Elizabeth Van Lew : biography
Elizabeth Van Lew (October 25, 1818 – September 25, 1900) was a well-born Richmond, Virginia resident who built and operated an extensive spy ring for the United States during the American Civil War.
Books and Films
Bet Van Lew is a major character in The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a novel by former college professor Lois Leveen. The novel became a Target book club pick in August of 2012.Author website http://www.loisleveen.com retrieved 6 August 2012.Target website http://www.target.com/p/the-secrets-of-mary-bowser-by-lois-leveen-target-club-pick-paperback/-/A-14039660 Retrieved 7 August 2012.
The 1987 television movie A Special Friendship tells a fictionalized story of the friendship and pro-Union collaboration of Van Lew (who is presented as a young, rather than middle-aged, woman in the film) and her former slave Mary Bowser. The 1990 television movie tells the story of ELizabeth Van Lew from the perspective of her niece; Mary Kay Place portrays Elizabeth.
Her story was also fictionalized in 1995 children's book The Secret of the Lion's Head by Beverly Hall, and in the 2006 novel, Only Call Us Faithful: A Novel of the Union Underground by Marie Jakober.
Elizabeth Van Lew was born on October 25, 1818, in Richmond, Virginia to John Van Lewhttp://www.nps.gov/malw/vanliew.htm and Eliza Baker, whose father was Hilary Baker, mayor of Philadelphia from 1796 to 1798. Elizabeth's father came to Richmond in 1806 at the age of 16 and, within twenty years, had built up a prosperous hardware business and owned several slaves.
Elizabeth was educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia, where her family's abolitionist sentiments were reinforced. Upon the death of her father in 1843, Elizabeth's brother John Newton Van Lew took over the business and the family freed their nine slaves, even though John had been somewhat opposed to the idea. Those slaves included the young future Union spy Mary Bowser. In the depths of the 1837-44 depression, Elizabeth used her entire cash inheritance of $10,000 (nearly $200,000 in current money) to purchase and free some of their former slaves' relatives.Loewen, James W. "One of the Great Female Spies of All Times." Lies Across America. New York: Touchstone, 1999. For years thereafter, Elizabeth's brother was a regular visitor to Richmond's slave market, where, when a family was about to be split up, he would purchase them all, bring them home, and issue their papers of manumission.
The American Civil War
Upon the outbreak of the war, Van Lew began working on behalf of the Union. When Libby Prison was opened in Richmond, Van Lew was allowed to bring food, clothing, writing paper, and other things to the Union soldiers imprisoned there. She aided prisoners in escape attempts, passing them information about safe houses and getting a Union sympathizer appointed to the prison staff. Prisoners gave Van Lew information on Confederate troop levels and movements, which she was able to pass on to Union commanders.". Accessed 13 February 2007.
Van Lew also operated a spy ring during the war, including clerks in the War and Navy Departments of the Confederacy and a Richmond mayoral candidate. It has been widely suggested that Van Lew convinced Varina Davis to hire Bowser as a household servant, enabling Bowser to spy in the White House of the Confederacy. Varina Davis adamantly denied ever hiring Bowser, although it would be unlikely she would have known of Bowser's real identity or admitted hiring her after the fact.Varon, Elizabeth: Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew. Recent research by Lois M. Leveen suggests that although Bowser used several pseudonyms during and after the war, making her contributions especially difficult to document, newly uncovered sources confirm her involvement in the Union espionage circle run by Van Lew.Lois M. Leveen, "A Black Spy in the Confederate White House," The New York Times, 21 June 2012. Van Lew's spy network was so efficient that on several occasions she sent Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant fresh flowers from her garden and a copy of the Richmond newspaper. She developed a cipher system and often smuggled messages out of Richmond in hollow eggs.
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