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."
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.