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 give us.
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 train.
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.
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?
About Greer Macallister
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.