Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Victoria Gray on Petticoat Spies: Elizabeth Van Lew - Crazy Like A Fox

James Bond 007 -- Writer Ian Fleming created
Bond in 1953. This image reflects Fleming's
vision of Bond.
I'd like to welcome guest author, Victoria Gray back to History Undressed!  She's fascinated us in the past with articles on Santa, History Gone Hollywood and Clothes Make the Man. Today I'm pleased to have her article on Civil War-era spies!  Fascinating!

Petticoat Spies: Elizabeth Van Lew - Crazy Like A Fox
by Victoria Gray

What comes to your mind when you hear the word spies? James Bond, gadgets, an eccentric Civil War-era spinster known as Crazy Bet. Yes, that’s right…a spinster known as Crazy Bet - Elizabeth Van Lew, a Richmond spinster known as Crazy Bet, used her eccentric behavior as a cover for her ingenious schemes, disarming the people she’s deceiving without ever using a weapon. The daughter of a prominent Richmond businessman, the devoted abolitionist spent her inheritance buying and freeing slaves before the war. During the war, she spied for the Union, supplying information to Union generals; during her frequent visits to the Confederate prison in Richmond, Crazy Bet brought food and books for the imprisoned Federal soldiers and much desired treats for the guards while she gleaned information she could funnel to Union officers. Using her reputation as an eccentric to her best advantage, she adopted the touched persona of “Crazy Bet” to further avoid suspicion of her activities.

Crazy Bet hid in plain sight – the vocal abolitionist made no effort to hide her Union sympathies. Widely disliked for her views, she even became the subject of newspaper editorials condemning her humanitarian efforts, for they were aimed at Union prisoners rather than Confederate soldiers. She and her mother, who joined with Elizabeth in her efforts, were held in disdain by their Richmond neighbors. Ironically, this served as a shield for her espionage. She was so open about her views that she was viewed as silly and hysterical, rather than the secretive, deceptive persona which one would expect a spy to adopt.

Portrait of Elizabeth Van Lew
aka "Crazy Bet"

As time passed, she played up the eccentricities. She’d leave her hair in disarray, dress in her shabbiest clothes and bonnets, and mutter to herself while she walked through Richmond. Crazy Bet used her image as a harmless, touched spinster as the perfect disguise for her activities.

Elizabeth Van Lew’s methods were ingenious and varied. A middle-aged spinster, she pried men with food rather than feminine wiles. She even charmed her way past the Confederate prison commander, Lieutenant David Todd, by learning of his fondness for buttermilk and gingerbread and bringing these to him in the prison. Lieutenant Todd, who was Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-brother, allowed Elizabeth to bring food, clothes and medicine to the prisoners. Often, this small gifts contained messages hidden in false bottoms and through clever codes. Her methods for funneling information to Union generals were equally clever. She even hollowed out eggs and used them to hide intelligence, which were then ferried to union officers by her household servants. General Grant considered her one of his most valuable sources of information. After the fall of Richmond, one of General Grant’s first visits was to the Van Lew home.

Elizabeth Van Lew’s story inspired the character of canny spymaster, “Crazy Betsy” Kincaid, in Angel in My Arms, the story of Amanda Emerson, a beautiful Union spy and Captain Steve Dunham, the Union officer she recruits for a suicide mission. Steve Dunham’s facing a noose when sable-haired beauty Amanda Emerson and her crazy matron “aunt” engineer his escape from jail. There's a catch - Amanda needs him to break into Libby Prison to rescue a notorious double agent who may or may not be on the side of the Union. He’s trading one noose for another, but Steve can’t resist her. He’ll possess her love – if he lives long enough.

The rugged soldier she recruits for her plan looks more like a Viking warrior than a disciplined officer, but Amanda’s drawn to Steve’s courage and tenderness. As the danger surrounding them thickens, every moment he’s with her jeopardizes their lives, but they discover a passionate love that’s worth the risk.
Steve Dunham, the hero of Angel in My Arms, was introduced in an earlier novel, Destiny. When I wrote Destiny, I knew I’d have to give Steve his own love story. Throw in a gang of gun-runners who specialize in stolen military weapons, a nest of beautiful spies, a heroic Confederate officer whose ties with Steve go back to their Army service in the western territories, and a villain with a thirst for revenge, and you've got a plot that isn't your mother's Civil War romance.

To learn more about Angel in My Arms and read an excerpt, please visit my website, www.victoriagrayromance.com and my blog, www.victoriagrayromance.blogspot.com . Angel in My Arms is now available in print and as an eBook from The Wild Rose Press, www.thewildrosepress.com .

Leave a comment for your chance to win an e-copy of ANGEL IN MY ARMS!


Victoria Gray said...

Thanks for having me here today. I found Crazy Bet's story to be fascinating...truly a case of underestimating the power of a woman :)

Don't forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a pdf of Angel in My Arms.


Michelle Brandon said...

Welcome Victoria! I truly enjoyed your post! Feisty, independent and daring women in history fascinate me!

Susan Macatee said...

Great post, Victoria! I truly believe women were able to get away with so much during the Civil War period, because they were perceived by men to be delicate, weak and or, crazy. Which of course they were not.

Alison Henderson said...

Absolutely fascinating post! It's great to be reminded that ingenious, independent women have been with us throughout history.

theresagrillo said...

Angel in My Arms is such a wonderful story...Love Betsy...and I do think people would think of her as crazy Betsy! Great writing, Victoria!


Anonymous said...

This book really intrigues me. Love the premise and hope I win!
Liz Arnold
Message to Love
The Wild Rose Press

Pat McDermott said...

What a fascinating woman Elizabeth was. It's amazing she hasn't inspired a movie or two! Good luck with your Angel, Victoria. Sounds like a wonderfully intriguing story with a colorful cast.

Victoria Gray said...

I found Crazy Bet's story to be intriguing. As I live in Virginia, the history is everywhere. Next month, I'm going to take a look at more petticoat spies, including some who were a great deal more seductive than Elizabeth Van Lew. Hope to see you all there.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Victoria,
Waht a fascinating blog, but we women are pretty sneaky after all.



Victoria Gray said...

You know the old saying, Never underestimate the power of a woman.