Small and neat, she wore a mauve and gray plaid skirt and matching vest and jacket. Her light brown hair was braided over the top of her forehead, and a snood of the same pristine white as her blouse covered the bun at her nape. The crinoline under her skirt was of a modest width; she was well dressed for middle class, but clearly not a society woman.
Mr. Hamilton stood to greet her, and I followed his example belatedly. “Mrs. Perry. Thank you for coming to promptly. I apologize for the short notice.”
“No trouble at all. I understand there have been developments in the case you inquired about.”
“Indeed. Mrs. Andrews, may I present Mrs. Lydia Perry, of the Pinkerton Detective Agency.”
—Off the Rails
In 1856, a 23 year old widow from Erin, New York walked into Allen Pinkerton’s Chicago office and asked him to hire her.
And not as a secretary.
Kate Warne was effectively a nobody before that August day. We know little about her past, except her birth place and year. But she would go on to become one of the most important women in America–and the inspiration for one of my favorite characters.
In OFF THE RAILS, danger lurks around every corner for Sophia Andrews, herself a new widow. When she starts to investigate the murder of her husband, it soon becomes clear that the killer is still nearby, and is keeping a close eye on Sophia. Through her friend and confidant, Joshua Hamilton, she hires a pair of Pinkerton detectives to help her uncover the culprit: Lydia Perry and her husband, Silas.
“I’m sorry, but there seems to be some mistake…I thought you wanted to hire a Pinkerton for my protection, not…I’m very sorry, Mrs. Perry, I don’t mean to insult your abilities. I’m sure you are a wholly capable detective.”
“But you were expecting someone…taller, perhaps?” her lips quirked into a smile that was half mirth, half agitation. I got the feeling she had been second guessed more than once in her career.
“Among other things, yes.”
“Then let me begin by saying I am well versed in all of the ways in which a lady might defend herself, from throwing off an assailant unarmed to shooting a man at twenty paces.”
The smile broadened almost imperceptibly. “I also happen to be excellent at blending in wherever I am needed, be it a dinner for the upper crust, or hunting for crusts in a slum. My work has taken me all over.”
—Off the Rails
Lydia, as a well brought up white woman with a pretty face, a clever wit, Oscar-worthy acting skills, and the afore-mention sharp-shooting talent, was inspired by Kate and the women she led as Pinkerton’s Female Superintendent of Detectives. She was a master of disguise and particularly adept at worming her way into Confederate drawing rooms just before and during the Civil War. In fact, it was in this capacity that she was able to not only verify a suspected plot against President Elect Lincoln’s life in 1861, but to discover the when, where, and how to go along with it.
Though Pinkerton believed her and the two of them presented their argument to Lincoln, neither he nor his staff thought it a credible threat until it was verified from another source*.
Finally given permission to act, Kate sprang into action. At the time, Lincoln was on an inaugural tour, visiting cities between his hometown of Springfield, IL and Washington, DC before being sworn in as president. Baltimore at the time was both a hotbed of secessionist activity, but also a major rail depot. All southbound trains had to change tracks in Baltimore, and there was about a mile between the Northbound station and the Southbound**. His itinerary called for him to take a carriage between the stations, completely exposed. The secessionists planned to start a fight near the route, drawing away his police protection and allowing him to be mobbed by angry civilians.
While Pinkerton arrange to block the telegraph lines, preventing any news of Lincoln’s itinerary–or changes to it–from being leaked, Kate chartered a special train car in her guise as a southern belle, renting 4 berths for her “family,” including her “invalid brother.” The president elect, wrapped in a shawl and felt cap, snuck aboard the train with Kate, Pinkerton, and a single body guard. The non-stop train sped through the night, delivering him safely to Washington the next morning.
In addition to saving the future president’s life, Kate Warne also worked as a Union spy during the Civil War, and tracked down murderers and bank robbers afterward. She remained in the field despite also serving as the supervisor for all of Pinkerton’s female agents, who were also quite incredible in their own rights***. She changed the way people see women in warfare, and in covert operations. She died in 1868 of pneumonia, and it would be another twenty years before police forces in America would employ female officers–and another thirty beyond that before one would become an officer.
Though Lydia Perry is only a side character in OFF THE RAILS, Kate Warne acted as an inspiration not only for her but also for Sophia Andrews and all the keen-eyed women in her circle.
*Frederick W. Seward, who was the son of Lincoln’s Secretary of State Designate, William H. Seward.
**Trains were weird during the Civil War. Each rail company had it’s own station, and there weren’t big central stations where you could catch a lot of trains run by different companies. If you think it’s a pain trying to get to your next gate during an airline layover, try going across town. Additionally, many companies used different gauges for their trains (the space between the wheels). The south was on a uniformly smaller gauge than the north.
***This article has more information on the women she oversaw.
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