Frequently Asked Questions

what did kate warne look like?

There are no known photographs of Kate Warne. She lived in a time before photography was commonplace, and people might sit for one photograph their entire life. While there is a photo purporting to be Kate Warne undercover as a Civil War soldier, the person in the photo has been identified as John C. Babcock. However, below is a portrait painted of Kate Warne in 1866, gifted to the Chicago History Museum in 1924. So we can get a sense of what she looked like after all!

In Allan Pinkerton's book The Expressman and the Detective, Pinkerton describes Kate Warne this way

"I was seated one afternoon in my private office, pondering deeply over some matters, and arranging various plans, when a lady was shown in. She was above the medium height, slender, graceful in her movements, and perfectly self-possessed in her manner. I invited her to take a seat, and then observed that her features, although not what would be called handsome, were of a decidedly intellectual cast. Her eyes were very attractive, being dark blue, and filled with fire. She had a broad, honest face, which would cause one in distress instinctively to select her as a confidante, in whom to confide in time of sorrow, or from whom to seek consolation. She seemed possessed of the masculine attributes of firmness and decision, but to have brought all her faculties under complete control." 

how did you research kate warne for 'detective's assistant'?

The facts around Kate Warne's life are limited. Her tombstone at Chicago's Graceland Cemetery is fading, and no records exist of her early life. It is believed she was born in 1833 in Chemung County, New York. And she died in Chicago on January 28, 1868, after suffering from pneumonia. Her grave was dug in the Pinkerton family plot, and she is surrounded by her former colleagues – Timothy Webster, George Bangs, and Allan Pinterton himself. Many other Pinkerton family members and employees are there, too.

In researching Kate Warne's life, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Allan Pinkerton's accounts of his detective cases. Written in a fast-paced, lively tone, they are thrilling reads about the early days of the detective business. My copy of The Detective and the Somnambulist, the Murderer and the Fortuneteller dates to 1875, and I always sneeze when I first turn its yellowed, musty pages. The cover features an embossed unblinking eye, and Pinkerton's "We Never Sleep" logo appears below it. I feel lucky to have found this copy, and I cherish it.

I also relied on newspaper reports, magazines, and many other books in my research. Among them were Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln and Norma B. Cuthbert's Lincoln and the Baltimore Plot 1861: From Pinkerton Records and Related Papers (at left). My copy of Cuthbert's work, also with stiff yellow pages and that same "old" smell, is marked up with sticky tabs to show where Kate Warne's actions are mentioned. Throughout the Baltimore investigation she played the part of Mrs. Barley, and Pinkerton's notes record her as M.B.

Here's an example:

[Philadelphia] Friday 22nd February 1861

At about 3.00 a.m. A.P. came to my room, sick, and tired out, and told me that he would not leave the city until evening. Mr. P– then went to his room and I went to bed tired out. I got up at 6.00 a.m. and saw Lincoln raise a Flag on the State House. The streets were crowded with people. After breakfast Mr. P– told me that Lincoln would go to Harrisburg, and at 6.00 p.m. would leave for Philadelphia: that I should leave the St. Louis Hotel at 9.45 p.m. for the Baltimore Depot, where I would meet Dunn and get a verbal report from him, and also any package he might have for Mr. P–. A.P. gave me all necessary instructions and then left. . ."

To get a sense of the appearance of my characters in the late 1850s, I turned to the fashion magazine of the times: Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine. I found a copy featuring articles and images from July through December 1856. The dresses were wide and wonderful, the shawls ornate, the hairstyles sleek.

The magazine also presented music sheets, embroidery patterns, poetry, ideas for curtains, and more. There were stories for readers amusement and education. Some of my favorites are titled "Beauty Out West," "The Art and Mystery of Managing Canaries," and the curious "How I Came to Detest Babies!" Who needs the internet when Godey's Lady's Book is nearby?

If these old books interest you, visit my Pinterest page and check out more images.

Was there really a Home for the Friendless

I tried to base as much of the story as I could on real events and places in history. Some I learned about in Allan Pinkerton's detective accounts that included Kate Warne; others I discovered in reading old newspapers of the day. 

When I read about Chicago's Home for the Friendless, I was intrigued. The name alone was fascinating – a testament to the desperate times as well as just a little bit humorous. I wanted to learn more.

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, "Parents on their way west were known to abandon their children on the streets of Chicago. The 1851 city charter noted children 'destitute of proper parental care, wandering about the streets, committing mischief.' " And so the Chicago Home for the Friendless was built in 1858 at 911 Wabash Street to help care for and house these lost souls.

The drawing above is taken from the 21st Annual Report of the Chicago Home for the Friendless, for the year 1879.

What is a daguerrotype?

A daguerrotype was an early photographic process invented by Louis Daguerre and introduced in 1839. It was popular until about 1860, when it was replaced by simpler, less expensive photographic processes. Here is an example of a daguerrotype of a bride and groom from about 1854, like the one Nell uncovers of Aunt Kitty and Matthew Warne in The Detective's Assistant. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


is this a true story?

The Detective's Assistant is a work of fiction, meaning it's a made-up story. Nell Warne lives and breathes only on the pages of this book. But the real-life Kate Warne and Allan Pinkerton served as my story's inspiration.

From Chicago's early, mud-covered days to Kate Warne's employment as a Pinkerton detective to Abraham Lincoln's dangerous train ride into Washington, D.C., I researched extensively during the two years it took to write this book.

I strove for as much authenticity as possible in presenting this historical novel. I read many newspaper accounts published around this time period, and I included a few real news reports in the book. I also read everything I could find by Allan Pinkerton about his cases. For example, when Pinkerton says of Kate Warne, "She has never let me down" in Chapter 38 of the book, that's a direct quote from Pinkerton's own writings about her.

Aside from many helpful non-fiction books about Chicago's early days and the period leading up to Lincoln's inauguration and the first shots of the Civil War, I also explored helpful websites such as the Lincoln Log and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One lucky item I stumbled upon during my research was a blog post about menus from the Civil War era (see menu at right). Somehow mac and cheese seems so ordinary these days, but just imagine how exotic Macaroni a l'Italienne sounded to a diner like Nell reading a menu in 1857.

Books and other resources used in researching for The Detective's Assistant:

The Expressman and the Detective 
By Allan Pinkerton
W.B. Keen, Cooke & Co., 1874

The Somnambulist and the Detective: The Murderer and the Fortune-teller
By Allan Pinkerton
W.B. Keen, Cooke & Co., 1875

The Spy of the Rebellion 
By Allan Pinkerton 
G.W. Dillingham, 1883

Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements About Abraham Lincoln
Edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis
University of Illinois Press, 1998

The Boarding House in Nineteenth-Century America
By Wendy Gamber
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007

The History of Underclothes
By C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington
Michael Joseph Ltd., 1951

Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age
Edited by Martha Vicinus
Indiana University Press, 1972

Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930
By Joanne J. Meyerowitz
University of Chicago Press, 1988

Lincoln and the Baltimore Plot, 1861
By Norma B. Cuthbert
The Huntington Library, 1949

Allan Pinkerton, The First Private Eye
By James Mackay
John Wiley and Sons, 1997

The Baltimore Plot: The First Conspiracy to Assassinate Abraham Lincoln
By Michael J. Kline
Westholme Publishing, 2008

The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War
By Daniel Stashower
Minotaur Books, 2013

The Chicago History Museum

Graceland Cemetery in Chicago

The Amboy (Illinois) Times
Quote: “He is about six feet high, crooked-legged, . .” July 24, 1856

The Chicago Press & Tribune, various editions and years
Quote: “Messrs. Pinkerton & Co. deserve great credit . . .” January 21, 1857
Quote: “A fine Glee Club. . .” October 2, 1860

The Forensic Examiner, March 22, 2010. “Kate Warne: First Female Detective” by Katherine Ramsland

The Lincoln Log: A Daily Chronology of the Life of Abraham Lincoln (

Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, edited by Mrs. Sarah J. Hale and Louis A. Godey, July-December 1856

Allan Pinkerton Records, Library of Congress

there's a lot of cooking in cupcake cousins. can you cook?

I like to call myself a dangerous home cook because I'm willing to give a recipe a go, but I cannot guarantee the outcome! Luckily, my family is both forgiving and adventuresome. And it doesn't hurt that they're made of hardy stock.

When I got out of college, I survived on Cap'n Crunch's Peanut Butter Crunch Cereal and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. I was not only a terrible cook, but I was also a bit hazardous in the kitchen. It wasn't until I started a family and realized that I had to feed them, too, that I began to apply myself as a chef.

I like all kinds of food but especially Thai and Indian dishes. I love making things with my kids and husband, and we're getting to a point where it's more fun to eat at home than out at a restaurant. My favorite time of year in the kitchen begins in mid-November and runs all the way to New Year's Day. I love cooking at the holidays for as many friends and family as we can gather around the table.

At right is a picture of a Malted Milkball Cake I baked for Christmas last year. Though Cupcake Cousins features lots of fun desserts, I am actually crazy for fruits and vegetables. Really, I'm rarely without a bag of spinach nearby!