Beneath Suspicion &
Letters from George to
Beneath Suspicion is a one-act opera by Knoxville Native composer Jesse Ayers. It is based on a true, little-known story of two daring, American women who played on prevailing gender and racial stereotypes to fight slavery by spying for the Union during the Civil War.
Elizabeth Van Lew, a passionate abolitionist known around Richmond as “Crazy Bet," is the middle-aged daughter of a recently deceased, wealthy Richmond slave owner. Upon her father's death, she frees her family's slaves, including a young household servant named Mary. Bet, recognizing Mary’s extreme intelligence, sends her to Philadelphia to a Quaker School to be educated, after which Mary returns to Richmond to work in the Van Lew home as a free woman.
Mary has a photographic memory. She can memorize documents verbatim in one quick reading as well as repeat lengthy conversations word for word. As the war breaks out, Mary is in her early 20s, Bet, her 40s. Though Richmond is the capital of the Confederacy, about half of its inhabitants are Union sympathizers. Bet, a firebrand, uses her contacts to set up a spy ring to report Confederate movements to the Union military. Her information is so reliable, her coded messages go directly General Ulysses S. Grant.
This works imagines a key scene in the lives of these two women: the crisis moment when Mary must decide if she will risk her life to undertake the daring plan she believes God has revealed to her, or if she will shrink back to maintain her safety and personal freedom.
Both women were inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in the 1990s.