The Story Behind “The Dare”

By Stephanie Sammartino McPherson


Born in 1818, Elizabeth Van Lew grew up as the daughter of a prosperous, slave-owning merchant in Richmond. Even as a child, she showed a strong will and independence of mind. Her education at a school in Philadelphia confirmed her opposition to slavery.

When Virginia seceded in 1861, Elizabeth did everything she could to support the Union cause. At first she used the mail service to convey the information she obtained from men incarcerated in Libby Prison. Later, realizing the risks she was taking, she developed a code, wrote her messages in invisible ink, and sent them North in books or egg shells. In an especially daring move, Elizabeth infiltrated the White House of the Confederacy with one of her former slaves, Mary Bowser. As a servant to Jefferson Davis, Mary overheard a great many significant facts that she passed on to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth’s kindness to Yankee prisoners as well as other activities attracted unwanted attention. To deflect suspicion, she often posed as someone befuddled by her surroundings. Dressed in bedraggled clothes, she walked the streets with a blank stare and muttered under her breath. The prison guards took to calling her “Crazy Bet.”

When the extent of Elizabeth’s activities became known after the war, people shunned her. “No one will walk with us on the street,” she wrote, “no one will go with us anywhere; and it grows worse and worse as years roll on.” Under Ulysses Grant’s presidency, Elizabeth became postmistress of Richmond but lost the position under Rutherford B. Hayes’s administration. She died in poverty in 1900. Eleven years later her house was demolished.