Today’s Fierce Femme Friday is a special one. I got to interview the lovely Greer Macallister about her new book, Girl in Disguise. A book about a seriously Fierce Femme: Kate Warne, the first ever female detective in the United States.
Kate Warne is a fascinating woman. What drew you to writing about her?
Her story really is amazing, isn’t it? The first female private detective, solving cases and fighting crime in the 1850s. That was exactly why I had to write about her – the fact that she was a trailblazer and a detective and a spy and she saved Abraham Lincoln’s life and yet if you ask 100 people who Kate Warne is, maybe two or three might know. The first female police officer wasn’t hired until 1910 – Kate was working as a private detective a full 50 years earlier, before the Civil War. As soon as I learned that she was hired as an operative by Allan Pinkerton himself in Chicago in 1856, I figured someone needed to write her story. Turned out to be me.
Very little is known about Kate before she walks into Pinkerton. What research challenges did this present?
The lack of detail on Kate in the historical record certainly made me glad I’m not a biographer! But as a historical novelist, I saw it as an opportunity. Kate didn’t leave us any diaries or letters, so I had the freedom to create her voice instead of trying to recreate it. We don’t have any direct evidence of her personality, so I gave her the personality I think she must have had in order to do what she did. She answered a newspaper ad to be a Pinkerton detective at a time when an ad wouldn’t have specified that only men could apply – because the vast majority of women wouldn’t even consider working outside the home. She must have been bold and fierce.
Even what we know of her after she became a Pinkerton agent is pretty scant. We know a handful of cases that she worked on, but many of the Pinkerton Agency records were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire, so their archives before 1871 are… not extensive. Allan Pinkerton wrote (or “wrote”) a lot of books that survived to the present day, so I knew the types of cases the agency worked on and was able to place Kate in that environment.
I was recently reading an article talking about President Buchanan possibly being gay. The article proposed a theory that in many ways the US was more progressive in the past than it is in the present. What do you think about this in relation to DeForest? And what about Kate?
The popular concept of history is that it’s all about moving forward and getting more inclusive and enlightened, but as I think we’ve been seeing lately, it’s more of a series of cycles. Things get more progressive, then yanked back, then forward, then back. The first woman to run for President was Victoria Woodhull in 1872. Women have been testing boundaries for a really, really long time. The results haven’t always been encouraging, but it’s inspiring that bold women are always out there: trying, pushing, demanding, advocating.
Just because the history books focus on the dead white cis guys, sometimes we get fooled into thinking that their stories are the sum of what was actually going on. But there were women and people of color back then, there were gays and lesbians, there were all the types of people we have in our society now, and their stories just weren’t recorded and shared in the same way. Their differences were erased instead of embraced. There’s also a theory that President Lincoln was gay! The pictures are black and white, but those people lived in full color. I wanted to represent some of that in the book, though with historical fiction you have to make sure you’re not just dropping a modern person with modern thoughts and attitudes into the past. Kate is ahead of her time in some ways, but she’s still a product of the environment she lived in, and I did my best to reflect that.
Kate is wonderfully resourceful with a clear strong voice. She shows that cleverness and determination can make you fierce. It’s a must read for the summer so be sure to pick up your copy of Girl in Disguise now. (psst: it is the book of the month for July at Wine, Women and Words if you want to get a head start)