As of today, it has been 109 years since the death of American Civil War Spy Elizabeth “Crazy Bet” Van Lew. During the war, Elizabeth was a young lady living in what had become the capitol city of the Confederate States of America (also known as the Confederacy). She garnered a reputation for being “hysterical” due to her very outspoken support of the Union both before and during the war. Her blatant support for the other side led others to believe her insane – something that Elizabeth Van Lew picked up on and used to her advantage. She purposely let her hair go scraggly and wore unkempt clothing to further the misconception that she was mentally ill, leading to her nickname “Crazy Bet.” Elizabeth wasn't insane, but she was crazy like a fox as they say.
Due to her falsely perceived insanity and the social status of her family, Van Lew was allowed access to Union soldiers captured and imprisoned nearby. She would bring them care packages and books – allowing secret messages to be slipped back and forth by using pins to mark under letters on pages of the books, spelling out information beneficial to the Union. The Confederacy's arrogance in underestimating the intelligence of both African Americans and women added significantly to their downfall. Van Lew's servants (former slaves she'd freed who chose to work for her) were included in her spy ring. Elizabeth even managed to place one servant spy, Mary Bowser, directly into the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. There, Mary risked her life as one of at least two spies posing as slaves in the Davis home (the other was a man named William Jackson). Jefferson Davis so underestimated the intelligence of African American slaves that he left important classified papers laying about and conducted military planning discussions right front of slaves in his household. Davis assumed the slaves were all dull and illiterate. Not only could Mary Bowser read, it was stated in some accounts by those she relayed information to that Mary possessed a photographic memory, enabling her to retain every word in the documents without having to worry about being caught transcribing.
Elizabeth Van Lew and her servants were the first to proudly fly the United States flag once again in Richmond, Virginia when the Union retook the city from the Confederacy.
Pay your respects at Shockhoe Hill Cemetery to learn more about Elizabeth Van Lew and others who are buried there.
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