide sufficient aid, she turned to a group of wealthy and influential Bostonians for support. They gladly collected money for the woman who helped so many Union soldiers during the war.[5]

Van Lew died on September 25, 1900, and was buried in Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond. Her grave was unmarked until the relatives of Union Colonel Paul J. Revere, whom she had aided during the war donated a tombstone. She is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. Even into the twentieth century, Van Lew was regarded by many Southerners as a traitor.

In her will, Van Lew bequeathed her personal manuscripts, including her account of the war, to John P. Reynolds, nephew of Col. Revere. 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 would have relied on the Victorian custom of female charity to cover her espionage.[5]

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.


  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Loewen, James W. "'One of the Great Female Spies of All Times'". Lies Across America. New York: Touchstone, 1999.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 "Elizabeth Van Lew". Accessed 13 February 2007.
  4. Varon, Elizabeth: Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Varon

Further reading[]

  • Downing, David C. A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy. Nashville: Cumberland House, 2007. ISBN 978-1-58182-587-9
  • Varon, Elizabeth. 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. ISBN 0-19-517989-7

External links[]