How an 1843 Will Shaped the Lives of Two Civil War Spies

Lois Leveen's picture

In this post for the H-CivWar Author's Blog, Lois Leveen discusses how she both builds on and diverges from another historian's reading of a particular document: an antebellum will that shaped the lives of two Civil War spies.


Mary Richards Denman and Elizabeth "Bet" Van Lew were both Civil War spies, key participants in the pro-Union underground that operated in Richmond throughout the war. Decades before their espionage, a will signed and executed in 1843 defined the course of both their lives – but in entirely different ways. Early in 2020, I traveled to the library in which I was able to access images of the executed will in its entirety. However, I already knew the gist of its contents, thanks to Elizabeth Varon's excellent biography of Bet Van Lew, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy. My book-in-progress, a biography of Mary Richards Denman, is indebted to Varon's research, which provided the first verified documentation of the life of the Black woman often misremembered as Mary Bowser. Nevertheless, any biographer necessarily examines and analyzes sources through the lens of their particular subject. Thus, my reading of the will diverges from Varon's. This document simultaneously granted Bet Van Lew a level of independence uncommon even for many upper-class white women – providing the foundation for her contributions to the Union – even as it limited the life of Mary Richards Denman in a manner that was all too common for enslaved African Americans.


By 1843, Bet's father John Van Lew, a transplanted New Yorker, had become a successful Virginia merchant, partnering in businesses in Richmond and Petersburg. Although he was only in his early fifties, he'd suffered long bouts of ill health, and his will was signed and witnessed the week before he died. His obituary, which appeared in the Richmond Enquirer, lauded his "irreproachable character," emphasizing his acts of charity, his devotion as a husband and father, and his end-of-life submission to God's will and acceptance of Christ's salvation. In Varon's reading, his will bears out these qualities: he left the bulk of his estate to his wife Eliza, "far exceed[ing] the customary 'widow's third,'" as Varon notes. He also bequeathed $10,000 to each of his three children (two adult daughters and a son who had not yet achieved majority), specifying that his daughters' inheritance "be free and exempt from the control or use of any husband." This provision secured Bet's financial and hence her social independence. She never married, and she drew on her inheritance to support her wartime pro-Union activities. But read with a focus on Mary Richards Denman and the other enslaved people in the Van Lew household, the will reveals a different aspect of John Van Lew's character, one that is decidedly less charitable.


In the body of the will, he bequeathed outright to his wife two thousand dollars annually, along with "all [his] household and kitchen furniture, all [his] plate, and silver ware, all [his] carriages and horses, all [his] slaves and the future increase of the females of them, and every thing moveable" within his dwelling and upon the lot. Although it is not uncommon to encounter such passages when researching African American history, I always pause when reading them to honor just how devastating they were. In this instance, I pause to imagine the impact of these words not only on the woman whose life I am seeking to excavate but on all the enslaved people, and those who loved them, whose lives were constricted by this document. (As of the 1840 census, 15 enslaved people were part of John Van Lew's household, although Mary is not among them; this may indicate that she had not yet been born, as her exact date of birth is unknown. Additional enslaved people may also have been his legal property by 1843, including new chattel acquired in the interval between the census and his death, as well as people already owned by him but residing elsewhere at the time of the 1840 census.)


As common as the treatment of black people as mere property may be in the historical record, this particular will contains an additional element that reveals both John Van Lew's character and the legal vulnerability of Mary Richards Denman and the other people enslaved by him. In a codicil, John Van Lew altered this bequest to his wife, specifying, “I will and direct that my said wife have the use of the said slaves and the said increase of them during the term of her natural life and at her death, that they be distributed in the same manner as is provided in my will for the distribution for the residue of my personal estate.” Simply put, this legal provision meant the widow Eliza could neither sell nor manumit the humans bequeathed to her.


This codicil was signed, witnessed, and dated on the same day as the rest of the will, suggesting (at least in my reading) that some spur-of-the-moment reflection caused John Van Lew to add it. Varon focuses on what this codicil might reveal about his wife's character. Carefully piecing together circumstantial evidence, Varon hypothesizes that over the ensuing years Eliza may have allowed a number of the enslaved to slip into de facto freedom, despite the legal limits her husband created in his will. Varon's reading is a useful reminder that not all whites residing in slave states supported the institution. But with a focus on black history, I cannot help but wonder what would cause a man who otherwise valued his wife's independence to impose this one exception on her autonomy. Given that he entrusted Eliza to dispose of the rest of her inheritance as she wished, what should we make of his legally requiring that so many people, and their countless future "increase," remain enslaved not only past his own lifetime, but also past his widow's lifetime? It could not have been a mere matter of ensuring the financial interests of his other heirs. After his death, Eliza might legally have chosen to squander the other property and cash she inherited, leaving nothing of that substantial inheritance for other heirs. Indeed, Varon notes that Eliza repeatedly sold off real estate she received through this will. Given these details, it seems difficult to read the codicil as anything but a desire to thwart what he may have suspected were his wife's anti-slavery leanings.


What did the codicil mean for Mary, as one of the enslaved? I am not a legal scholar (if any of you are, please be in touch!), but I have been puzzling over the many legal possibilities implied in this question. Although Mary is not named in the will, it is the earliest document "related" to her that I have yet located. There is no definitive record of when, where, or to whom she was born; although a few other scant sources suggest her birth might have occurred in 1839 or 1840, her absence in the 1840 census might indicate 1841 or 1842 as more likely. Of all the people enslaved by the Van Lews, Mary is the one for whom there is the most documentation of a de facto freedom allowed by the widow Eliza and her adult daughter Bet: by 1850, Mary was living in New Jersey, attending school in preparation for the future Bet planned for her, as a missionary in Liberia. But like many expatriated African Americans, the teen-aged Mary was unhappy in Liberia, and she ended up returning to the U.S. – and to the Van Lew household – in 1860. And there her de jure status quickly became apparent.


In August 1860, Mary was arrested and held in a Richmond jail for ten days, culminating with the Hustings Court fining Eliza for "permitting her slave to go at large." When, years later, Mary Richards Denman recalled this event, she did so using language that implies it was the first time she realized she was legally enslaved. But she had been enslaved all along. Although Eliza may have chosen not to treat Mary as her property, she could not legally change the fact that Mary was property. Had Eliza died, any of her late husband's other heirs likely could have seized Mary as their possession.


I am not suggesting they would have done so. As Varon's book makes clear, Bet's antislavery sentiments, already in evidence in the early 1850s, deepened in the years leading up to the war. Her brother John Newton Van Lew seems to have largely agreed with, or at least acquiesced to, his elder sister's and mother's political and moral leanings. But the possible actions that Anna Van Lew Klapp, Bet's sister, might have taken in the event of their mother's death remain more difficult to discern. Not long after her father's death, Anna married and moved to her husband's native Philadelphia. We may not usually associate antebellum Philadelphians with slaveholding, but as the example of Pierce Butler reminds us, nothing precluded Philadelphians from pursuing direct or indirect involvement with enslavement for their own financial benefit. Would Anna have done so?


Varon notes in passing that in the 1870s, Anna and her husband brought suit against her Van Lew family members for allegedly mismanaging John Van Lew's estate, and thus reducing Anna's inheritance. Were it not for the pandemic, I would be spending this autumn in Richmond doing research, able to access court records from that case, as well as documents from an 1866 imbroglio also involving the 1843 will. What might these and other primary sources regarding the Van Lews reveal, when read with a focus on how they would have affected Mary Richards Denman, and other enslaved people?


It may be months, perhaps even more than a year, before I can access the materials to answer that question. Between now and then, there's much else that can be done on this book project. I look forward to sharing my progress as well as bemoaning additional as-yet-unresolvable lacunae, in future posts. And I welcome suggestions on how best to proceed.


My thanks to Professor Justin Simard for guidance in interpreting and contextualizing John Van Lew's will.

Dear Lois, 

This is an interesting post that had me scratching my head some. Not knowing the characters involved as well as you, I wondered whether John wasn't making a kind of paternalistic performance--demonstrating, to someone, that he was benevolent in ways that his wife was not. In such a reading, John's point would be to make a show--perhaps to his children--of preventing the breakup of his estate, and the potential separation of enslaved families members from each other. I don't have any grounds to suspect that that was the case, but I could imagine some slaveholders in the 1840s trying to prove a point in the context of the nation-wide debates over slavery, immediatism, and "positive good" proslavery arguments. Hope that helps think through the different interpretive angles. 

Best wishes, 

Dave Prior

Dear David,
Thanks for the provocative query. It's certainly true that the death of an enslaver might mean that heirs inheriting the enslaved could break up families. But I think it would be inaccurate to presume that John Van Lew was trying to keep enslaved families intact. The surest way for him to do that would have been to arrange for the manumission of the enslaved. He was doing the opposite: ensuring the indefinite enslavement of these individuals and of any children born to the enslaved females. After Eliza died, the subsequent heirs could have done anything they wished with the enslaved (because she lived into the 1870s, this never came to pass).

Indeed, Liz Varon cites a better example of what you're hypothesizing. It's from 1857 in which the will of a woman named Judith Wright specified that Elizabeth Van Lew was to hire out an enslaved man named Cornelius Goodhall, who had been Wright's property, until such time as he had earned enough to pay for his relocation "to a place where he may enjoy the privilege of freedom" (the language is from Wright's will as quoted in Varon, p 27). Other enslavers used their will to immediately manumit enslaved people. And some did even better and manumitted the enslaved while they were alive, instead of waiting until they had enjoyed a full lifetime of 'use' of the enslaved.

Ultimately, John Van Lew might be seen as "benevolent" in terms of giving his daughters an independent inheritance and giving his wife not only more than the traditional widow's mite but also by naming her executrix, giving her control over managing much of his estate. But he was explicitly NOT allowing her "benevolence" to ever take the form of legal manumission of even one of more than a dozen human beings that were part of the estate. And from the perspective of the enslaved, that hardly qualified him as benevolent in any way.


Dear Lois, 

Thank you for that detailed response. I of course understand your point about John not actually being benevolent. I was curious about whether he might have seen himself as such and/or whether he was trying to make a kind of scripted performance, perhaps to his children (or now that I think about it, perhaps to his pro-slavery neighbors). Especially if John or some of his neighbors adhered to the "positive good" defense of slavery, they would not necessarily have seen manumission as a benevolent act. If that was the particular pro-slavery ideology that they adhered to (conventionally distinguished from the "necessary evil" defense of slavery), John and/or his neighbors might have argued that abolitionist "fanatics" were going to throw the enslaved to the free market, where they would allegedly be incapable of making it on their own. You see this kind of pro-slavery rhetoric even after the war, such as when postbellum southern politicians claimed that they, and not the abolitionists, had been the true protectors of the enslaved. Of course we don't see things that way, but I was pondering what ideas / audiences might have been in John's mind. 

Best wishes, 

Dave Prior

Dear Dave,

Your thoughts about "scripted performance" underscore the question of how white Southerners (particularly elites) conceived of "public selves" in the period leading up to and then during the war. I think you've given me a topic for a future post: the pro-Union underground in Richmond depended for its success on how both black and white Southerners could deploy their expected "public selves" in ways that undermined the Confederacy.

In this specific instance, it is certainly true that New York-born John Van Lew openly embraced the kind of slaveholding practiced by his Richmond neighbors, including increasing his own holdings in enslaved people and profiting by 'hiring out' the adult men enslaved within his household. But in terms of the will, my hunch is that 1843 may have been a little early for the kind of scripted performance you raise, and the will was probably too much a 'private document' to have been much use in such a performance. I have not been able to unearth many details about the witnesses to the will, who would have been the white men with the first-hand knowledge of John Van Lew's decision about the enslaved. What little I have learned suggests they were not particularly wealthy or socially prominent, which again would suggest that what they knew of his decision would not have served particularly effectively in a public performance of pro-slavery sentiments.

But, as I noted above, "public identity" really is key to the activities two decades later of the women whose lives were shaped by this will, and so I look forward to more discussion about that with members of the H-CivWar.