From the New York Evening World, 6/22/1918, p. 12, c. 7
Stories of Spies
By Albert Payson Terhune
Copyright, 1918, by the Press Publishing Co. (The New York Evening World).
No. 34. – ELIZABETH VAN LEW; The Angel of Mercy” Spy.
WHEN the Civil War began, in 1861, a little forty-year-old Richmond, Va., woman quietly proceeded to lose her mind. She was a Miss Elizabeth Van Lew, daughter of a rich and prominent family in the Southern capital.
Miss Van Lew developed a mental weakness that led her to do all sorts of flighty things. She would skip along the street, for instance, talking loudly to herself, or else singing. She would make queer speeches to people.
She did eccentric things that made her old friends lament the loss of her reason, and which won for her among the soldiers and street loafers the nickname of “Crazy Betty.” But as she was perfectly harmless she was left at large.
And this was lucky for her, and for the United States Government. For Elizabeth Van Lew was the Union’s cleverest and most useful woman spy.
As a girl she had gone to school at Philadelphia. There she had learned to hate the idea of slavery and of secession. At the dawn of the Civil War she offered her services as a secret agent to the authorities at Washington. And she pretended to go insane, in order to avert suspicion.
She used to go daily to the Richmond war prisons and hospitals with baskets of food for the sick and with tobacco for the other captives. The Union prisoners did not call her “Crazy Betty.” To them she became known as “The Angel of Mercy.” They loved her and watched eagerly for her daily visits.
But Miss Van Lew also went elsewhere than to the prisons. In fact, she went everywhere. She would pop into Jefferson Davis’s mansion at all hours and into other headquarters of the Confederacy, asking silly questions, listening stupidly to what was said, keeping her eyes open and making her keen brain take a swift record of every important thing that was said or done.
Because of her family’s local prominence and because of her own sad mental affliction, she was treated with pitying kindness. Officials talked freely in her presence, feeling sure “Crazy Betty” could not understand – or would not repeat – what she heard.
And all the time she was in constant communication with the North. She would not risk the sending of messages to Washington in a way that could cause discovery and thus end her great usefulness. The Confederate Secret Service in Richmond kept too close a watch to permit that.
Instead, Miss Van Lew would write out her information in a microscopically small hand on thin sheets of paper. These she would deposit under a mantel ornament in her drawing room – an ornament that seemed to be a fixture, but which could easily be unscrewed.
A trusted negro servant would take the message, fold it into the tiniest form and either insert it in a blown egg or in the hole of a spool.
Then a dozen eggs, “with Miss Van Lew’s compliments,” would be sent to a poor family several miles from Richmond; or a parcel of dress goods, with thread spools and needles, would go from the Van Lew house to a seamstress who lived in the suburbs.
Miss Van Lew had no trouble in getting passes for her servants to carry these things out of the city. And the seamstress’s house or the “poor family’s” hovel was the first stage of the secret message’s journey to Washington.
The vigilance of the Richmond authorities at last included Miss Van Lew, along with many others. But they could never catch her passing a note to a messenger or find such a note in the hundreds of absurd packages the poor crazy creature was forever spending in all directions – to hospitals, to the poor, to tradesfolk, to friends.
She did more. She formed and carried out several brilliantly daring plots for the escape of Union prisoners from Richmond. Some of these prisoners she held in a secret room of her own rambling old house until they could be smuggled out of the city. She spent every penny of her big fortune for the Union, besides risking her life for it a hundred times. Grant wrote to her, after the conflict:
“You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”
Over her grave in one of the Confederate capital’s cemeteries is a tablet erected by a Union officer she helped to freedom. Its epitaph reads:
“She risked everything that is dear to man – friends, fortune, comfort, health, life itself – all for the one absorbing desire of her heart – that slavery should be abolished and the Union preserved.”