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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Elizabeth Van Lew - Spy in Petticoats

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.

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 .


P.L. Parker said...

That was a wonderful post - I loved it and what a great page in history. Have to get this book.

Susan Macatee said...

This new story sounds awesome! I love reading the true stories of Civil War spies and Elizabeth Van Lew is a great inspiration for a fiction story.

And glad to hear you're giving Steve his own love story.

Sally said...

I'd like to think I could be as heroic as these women in the same circumstances. I would rather imagine it and write the story than have to actually live through such times but they have my admiration.

Victoria Gray said...

Elizabeth Van Lew continued to live in Richmond after the war, despite the animosity of her neighbors. Such a courageous lady!

Margaret Tanner said...

Wonderful blog Victoria. I am an Aussie but I love Civil War stories.

MiaMarlowe said...

How fun that your heroine was inspired by a real person! I'm sure it gives your prose the ring of truth. Thanks for sharing her story.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Victoria, this is a wonderful post. I had never heard of Crazy Bet before and will try to learn more about her. Your book sounds even better, because the heroine finds romance. LOL I love a happy ending.

Victoria Gray said...

The heroine in Destiny was inspired by another historical figure, Lucy Hale...she was known as the woman who loved John Wilkes Booth.