From the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, 10/12/1900, p. 9, c. 1
A Lonely Life
Miss Elizabeth L. Van Lew, the Noted Federal Spy.
Brief Sketch of Her Eventful Life-A Resident of Richmond and an Enemy of the Southern Confederacy.
The Richmond Leader published the following sketch of ex-Postmistress Van Lew, who died in that city last Tuesday morning:
Elizabeth Van Lew was the oldest daughter of John Van Lew, a native of New York, a man of sterling qualities, and of good old Dutch descent. Her mother, Miss Eliza Baker, of Philadelphia, was a daughter of Hillary Baker, mayor of that city, who died of yellow fever during the terrible epidemic of 1798.
John Van Lew was one of the leading hardware merchants of Richmond for many years. He accumulated large and valuable property in and around the city, which has since been sold and divided among his heirs. The only remaining piece is the old homestead that in its magnificence and stateliness carries a reminder of its former luxury and sumptuousness. To this couple were born three children—Miss Elizabeth Van Lew, Mr. John N. Van Lew and Mrs. Louisa Klapp, wife of Dr. Joseph Klapp, of Philadelphia. Miss Elizabeth Van Lew is the only surviving member of the family.
The story of her life reads like a romance. Reared in the lap of luxury, her early life was that of the favored child of a merchant prince. In the grand old mansion, noted far and wide for the lavishness of its hospitality and for its own grandeur, Elizabeth Van Lew lived her lifetime. She saw in the events that made epochs in the history of the nation. The allotted three score years and ten were hers and added was a decade and a half again. Those who knew her in the days when the extravagance of the Southern aristocracy was noted speak yet of the loveliness and éclat that characterized all her movements. They tell today how the neighbors craned their necks when a chaise drawn by six white horses drove to the door, and the little princess, with her father and mother, started on their journey to the White Sulfur Springs.
Miss Van Lew was a young woman with a strong personality, and an iron will that dominated all who came within her ken.
She received her education at Philadelphia, and with it imbibed much of the sentiment that caused her to cast her sympathies with the North.
The mansion, at which before the war were entertained many noted men and women, among whom were Fredericka Bremer, the distinguished Swedish authoress, became during those dreadful years that followed the Mecca for Northern soldiers.
The late John Minor Botts, Franklin Stearns and ex-Senator John F. Lewis were among her most esteemed friends. She was a great admirer of Wendell Phillips and Horace Greeley, and, like them, an earnest believer in anti-slavery doctrine of the period, which sentiment was so strong—so much a part of her nature—that all principles, all feelings of loyalty to the city in which she was born and raised was entirely lost sight of. She was honestly opposed to slavery; she declared the institution wrong, and, like Messrs. Botts and Sterns, her friends, was violently opposed to the war.
LOVED THE NEGRO
Her greatest hobby, however, was her love for the negro. “They have black faces, but white principles,” she was often heard to comment, and she lost no effort to try to uplift those around her, treating them almost as equals, and striving to educate them. This education of one of her favorites was the means of accomplishing a purpose with dire results to the cause she abhorred. That she befriended northern soldiers was known, but just how far her sympathy extended was never even suspected.
Through the installation of a trusted agent in the service of President Davis, Miss Van Lew was able to furnish the Federal forces with the most valuable information. Her emissaries to the enemy’s camp were many and trusted. Her ingenuity could devise means for the putting of the enemy in possession of the desired information, as well as plans for securing it. That her services to the cause that she expoused were appreciated was attested by the acts of General Grant, who, after his army had entered the city, paid lengthy visits to her at the old home, and gave her services material recognition by appointing her post-mistress of this city on the 19th day of March, 1869, only fifteen days after his own inauguration, and re-appointed her in 1873, in which capacity she served until May 19, 1877, when Colonel W.W. Forbes succeeded her in office.
Miss Van Lew was of inestimable aid to the Federal officers who escaped from Libby Prison, and in making the success of their plans a possibility. In her house were sheltered those who were not recaptured by the Confederates and returned to prison.
Another friend by whom Miss Van Lew was never forgotten was Admiral Dahlgren, of the United States Navy. She knew where the remains of Colonel Dahlgren had been hidden after his defeat and death in trying to capture Richmond, and she had his remains shipped to his father after the war was over. This act of kindness was highly appreciated by the old Admiral up to his death.
FRIENDLESS AND ALONE
Yet Miss Van Lew died friendless and alone. She was suspected by the authorities, but was not molested. One by one the friends of her youth, feeling themselves and their country outraged, dwindled away, and left her with only her thoughts for company.
The very doors of St. John’s Church, of which she was a regular attendant, were closed upon her. Children shrunk from her and even the servants whose cause she had espoused looked on her with distrust.
Eccentric as she was and as full as had been her life with plots and plans against her own people, she, no doubt, worked for the thing she believed to be right. Full of humanity, she has interested herself all through life in the sorrows and afflictions of others, visiting the jails and prisons for the last forty years, aiding in some way or another some unfortunate creature.
Up to the last year, in which her strength had perceptibly failed, although her mind was as active and her will as strong as ever, Miss Van Lew had been a familiar figure on the streets of Richmond. But here she was pointed out, not as the Federal spy—which fact is little known and even less remembered, not as a friend of the poor—but as “Miss Van Lew, the former postmistress, who every year protests against taxation without the right to vote.” As certain as her taxes were paid the “annual protest” was filed along with them. She was a strong believer in woman’s rights, but refused to ventilate her views on the subject.
For years it had been a constant scuffle to maintain the old home, and in her declining years it was offered for sale to the highest bidder, to whom the storied walls will have little to tell of the plottings and doings of other days.