Brev. Brig. Gen'l
- Feb 14, 2012
- Central Pennsylvania
Pre war rendering of the Van Lew mansion, note American flag. Inside this home lived daughter Elizabeth who also housed Union prisoners in two attic rooms. Inside this house, in 1861 one of the Confederacy's political prisoners died. His name was Calvin Huson, Jr., family was from Penn Yan, New York.
" The Most Hated Woman In Richmond " knew it.
A sad quote from a Van Lew interview, published after her death in 1900.
The thing is, Elizabeth Van Lew cannot be called ' traitor '. How? She simply never wavered in her loyalty to her country, that's it. How and why she stuck it out in Richmond, Virginia, isolated, loathed, maligned and scapegoated is anyone's guess. Goodness knows she had friends elsewhere although not in the South. Sentiment against her grew postwar instead of abating.
One of Elizabeth Van Lew's codes- be sure, she was a tremendously helpful spy. She was also a humanitarian, first.
I've never bought the whole ' crazy ' thing. Beyond no reports at the time, ' Crazy ' is a euphemism for women who someone wishes to denigrate. Not alone;
" In 1883 she secured an appointment as a clerk in the postmaster's office in Washington, D.C., but resigned in July 1887 after being demoted. White men across the political spectrum alleged that Van Lew was erratic and hysterical and the backlash against her office-holding inclined some white Richmonders to regard Van Lew in her old age as crazy. In her waning years, Van Lew was so estranged from white Richmond that it was all too easy to mistake her alienation for a kind of madness. The myth of her madness took on a new life after her death when Van Lew's executor, John P. Reynolds Jr., published a series of notices in newspapers around the country describing how "Crazy Van Lew" fooled the Confederacy into letting her enter Libby Prison to aid Union soldiers there. The claim became a staple of Van Lew lore, and her biographers passed it down until Van Lew became synonymous with "Crazy Bet." According to this lore, Van Lew avoided detection during the war by crafting a reputation as an imbalanced and therefore essentially harmless eccentric old spinster. Many a treatment of Van Lew has suggested that the role of "Crazy Bet" came easily to her because she was in fact an odd and eccentric woman. Not one of the four daily Richmond newspapers, however, hinted at mental instability in the obituaries they published, although two of them printed very unflattering caricatures of her. "
In the North, Van Lew's legend grew by increments, the full scope emerging after her death. Spy? Yes, with a system astonishing in 2018, much less the 1860's. Myth became attached, like my favorite and, if you think about it, a terrific revenge- that she was crazy, or pretended to be. Story goes, she wandered the streets unkempt, talking to herself. Like to challenge that with era accounts. Plenty of era and postwar accounts on Van Lew both complimentary and vicious. Not one mentions anything about 'Crazy Bets' , as she's become known. Myth, but handy myth.
Cyphers, contacts inside prisons, hollow soled shoes, secret rooms, smuggling bodies- her war would make anyone's hair curl. Van Lew kept an incredible diary, nearly lost because she buried it in her back yard. Nothing was safe, in her world. Why she would risk her life commiting her war to paper is a puzzle. What she writes? A must read. be careful, reading of Elizabeth- era sources so far seem best, myth having occluded who she really was.
Here's something. Elizabeth Van Lew, whose story is too long for one thread, did not begin her war going into prisons as part of her spying activities. Her visits began as a humanitarian, bringing comfort to Union prisoners held in the new tobacco warehouse prisons. One of these visits, to Liggon's Prison, resulted in this newspaper article, from Rochester, New York.
What was Elizabeth Van Lew, notorious spy from Richmond, Virginia, doing in Rochester? It's connected with why the Van Lew plot in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond was so full by the time she died, Van Lew was buried standing up. A grateful family wished to meet her.
Liggon's tobacco warehouse prison, where Elizabeth spotted an ill man.
In 1861, during a visit to Union prisoners in Liggon's warehouse, Van Lew noted a civilian in the throes of typhoid. One of several scooped up during Bull Run's crazed and crazy stampede, Calvin Huson, Jr. had been on the battlefield for professional, not picnic reasons. Another well known Washington face, Alfred Ely, was captured nearby. Ely lived- able to pen some not-hugely-accurate memories of his involvement. He takes credit, for instance, for Calvin's transfer to the John Van Lew mansion, on Church Street. Nope. Elizabeth Van Lew did some fast talking. Huson had to sign an oath that he would not escape, and was taken to Church Street.
One of Calvin's portraits, not long before his capture and death.
Calvin was married to Seward's niece, Catherine, had just been appointed ambassador to Costa Rica and was part of Seward's administration- a family connection from new York days. He'd studied law under Seward, a friend and political associate of Calvin, Sr. He'd accepted a spot in the carriage that day to report on a regiment from New York.
Elizabeth's diary takes over from there. Calvin not only improved dramatically, she recalls him speaking, looking well and conversing. It was shocking, therefore, when he died very, very suddenly, an apparent victim of a relapse. I've personally never bought this, either. No abused prisoner, Calvin was described by several sources as ' fat '- and happy despite his surroundings. Early days of the war could be like that- decency could prevail despite blood shed on the field.
Elizabeth Van Lew, eventually a famous spy, also aided men, in the real sense. Her care of Calvin Huson was so complete, she had him buried in the Van Lew family plot- documented by cemetery records, btw, and despite Ely's claim otherwise. By the time of her own death in 1900, her act of generosity caused her to be buried upright. A Union prisoner had been at rest, anonymously, in Shocktoe's Van Lew plot, since October, 1861. Headstone? Impossible, in war time Richmond.
Somewhere near the massive rock marking Van Lew's grave lay a man whose family remained forever grateful- his wife and 5 children, back in Rochester, New York. Union general Paul Revere ensured her grave could not be defaced, sending the massive piece of granite.
Calvin Huson Jr. was JPK's brother. Another brother, William Henry, is my great, great grandfather. His hostelry in Washington, DC is where Calvin lived while in DC- and to where he never returned.
Thank you, compassionate Elizabeth Van Lew, from a grateful family.