America’s First Female Detective Was a Chicago ‘Girl in Disguise’

Greer Macallister’s most recent novel, Girl In Disguise, based on the real-life first woman detective in the U.S., is now out in paperback. Girl In Disguise was inspired by Kate Warne, who was hired by Allan Pinkerton in 1856 Chicago to solve cases and fight crime.

I recently sat down with Greer to discuss the facts and fiction behind her version of this groundbreaking detective, how she researched Kate and her contemporaries, and some of her recent reads.

Karen Abbott

What can you tell us about your research process? There is not much information about Kate Warne, and certainly not much primary source material. Did you find anything surprising that shed light on her character, or is she mostly a figment of your imagination?

Greer Macallister

I tell people that this particular work of historical fiction is a little history and a lot of fiction. You’re right that provable historical information on Kate is hard to come by. If I were a biographer I would have thrown up my hands in defeat after I visited the Pinkerton Agency archives in the Library of Congress and it didn’t even take me a full day to locate and review every document that named Kate. Instead I decided that for a historical novelist, those gaps in the record were invitations, and I’d unwittingly found just the right subject for a novel-length fictional treatment. A nonfiction account of Kate that stuck to known facts would be an article at most — and much of that would be
drawn from Allan Pinkerton’s books, stretching the definition of “known facts,” given that he’s not always reliable either.

I tried to use my imagination to interpret and extrapolate from what we know instead of substituting for it. We know she didn’t have children, but not how she felt about it, so I had to imagine what her reasoning was behind that choice, or whether it was a choice at all. She was likely a widow — Pinkerton said she was — so I spun a story around that too. She must have been a talented actress with a gift for mimicking accents, given that she was able to blend in with native Southerners when she went undercover in their midst as a woman from Alabama. From all the “musts” and “likelies,” I wove my version of Kate together.

Karen Abbott

Did you rely on diaries and other primary source material to make the dialogue so authentic and true?

Greer Macallister

Since Kate didn’t leave any diaries or letters, we don’t have her voice, so I had to come up with one. That took almost as long as writing the rest of the book! While I’m drafting, I do try to immerse myself in primary sources of the period for the sake of dialogue as well as plot and drawing an authentic backdrop. What sort of cases were the Pinkertons working at the time? What were people wearing, eating, buying? In this period Chicago was undertaking one of its you-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up infrastructure projects — improving the city’s drainage by raising the grade of certain neighborhoods by several feet, then using hydraulic lifts to raise existing buildings (in one case, half a city block at once) to the new grade.

Karen Abbott

What is your secret trick for turning an obscure historical figure into such a complex, three-dimensional and relatable character?

Greer Macallister

No secret — just hard work! As I said, finding Kate’s voice was a challenge, but I gave her the personality I felt she must have had in order to do the things we know she did. From there it’s a delicate dance of stitching together plot and character. Sometimes the things that had to happen drove the plot — she helped save Abraham Lincoln’s life in 1861, there was no way that wasn’t going in the book — and I developed her character by figuring out how she’d act and react in that situation. And sometimes it was the other way around, and I wanted to show her development, so some of the cases and events flowed from that.

Karen Abbott

Is there any interesting fact about the real Kate Warne that didn’t make it into your book?

Greer Macallister

It’s interesting but also sad that she died quite young, apparently in her thirties. The year on her gravestone (you can visit it in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery, as I did) is 1868. I decided not to end the book with her death — it’s not a fictional memoir so much as the love story between a woman and her job, with the obstacles and challenges that any good love story includes. And any story can have a happy ending if you pick the right place to end it.

Karen Abbott

The detective Allan Pinkerton recognized the particular skills and value of women detectives fairly early on in his career. How many women did he employ besides Kate? Did these other characters have any useful primary source material?

Greer Macallister

I don’t have any solid figures on how many women in total were in his employ, but we do know that he was so impressed by Kate’s work that he established a Bureau of Female Detectives around 1860, and put her in charge of it. I’ve run across maybe a half-dozen names of woman Pinkertons from that period, including Hattie Lawton, who also makes an appearance in Girl In Disguise, but there could have been far more.

Karen Abbott

What have you read lately that you’ve loved?

Greer Macallister

So much! I just finished Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, which balances elegant language and urgent, compelling plot in a way few books can pull off, and Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion (which I reviewed for the Chicago Review of Books). And Mary Sharratt’s novel about Alma Mahler, Ecstasy — it’s a corker. I’m always reading at least three things at once these days. I always have an advance copy of something on hand, either for blurb consideration or to review, as well as an e-book and an audiobook.

Karen Abbott

What’s next for you?

Greer Macallister

For Women’s History Month, I started publishing an interview each day on my blog with a woman writer whose work is inspired by women from history — and I’m having so much fun I can’t stop! The #WomensHistoryReads interview project will be at least 50 interviews by the time I finish and it could be a lot more. Once I wrap that up it’ll already be time to start promoting my next novel, Woman Ninety-Nine, which comes out early next year from Sourcebooks. Set in 1888, it’s about a wealthy young woman who puts everything at risk to rescue her sister from a notorious insane asylum, including her sanity, her future and her life.


Girl in Disguise
By Greer Macallister
Published April 15, 2017

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, Missouri Review, and Messenger. Her plays have been performed at American University, where she earned her MFA in creative writing. She lives with her family on the East Coast.


2 comments on “America’s First Female Detective Was a Chicago ‘Girl in Disguise’

  1. And to clarify on the photo in the header, as I know some fans will ask — while the image of the soldier has been widely identified online as Kate Warne, the original photo in the Library of Congress is identified as someone else entirely. So it’s probably a mistaken identification. Just another example of how the “real” Kate remains elusive…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an interesting interview. Maybe not having a lot of information about a historical figure can work to an author’s advantage. You can anchor a story with a few key facts, but then the lack of historical information actually gives you more freedom to create the fictional aspects of the story. Thanks for sharing.


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