In every field, someone has to be the first. Often, we know their names. The
first President of the United States, the first man on the moon, the first
African-American to play major league baseball. But often, their names aren’t
known – either because we don’t know who was the first to break a particular
barrier, or because the story just hasn’t been told often enough.
The first female detective in the United States was named Kate Warne, and I
wrote GIRL IN DISGUISE
to tell her story.
When I first heard of Kate a few years ago, I was floored. This woman was such a
pioneer. She was a female detective in the 1850s, when it was completely
unheard-of, and she was so good at it that she was assigned by Allan Pinkerton
to run her own division. She helped save Abraham Lincoln's life as he made his
way to his inauguration. She was an undercover spy for the Union during the
Civil War. And yet, if you asked 10 people on the street who Kate Warne was,
you’d be lucky to find one who knows.
It’s true, there are some good reasons why her name isn’t known. The historical
record has more gaps than facts where she’s concerned. Allan Pinkerton wrote
about her, but we can’t really take his word for the details, and they’re hard
to verify. We have some of the case files from the early days of the Pinkerton
agency, but the agency was based in Chicago, and not all of their pre-1871
records survived the Great Chicago Fire.
I was lucky enough to visit the Pinkerton collection at the Library of Congress
and hold some of the agency’s early logbooks in my hands. (They let you touch
them! Really!) I went through boxes and boxes of papers for anything
Kate-related. And I found a handful of case files. We know she went undercover
as a fortune-teller to get a confession from someone suspected of trying to
poison a relative in order to get their inheritance. We know she worked on the
Adams Express case, where $50,000 was stolen – a sizable sum today, and think
how much more it meant then! – and helped bring the thief to justice. But we
don’t have her logbooks, her diaries, or any detail on her time with the agency
beyond the broad strokes that Allan Pinkerton’s books for public consumption
It was Pinkerton who wrote first about the role she played in foiling the
Baltimore Plot, when Southern sympathizers planned to ambush, surround and
murder Abraham Lincoln as he changed trains in Baltimore on his way to be
inaugurated as President. Daniel Stashower wrote a great non-fiction account of
this in his 2014 book THE
HOUR OF PERIL, and Kate is named along with Harry Davies, Timothy Webster,
Hattie Lawton, and Allan Pinkerton himself as the key agents involved in
protecting the President-Elect. Lincoln was disguised as an invalid and Kate’s
role was to play his sister, accompanying him on a late-night train (scheduled
ahead of the announced arrival time in order to foil the plotters) all the way
to Washington. Some accounts indicate that the Pinkerton Agency motto, “We Never
Sleep,” was developed in honor of Kate’s sleepless night guarding Lincoln on the
So this Kate Warne, the real Kate Warne, clearly did some amazing things. But
I’m not a historian and I didn’t want to write a historical account. My primary
goal as a historical fiction writer is to write rip-roaring good stories that
keep readers turning the pages. So I began with history as a jumping-off point,
and I wove story and history together to paint a fictional picture of Kate – not
who she was, because we don’t know that, but who she might have been. I wrote an
Author’s Note to include in the book that specifies where I’ve veered off the
road from known facts.
My Kate is a version of the historical Kate. (And I do think of her as
my Kate now; I’m very possessive.) But I’ve given her the personality
that I think the real Kate would’ve had to have in order to do the things she
did. She must have been fierce, determined, aggressive, smart, and resolute. I
hope readers enjoy reading about her as much as I enjoyed writing about her. And
above all else, now that you know her story, I hope you remember her name.
What is your favorite first in history? Tell us below and you could be the
winner of GIRL IN
Inspired by the real story of investigator Kate Warne, this spirited novel
follows the detective's rise during one of the nation's times of crisis,
bringing to life a fiercely independent woman whose forgotten triumphs helped
sway the fate of the country.
With no money and no husband, Kate Warne finds herself with few choices. The
streets of 1856 Chicago offer a desperate widow mostly trouble and ruin—unless
that widow has a knack for manipulation and an unusually quick mind. In a bold
move that no other woman has tried, Kate convinces the legendary Allan Pinkerton
to hire her as a detective.
Battling criminals and coworkers alike, Kate immerses herself in the
dangerous life of an operative, winning the right to tackle some of the agency's
toughest investigations. But is the woman she's becoming—capable of any and all
lies, swapping identities like dresses—the true Kate? Or has the real disguise
been the good girl she always thought she was?
Historical | Mystery Historical
[Sourcebooks Landmark, On Sale: March 21, 2017,
Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9781492635222 / eISBN: 9781492635239]
Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer,
playwright and novelist whose work has appeared in publications such as The
North American Review, The Missouri Review, and The Messenger. Her plays have
been performed at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative
Writing. She lives with her family in Brooklyn.
11 comments posted.
When the The first national park, Yellowstone, was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872.
(Patricia Reed 9:39am March 10, 2017)