Thursday, March 13, 2008

Pinkerton’s Secret and The First Female Detective

This month I thought we'd do something a little different at Girl Detective, and invite author Eric Lerner to tell us a little about his new book Pinkerton's Secret featuring the woman Lerner refers to as America's first female detective: Kate Warne.

Ten years ago, while browsing the new arrivals shelf at my public library, I spotted a biography of Allan Pinkerton. The name conjured up images of wraiths in long black coats hunting down Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and crushing striking steel workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania.

What I discovered instead was a man who contradicted the myths, but whose life created one of those tantalizing historical mysteries that can only be unraveled in the imaginative realm of fiction.
Pinkerton, I learned, was not just America’s original Private Eye, nabbing forgers, railroad thieves, and confidence men, he was a political radical who had fought for the rights of working men and women in his native Scotland, and then became passionately involved in Abolitionism when he arrived in America. In the 1850’s his home in Chicago was a station on the Underground Railroad, and he counted John Brown and Frederick Douglass among his close friends. On Abraham Lincoln’s railway journey to his inauguration in 1861, Pinkerton saved the president-elect from an assassination plot in Baltimore. During the Civil War, he established the first Secret Service, hunting down rebel spies in Washington and sending his agents behind Confederate lines.

In all of these adventures, the biographer informed me, Allan Pinkerton was ably assisted by Mrs. Kate Warne, the first female detective, whom he’d hired when he first started his detective agency in 1856. The biographer assured me that despite the rumors at the time, Pinkerton’s relationship to the “attractive widow” was strictly professional.

Strictly professional?

When I stopped laughing, I realized I might have a great story.
I read all the other biographies of Pinkerton, as well as Allan’s own, Reminiscences, written near the end of his life. In it he described Kate Warne as a widow of twenty-three, “a slender, brown-haired woman, graceful in her movements and self-possessed. Her features, although not what could be called handsome, were decidedly of an intellectual cast...her face was honest, which would cause one in distress instinctively to select her as a confidant.” Describing her as a detective, he wrote, “she succeeded far beyond my utmost expectations. Mrs. Warne never let me down.”


I obtained a rare copy of Kate Warne’s actual logbooks, recounting how she accompanied Lincoln on the secret train from Philadelphia to thwart the Baltimore assassins. But I couldn’t find any clue to an involvement between Pinkerton and the female detective that wasn’t strictly professional..

Then I carefully re-read Pinkerton’s own autobiographical account of his exploits in the Civil War, The Spy of the Rebellion. In it he records Kate’s role in the Baltimore plot, but she seems to exit the scene at the outset of the Civil War, when he left his wife and family behind in Chicago to return to Washington for eighteen months to set up the first Secret Service. Except her name casually pops up later in his account, when he snares the famous Confederate spy, Rose Greenhow, aided by Mrs. Warne’s forgery of Rose’s letters. So Kate was with him in Washington the whole time!

Then I came upon a photo of Pinkerton’s grave. Buried on one side is his wife, and on the other, just over his shoulder, Kate Warne rests for all eternity. None of his biographers had mentioned that fact.

I began to wonder if the novelist does not have a better opportunity than the historian does to uncover certain truths that are buried in the available documents known as the historical record. As a writer of fiction I could easily imagine that Allan Pinkerton, a detective by profession who literally invented the modus operandi of investigative disguises, would go to great lengths to disguise himself in order to protect his professional reputation while he was alive as well as for posterity.

As I reread over and over Pinkerton’s accounts of his own exploits, and the biographies that drew strongly on his accounts, I put together a chronology of Allan Pinkerton and Kate Warne’s whereabouts during the period of two years when Pinkerton’s exploits became the stuff of legend. They were side by side for the whole time. Moreover, it was clear to me that Pinkerton faced enormous opposition from clients, many of his male employees, and members of his own family for employing Kate Warne as well as an entire bureau of female detectives under her direction, who posed as everything from fortune tellers to heiresses in Pinkerton’s undercover operations to nab crooks.

The story that emerged in my mind was not just about the nature of the real relationship between Allan and Kate, but the nature of their deception. This was a story that could only be constructed in fiction, because the real life protagonists had constructed a fiction of their own to hide their actions from the world.

Once I had the plot of this story, I was faced with the challenge of how to tell it. For me, every novel is a unique universe whose internal rules don’t have to conform to any other universe, but have to be entirely consistent within itself. For reasons I can’t quite explain, even though the events in Pinkerton’s life are not well known, I found myself bound to the real historical occurrences. If Pinkerton actually got on a train from Baltimore to New York City in February of 1861, accompanied by Kate Warne, to warn Lincoln of the impending attack on his life, then Allan and Kate had to take that train in my novel.

But what occurred between them on that train?

There is no historical account left by either one of them. It is a blank space. The blank spaces I identified were the places where I could construct my characters, where the words, thoughts and motivations of Pinkerton and Kate Warne could take shape. It took me a full decade to work through the several versions and many drafts of the novel until I completed the final one with a great editor, Jack Macrae at Henry Holt & Co. If you want to check out an intriguing representation of the novel in words and images, click on the title link above this article.