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Greer Macallister Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Greer Macallister

Greer Macallister

An interview with Greer Macallister

Greer Macallister outlines the real-life characters that populate her novel Girl in Disguise, including Kate Warne, who became the first female Pinkerton agent in 1856.

Kate Warne is one of the most interesting people we know almost nothing about.

The real Kate Warne was indeed hired as the first female Pinkerton agent by Allan Pinkerton himself in 1856 after answering a newspaper ad. That much we know. Multiple accounts say she was a widow, though what happened to her husband is not clear, nor why she took the extremely drastic step of applying for a position that had never previously been open to women.

We're not even sure what Kate looked like. There are no confirmed images of her. Two photographs show up from time to time in discussions of her. Both date from the Civil War, and both show a person in men's clothing, so it's far from certain that we're really looking at Kate. For such an influential and pioneering figure, precious little information about her has been recorded and passed down. Then again, as a detective and a spy, that's probably how she liked it.

Everywhere we turn for information on Kate's life, there are blank spaces. Many of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency's files are kept in the Library of Congress, and those files are extensive; however, much of the material previous to 1871 was wiped out by the Great Chicago Fire, and Kate's entire career was previous to 1871. From those files, we know a few things: We know she was the first female detective, because Pinkerton wrote about hiring her. We know her work included befriending suspect Nathan Maroney's wife to gather evidence on the Adams Express theft case. We know she disguised herself as a medium to investigate a poisoning case at the behest of a Captain Thayer (whose sister and her lover were, in fact, trying to poison him, as the investigation proved). And we know she was instrumental in saving Lincoln's life on his way through Baltimore to his 1861 inauguration by pretending to be the sister of the disguised "invalid" Lincoln in his shawl and soft cap. Not a bad résumé, but there must have been so much more we don't know about. In a way, that makes her the perfect subject for historical fiction. I've had the freedom to imagine her, for which I'm intensely grateful.

As for the world I've drawn around her in these pages, I can say this: if truth isn't always stranger than fiction, it is at least a great deal more complicated. I have streamlined, combined, and edited many people and events from the historical record to serve my own purposes here.

Historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, George McClellan, and Ward Hill Lamon appear here in positions they held in real life, though, of course, I have put words in their mouths. (It's my job.) As for the Pinkertons, Hattie Lawton and, obviously, Allan Pinkerton worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency during the years this book is set. Tim Bellamy is based on Timothy Webster, Pinkerton agent and highly skilled undercover spy for the Union, who was apprehended behind enemy lines in Richmond and hanged in April 1862. Many sources take it for granted that Allan Pinkerton and Kate Warne had a long-term affair, but there is no real proof of this. I've taken her romance in a different direction. This novel is really a love story between a woman and her work.

Students of history will realize that I took considerable license with the assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln in Baltimore and the apprehension of the Southern spy Rose Greenhow; readers interested in more factual accounts can find them in the excellent nonfiction books The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower (Lincoln) and Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott (Greenhow). Abbott's book also gives a more complete picture of the fascinating real-life Elizabeth Van Lew and Belle Boyd, whose appearances in these pages are brief.

Kate's amazing career with the Pinkertons, which included supervising the agency's Female Bureau of Detectives for many years, was cut short by her death from a sudden illness in 1868. She is buried in the Pinkerton family plot. Perhaps fittingly for a woman whose life is so shrouded in mystery, her name is misspelled on her tombstone: Kate Warn.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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