At a time in society when women were not to be outspoken or socially aggressive there was one such woman who being called ” Crazy Bet” would serve her purpose well in her work of espionage. Elizabeth Van Lew was given this nickname during one of Richmond’s most tumultuous times, the Civil War. Many in Richmond thought her to be crazy because not only was she was outspoken about her abolitionist views and loyalty to Federal Government but she would also take to the streets talking to herself, looking disheveled by being dressed in her oldest and most tattered clothing. This was a clever ruse to help conceal her identity as a Union spy.
Elizabeth did charitable services by delivering baskets of food, medicine, clothing, bedding and books to the Union prisoners that were being held at the Libby Hill Prison. Her visits to the prison gave her opportunity to take and deliver important messages for the Union.
She developed a code for the prisoners to use to send strategic military messages in the books that she delivered and replaced during her prison visits. Another trick she devised was smuggling important messages in baskets of eggs. The eggs were hollowed out and messages were concealed inside.
Elizabeth was so skilled at espionage she didn’t just stop with getting information from the Union prisoners and Confederate soldiers. She assisted Union prisoners in escaping by hiding prisoners and those in need of assistance in her home. In addition she sent out one of her freed slaves to go and work for Jefferson Davis and paid farmers and other citizens for help and information so that they too could be her eyes and ears. These actions aided her in sending vital information to help the Federal officials.
During the war Elizabeth worked closely with General Ulysses S. Grant. He understood the risks she was taking in working this type of espionage. Once the war was over, and Grant became President of the United States, he gave Elizabeth Van Lew the job a postmistress of Richmond. Most of Richmond’s society shunned her. After eight years holding that position, while Grant was President, she was not re-elected under the new administration. Having spent her inheritance buying and freeing slaves, helping Union prisoners escape, and bribing citizens for information during the war, Elizabeth was destitute and considered socially an old maid. One family of a soldier she had helped to escape from prison gave her a stipend and that assisted her to survive.
She is buried at the Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Her tombstone reads:
“She risked everything that was dear to her – friends, fortune, comfort, health, even life itself – all for one absorbing desire of her heart – that slavery might be abolished and the Union preserved.”
Shockoe Hill Cemetery
2 Hospital Street
Richmond, VA 23219