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Monday, October 21, 2019

An Interview with Abi

In celebration of C. A. Asbrey's latest, In All Innocence, I thought it would be fun to have the protagonist of my novel Courting Anna interview her series heroine, Abigail.  Thanks to Christine for playing along -- Abi's responses are hers.  

Manuscript found in a file of old documents pertaining to 19th century lawyer Anna Harrison Brown, a copy of which was sent to author Cate Simon by a historian at the University of Montana. 

Abigail . . . MacKay, is it?  I’m so pleased to meet you – when I found out you’d be passing through Chicago at the same time I was, I couldn’t resist asking for this interview.  I’m a member of the Equity Club.  We’re a corresponding society of women lawyers throughout the United States and territories, and if you can believe it, we have over a hundred members.  Of course, we’re very interested in other roles that women take with regard to the law, and some time ago, I had the opportunity to meet with another female Pinkerton.  She wasn’t free to speak as she was still working for the agency. One of the first things she said to me was, “Get Abi if you can – she has some stories she could tell . . . . “

So, my first question is, how did you join the Pinkertons?

Thanks, Anna. I’m happy with MacKay as I’ve used numerous names in my life. MacKay is the name I was born with, and Scottish women never legally lose their maiden name.

It’s lovely to meet a fellow professional woman. It’s so rare to meet one at all, let alone in a different field. I couldn’t resist tagging this meeting onto a visit with my sister. She lives in Chicago after her husband was hanged for murder, but that’s a whole other story. Anyway, I digress.

We had immigrated from Scotland, and my father started a distillery in Brooklyn. He did very well and made a fortune, but fell prey to a protection racket. Being very stubborn, and obstinately fearless, he refused to pay up. Allan Pinkerton had been a friend of my father’s back in Scotland. They were both chartists, and came into contact professionally as my father made whisky, and Allan Pinkerton made barrels. It was logical that my family would turn to him for help, and even more logical that Allan Pinkerton would have a vested interest in finding the killer of an old friend.

I fell into the Pinkertons almost by accident. I had no idea women did this kind of work. Prior to that, I was living a happy domestic life with my lawyer husband, and expecting a child. I thought my life was mapped out for me.

I was very close to my father, and shared his love of science and books. I was devastated when he was killed, especially as the murder came just a few months after I lost my husband to peritonitis. I actually found the body, and the stress caused me to lose the baby boy I was carrying. I developed a deep melancholia, and found myself unable to eat or get out of bed. After a few weeks I found myself obsessing over the murder, and on getting justice for my father. Poking around and asking questions gave me something to get up for, and before I knew it I was pushing myself deep into the investigation and trampling all over the carefully-laid work the Pinkertons were already doing.  Allan Pinkerton was simultaneously annoyed and impressed by how far I got, but said I was easier to control if he actually employed me. We did solve the murder, and as I’d lost the people I cared for most in the world, I thought I might as well help others get the same justice. I had dreamed of having a family and a home, but those things had gone. Being a Pinkerton Detective gave my life some meaning.                    
 What a fascinating story; and I’m so very sorry.  I was lucky enough to practice law with my father for a number of years before we lost him.  So you came to the Pinkertons through tragedy, but from what my informant tells me, you flourished there.  What did you enjoy – or value? – most about the job?

Helping people. Especially people who don’t have a voice; the poor, the women, the children, the immigrants, and all those who lack the ability to fight back. That’s a quality I get from my father. Being a chartist he believed strongly that ordinary people should have a voice. Allan Pinkerton shared that belief, and employed black men and women as agents, as well as white women like me. I like to think I made a difference, and put away some truly evil people. 

That’s marvelous.  We’ve – that is, my father and I, and now my partner, Jonathan Cranbrook, and I, have reached out to people who need our help, too – in particular a number of the natives whose lands are nearby – the Blackfeet and the Crow nation.  And recently we learned how difficult it was for a woman, a close friend of ours with every reason on her side, to obtain a divorce.  What was your greatest challenge?

The answer to that will always be the personal challenges; when people close to me are hurt or killed. Those impact on me very deeply, and I have a tendency to be almost paralyzed by grief before it galvanizes me into action.  I think too deeply about things, and hold my feelings inside rather than always express them.  That’s not always a good thing, as they can turn bad and poison the soul. My husband has taught me to flush them out.  On the other hand, such tragedies have given me a special insight into the pain and suffering of victims, so I try to turn that into a positive force for good.
I think all of my most challenging cases involved children. They are especially vulnerable to exploitation.     

Oh goodness, yes.  It can be heartbreaking.  I’ve taken in several orphan girls over the years, and it’s overwhelming to think how many more there are out there with no one to help them.
You must have encountered some interesting opponents during your time at the agency. Who would you say was your greatest adversary?

If you mean greatest, as in best, that would definitely be my husband. We were on different sides of the law when we met. I was even sent to bring him in, but he most definitely wasn’t what I expected. Most criminals are stupid, so when they talk about a clever criminal it’s all relative, and most are still pretty dumb. Nat was different. He had a brilliant, quicksilver mind. He is mostly self-taught, and like most autodidacts, he has an expansive and eclectic set of skills. We share a love of science and an interest in new technologies, so really enjoy attending exhibitions and fairs to see them demonstrated.

I expected to meet a cunning, ruthless, and selfish outlaw. The man I met was charming, funny, humane, and damaged. Circumstances robbed him of his childhood, and he was raised by an uncle only a little older than he was. Jake found them a room at a brothel and did odd jobs around the place to allow Nat to attend school. As you can imagine, under those poor influences, they quickly drifted into a life of crime. Unfortunately, they were very good at it, and petty crime turned into grand larceny. We both fought our attraction for a long time as it could destroy both our lives.

Eventually though, the inevitable happened. Both Nat, and his uncle Jake, decided to go straight. I’m happy to say they turned into honest and productive members of society.   

I think you know full well I didn’t mean best, but most challenging – however, it sounds like the answer would be the same in either case – and quite a story it is!  I met my own husband through the bars of a sheriff’s lockup when I was called in to defend him, so I’m hardly one to judge, in any case.  But presumably you had some interesting coworkers, as well.  Who would you say was your staunchest ally? 

Apart from Nat and Jake, that would be a lady called Dr. Davida Cadwalader – Vida for short. She worked for the Pinkerton Detective agency during the war as an agent and was arrested for spying. She escaped. but continued working for the agency. The war gave her an opportunity to move from nursing to studying medicine, and she became a doctor. From there she travelled to Zurich to study under Wilhelm Wundt, and became what most people call an alienist, but she sometimes calls herself a psychologist.

She not only trained me when I joined the agency, but helped me work through my deep melancholia at losing my baby. We soon became fast friends, even though she’s much older than me. She’s very brave and loyal, and an adherent of rational dress, she often wears a man’s frock coat and top hat. Vida doesn’t care a jot what people think of her. She’s the person I turn to for unqualified support, as my family can never know I was a Pinkerton Detective. They think I work as a governess, just to keep myself busy, and they really wouldn’t understand the dangers and pressures I’ve faced. My life was a secret even to my family.

Vida and Nat clashed when they first met, but they soon came to understand one another.

I’ve had an opportunity to look over some of your case files, and I’m fascinated by your knowledge of forensics – not something I’ve had much of a chance to study.   Can you tell me a little bit about your background in the science of solving crimes?

I was always interested in science, and my father encouraged me. I very much doubt he ever thought I’d use it professionally, but he did encourage me to get an education. He thought I might be able to help my children with their own studies. He supported women being educated as it meant that their families were more likely to prosper. He came from a poor background and knew the value of education.

The agency was very keen to use the scientific methods being used to solve crimes in Europe. The works of people like James Marsh, Alexander Lacassagne, Hans Gross, Joseph Bell, Edmund Locard, Henry Goddard, Alphonse Bertillon, and William Herschel all inspired Allan Pinkerton to use the most modern methods in solving crime. He also saw the benefits of keeping files on criminals and criminal intelligence, and I have found these records invaluable in solving crime. It’s how I found out my sister’s husband’s previous wives all died in suspicious circumstances. It helped save her life.

There are tests we can conduct ourselves after training, and people like Vida and Doctor MacIvor are employed to help the detectives with more complex scientific matters. I have to say I enjoy that side of things and try to keep up to date with all the advances.

I carried a basic kit of chemicals, and a microscope, for work in the field. I enjoyed the challenge of analyzing clues to find the culprit. I actually miss it sometimes.      

I know a bit about William Herschel, anyway.  I understand his sister Caroline was quite an astronomer, herself.  Of course, she didn’t have the same opportunities that he did.  Which brings me to my next question:  one of the biggest objections to women in both of our professions is that we belong in the home, being protected by our menfolk from the cruel and dangerous world.  In a case that my legal sisters will remember well and unhappily, Bradwell v. Illinois, Justice Bradley, of the U.S. Supreme Court, went so far as to say it was the law of the Creator.  What do you make of that?

Ha! I’ve seen too many women who needed to be protected from the menfolk to fall for that. Women are at the forefront of tragedy and cruelty all the time. We care for the sick, wash the dead and prepare them for burial. We give birth, wipe bottoms of the young as well as the extremely old, and routinely make a very little go a long way. We carry the emotional burden for the whole family, and face violence in the home which we are expected to either tolerate, or cover up. That attitude isn’t protecting people; it’s making them less prepared to face reality, and keeping people from reaching their full potential. Strength isn’t a male or female quality. It’s a human one. Sometimes even the strongest can be weak, and it’s good for a strong man to have someone to fall back on. That person is often a wife, mother, sister, daughter, or aunt. Many women don’t want to do the work either of us have done, and that’s just fine. Many men don’t either. However, if we’re both capable and keen I can see no reason why we shouldn’t – and that goes for men too. One of the reasons many of us came to the USA is that the social strictures of the old world stopped clever men from a lower class from moving up in the world. I look forward to a day when people of both genders are limited only by their abilities. I wonder if that will ever happen.

Speaking of matters domestic – I’m told you’re quite a cook.  That’s a talent I envy and do not share; fortunately for my nearest and dearest we’ve never been in a situation where anyone’s had to survive on my cooking for any period of time.  Tell me about your favorite thing to cook – although my readers and I are lady lawyers, we are still ladies, after all.

Oh, yes. I love to cook. I find it very relaxing, and do my best thinking when doing mundane things like peeling and chopping. Some people think it’s odd that women could want both a career and a family, but I don’t find it odd in the least. I want to explore everything nature gave me. 

While a number of our members are single ladies, others of us are married – and I firmly believe that every woman should make the choice that’s right for her.  It’s simply that we should have choices, the same as men do.  But back to food!

There’s a Scottish desert called Cranochan which my family love. It’s usually made with honey, toasted oats and whisky. I hate whisky, despite my family making their fortune in it, so I’ve made my own version, which I call Twisted Cranochan. It couldn’t be simpler. Raspberries and the orange liqueur go beautifully together.

Twisted Cranochan
For the shortbread
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
3 cups flour

Thoroughly cream sugar and butter until it . Add 2 1/2 cups of the flour and mix thoroughly. Turn out onto a surface floured with remaining 1/2 cup of flour. Knead dough until it cracks on the surface. If it doesn’t come together add a little buttermilk to help it blend.
Roll out 1/4-inch thick and cut out with cutters. Prick with a fork tines in lines and place on gray paper or on greased and floured baking sheets. Bake in a hot oven for about 45 to 55 minutes or until lightly browned.

For the cranochan
At least 2 1/2 cups of heavy cream
1 pound of fresh raspberries (out of season you can use canned)
Around 7 tablespoons of triple sec or Grand Marnier
Crumbled shortbread to taste
Whip the cream and place some of the raspberries in the bottom of a dish. Liberally sprinkle with the alcohol to taste. Top with crumbled shortbread. Add a layer of whipped cream. Repeat these steps until the dish is full. Individual tall glasses can be used if preferred.   

That sounds delightful! 

You mentioned that your husband was once your adversary; I told you in response that mine was once a client.  Jeremiah had a past – there was a pretty big reward out on him when we first crossed paths, and until the statute of limitations ran out on some of the things he'd done, he was always looking over his shoulder.  But he’d changed his ways before we ever met, and I knew how hard he was striving to lead an honest life.  Anyway, as a defense attorney I always look for the good in my clients, and it wasn’t hard to find, in his case.  But a Pinkerton and her quarry – that is quite a romantic story, I’m certain.  Do you mind telling me a little more, off the record?

Nat was special. He had something unique which shone through the rough patina. I’ve spoken to enough criminals to know that nobody is all good, or all bad. We all have a darker side, and many criminals also have a softer side. What was refreshing about Nat was that he was honest about being dishonest. He didn’t deliver a sob story, even though he actually had one. He didn’t justify his crimes, even though I found out much later that he hit out at the organizations which orphaned him, and which tried to sell him and his uncle as cheap labor as children. He never robbed ordinary people, and had a code of morality regarding violence. I’m not defending him. Nobody excoriated his terrible choices more than me, but there was a genuine humanity and decency at his core. I pushed him to make a choice between honesty and dishonesty, and even though he couldn’t change his past, he could change his future.

I know lots of women think they can change a man. I’m cynical enough and experienced enough to know that you can’t. I didn’t change Nat - he’s still the same old rogue. He’s still a mixture of good and bad, but we all are. Just like everyone else he makes choices which enhance his life. It used to be easy money, poker, and a wild life. The difference is that now is his home, career, and family enhances his life.

But hey, on top of all that we all like to flirt with danger sometimes. I know I did. We just don’t expect it to get serious.

Indeed.  I was engaged when I was young, and after my fiance died, I’d decided that no other man would ever understand me the way that he had.  And so I was determined to stay single.  In a strange way, danger was my safe choice, since Jeremiah wasn't in a position to settle down, not when we first met.  But life has a way of surprising us, doesn’t it?

It’s been delightful to meet you and hear your story, and I’m sure our members will be fascinated by your career – and by that wondrous-sounding dessert!   All the best for whatever’s next for you and yours, and I hope our paths cross again.

Further research found that the answers to all but the last of these questions were published in the Equity Club’s Annual for 18--.

Read more about Abi in the Innocents Series:

C.A's Social Media:
Blog - C.A Asbrey - all things obscure and strange in the Victorian period
The Innocents Mystery Series Group 

Read more about Anna in Courting Anna:

Cate's Social Media:
Website & Blog:
Newsletter:  Coming Soon
Twitter: @CateSimon3


  1. Thanks so much for for this, Cate. Such an original idea to interview as characters like this! And incredibly generous of you too.

    1. I freely admit to having kidnapped the idea from cozy mystery author Lois Winston, whose character Anastasia Pollack interviewed Anna on her blog. Plus I figured Anna and Abi would get on well!

  2. A wonderful interview, ladies; interesting, informative, and thoroughly enjoyable.

  3. Totally enjoyed the interview and looking forward to a great read. And oh my, doesn't that recipe sound scrumptous--must try.

    1. Hopefully more than one great read. ;-)

    2. If you haven't read Courting Anna, you really must. You'll love it.

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  5. Great interview, very cleverly done. I want to subscribe to the magazine now!

    1. I think you'd need a time machine. ;-) This was so much fun to write -- though honestly, Christine gets about 75% of the credit!

  6. A very clever interview with a character. I liked her answer to the women should be at home so they can be protected by a man. "Ha!" is right. I also liked the answers she gave about Scottish traditions, especially the one where Scottish women keep their maiden names. And, by the way, thank you for those recipes. I must try them.
    All good things to your corner of the universe...

    1. I can attest to the recipe, and it can be made the day before for an easy dinner party too.

    2. Lois Winston does wonderful character interviews on her Anastasia Pollack blog, though it meant my 19th century heroine, Anna, was interviewed by a 21st century cozy mystery protagonist. I couldn't resist having Anna interview Abi, as I thought they'd enjoy meeting -- as they did!

  7. This is so creative! thank you Cate.

    1. Thank you, Unknown. It was fun to do, although 3/4 of the credit goes to Christine for Abi's responses!

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