You probably know that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865. You may not know that a previous assassination attempt was made on him during his 13-day train journey from Springfield, IL, to his inauguration in Washington, D.C., in 1861. Even more remarkable, it was a female detective who saved Lincoln’s life! That detective, Kate Warne, was America’s first female private investigator, employed by the pioneering Pinkerton Detective Agency from 1856 to 1868. Kate Warne is somewhat of an enigma—there isn’t a single known photograph of her! But part of her story, including much of her daring detective work, is told in this month’s Reading into History book, The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan. Hannigan will join us this Sunday, December 20 from 2-4 pm to discuss and sign her book and check out some fascinating Pinkerton-related artifacts in our library with families. We asked Hannigan some questions to give you a taste of Sunday’s program. Check out the interview below and join us this weekend!
The Detective’s Assistant is about a fictional, orphaned girl named Cornelia (Nell) who ends upon the doorstep of her aunt, the real-life, female detective, Kate Warne. When did you first learn about Kate Warne? What inspired you to write about her?
Kate Hannigan: I stumbled on Kate Warne’s experience as a Pinkerton detective when I was researching another story from the same time—about camels in the American West. It seems that 1856 is my year! I found it fascinating that she’d entered into such dangerous duty, especially at a period in American history when women had so few options open to them, and that she’d played such a crucial role in thwarting the Baltimore Plot to assassinate Lincoln. So I dropped what I was doing and jumped on this story!
So often we learn about all the men who helped shape American history, and the wild adventures they enjoyed. I wanted young readers to know that women contributed too, but often their roles were forgotten or left out. So when I wrote the book, I drew on Allan Pinkerton’s writing about his detectives’ adventures, and I placed Nell with Kate Warne at the center of all the action, so girls could get a taste of being part of the derring-do!
What’s the most fascinating and surprising thing you learned about life in the mid-19th century through researching and writing this book?
KH: Chicago was a filthy mess! Sometimes people think back on bygone eras with romanticized ideas of how things used to be. But life in pre-Civil War America was a hot and stinking mess. The streets were muddy and difficult to navigate, horses and pedestrians were struck by oncoming trains on a regular basis, animal carcasses were thrown in the river, which created health problems, as well as a pervading stench. And that’s just the beginning. The simple act of dressing was a chore, with women having to put on layer after layer of clothing. And crime was rampant, with grave diggers, train robbers, counterfeiters, and so much more. Oh, and many parents moving out West often abandoned their children when they reached cities like Chicago, which is why places like the Home for the Friendless (which I included in the book) were created.
How does young Kate Hannigan compare to young Nell Warne?
KH: Ha! That’s a fun question. The young Kate Hannigan was tomboyish like Nell in many respects—never wanted to bathe, had an ear for eavesdropping and spying, wrote notes in secret codes, and could babysit even the worst of the irritable tykes of the neighborhood. And like Nell, she was still very much a girl. Liked nice clothes, looked up to all sorts of strong women, and wanted to rove the land as a keen-eyed journalist when she grew up.
What’s one thing readers should do right after they finish your book?
KH: Go research three cool people from American history and learn MORE than just a little about them!
What three words best describe The Detective’s Assistant?
KH: I’m going to hyphenate so I can get in more than three, which some might consider cheating but I consider creative: pulse-pounding, rollicking, heart-warming.
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