Wild Women of the West: Hattie Lawton


Hattie Lawton Wild Women Wednesday Cowgirl Magazine

An article in the May 14, 1893, edition of the New York Times categorized women as the “weaker, gentler sex whose special duty was the creation of an orderly and harmonious sphere for husbands and children.  Respectable women, true women, do not participate in debates on the public issues or attract attention to themselves.”  Kate Warne and the female operatives that served with her defied convention, and progressive men like Allan Pinkerton gave them an opportunity to prove themselves to be capable of more than caring for a home and family.

Kate’s daring and Pinkerton’s ingenuity paved the way for women to be accepted in the field of law enforcement.  Prior to Kate being hired as an agent, there had been few that had been given a chance to serve as female officers in any capacity.  

In the early 1840s, six females were given charge of women inmates at a prison in New York.  Their appointments led to a handful of other ladies being allowed to patrol dance halls, skating rinks, pool halls, movie theaters, and other places of amusement frequented by women and children.  Although the patrol women performed their duties admirably, local government officials and police departments were reluctant to issue them uniforms or allow them to carry weapons.  The general consensus among men was that women lacked the physical stamina to maintain such a job for an extended period of time.  An article in an 1859 edition of The Citizen newspaper announced that “Women are the fairer sex, unable to reason rationally or withstand trauma.  They depend upon the protection of men.”

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union played a key role in helping to change the stereotypical view of women at the time.  The organization recognized the treatment female convicts suffered in prison and campaigned for women to be made in charge of female inmates.  The WCTU’s efforts were successful.  Prison matrons provided assistance and direction to female prisoners, thereby shielding them from possible abuse at the hands of male officers and inmates.  Those matrons were the earliest predecessors of women law enforcement officers.

Aside from women hired specifically as police matrons, widows of slain police officers were sometimes given honorary positions within the department.  Titles given to widows meant little at the time; they were, however, the first whispers of what would eventually lead to official positions for sworn police women.

Even with their limited duties, police matrons in the mid to late 1800s suffered a barrage of negative publicity.  Most of the commentary scoffed at the women’s infiltration into the field.  The press approached stories about police matrons and other women trying to force their way into the trade as “confused or cute” rather than a useful addition to the law enforcement community.

Allan Pinkerton’s decision to hire a female operative was all the more courageous given the public’s perception of women as law enforcement agents.  Kate Warne had the foresight to know that she could be especially helpful in cases where male operatives needed to collect evidence from female suspects.  She quickly proved to be a valuable asset, and Pinkerton hoped Hattie Lewis also known as Hattie Lawton would be as effective.* Hattie was hired in 1860 and was not only the second woman employed at the world famous detective agency, but some historians speculate was the first, mixed race woman as well.

Pinkerton was an individual, looking beyond gender and race as few did at the time.  In the late 1840s, he was active on the Underground Railroad and helped many runaway slaves escape to Canada.  He spoke out against the Fugitive Slave Act passed by the U. S. Congress in September 1850.  The law penalized officials who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave and subjected them to a fine of $1,000 for aiding in his efforts to be free.  Since any suspected slave was not eligible for a trial, the law resulted in the kidnapping and conscription of free blacks into slavery, as suspected fugitive slaves had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations.  

Chicago became a clearing house for runaway slaves.  In the rural area such as Dundee where Pinkerton resided, some enterprising young men were forming businesses to hunt fugitive slaves for a reward.  Pinkerton was outraged by the “blood hounds” and sought ways to defy them.  In 1857, he was one of a delegation called to investigate a slave catcher passing through town.  Historians believe it was during this investigation that he met Hattie Lawton.  Some of Hattie’s family was suspected of being among a party of slaves Pinkerton sheltered to disperse to Canada.  

Born 1837, Pinkerton described the widowed Hattie as “delicate and driven.”  He wrote that “her complexion was fresh and rose-like in the morning.  Her hair fell in flowing tresses.  She appeared careless and entirely at ease, but a close observer would have noticed a compression of the small lips, and a fixedness in the sparkling eyes that told of a purpose to be accomplished.”   

Hattie played a key role at the detective agency for many years, assuming various identities and ferreting out information that aided in solving numerous cases.  One of the most dangerous assignments in which Hattie participated involved gathering intelligence about Confederate army movements.  In 1862, Hattie and Pinkerton operative Timothy Webster were dispatched to Richmond, Virginia, posing as a wealthy married couple.

Allan Pinkerton was working with General George B. McClellan who was general-in-chief of the Union army.  Pinkerton would become the officer’s personal, secret operative.  General McClellan received orders from the Commander in Chief at the White House, and he passed them along to Pinkerton who passed them on to the operatives in the field.  Hattie and Timothy pretended to be Rebel sympathizers from Perrymansville, Maryland.  Timothy had indeed been in Perrysmanville working to expose the suspected plot of malcontents to damage railroad property.  Then all of the sudden, the situation became of national importance, and for a time Pinkerton and Timothy held history in the making.  

Just prior to relocating to Virginia, Timothy had been living in Baltimore and working on cases for the detective agency.  His primary objective was to gain acceptance from Southern groups of sympathizers in the area and find out their plans to thwart the Union’s military efforts.  After several months, Timothy managed to infiltrate a secessionist group known as the Sons of Liberty.  The Sons of Liberty was an underground organization determined to help overtake the government.  Timothy became one of the Sons’ most trusted members.  Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin recruited him to be a courier for the Confederate’s “secret line” between Washington, Baltimore, and Richmond.  The Pinkerton operative not only made sure the documents they were carrying made it to Rebel combatants but to Union officers and Pinkerton staff members.  His relationship with the Sons of Liberty was to continue after he relocated.  Unfortunately, the detective fell ill to inflammatory rheumatism and was unable to deliver messages to and from Confederate spies.  Daily reports to Pinkerton had stopped as well.  Fortunately for the detective agency, another operative was ready to take over Timothy’s duties.

Hattie Lawson and Timothy Webster were living at the Monument Hotel in Richmond, Virginia, when he became sick.  The numerous trips across the Potomac River in frigid weather Timothy made to transport secret documents back and forth brought on his illness.  He was confined to bed, and Hattie was by his side to nurse him.  She did not have the relationships he did to carry on with his responsibilities as a courier, but she was determined to find her own way to gain secrets.  

Hattie was well acquainted with Confederate Secretary of War Benjamin and many members of his staff.  They would tip their hats to her on the street and ask about her husband.  She believed she could acquire information from one or all of the war cabinet in a social setting; perhaps at a dinner the men might discuss details between one another that could be overheard.  

In late February 1862, Hattie recruited the help of a Pinkerton operative living in Washington named John Scobell.  Scobell had been working for the detective agency since the fall of 1861.  He was a former slave in Mississippi who had been well educated by his owner, a Scotsman, who had freed him.  According to the Central Intelligence archives, he was quick witted and an accomplished role player which permitted him to function in several different identities on various missions, including a cook, laborer, or a musician.  He often worked with Pinkerton agents sometimes playing the role of a servant who attended to horses.  Hattie wanted John to pose as the Websters’ servant and eavesdrop on influential, southern contacts when she and Timothy socialized.  In between such engagements, John planned to visit popular taverns in the area to sing and pass the hat.  He hoped he might pick up information from Southerners at these settings.  After two weeks he learned that Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston was escorting three regiments of Rebel soldiers to Yorktown.

“Good God,” Hattie remarked when John shared the news.  “That means a whole army corps is moving, at least 20,000 men.”  John drafted a report to Pinkerton, and Hattie hurried to tell her superior Kate Warne, also in Richmond at the time, what had been revealed.  

In the weeks that followed, John and Hattie rode out to the Confederate fortifications surrounding Richmond nearly every afternoon.  She was welcomed everywhere.  “A pretty young woman was always a cheering sight for battle-fatigued soldiers,” Pinkerton added in his own report about the matter years later.  While Hattie chatted with officers, John, unnoticed, would inventory everything in sight and sketch the entrenchments at will.  His daily reports were lengthy.  More and more, Hattie was serving as a distraction while John performed the real espionage.  

The majority of orders the spies received from Pinkerton in Washington were addressed to both Hattie and John, but on occasion a message would come through solely for John to read.  Those messages would be stuffed into the barrel of a revolver.  Not long after the pair had sent word to Pinkerton about the Rebel troop movement, a message was delivered to John concealed in the gun.  The coded message John deciphered read:  “McClellan ready to move.  No time for sending reports through here.  Daily reports must go directly to McClellan.  Find a way through lines so, Mrs. Lawton can hand reports to Captain Lawton.  Extremely important and dangerous.  Always be armed.  You must protect Mrs. Lawton at any cost.  Pinkerton.” *    * Author found no information to confirm nor deny that Hattie Lawton was married to Captain Lawton.

The following morning John told Hattie about Pinkerton’s message.  When night fell, the operatives rode out into the country.  Outside Richmond, they waited until the sun rose the next day before pressing on.  Mrs. Lawton had a pass to ride through the lines by day, but the pass was not good in the evenings.  They had been instructed by Pinkerton to meet Captain Lawton at a road intersection in front of a church.  Both knew the location, and at the appointed time the three converged at the rendezvous point.  The first meeting was brief.  Captain Lawton feared they might be discovered.  He asked that Hattie and John meet him at an inn in Glendale, farther away from their initial rendezvous sight.  He believed they could meet there regularly and safely.  The inn was run by a woman supposedly loyal to the Union.  Daily reports intended for General McClellan and compiled by the spies were hidden in the hollow handle of Hattie’s riding crop.  John, acting as her groom (a servant who attends to the horses), rode with a Smith and Wesson tucked inside his shirt.  He vowed to protect Hattie just as Pinkerton had advised.

During one of the exchanges of reports, John noticed a certain peddler acting suspiciously.  The traveling salesman was too loud and overly friendly with the patrons.  His backslapping camaraderie was too exaggerated to be sincere.  He bought too many drinks for too many people.  John shared with Hattie and the captain his concern that the peddler might be a counterspy.  The captain left the inn immediately hoping the cagey man would follow him.

Sensing their conversation had been compromised, Hattie and John decided they needed to make their way back to McClellan’s headquarters and arrange for transportation back to Washington.  Hattie believed if they didn’t return to Pinkerton’s office at the capitol they risked being arrested by the Rebels and hanged.  Timothy continued to struggle with his health, but she and John agreed his safety, as well as their own, was paramount.

Just as the spies were about to leave the inn, a stable boy stopped John to let him know the peddler who had set out after the captain had backtracked and was now waiting down the road with four armed riders.  John reasoned the counterspy was guarding against a possible escape to McClellan’s headquarters.

According to Pinkerton’s account of the spy’s experience as relayed to him in their reports, both were well armed and fully prepared to defend themselves.  John stressed to Hattie that their horses were superior to the mounts the peddler and his men had.  If they managed to sneak out of the inn they could ride hard to the nearest Union garrison twenty miles away.  “If we get into trouble,” John reportedly told Hattie, “I’m going to shoot it out, but you keep going.  You and Allan Pinkerton are more important than any one man.”

The pair left the inn through a side door and rode swiftly along at a free and sweeping gallop.  Their horses were steady, fast, and sure.  They were able to put a great deal of distance between themselves and the inn and in a short time felt a little at ease.  “I guess we will get through all right, not with-standing our fears to the contrary,” Hattie remarked to John.  “I don’t know about that,” John replied, “we’re not through with our journey, and there’s plenty of time for trouble yet.  Perhaps we had better walk the horses a spell.”

The pair dismounted and led their rides through a richly cultivated district; on either side were farms whose growing crops had not yet been touched by the ravages of war, and the country, under the soft light of the moon presented a scene of rare beauty.  To the left ran the James River; to the right the country was broken and hilly.  The night was soft and balmy, and the silence was only broken by the sound of the horses’ hooves as they slowly trotted along.  Once the spies felt the horses were rested, they climbed in the saddles and quickly pressed forward to a spot called Wilcox’s Wharf.  The Union garrison was just beyond that.  

As the pair approached a growth of timber they had to ride through, an instinctive feeling of dread came over both of them.  “Just the place for an ambush,” Hattie said.  “Draw your pistols, John, and be ready in case of an attack.”  He did as suggested and urged his horse ahead of Hattie’s.  The two made it safely to the edge of the woods, but as they emerged on the other side the peddler and his riders were waiting.  “What to do now was a question to be decided promptly,” Pinkerton later wrote of the incident.  “To turn and retreat would certainly ensure their capture…so they resolved to bravely continue on their way.  A few hurried words were exchanged between them, as they arranged that each should select a man and fire on him the instant they were challenged.”

As the riders approached, the spies were divided, two going on each side of the road leaving a space between them.  Two of the riders were wearing Confederate uniforms, and two were dressed in civilian clothes.  All were heavily armed.  The peddler let out a Rebel yell, and Hattie and John spurred their horses into a full gallop.  The men hurried after them and in a matter of minutes gradually closed in on the pair.  John had his revolver in his hand but wouldn’t fire on the group until he was sure he would hit one of them.  

The road the spies and counterspies raced down suddenly curved, and the full moon drifted behind the clouds leaving the pathway in the shadows.  John’s horse stepped into a hole, stumbled, and fell.  He was thrown unharmed from his mount.  Hattie jerked her horse to a stop, turned the animal around, and raced back to the spot where John had hit the ground.  He scrambled to his feet and waved to Hattie before she had a chance to climb out of the saddle.  “Are you hurt?” she asked.  “No, but my horse is,” he replied.  “Go ahead.  Don’t mind me,” he ordered.  “Save yourself.”    She heard the Rebels yell again and sped off in the direction of the Union camp.  

Listening intently, John could hear the clatter of the hooves of Hattie’s horse in the near distance.  Coming closer every instant was the sound of the approaching horsemen.  John urged his injured horse to the side of the road and placed himself behind the animal; resting his weapon across the saddle, he waited for the coming of the approaching horsemen.  The Confederate riders were nearly upon John and he made a good target in the moonlight.  When the first rider’s horse was almost on top of him, John took careful aim and fired his gun.  The horse went down with a bullet through its head.  The rider was knocked unconscious.  John shot and killed the second rider.  He emptied the remaining rounds of the gun into a third Rebel who uttered a scream of anguish and toppled from the saddle.  

John ducked down to quickly reload his weapon.  The remaining man stopped his horse with a jerk that drew the animal back upon his haunches, and then, turning the horse swiftly around, set off in the opposite direction back toward Richmond.  John fired at him as he rode away.

It wasn’t long before John heard hoof beats coming from the direction of the path Hattie took.  In a moment the operative was surrounded by U. S. cavalry commanded by Captain Lawton and led by Hattie.  John informed the captain that the fourth rider had fled, and a party of four was ordered to track down the renegade.  The cavalry soon found the rider lying dead in the bush.  The last bullet John fired had struck the man, who turned out to be the peddler, in the arm and shattered it.  The deceased man was escorted to the Union lines.  

John was sent to Pinkerton’s headquarters in Washington and reassigned to another case.  Hattie returned to Webster’s sickbed to continue caring for him.  It was subsequently learned that the peddler was a Rebel spy and for some time had been visiting the Union camps gathering information, which he no doubt conveyed to other Confederates.  “On his person were found papers which fully confirmed this,” Pinkerton later wrote about the case.  “That they failed to reach their destination was a fortunate occurrence for the Union cause.”

Despite Hattie’s round the clock nursing, Timothy Webster’s health continued to decline.  He was in constant pain, and his joints and muscles were grotesquely swollen.  His rheumatism was so far advanced he had trouble walking and feeding himself.  Hattie focused all her attention on him.  Reports to Pinkerton from the two operatives were few and far between.  Concerned for the safety of the pair, Pinkerton sent detectives John Scully and Pryce Lewis to investigate.

The Monument Hotel where Timothy and Hattie were living was a popular hostelry for statesmen, military leaders, and politicians.  Spies and counterspies from both the North and South frequented the halls and lobby of the establishment exchanging secrets and quietly discussing battle plans.  Operatives John Scully and Pryce Lewis were unaware Confederate agents had tailed them from Washington to Richmond.  The Pinkerton men were followed to the hotel and to the Websters’ room.  As they were leaving, they were recognized by a Rebel soldier, Lieutenant Chase Morton.  John and Pryce had arrested Lieutenant Morton’s Southern sympathizing father, Senator Jackson Morton in late 1861.  The lieutenant had the operatives taken into custody and charged with espionage.  Neither Timothy nor Hattie was arrested, but a blanket of suspicion covered their every move.

John and Pryce were tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged on April 4, 1862.  They were granted stays of execution when it was revealed both men were not American citizens but British subjects.  Attorneys for the operatives advised their clients that the order to hang them could be reinstituted if they didn’t cooperate with the Confederate army and tell all they knew.  Pryce Lewis steadfastly refused to give the Rebel leaders any information.  John Scully, however, was intimidated into giving up names of double agents, one of whom was Timothy Webster.   

The accusations against Timothy were dismissed at first because he was so well connected with Confederate officials.  The Confederate officials didn’t believe Timothy was capable of being a counterspy.  Only after John sighted examples of Timothy’s duplicity did the Rebel leaders believe the operative was telling the truth.  As a result of John’s willingness to share, both his and Pryce’s death sentences were commuted.  Erroneous information spread that Pryce, as well as John, had betrayed Timothy.  The error was compounded later when Hattie reported the betrayal as well.  Pryce fought hard to clear his name.  The stigma of his betrayal hounded him most of his life.  Neither John nor Pryce would work for Pinkerton again.  In 1910 Pryce ended his life by jumping off the dome of the World Building in New York.  

If Timothy’s health had been better, no doubt he and Hattie would have attempted to flee Richmond.  Timothy tried to convince Hattie to leave and save herself, but she refused.  Several days of anxious suspense followed before they were arrested by Confederate authorities and taken to a jail called Castle Godwin in Richmond.  The Castle was a converted tobacco warehouse and most often referred to as a hellhole.  George Alexander was the cruel prison superintendent.

Allan Pinkerton’s official report to President Lincoln, General McClellan, and the provost marshal general about agents Timothy Webster and Hattie Lawton noted that the atmosphere inside the prison was gloomy and reeked of filth and disease.  When Timothy was initially led into the dank, dark prison, he could hardly walk.  He was pale and emaciated.  The inmates pitied him and feared the next step would be to intern the dead man at the jail with the living.

Hattie was taken by guards to Confederate officers for questioning but refused to answer a single query.  Her stubbornness infuriated the officers, and they ordered her to be confined in a room with another female prisoner.

Fearing that Timothy would die before his trial, the provost marshal called for investigators to quickly prepare the case against the operative.  Court was convened for early afternoon the day after Timothy and Hattie had been arrested, and court was initially held at the jail.  “For three long, weary weeks did the investigation drag its slow length along,” Pinkerton wrote about the case, “although it was apparent that those who tried him had already decided upon his fate.  Numerous witnesses were examined, and testimony was admitted which would have been excluded by any righteous tribunal whose ideas of justice were not obscured by an insane desire for revenge.”  

Pryce Lewis and John Scully were called to testify about Timothy’s involvement as a double agent.  They attempted to do their utmost to lessen the effect of their testimony, but it bore heavily against the ill prisoner.  The attorney assigned to represent the accused did the best he could but could not save the Pinkerton operative from the guilty verdict that was ultimately rendered.  On April 19, 1862, Timothy was convicted of being a spy in the employ of the Federal authorities.  The judge sentenced him to be hanged and the execution date was set for April 28, 1862.  

The day after Timothy’s execution was set, Hattie was given permission to visit him in his cell.  The two hadn’t been allowed to communicate with one another since the day they’d been arrested.  “The meeting between Timothy and Hattie was a most affecting one,” Pinkerton noted in the report about the matter.  “Tears filled the eyes of the faithful woman as she gazed at the pale and emaciated form of the heroic patriot.  Their hands were clasped in a warm pressure, and her words of heartfelt sympathy and grief were choked by the sobs which shook her frame.  Even in the excess of his despair, Webster’s fortitude never for a moment forsook him.  He bore the burdens which had been imposed upon him with courage and firmness that impressed all who witnessed it.”

In an effort to make his cell sanitary, Hattie washed the bedding and his clothes and was allowed to cook a meal for him.  She wanted Timothy to be made comfortable in his last days.  In addition to improving her fellow operative’s living conditions, she sought an interview with Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  Davis was too busy discussing war with General Lee to speak with Hattie, but Davis’ wife agreed to see her.  On bended knee Hattie pleaded for Mrs. Davis to intercede to have Timothy’s life spared.  The woman declined to interfere in matters of state.  Crying, Hattie left the Davis’ home utterly discouraged.  She vowed to fight to remain by Timothy’s side until the day he was to be taken to the gallows.

Timothy petitioned the Confederate court to put him to death by any other means but hanging.  Officials visited him in his cell to tell him they would not change the sentence.  Hattie was frantic when she heard the news.  She was unable to restrain herself and fell at the messengers’ feet.  “Please,” Hattie interjected.  “Do not, I pray you, condemn this brave man to the odium of a felon’s death.  Think of his family and his suffering.  He does not sue for pardon.  He seeks not to escape your judgment, harsh and cruel as it is.  He only prays to be allowed to die like a brave man in the service of his country.  You certainly can lose nothing by granting this request, therefore, in the name of justice and humanity, let him be shot instead of the dreadful death you have ordained for him.”

Her request was denied; Hattie’s plea was for naught.  “Then he will die like a man and his death will be upon your head,” she called out to the cold, unfeeling officials.  “It will be a living curse until your own dark hour shall come!”

At 5:15 in the morning of April 29, 1862, guards unlocked Timothy Webster’s cell in preparation to escort him to the parade grounds where he was to be hanged.  Turning to Hattie and taking her hands in his, Timothy murmured, “Goodbye, dear friend; we shall never meet again on earth.  God bless you and your kindness to me.  I will be brave and die like a man.  Farewell, forever.”  Hattie wailed and threw herself onto the floor as the guards led Timothy out his cell.  

The gallows were located at the north side of the parade grounds.  Timothy walked unflinchingly to the scaffold, then slowly and painfully ascended the platform.  His arms were tied behind him; his feet were bound together, and a black cap was placed over his head.  The signal was given, the trap was sprung, and, with a dreadful, sickening thud, Timothy fell from the gibbet to the ground beneath.  The hangman’s knot had slipped, and he fell in a confused heap.  Timothy was lifted up and returned to the scaffold.

“I suffer a double death,” Timothy told the men around him.  The rope was again placed around his neck, this time so tightly it was painful.  “You will choke me to death this time,” the condemned man said.  In a flash, the trap was again sprung, and the brave patriot was swinging in the air between heaven and earth.

The captain of the guards returned to Timothy’s cell to inform Hattie that her friend was dead.  She asked if she could see his body, and the guard led the way.  Several Rebel soldiers were standing around the coffin when Hattie entered the room where Timothy was lying in state.  Overwrought with despair and angry over the treatment of her partner, Hattie unleashed a torrent of emotion.  “Murderers!” she exclaimed to the Confederate troops and officers on either side of her.  “This is your work!  If there is vengeance or retribution in this world, you will feel it before you die!”

Hattie petitioned the Rebel court to allow her to bury Timothy in a New York cemetery where he had once been a police officer, but her request was denied.  Timothy’s body was buried in an obscure corner of a pauper’s field not far from where he was hanged.

Hattie, who had been convicted of being a conspirator of espionage with Timothy, was sentenced to one year in prison.  She was often visited by Elizabeth Van Lew, a Southern-born, Union sympathizer who operated from Richmond during the Civil War.  Elizabeth brought scraps of food and other comforts to the women and elderly at Castle Godwin.  The benevolent woman managed to negotiate Hattie’s release from jail on December 13, 1862.  Hattie’s freedom and that of three other Federals were exchanged for the release of the notorious, Rebel spy Belle Boyd.

Hattie proved herself to be a loyal and valuable member of the Pinkerton force.  Her talent in espionage, combined with the skills of the other Pinkerton operatives, helped save the life of President Abraham Lincoln.  

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