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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Pinkerton's Women

Pinkerton's Women

C.A. Asbrey 

It’s not commonly known outside of the USA that the first professional female detectives in the world date right back to the 1856 when Kate Warne answered an advertisement in a Chicago newspaper looking for detectives. Allan Pinkerton thought that the women described as thin, attractive- but not beautiful, confident and outgoing, was applying for an office position. He was wrong. She wanted to be a detective. And she was very persuasive. The woman Pinkerton thought was applying for secretarial work assured him, worming out secrets in many places which would be impossible for a male detective.”

Pinkerton agreed to give the young widow a try and she quickly proved her worth. Nobody expected a woman to be a detective, so witnesses and friends of criminals spoke about things in front of her which they would never discuss in male company. Men would brag to women, and lonely people confided secrets. Not only did she recover large sums of stolen cash, but she compiled robust evidence which was vital in the arrest and conviction of many criminals. Warne was skilled at transforming her appearance and her accent, and passed as a man even close up. Working under cover, which Pinkerton called 'adopting a role', Warne gathered intelligence on a plot to assassinate Lincoln, was pivotal in planning his safe delivery to the White House, and stayed up all night as a vigilant armed guard. She could slip in and out of accents as easily as she could alter her appearance. She was rumored to have been a widowed actress, but there is no evidence to support that to date.

During the Civil War she infiltrated Confederate circles to deliver vital military intelligence, and adopted a dizzying array of roles. She was a wife, a fortune teller, a Southern Belle, and helped capture thieves, spies, and prevent at least two murders. Before long she was the head of the new Women’s Department.

Allan Pinkerton is quoted as saying to the female recruits “In my service, you will serve your country better than on the field. I have several female operatives. If you agree to come aboard you will go in training with the head of my female detectives, Kate Warne. She has never let me down.”
She died on the 28th of January 1869 of a pulmonary edema caused when a fall from a runaway horse broke her ribs. It turned into pneumonia and she died at the age of 38 in Pinkerton’s own home. Allan Pinkerton was by her side and she was buried in his family’s cemetery plot. It’s not recorded what Mrs. Pinkerton thought of all this. We can only imagine that she was unhappy with the situation as Pinkerton's son pushed for the removal of the woman's department, but had to wait until Allan Pinkerton's death in 1884 to accomplish that.
Hattie Lawton with fellow Pinkerton agent, Timothy Webster, before his execution
Her legacy continued, for a while, in the other female operatives. The second woman employed was the first mixed-race agent. Hattie Lawson, or Carrie Lawton (called H.H.L.) in the agents reports, who just might be the stunningly beautiful Kitty Prescott Brackett who posed as the wife of a spy captured during the civil war. Pinkerton and had been a chartist back in his native Scotland, campaigning for universal suffrage. In the USA he worked on the underground railroad, helping runaway slaves reach safety. He saw through gender and race in a way which was unusual for the USA at that time, but it definitely helped him put his detective agency on the map. John Scobell was the first black man recruited to the agency in late 1861. Hattie was hired in 1860 and was not only the second woman employed at the world famous detective agency, but some historians speculate was the first, mixed race woman as well due to the circumstance of her meeting with Pinkerton. 

Hattie played a key role at the detective agency for many years, assuming various identities and ferreting out information that aided in solving numerous cases.  One of the most dangerous assignments in which Hattie participated involved gathering intelligence about Confederate army movements.  She posed as Timothy Webster's wife, and while he was executed, she was imprisoned for a year in  in Castle Thunder prison in Richmond, Virginia before she was exchanged for Confederate spy Belle Boyd, in 1862. Whilst imprisoned, he Union's most accomplished spy, Elizabeth Van Lew, visited Hattie Lawton, but it is unclear whether Van Lew was aware of the real identity of "Mrs. Timothy Webster." It's hard to believe she didn't. Van Lew ran her own spy ring, but by 1861 Pinkerton was head of the federal government's Secret Service.

Elizabeth Van Lew

Other female agents, like Elizabeth H. Baker, not only infiltrated the confederate side, but sat casually sketching the opposing force’s naval forces in full view of a naval officer, before handing them over to the union side. She also worked on robberies and missing person cases. Elizabeth Van Lew worked as a nurse in a Confederate Prison, who collected intelligence which she passed to Washington in code.  

All these women have one thing in common. Their histories are elusive, and they often have so many versions of their names it can be hard to pin down their real identities before they melt into obscurity. The fact that many of the records of the Women’s Department were destroyed in the Chicago fire in 1871 makes research even harder. That’s probably fitting for women who lived their lives in deep cover, but frustrating for those researching these elusive pioneers. If this post is light on detail, and low on photographs, it's not only due to the light footprint these women left, it's also a testament to their skills. These roles would later be known as 'spooks' in modern vernacular due to the fact that they would flit in and out and leave nothing but a memory.        

At their worst the Pinkertons were heavy-handed thugs who broke strikes and shot up family homes to capture criminals. At their best, they were not only revolutionary in their recruitment, but they were amongst the first to see the value in a national database. A systematic and analytical approach to investigation now seems routine, but only the enlightened took advantage of the growing scientific discoveries which assisted in solving crime in the 19th century.

Not everyone was delighted at the prospect of female detectives. Pinkerton and Warne were frequently accused of having an affair, and often posed as man and wife. Pinkerton’s son, Robert, fought against the hiring of more females, but his father insisted that he would continue to “to use females for the detection of crime where it has been useful and necessary.”

When Allan Pinkerton died in 1884, Robert finally got his way. He closed down the women’s department and cited complaints from agents’ wives about their husbands working with women.
The very existence of the Women’s Department was gradually forgotten by all but a few, and the groundbreaking work done by these brave women was almost lost to history to all but a few enthusiasts. I’m glad to feature a fictionalised version in The Innocents Mysteries. They are murder mysteries, set in the late 1860-1870s and stripped of the political partiality the agency later became notorious for. I hope it will renew interest in these remarkable women.     

A vacant-looking man with prominent yellow teeth walked into her field of vision, striding beyond the blinding sun and dragged her roughly from the horse. She had expected to be searched and had ruthlessly bound her body with bandages to try to flatten and conceal her breasts, but the man merely patted down her sides before turning his attentions to her jacket. He pulled out the pistol which had been loosely placed in her pocket and slapped his way down her legs. She was instantly glad she had foregone the Derringer she usually wore at her ankle. A concealed weapon was too risky.
“He’s clean.”
“Well, boy. It seems like you’re gonna get your wish, but if you’ve been messin’ with us and you ain’t Quinn’s kin, you’re gonna regret it. He don’t like to be messed with.”
Abigail felt her arms grabbed as she was roughly turned around and her carefully dirtied hands were bound behind her back, the rope biting deeply into her skin as it was pulled tight. They must have seen her wince as it provoked a chorus of laughter which rang in her ears.
“Looks like this life’s a bit too rough for you, sonny.”
 A thick, smelly bag was thrust over her head, obliterating the world, before she was lifted back onto her little colt and she felt herself led off to face the rest of the gang.



  1. Christine, have I mentioned lately how much I LOVE The Innocents? I have to say it again, because I don't think it can be said enough. LOL Great series, and I love learning more about the background of the characters you've invented. Congratulations on your series--it's just fabulous!

    1. Thank you SO much for all your support and help in 2018.

  2. Christine - you're a fabulous writer. I enjoyed the Innocents, and can't wait to continue with the series.

    1. Thank you so much,, John. I appreciate your kind support.

  3. Looks like a new series that I will enjoy reading! Is this the first book or another in the series? I will look for it as my first New Year's read!

  4. Duh - okay - put on better glasses and see this is book three. Lots of reading to catch up!

    1. Thanks, Donna. Each book can be read as a standalone, but there is story arc which connects the series. I hope you enjoy them.

  5. Fascinating reading, Christine, about these female Pinkerton detectives, especially Kate Warne. How deliciously clever of Mr. Pinkerton to use a female operative to worm out information a male detective would be hard-pressed to do in delicate situations. I loved reading this and absolutely must read this series because I have loved detective stories since I was a child. Thanks for this very enlightening article and wishing you a wonderful and successful 2019.

  6. This was such a great article, Christine. I can see you put a great deal of time into researching it. The Pinkertons are a fascinating organization to begin with, but that they used so many women in it from its conception speaks well of the organization. I watched a wonderful series on Netflix about the Pinkertons and the use of women in the organization. I thought it was a great series. My sister worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Nebraska back in the 1960's. She didn't like it much, but I thought it was positively fascinating.
    All the best to you, Christine...