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
slaves, 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 slaves.
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 Confederate war aims.
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.
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,
a former Van Lew family slave, 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
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
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
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 slaves 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
Harper, Judith E., and Elizabeth D. Leonard, Women During the
Civil War: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis
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 EntryAPA Citation:
DeMarco, M. Elizabeth Van Lew (1818–1900). (2014, February 24). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Van_Lew_Elizabeth_L_1818-1900.
DeMarco, M. "Elizabeth Van Lew (1818–1900)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities,
24 Feb. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: January 29, 2009 | Last modified: February 24, 2014
Contributed by Michael DeMarco, a PhD candidate in history at Temple University and an adjunct professor of
history at Kean University.