Elizabeth Van Lew was a southern girl, born in Richmond, in 1818, the daughter of a wealthy family with connections and kin in the north. Van Lew was educated in Philadelphia and returned home a convinced and vigorous abolitionist. During the 1850s, she convinced her family to free their slaves and at the outbreak of hostilities remained loyal to the Union. She committed herself to do whatever she oculd to support the Federal cause.
Van Lew occasionally aroused suspicion, so, in order to throw off would be pursuers, she wore dirty clothes and mumbled to herself on the street. Richmonders began calling her "crazy Bette" and generally regarded her as harmless. Van Lew, however, was a crazy as a fox, and became very adept at getting out vital military and political information. She carried books with notes folded into the spines and food trays with false bottoms to Union soldiers imprisoned in the city. She pried information from unsuspecting Confederate soldiers and officials.
During Grant's 1864 siege of Petersburg, Van Lew established relay stations between her home and Union lines. It is said that one of her operatives, a former slave, Mary Bowser, was a very attentive servant in the White House of the Confederacy, the wartime home of Jefferson Davis. Van Lew exhausted her inheritance financing the spy ring. Under President Grant, she served as Richmond's postmistress, but when she died in 1900 she was penniless and a social outcast.
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