Miss Elizabeth Van Lew

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W. Richardson

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Miss Elizabeth Van Lew, daughter of John Van Lew, was one of the most remarkable women of the war. To most of Richmond she was known as “Miss Lizzie” or “Crazy Bet”, but highlights of her reveal a woman of courage and conviction.

She became an abolitionist while away attending school in Philadelphia, and on her father’s death in 1860, she freed the family slaves. Never hiding her Union sympathies, she carried special foods to Federal prisoners at Libby Prison, a custom which aroused much suspicion and hostility against her in the city, so much that the authorities kept her under constant surveillance.

During General McClellan’s 1862 campaign against Richmond, she and her mother prepared a “charming room” in her home for McClellan’s use after he took the city. The two called it the “McClellan room.” However McClellan failed to reach Richmond. On days of fasting decreed by President Davis, the two Van Lew ladies dined in abundant style.

Miss Van Lew opened secret correspondence with Union forces at Fortress Monroe, passing military information on Richmond via secret couriers. She was the leader throughout the war of the small, well organized Union underground in the city, a group of spies and sympathizers. She succeeded in placing at least one and probably more black servants as spies in the Confederate White House and is credited with responsibility for the arson attempt on the mansion in the winter of 1864.

She is believed to have assisted the escape of 109 Union officers from Libby Prison on February 9, 1864. She did visit a leader of the escape, Colonel Streight, at Howard’s Grove, all at a great danger to herself. In early April 1864, she organized the theft of the body of Colonel Dahlgren from Oakwood Cemetery; she then had it secretly reburied to await the end of the war.

On evacuation night escaped Union prisoners hid in secret passages in her home. She was considered so important to the Union that General Grant sent a member of his staff, Colonel Parke, to protect Miss Van Lew and her property when Federal forces entered Richmond. As President, General Grant showed his gratitude to Miss Van Lew by making her postmistress of Richmond. She served throughout his two terms.

By the 1880’s Miss Van Lew was old, ailing and poverty stricken. Never forgiven by the people of Richmond and socially ostracized, she kept 40 cats as companions. When she died in 1900 nobody came to her funeral, and no stone was raised over her grave in Shockoe Cemetery. Later some people from Boston placed a stone there.

The city of Richmond acquired and demolished the Van Lew mansion, her former home, in 1911, during a period of increasing racial polarization. Bellevue Elementary School (which still remains) was erected on the site the following year. Historical plaques and a marker now memorialize her activities.


Scan0002.jpg






The Van Lew Mansion.

ElizabethVanLew.jpg


Elizabeth Van Lew

Sources:

General Lee’s City – An Illustrated Guide to the Historic Sites of Confederate Richmond, by Richard M. Lee, pages: 99-101



1st National Confederate Flag   1.jpg

Respectfully,
William
 

JPK Huson 1863

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She and her brother used their money to purchase enslaved people, then handed them over to themselves. Some accounts have her brother wildly opposed to her work- I've read otherwise. She must have been a hoot. She supposedly became ' Crazy Bets " by behaving wierldy. I can't find anything confirming this- my guess is she became discredited through this nickname, some passive aggressive reaction to her known sympathies.

Grant also said he could not have taken Richmond without here, how's that for a compliment? I don't think she died destitute. The marker was a ' thing ' due to the terrible feelings remaining from the war. That boulder was just not likely to be knocked down, vandalized, removed or very successfully defaced. The Van Lews had a good amount of ' old money, John Van Lew being one of Richmond society's acknowledged ' names'. Elizabeth was really a typical, educated, cultured Southern woman of that place and era.

She's buried standing up. You know why? No room in the Van Lew family plot. She rescued a very, very sick prisoner from Howard prison, not a soldier, a political prisoner the Confederates refused to release who had been swept up in the chaos after Bull Run. He'd been taken from a civilian's house. His name was Calvin Huson, Jr., Seward's inlaw and law student. Van Lew took him home- he died there and despite another politician taking credit later it was she who had him buried, paid for it. Calvin Huson Jr. was my grgrgrandfather's brother. We think quite a bit of Elizabeth Van Lew.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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I was just checking the Wiki entry- it seems to focus on Van Lew's sentiments rather than her accomplishments. Elizabeth's regular routine which indeed incorporated information gathering was visiting Union prisons throughout Richmond. She'd bring supplies, comfort, carry letters when she could- I mean, she was as much an angel of mercy to the men of the prisons as she was a spy. This part of her legacy tends to be overlooked. It's continually imagined she visited prison solely for information which isn't true. No commandant would tolerate that- it'd get him shot, a female entering prisons only to tiptoe around, group to group with a notepad? Elizabeth had huge compassion, our family has proof of how much. Her journal speaks for itself. Writing of my uncle's plight her voice of sheer compassion for suffering human beings makes itself so clearly heard she could be sitting next to you. When speaking of Elizabeth ourselves it does her and all the humans she helped a huge disservice not to flesh out the tale of kindness which was her best legacy.
 
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18thVirginia

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Some time ago, I found these videos about Van Lew and had never posted them. I always like to see the photos of where a person lived and what the people looked like around them. And there's nothing better than a living history presentation to give you the sense of what the person may have looked and sounded like, even if you disagree with the characterization--makes you think, "How would I play that person?"


 

Pat Young

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What was the reason for demolishing her house. William's post suggests that some sort of de memorialization was a factor. Any evidence?
 

18thVirginia

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littledoug

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She is one of the four principal subjects of Karen Abbott's Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. A good read about an amazing woman. It must have been harrowing to endure the approbation of virtually the entire city.
 
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JPK Huson 1863

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She is one of the four principal subjects of Karen Abbott's Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. A good read about an amazing woman. It must have been harrowing to endure the approbation of virtually the entire city.

It's one reason I've never put a great deal of stock in ' Crazy Bets '. Elizabeth was Richmond society- if she had been from a lower class I'm guessing some unfortunate accident or imprisonment would have removed her from our view. She had to be tolerated, in a big way Elizabeth was one of them. Discrediting her was helpful since who took a crazy person seriously? It was the ultimate revenge really, isolate this tough, little, waif of a rock of a woman, cut her out of her own History, ensure she lived forever in the minds of future generations as ' crazy'.

And yes, get rid of a mansion where she lived. The stories of how she and her mother feasted on fast days and flouted Confederate authorities are untrue- they were not radicals. You had to be awfully careful in Richmond during the war. That kind of thing would have gotten them arrested, society women or not. It is obvious they were not true. You are not an effective spy if everyone is watching you. This was not Belle Boyd making dramatic gestures from prison windows- Van Lew was a tiny women with a huge heart. She must have known her world, that it would turn on her with the speed of an attack dog 3 days without water. She did it anyway.

My uncle is still buried in the Van Lew plot. Unmarked, his grave lost to Time, a Union prisoner no one dared comfort. Elizabeth writes she put him there. She's buried standing up, the plot had no more room by the time she died. Bet they had to dig pretty deep, that's an awfully big heart she took with her.
 

18thVirginia

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This is something I thought very cool about the school built on the site of the Van Lew mansion, Belleville. They had a centennial celebration and what was the porch of the Van Lew mansion is now a museum that features a wall sized photo looking out from the porch during Elizabeth's time and another of Maggie Lena Walker, African American businesswoman who was born at the mansion.

A vintage photo of the school.

bellevue school.jpg
 

JPK Huson 1863

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This is something I thought very cool about the school built on the site of the Van Lew mansion, Belleville. They had a centennial celebration and what was the porch of the Van Lew mansion is now a museum that features a wall sized photo looking out from the porch during Elizabeth's time and another of Maggie Lena Walker, African American businesswoman who was born at the mansion.

A vintage photo of the school.

View attachment 73177
That is very, very cool, thank you 18th! Someone was involved in recording History, wonder what the story is there? Nice to be proven wrong. Love to see photos of those. Bet they're around somewhere- wonder if the Richmond Historical Society has something? Also love to know where the property changed hands from the Van Lew family to the city. She was post mistress for the city post war, a job Grant gave her in recognition of her work. She earned a good wage, little weird how she had no money.
 
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JPK Huson 1863

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I knew there existed documentation otherwise for the Crazy Bets myth. There's more than Historian Elizabeth R Varon's statements although think she is more than adequate as source. The photos of Elizabeth as an elderly woman show no signs of dementia nor does she faintly resemble how she has been portrayed, acting the part or otherwise.
van lew.JPG


I'm a little cranky on the topic of ' crazy ' and females. Elizabeth Van Lew is a famous example; she is hardly singular. It is not off thread but extremely relevant in Ladies Tea to say women have historically been discredited under the label ' crazy '. Witness ' hysteria ' as a medical diagnosis covering a wide range of alleged symptoms. Perhaps less successful in 2015 this label is still being attempted, sometimes with raging success. Ran into a headline yesterday, too current to mention and am only referring to it because a common theme exists. Please no one tell me I do not know of which I speak, assure you I do. One of those subjects a great deal of research is required for a thread. Still gluing one together meanwhile Elizabeth Van Lew's mythical approach to spying should be questioned in greater detail. Since there seems to be a cross over included in the ' charge ', that perhaps in later years she really was crazy, it's been a damaging construct.

" 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. "

http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/van_lew_elizabeth_l_1818-1900#start_entry
 
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JPK Huson 1863

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I read a quote from Van Lew somewhere that she didn't think of herself as a Union spy, she thought of herself as a patriot to her country. That's an interesting distinction. If I come across the quote, I'll post it.
Yes, I think it's in her journal? You have to love the distinction too. Makes me feel we're dealing with an awfully bright woman.

Somewhere in the thread it's stated she was never allowed in any of the prisons? If you read her journal she says she does- and it's how she comes across my grgrgruncle. He's terribly ill with typhoid, she talks the commandant into allowing her to take him home.
 

tdftdf

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while researching something, I came upon Van Lew (researching / going through CWT threads often leads me down surprising paths to a treasure chest of info I never knew of). I plan on digesting this thread later (at work now)... thanks to the above folks who posted this wealth of data !!!
 
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tdftdf

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Miss Elizabeth Van Lew, daughter of John Van Lew, was one of the most remarkable women of the war. To most of Richmond she was known as “Miss Lizzie” or “Crazy Bet”, but highlights of her reveal a woman of courage and conviction.

She became an abolitionist while away attending school in Philadelphia, and on her father’s death in 1860, she freed the family slaves. Never hiding her Union sympathies, she carried special foods to Federal prisoners at Libby Prison, a custom which aroused much suspicion and hostility against her in the city, so much that the authorities kept her under constant surveillance.

During General McClellan’s 1862 campaign against Richmond, she and her mother prepared a “charming room” in her home for McClellan’s use after he took the city. The two called it the “McClellan room.” However McClellan failed to reach Richmond. On days of fasting decreed by President Davis, the two Van Lew ladies dined in abundant style.

Miss Van Lew opened secret correspondence with Union forces at Fortress Monroe, passing military information on Richmond via secret couriers. She was the leader throughout the war of the small, well organized Union underground in the city, a group of spies and sympathizers. She succeeded in placing at least one and probably more black servants as spies in the Confederate White House and is credited with responsibility for the arson attempt on the mansion in the winter of 1864.

She is believed to have assisted the escape of 109 Union officers from Libby Prison on February 9, 1864. She did visit a leader of the escape, Colonel Streight, at Howard’s Grove, all at a great danger to herself. In early April 1864, she organized the theft of the body of Colonel Dahlgren from Oakwood Cemetery; she then had it secretly reburied to await the end of the war.

On evacuation night escaped Union prisoners hid in secret passages in her home. She was considered so important to the Union that General Grant sent a member of his staff, Colonel Parke, to protect Miss Van Lew and her property when Federal forces entered Richmond. As President, General Grant showed his gratitude to Miss Van Lew by making her postmistress of Richmond. She served throughout his two terms.

By the 1880’s Miss Van Lew was old, ailing and poverty stricken. Never forgiven by the people of Richmond and socially ostracized, she kept 40 cats as companions. When she died in 1900 nobody came to her funeral, and no stone was raised over her grave in Shockoe Cemetery. Later some people from Boston placed a stone there.

The city of Richmond acquired and demolished the Van Lew mansion, her former home, in 1911, during a period of increasing racial polarization. Bellevue Elementary School (which still remains) was erected on the site the following year. Historical plaques and a marker now memorialize her activities.


View attachment 72385





The Van Lew Mansion.

View attachment 72386

Elizabeth Van Lew

Sources:

General Lee’s City – An Illustrated Guide to the Historic Sites of Confederate Richmond, by Richard M. Lee, pages: 99-101



View attachment 72387
Respectfully,
William
Thanks for posting this data. Yes - a remarkable woman!
 
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tdftdf

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She and her brother used their money to purchase enslaved people, then handed them over to themselves. Some accounts have her brother wildly opposed to her work- I've read otherwise. She must have been a hoot. She supposedly became ' Crazy Bets " by behaving wierldy. I can't find anything confirming this- my guess is she became discredited through this nickname, some passive aggressive reaction to her known sympathies.

Grant also said he could not have taken Richmond without here, how's that for a compliment? I don't think she died destitute. The marker was a ' thing ' due to the terrible feelings remaining from the war. That boulder was just not likely to be knocked down, vandalized, removed or very successfully defaced. The Van Lews had a good amount of ' old money, John Van Lew being one of Richmond society's acknowledged ' names'. Elizabeth was really a typical, educated, cultured Southern woman of that place and era.

She's buried standing up. You know why? No room in the Van Lew family plot. She rescued a very, very sick prisoner from Howard prison, not a soldier, a political prisoner the Confederates refused to release who had been swept up in the chaos after Bull Run. He'd been taken from a civilian's house. His name was Calvin Huson, Jr., Seward's inlaw and law student. Van Lew took him home- he died there and despite another politician taking credit later it was she who had him buried, paid for it. Calvin Huson Jr. was my grgrgrandfather's brother. We think quite a bit of Elizabeth Van Lew.
Awesome story!!! I read somewhere that in addition to being buried vertical, she was placed facing north.
 

ErnieMac

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I'm not certain that her funeral was unattended. The Richmond Dispatch of 26 September 1900 stated the following:
"Telegrams have been received from Miss Van Lew’s relatives in the North, and all will come to Richmond to attend the funeral. It will be the first time that many of them have stood at the old homestead, and will probably be the first and last reunion. Among those expected, besides Mrs. B. F. Nicholls, of Philadelphia, and Mrs. C. A. Rickseeker, wife of Rev. C. A. Rickseeker, of Buffalo, who are already here, are the following: Dr. William Paddock Klapp, Miss Jessie Williams, and Dr. Joseph Klapp, all of Philadelphia; Mrs. Joseph B. L. Klapp, Miss Mary P. Klapp; Miss John J. Hall, of Medford, Mass.; Mrs. John Van Lew; Miss Malvern Omohundro, of Radford, Va.; Miss Helen Van Lew, Mrs. Augusta Van Lew, widow of John Van Lew.

The nieces of Miss Van Lew, who were with her when she died, complain of the morbid curiosity manifested yesterday. Many people called to view the remains but admittance was refused to all who were not well acquainted with the deceased. This same rule will be followed until the funeral."​

http://www.mdgorman.com/Written_Accounts/Dispatch/Postwar/richmond_dispatch_9261900.htm
 
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