Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

“Did Kate Warne really save Abraham Lincoln?”

book cover for Kate Hannigan's The Detective's Assistant

One of the great things about The Eight-Year-Old’s school is the plethora of author visits arranged by its library staff.

Last week, The Eight-Year-Old had the privilege of meeting Kate Hannigan, author of The Detective’s Assistant. Being an avid book devourer, naturally The Eight-Year-Old expects that every one of these author encounters will result in the acquisition of at least one new book.

This time was no exception. When The Eight-Year-Old came home proudly bearing her copy of The Detective’s Assistant, it was all I could do to keep from tearing it right out of her hands. I’ve been wanting to read this one myself for a while now.

The Detective’s Assistant tells the story of Kate Warne, the first female detective in the Chicago-based Pinkerton Agency from the perspective of her eleven-year-old niece, Nell Warne. I don’t know how much of the storyline is based in fact and how much is speculation, because I haven’t been allowed to read it yet.

“You’ll have to get in line, Mommyo,” The Eight-Year-Old told me. “I saw it first.”

While I wait, The Eight-Year-Old has a homework assignment for me.

“Mommyo, did Kate Warne really save Abraham Lincoln?”

Even though it risks spoiling the book for those of us who haven’t read it yet, I am obliged to tell The Eight-Year-Old that yes, Kate Warne really did help save Abraham Lincoln’s life just before the Civil War. How she did it sounds like it would make a fantastic story.


The only known photo of Kate Warne, taken during the 1862 Battle of Antietam. Kate is standing by the pole, in disguise. The man sitting on the right is Pinkerton. (Public domain photo via Library of Congress)

Throughout her detective career, Kate Warne used the common assumption that no woman would be a detective to get her targets to confide key information to her. In this case, Samuel Felton, president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad was concerned about the potential for secessionist activity in Maryland to disrupt his railroad’s operations. He hired the Pinkerton Agency to determine the extent of the threat (and to disrupt whatever plans it could). Pinkerton sent several agents into Maryland, one of whom was Kate Warne.

In Baltimore, Kate posed as a wealthy Confederate widow to infiltrate secessionist social functions.

There she learned details of plots to disrupt railroad operations, as well as to assassinate Abraham Lincoln when he traveled through Baltimore in February 1861 on his way to his inauguration.

Lincoln planned to make a train tour, stopping in various towns on his way to Washington to give speeches. His last planned stop was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but getting from Harrisburg to Washington would require him to travel through Baltimore.

At the time, all northern train lines into Baltimore ended at Calvert Street, while the southern trains left from Camden Street. Lincoln would have to travel a mile through the city by carriage to transfer trains. The secessionists planned to stage a riot on the street during his journey, and use the resulting confusion to distract the police and kill Lincoln before he could ever become President.

Kate Warne and her fellow agents gathered these details, relayed them to Pinkerton, and played a pivotal role in convincing Lincoln himself of the seriousness of the plot. Although Lincoln refused to change his schedule completely, he did agree to travel through Baltimore disguised as Kate Warne’s somewhat sickly brother at an obscenely late hour to throw off the attackers.

That’s probably enough of the story to share here. I don’t want to spoil the entire plot of Kate Hannigan’s book. The Eight-Year-Old tells me it’s a spectacular read.

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