Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Resurrecting America’s First Woman Detective By Kate Hannigan



LUCY BURDETTE: If you have a granddaughter or daughter who's a reader, you'll be glad to meet today's guest, Kate Hannigan. She's got a wonderfully inspiring new heroine--welcome Kate!

KATE HANNIGAN: I write for children, and my newest title The Detective’s Assistant publishes this month. But when I originally came across the story of America’s first woman detective, I was a little unsure how to make it relate to young readers.

While I’d found the simple nugget about Kate Warne, hired in 1856 by Allan Pinkerton and his National Detective Agency, to be fascinating, would kids?

As I dug deeper into her story, I quickly realized it needed to be dusted off and shared, especially with girls. Here was a widowed woman, just 23 years old, trying to make a living in the early days of lawless Chicago. Her options were limited, so the route she chose is all the more fascinating.

Pinkerton writes that when Kate Warne entered his office that August day, he’d assumed she was there to apply for a secretarial position. Kate Warne, however, had something totally different in mind. She told Pinkerton she could go where men could not, befriending the wives and girlfriends of the city’s criminals and “worming out” their secrets. Pinkerton slept on the idea, then hired her the next day.

Writing in The Expressman and the Detective (1874), The Somnambulist and the Detective: The Murderer and the Fortune Teller (1875), and The Spy of the Rebellion (1883), Pinkerton describes Kate Warne as one of his most trusted and capable detectives. Referring to her as “an intelligent, brilliant, and accomplished lady,” Pinkerton holds nothing back in his praise for her.

“She soon showed such tact, readiness of resource, ability to read character, intuitive perception of motives, and rare discretion, that I created a female department in the agency, and made Mrs. Warne the superintendent thereof.”

That she is a “first” makes for interesting history, but there was so much more to Kate Warne. She was a master of disguise, a clever chameleon affecting Southern accents and manners, and an enthusiastic snoop. But her most important role came in February 1861, as President-Elect Abraham Lincoln made his way east from Illinois toward the White House. He had to pass through Baltimore, where rumors of an assassination plot where swirling.

Pinkerton and one other operative – Kate Warne – helped ferry Lincoln safely past the would-be assassins and undermine what has come to be known as the Baltimore Plot.

History is written by the winners. And often, those winners have failed to recognize the contributions of those who don’t look like them, particularly women and minorities. Like so many women before her, Kate Warne was written off. Many historians dismissed her as Pinkerton’s mistress. They pointed to Pinkerton’s gravesite in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery, noting that Kate Warne was buried beside him, as if that’s proof of an affair.

But a visit to her grave reveals that she was not the only Pinkerton operative buried there. Her gravestone is next to the marker for Timothy Webster, another of Pinkerton’s beloved operatives. And George Bangs is there, too, another member of the agency, and scores of others who either died in the line of duty or were loyal Pinkerton employees.

In writing this book for young readers, I wanted to resurrect Kate Warne’s contribution – to America’s history, Chicago’s history, crime-fighting history, as well as women’s history – as a clever and courageous detective who risked her life in the fight against crime in ways both small and enormous.

"My experience of twenty years with lady operatives is worth something,” Pinkerton wrote, “and I have no hesitation of saying that the profession of a detective, for a lady possessing the requisite characteristics, is as useful and honorable employment as can be found in any walk of life."


What other forgotten historical players do you know of who deserve their place in the sun?

TAGLINE:
Chicago author Kate Hannigan writes fiction and non-fiction for young readers. The Detective’s Assistant publishes April 7th with Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Visit her online at KateHannigan.com.





37 comments:

Joan Emerson said...
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Joan Emerson said...

Kate's story is fascinating --- and how exciting to discover this series . . . it sounds perfect for my granddaughter! I can hardly wait to share it with her.

Joan Emerson said...
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Edith Maxwell said...

I love this story, Kate. Thanks for letting us know about this remarkable woman. Will be picking your book up for my nine-year old friend! And I think my 1888 Quaker midwife protagonist might be doing some Pinkerton reading in the next book!

Gram said...

Great. So often women in history are brushed aside or forgotten. Even if girls today don't want to become detectives this will encourage a bit of history reading. Something that seems to be sorely lacking today.

Kathy Lynn Emerson said...

The Baltimore plot is a fascinating bit of history. For those who want to know more, I recommend Dan Stashower's Agatha Award winning nonfiction The Hour of Peril.

Kathy/Kaitlyn

Julia said...

This looks wonderful! I'm going to suggest it to my local library - the director is always looking for girl-positive fiction.

I had no idea the Pinkerton Agency had a "Female Department," and I'm frankly also impressed by Mr. Pinkerton's willingness to use women as agents. There weren't a lot of men in mid-nineteenth century America who could give up the popular view of "a woman's sphere."

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Welcome Kate! You're so right -- history often ignores those who don't look like the conquerors.... I'm thrilled to discover this series.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Welcome, Kate! You're right — history often ignores the contributions of those who don't look like those in power. We need to tell their stories! So excited for this series.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Welcome, Kate! You're right — history often ignores the contributions of those who don't look like those in power. We need to tell their stories! So excited for this series.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Welcome, Kate! You're right — history ignores the contributions of those not in power. Really happy to discover your series.

Mary Sutton said...

I knew Pinkerton employed women, but I didn't know he had a whole department of them. Very unusual for a man in that age. Sounds like a great story.

Hallie Ephron said...

How fascinating... America's first woman detective! Love it! Dashiell Hammett was an operative for Pinkerton's too. How cool would it be if Kate Warne meets DH?

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I am just--so instantly in love with this! What a brilliant idea, and what a brilliant presentation...and ah... Congratulations!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

So wait..is it a series?

Pat D said...

Wonderful. Women too often get the short end of the stick in history. (Don't get me started...)
Mary Anning put the gentlemen paleontologists to shame in the early 1800s. She revolutionized the field with her finds and theories and treated it as science, not a hobby.

Karen in Ohio said...

As the mother of three (now grown) daughters, it struck me rather forcefully why none of them (or me, frankly) were very interested in history. It's mostly because HIStory is so male-centric, down through the ages. With the rather lame exceptions of Florence Nightingale, Betsy Ross and the likes of Madame Curie, women's roles in shaping our world have gotten shorter shrift than the role of race and nationality.

One of the biggest reasons for the popularity of the American Girl dolls, I'm sure, has to do with their placing girls in historic time periods and situations, something that really had never been done before. Some fiction had, yes, but not all that much, and not as graphically as the dolls and their historically correct clothing and accessories did. Their stories were also told in a series of books about each doll's historical setting and character.

So thank you, Kate, for giving this gift to the girls of the world, including us girls of a certain age. I very much appreciate your efforts, and am looking forward to enjoying this story!

As for other historical figures, the mother of a friend was one of the first women to graduate from Harvard. She was in medical school, but after marrying another doctor that was it. There are a lot of "firsts" like her: the first woman to run/own an ad agency; the woman who helped conceive of the computer; the actress Hedy Lamarr, whose brilliant contribution to secret communications and weapons systems not only helped the US win WWII, but were the basis for all the wireless communications we use today.

Mark Baker said...

Sounds fascinating. I'm going to have to read it myself.

Kate Hannigan said...

Hank, I sure wish this were a series! We'll see what happens and how my publisher feels. I've left a few openings for a Book 2, so I am certainly game to write it!

Deborah Crombie said...

Kate, I LOVE this! Had a look at your webpage, too, which is gorgeous. I think I may have to buy the book for myself, then look for a middle-grade girl to share it with. My daughter would have loved it when she was that age.

Dan Stashower's book is also on my to-read list. Fascinating story.

Kate Hannigan said...

Thank you, Deborah. Daniel Stashower's book is great, as is Michael Kline's "The Baltimore Plot." http://www.amazon.com/The-Baltimore-Plot-Conspiracy-Assassinate/dp/1594161801

Kathy Reel said...

What a fascinating find of this pioneering woman in the Pinkerton Detective Agency! I think young girls are going to love this series. Heck, I think any age will enjoy these books. I think I will. I love reading about the unsung heroes and heroines of history. Thanks, Kate, for introducing me to Kate Warne and your exciting new series. Oh, and that cover is going onto my list of great/favorite covers!

Kim said...

What a fascinating story - I'm so glad you're bringing it to life for young readers ... and for me. I can't wait to read your novel!

FChurch said...

Kate, what a great bit of detective work on your part! I vehemently agree with the idea that women get the short end of the stick when it comes to the writing of history and that it's important for these stories to be heard. The question for me is, how do we get the boys to read these same stories? As an aunt of 9 nephews, I found it difficult to find books for them. Books with a girl protagonist--oh, that's just for girls, here's one about a boy and a sports dilemma, try that one for a boy....

Kate Hannigan said...

FChurch, you're hitting on a timely bugaboo right now in kidlit: boys reading girls. In my opinion, I think it's important that we give boys books with female protagonists. Girls are 50 percent of the population! If we don't encourage boys to read about girl characters, how do we expect them to learn empathy and understanding? I think we underestimate their interests and abilities if we keep "girl" books out of their hands. A good story is a good story.

Just this week, I was asked by a school librarian whether she should hold the boys in class and just send the girls to my upcoming book event at her school. I told her NO WAY! The boys can find things to enjoy with this story too – adventure, suspense, guns (!!), ghosts come to life, blood, danger, mystery. Thrillers are equal-opportunity reads!

Rhys Bowen said...

I've had letters saying that my Molly Murphy does unbelievable things for a woman of her time. I tell them about Nellie Bly, about Sabella Goodwin, first female detective in the NYPD and so many other women doing remarkable things.
And what about all the women scientific researchers whose discoveries were claimed by male colleagues.
I love any book championing women's achievements so hooray for you, Kate.

Writer of Wrongs said...

What a fabulous tale--all the more inspiring because of its anchor in truth. A great blog post to celebrate an even greater book.

Kudos! --and all best!
Micki Browning

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Kate, that's wild that the librarian asked about holding back the boys from your talk.

It makes me think of the old days when all the girls trooped out of the classroom to learn about menstruation LOL!

Deb Romano said...

Kate, I definitely want to read your book. Her life does sound fascinating. She must have been extremely courageous to do all she did at that point in history.

A woman that I greatly admire is the late Dr Helen Langner, who was one of the first women to graduate from Yale Medical School. She died a few years ago at 105, and worked until she was 98! I met her once at a library event when she was in her 90s, and she was full of life! If you want to read a little about here, check out the following:
http://www.milfordmirror.com/14700/remembering-dr-helen-langner/

Kate Hannigan said...

Thank you, Deb, she sounds remarkable! So many amazing women to learn about and share. This is great! Thank you!

Shannon D Wells said...

So great to see someone picked up this story! I've begun writing a series based on an aunt (several greats ago) who was a Pinkterton detective as well. I've seen Kate referenced several places (including Pinkerton's stories), and found her intriguing but far outside of my timeline.

Will have to read this!

Cyndi Pauwels said...

Writer-friend Trudy Krisher's new book about the daughter of Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Seward is a great piece of forgotten history: Fanny Seward: A Life.

FChurch said...

Kate, I agree wholeheartedly--a good story is a good story! Sometimes I see a story that I think maybe one of the boys would enjoy, but the cover is skewed towards a girl reader. I know if they were browsing, they'd skip right over that book. That's when marketing can be limiting, I think.

Mary Sutton said...

I write middle-grade and while the protagonist is a girl, my two biggest fans are boys. So it can happen.

Lynn in Texas said...

Kate, I would enjoy reading this too, after my 12 yr. old niece reads it first!

I've always enjoyed biographies, esp. about famous women in history, since grade school, and recall reading about Dolly Madison, Marie Curie,Annie Oakley, Amelia Earhart, etc. then moving on to Margaret Mead, Karen Blixen/Isaak Dinesen, Margaret Bourke-White, Mata Hari and lots of great famous females. This book sounds terrific, for both boys and girls to enjoy!

Gigi Pandian said...

Oh, I love Kate Warne! I first became enamored with her when I read Daniel Stashower's nonfiction The Hour of Peril. This book sounds fantastic. (Reds -- you always introduce me to such great writers and books!)

Corinne Patton said...

Kate Warne sounds like A Mighty Girl for sure. Are you familiar with their website and FB page? I bet they would want to feature her. Thanks for telling Kate's story.