From the Clinch Valley News (Jeffersonville, Va.), 5/8/1908, p. 6, c. 7
VAN LEW MANSION TO BE A HOSPITAL
Home of Woman Who Spied on Confederacy to Shelter Consumptives.
HAS HIDDEN CHAMBERS
Woman Was Rewarded for Her Underground Services by Being Made Postmistress at Richmond – Died Deserted by All of Her Friends.
RICHMOND, VA. – Special. – The removal of the Virginia Club from its headquarters in the home of the late Elizabeth Van Lew, the Union spy who aided the Federal Government during the civil war more than any woman in the Confederacy, and the design of establishing on the premises a tent hospital for consumptives, calls attention to one of the most historically unique houses in Richmond.
The grounds, covering a square, front on Grace Street, diagonally opposite old St. John’s Church, and belonged to an immense tract owned by Richard Adams (for whom Adams Street is named), a member of the House of Burgesses and the Virginia Assembly, whose home in the next block, with adjacent melancholy tombs of nuns, is now a Roman Catholic convent.
The famous house was built in 1799 by Richard’s son, Dr. John Adams, who was a member of the City Council and for years Mayor of Richmond.
After Dr. Adams’ death, when, in 1843, John Van Lew, of New York, bought the place, it was still the center for such things, filled his house of an exclusive circle. Frederika Bremer, the Swedish author, who toured the States in 1859, staying with them and writing with enthusiasm of those invited to meet her. Mr. Van Lew established himself successfully in Richmond as a hardware merchant, and having mean, with a taste for such things, filled his house with mahogany and Chippendale furniture, and the accessories generally of wealth and culture; their coach, drawn by four white horses, in which the family visited fashionable resorts, being still remembered by old citizens.
His wife was a daughter of Hillary Baker, once Mayor of Philadelphia, which led to their daughter, Elizabeth, being sent there to school. Here she developed that interest in the negro which shaped her life, and her father being a slave-holder, she selected a mulatto from these, whom she educated, sending her as a missionary to Africa. Her intimacy with Miss Bremer, too, a pronounced abolitionist, emphasized these views, and during her stay in Richmond the two visited the tobacco factories and negro jails. Miss Van Lew, whom the writer describes as “a pale, pleasing blonde,” weeping over the condition of the inmates.
Had her father lived, according to one who knew them, her course would have been different. He died in 1860, however, and at the breaking out of the war a year later she instituted a system of intrigue, evincing marvelous astuteness with utter fearlessness and almost superhuman energy and vigilance. During the years when the Federal army threatened Richmond she was in constant communication with its commanders, and when Grant hovered near she kept in such close touch with him that flowers cut from her garden in the morning adorned his table at the evening meal.
Organized Spy System.
She spied upon the Confederacy and all of its agents, both civil and military, installing her deputies in the household of President Davis as servants, and through them acquainting herself with his Cabinet conferences. The information thus obtained was put in cipher, and, concealed between an outer and inner sole of his shoe, was smuggled through the lines by a negro employed upon her farm below the city, his humble station enabling him to pass inn and out unmolested by the guards. She was in constant communication with the inmates of Libby prison, ingeniously supplying them with implements with which to work their way out, and harboring them until an opportunity to elude the Confederate pickets presented itself; and was the abettor of Colonel Streight, the noted raider, who tunneled an underground passage, and with 1,800 prisoners made his escape.
Suspected of disloyalty as she always was, it seems strange that Miss Van Lew was allowed to go at large. Her intrigues, however, were not positively known until after her death, when ex-Federal officers who had been concealed in her house, visited the place and disclosed the receptacle of her correspondence with Grant, and the secret chamber beneath the eaves, entered through an opening cut in the partition, and concealed by a piece of furniture.
Was She Paid For Services?
It is believed by some who know her that Miss Van Lew was paid for her services when rendered, a circumstance, which, if correct, deprives her conduct of its one redeeming quality of disinterestedness. However that may be, as soon as the city was evacuated Grant dispatched his aid-de-camp, Colonel Parke, to protect her property, and when his army entered Richmond paid long visits to her at her house. One of his first acts, too, after he became President was to appoint her postmistress of Richmond, a place which she held for eight years, and her receipts from which amounted to $30,000. She afterwards filled a government position at Washington, which she resigned when Cleveland came into office. One of her idiosyncracies – on the plea of taxation without representation being unconstitutional – was a refusal to pay the annual assessment on her property, her unpaid taxes at the settling up of her estate being $5,000. After her mother’s death, in 1870, her home was shared by her brother with his two daughters. Two of these dying, however, only a niece relieved her solitude. Her acquaintances, with one or two exceptions, alienated by her course during the war, withdrew from association with her, her pathetic plaint being: “I’m so lonely. Nobody loves me.”
To this niece, who died after a lingering illness, she clung with passionate devotion, notwithstanding differences growing out of overwrought nerves and morbid conditions, and when the end was at hand, throwing her arms about her nurse, she cried: “Save her! Save her! I love her better than anything in the world. She is all that I have.”
Her Death in 1900.
Miss Van Lew died September 25, 1900, her remains, according to her direction, lying on the back piazza until their removal to Shockoe Cemetery. There the space in the family lot being insufficient to allow the grave to be dug in the usual way, it extends north and south, as did the graves of Federal soldiers buried in Confederate cemeteries. Within the last few years a granite bowlder was sent by friends in Boston, and now marks the spot