Wild Women Of The West: Operative Ellen


Operative Ellen Female Detective Civil War Cowgirl Magazine

Several months before the start of the Civil War, Kate Warne was masquerading as a Southern sympathizer and keeping company with women of refinement and wealth from the South.  When war did break out those women were unafraid to expression how much in favor they were of the Rebels. Some of them were secretly supplying the Confederate forces with information they had acquired using their feminine wilds.  Kate was tasked with staying close to opponents of the government who were seeking to overthrow it and secure proof that secrets were being traded.

For weeks Kate had been monitoring the movements of Mrs. Rose Greenhow, a Southern woman it was believed was engaged in corresponding with Rebel authorities and furnishing them with valuable intelligence.  By late August 1861, Allan Pinkerton and a handful of his most trusted operatives, including Kate, had compiled enough evidence against Rose that a warrant for her arrest was granted. She was outraged when Pinkerton detective agents invaded her home and began gathering boxes of secret reports, letters, and official classified documents.  She called the agents “uncouth ruffians” and objected to her home being searched.

Pinkerton and his team left none of Rose’s possessions intact in their quest to extract all suspicious paperwork.  The headboards and footboards of all the beds were taken apart, mirrors were separated from their backings, pictures removed from frames, and cabinets and linen closets were inspected.  Coded letters were found in shoes and dress pockets. Among the items found in the kitchen stove were orders from the War Department giving the organizational plan to increase the size of the regular army, a diary containing notes about military operations, and numerous incriminating letters from Union officers willing to trade their allegiance to their country for a romantic interlude with Mrs. Greenhow.     

According to Rose’s account of the inspection of her house and the seizure of many sensitive letters the “intrusion was insulting.”  One of the investigators at the scene complimented her on the “scope and quality” of the material found. It was “the most extensive private correspondence that has ever fallen under my examination,” the operative confessed.  “There is not a distinguished name in America that is not found here. There is nothing that can come under the charge of treason, but enough to make the government dread and hold Mrs. Greenhow as a most dangerous adversary.”

Pinkerton had hoped to keep the arrest quiet, but Rose’s eight year old daughter made that impossible.  After witnessing the operatives foraging through her room and the room of her deceased sister she raced out the back door of the house shouting, “Mama’s been arrested!  Mama’s been arrested!” Agents chased after the little girl, but she climbed a tree and nothing could be done until she decided to come down.

A female detective Rose referred to in her memoirs as “Ellen” searched the suspected spy for vital papers hidden in her dress folds, gloves, shoes, or hair.  Nothing was found. Historians suspect the operative Rose referred to as Ellen was Kate Warne. Kate divided her time between guarding the prisoner and questioning leads that could help the detective agency track and apprehend all members of the Greenhow spy ring.  Rose realized quickly that Kate was not someone to be trifled with and she kept her distance.

In the days to come several women suspected of being a part of Rose’s spy ring were also arrested and kept under lock and key with their leader at her house.  The Rebel informer’s home was referred to as Fort Greenhow and newspaper reporters flocked to the house of detention hoping to get a look inside and converse with the prisoners.  The January 18, 1862, edition of Boston Post included an article about the home for inmates and described what it looked like.  The article reported that Rose and her daughter had been confined to the upstairs portion of the residence and all other guests occupied the downstairs.

“We were admitted to the parlor of the house, formerly occupied by Mrs. Greenhow,” the article continued.  “Passing through the door on the left and we stood in the apartment alluded to. There were others who had stood here before us we have no doubt of that, men and women of intelligence and refinement.  There was a bright fire glowing on the hearth, and a tete-a-tete (an S shaped sofa on which two people sit face to face) was drawn up in front. The two parlors were divided by red curtains and in the backroom stood a handsome rosewood piano with pearl keys upon which the prisoners of the house, Mrs. G. and her friends had often performed.  

“The walls of the room were decorated with portraits of friends and others, some on earth and some in heaven, one of them representing a former daughter of Mrs. Greenhow, Gertrude, a girl of seventeen or eighteen summers, with auburn hair and light blue eyes, who died sometime since.  

“Just now, as we are examining pictures, there is a noise heard overhead, hardly a noise, for it is the voice of a child soft and musical.  ‘That is Rosey Greenhow, the daughter of Mrs. Greenhow, playing with the guard,’ said the Lieutenant who noticed our inquisitive expression.  ‘It is a strange sound here; you don’t often hear it, for it is generally quiet.’ And then the handsome face of the Lieutenant relaxed into a shade of sadness.  There are many prisoners here, no doubt of that, and maybe the tones of this young child have dropped like rains of spring upon the leaves of the drooping flowers!  A moment more and all is quiet, and save the stepping of the guard above there is nothing heard.”

Among the number of items seized at the Greenhow home was a cipher or special code used to write cryptic messages.  Pinkerton gave the cipher to Kate and asked her to rewrite one of Rose’s dispatches and insert bogus information. The dispatch would then be disseminated in hopes of reaching Confederate Colonel Thomas Jordan, a key figure in the network of spies.  Rose was his protégé and prior to the Battle at Bull Run he assisted on passing messages about troop numbers and positions. He had devised the cipher Rose used and Pinkerton believed there was a chance Colonel Jordan would act on the misinformation Kate supplied.  

Colonel Jordan was aware that Rose was under house arrest and considered the possibility that she might have been able to smuggle the message out to him from where she was being held.  After examining the letter and discussing the situation with his associates it was decided that it was too dangerous to reply to her or act on the instructions she suggested. Colonel Jordan created a new cipher and waited.  If Rose was still an active informant the cipher would find its way to her.

Pinkerton was furious that the message Kate penned had obviously not been deemed legitimate.  “Our efforts failed and I’m sure she expected that,” Pinkerton’s recalled about Rose and her accomplishments as a counterspy.  “She made use of whomever and whatever she could as mediums to carry into effect her unholy purposes… She has not used her powers in vain among the officers of the army, not a few of whom she has robbed of patriotic hearts and transformed them into sympathizers with the enemies of the country which had made them all they were…

“For a great many years Mrs. Greenhow has been instrumental of the very men who now lead in the Rebel councils and some of those who command their armies; who have successfully used her as a willing instrument in plotting the overthrow of the United State Government and which she, no less then they, had desired to accomplish; and since the commencement of this rebellion this woman with her uncommon social powers, her very extensive acquaintance among and her active association with the leading politicians of this nation, has possessed an almost super human power, all of which she was most wickedly used to destroy the government.  With her as with other traitors she has been most unscrupulous in the use of means. Nothing has been too sacred for her appropriation as by its use she might hope to accomplish her treasonable ends.”

The fact that Pinkerton and his operatives as well as Union soldiers were standing guard in and out of Rose’s house did not deter her from attempting to get messages to Jefferson Davis.  She tried to slip messages out in hollowed out tobacco plugs, hollowed out canes, and even placed a note inside a ball of pink yarn and gave the ball to her daughter to deliver. Rose’s defiance prompted Pinkerton to have her transferred to the Old Capitol Prison.  When rumor reached her that in all probability she would be moved and tried for treason she boldly announced there would be “rich revelations” if such a thing occurred.

The day Rose was transferred to the Old Capitol Prison the street where she lived was filled with curious bystanders.  Neighbors, business owners, soldiers, and Union supporters lined the thoroughfare to watch the spy led to jail. Kate and the other Pinkerton detectives were on hand to witness Rose escorted to the facility as well.  Taking her daughter’s hand and holding it tightly she paraded passed the sea of faces staring intently at her. Her head up, her eyes fixed straight ahead, Rose said nothing as she walked along. Mother and daughter were housed in a room on the second floor of the prison.  Their room had one window and the view was of the yard where inmates could congregate. The furnishings were simple: a bed, chair, mirror, and sewing machine.

Rose Greenhow didn’t lack contact with the outside world while interred at the Old Capitol Prison.  The October 7, 1911, edition of the Syracuse Herald noted that there were a number of men and women who delighted in supplying her with information they had.  She also had friends in the government departments who lost no opportunity in communicating with her. Many letters Rose wrote were to officials she believed could do something about her dismal “living conditions.”  

“She composed letters of complaint to Congressmen and local authorities,” the Syracuse Herald reported.  “Two of the scathing letters were sent to the Secretary of State and duplicates were successfully dispatched to Richmond, where they were published in the newspapers. According to the January 9, 1862, edition of the McArthur Democrat, Rose objected to being a “closed prisoner, shut out from air and exercise.”  

“Patience is said to be a great virtue and I have practiced it to my utmost capacity of endurance,” Rose wrote Secretary of Seward.  “I am told, sir, that upon your ipse dixit the fate of citizens depends and that the sign- manual of the ministers of Louis XIV and XV had not more potential in their day than that of the Secretary of State in 1861.  

“I therefore most respectfully submit that on Friday, August 23, 1861, without warrant or show of authority, I was arrested by the detective police, and my house taken in charge by them; that all my private letters and paper of a lifetime were read by them; that every law of decency was violated in the search of my house by Pinkerton detectives, and my person by an uncivilized female operative, and by their surveillance over me.”  

Historians’ suspect Rose’s reference to the “uncivilized female operative” has to do with Kate Warne.  “We read in history,” Rose’s letter of grievance to Secretary Seward continued, “that the poor Maria Antoinette had a paper torn from her bosom by lawless hands and that even a change of linen had to be affected in sight of her brutal captors.  It is my sad experience to record even more revolting outrages than that for during the first days of my imprisonment, whenever necessity forced me to seek my chamber, a detective stood sentinel at the open door.

“For a period of time I, with my little child, was placed absolutely at the mercy of men without character or responsibility; that during the first evening, a portion of these men became brutally drunk and boasted in my hearing of the ‘nice times’ they expected to have with the female prisoners.”

Pinkerton and his operatives utilized the time Rose was at the prison to complete their investigation.  The additional dispatches collected at the Greenhow home provided the agents with the names and locations of key members of her spy network.  More than fifteen arrests were made subsequent to Rose being apprehended.

Eugenia Phillips, the wife of a farmer, Alabama Congressman and Washington attorney, Colonel Thomas Marshal Key, Judge Advocate and McClellan’s aide-de-camp, banker William Smithson, and a well-respected dentist named Aaron Van Camp, were among those Pinkerton agents investigated.  Their investigation unearthed proof that supported the suspects was involved with Rose Greenhow and helped to steal secrets.

Members of the Greenhow spy ring joined Rose in her opinion that the Pinkerton operatives were manufacturing evidence.  Critics of the detective agency believed they concocted tales of spies and assassination plots to further their business.  Rose’s letter writing campaign to the Secretary of War not only called into question the integrity of the Pinkerton agency and its operatives, but included a list of additional problems about life at the Old Capitol Prison.  Rose wrote that she was living in a “squalid physical environment, contending with rats, bad food, and exposed to an uncomfortable and unsanitary cell.”

The October 7, 1911, edition of the Syracuse Herald noted that Rose was not so much concerned for herself, but for her daughter.  “I am seriously alarmed about the health and life of my child. Day by day I see her fading away.  Her round chubby face, radiant with health has become as pale as marble. The pupils of her eyes are unnaturally dilated, and finally a slow, nervous fever seized upon her.  I implored in vain, both verbally and in writing that a physician might be sent.”

Rose declined the services of a military doctor called to the prison.  She wrote the provost marshal and told him that the treatment of her child had no “precedent in a civilized age.”  In response to her note a doctor was sent whose services she had already rejected. Rose tossed the doctor out of the cell.  Finally her family physician was allowed to examine the girl. With better food and more exercise the child’s health improved.  

The hearing against Rose Greenhow began in March 1862.  She considered the entire proceeding an outrage. She wasted no time in announcing it was a mock trial and scoffed at the incriminating evidence compiled by Pinkerton and his Washington operatives.  She referred to all the detectives as “despicable scoundrels and denied any wrong doing. “I have not made nor will I make any confession of treason or treasonable correspondence,” Rose announced to the court on April 2, 1862.  “Neither was I subjected to an examination intended to bring to the light my sources of information. I but claim the right which our fathers did in ’76 – to protest against tyranny and oppression.”

Rose Greenhow was found guilty of being a spy against the federal government and sentenced to be banished from the North.  On June 2, 1862, Rose, her daughter and four other female traitors were released from the Old Capitol Prison and sent to Baltimore.  From there the women were to be transported by boat to the South. The June 3, 1862, edition of the National Republican reported that Rose received “quite an ovation from the secession women of Baltimore, much to the disgust of the Union people of the city.”  

Pinkerton objected to Rose and the other accused traitors of being exiled and transported to the South.  His operatives had been seen by Rose and Pinkerton feared if she was permitted to travel to Richmond (where she requested to be sent) that she would expose the detectives and their lives would be in jeopardy.  She could provide the Rebels with descriptions of George Bangs and Kate Warne. Both agents worked assignments throughout the Confederate states and if they were recognized as detectives employed by the Union they would be put to death.  Pinkerton believed Rose should have been hanged for her actions and not allowed to place the lives of his best operatives at such risk.

Rose was celebrated in Richmond.  Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States extended his appreciation for her patriotism.  According to Rose’s memoirs, Davis boasted that there would have been no victory at Bull Run without her help.  

If the efforts of operatives like Kate Warne and Hattie Lawson had been made public perhaps the press would have praised the capable agents for their work at uncovering Rebel espionage rings.  The women employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency were content with being anonymous. They lived their lives in secret and apart from exposure to counter spies such as Rose Greenhow there was little chance of their vocation being discovered.  As long as Rose was free Pinkerton operatives would be on guard.

When Rose left the country with her daughter in August 1863 she hadn’t a worry in the world.  She was headed to London to write a book about her experiences as a spy imprisoned by Union forces, Allan Pinkerton, and his agents.  The book entitled My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington became a best seller.  In August 1864, Rose returned to America aboard the steamer the Condor.  She was carrying with her the proceeds she had earned from the sale of her book.  She had sewn hundreds of gold sovereigns into her corset and underclothes.

On the evening of September 30, 1864, the Condor was making its way from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, when it entered the New Inlet Bar near Wilmington, North Carolina.  In the dark of the night the captain of the vessel mistook a partially sunken blockade ship as a working ship set to attack.  Hoping to avoid a collision the captain turned the Condor out of the way and accidentally ran the vessel aground.  Rose and two Confederate agents decided to escape from the doomed ship using lifeboats.  The water was rough and the lifeboats quickly overturned. Rose was attempting to swim ashore when she drowned.  The gold sovereigns she was wearing weighted her down.

News of Rose’s death, as well as the particulars of her funeral, was covered in newspapers throughout the South.  The October 20, 1864, edition of the Wilmington Journal reported that “hundreds of ladies lined the wharf at Wilmington upon the approach of Mrs. Greenhow’s remains.”  The Soldier’s Aid Society took charge of the funeral, which took place from the chapel of Hospital No. 4. “It was a solemn and imposing spectacle,” the Wilmington Journal article continued.  “Mrs. Greenhow leaves one child, an interesting little daughter, who is in convent school at Paris, where her mother left her upon her return to this country.”

Among the items found on Rose’s body was a copy of her book, a note to her daughter, and a cipher that provided a key to the messages she sent to Confederate commanders.

As head of the Secret Service for the Union Army, Allan Pinkerton was called on to recruit agents with varying skills.  In addition to ship officers, farmers, merchants, and clerks he hired seamstresses, socialites, and in the case of Vinnie Reams, an artist.  From the time Lincoln was elected President and the Baltimore Plot was uncovered, Pinkerton was dedicated to the protection of the Great Emancipator.  Rumors of plans to assassinate President Lincoln were consistently brought to the detective’s attention and he was honor bound to investigate every report.

Some of the threats to do away with the President were believed to have originated from within Mr. Lincoln’s own administration.  In order to discover which politician might be plotting against the leader Pinkerton needed to enlist the help of individuals who could get inside the operation without raising suspicions.  An American sculptor commissioned to make a marble statue of President Lincoln was drafted by Pinkerton as one of those inside the operation.

Vinnie Ream was just seventeen years old in 1864 when the President agreed to model for her.  Creating the bust of his figure would take six months. The Wisconsin native was a gifted artist who apprenticed with sculptor Clark Mills in Washington.  Mills was highly respected and had been commissioned by Congress in 1853 to create a statue of Andrew Jackson on a horse.

Prior to Vinnie being able to utilize her artistic talent for President Lincoln she was working at the dead letter office of the United States Post Office.  She was one of the first women to be employed by the federal government. Pinkerton believed Vinnie, with her Scottish ancestry, would be the perfect undercover agent.

President Lincoln was poised to be reelected for a second term and those vehemently and violently opposed to the idea were planning to kidnap him and hold him ransom for the release of Confederate prisoners languishing in Northern jails.  Vinnie’s job was to report to Pinkerton any information she could acquire about potential conspirators in the White House.

During the time Vinnie was creating the sculptors Senators and Congressmen filtered in and out of the crypt in the capitol where she was working to watch the process.  She had opportunity to overhear conversations between politicians and staff that were not for public consumption. She was instructed to inform Pinkerton of any suspicious activity or talk against President Lincoln’s policies from his cabinet in particular Vice President Andrew Johnson.

Exactly what Vinnie shared with Pinkerton is not known, but members of the Radical Republicans (a faction of the Republican Party opposed to Mr. Lincoln who were proslavery) believed she had significant political influence.  After President Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865 and Andrew Johnson was sworn in as President, members of the Radical Republicans who knew of Vinnie’s association with Allan Pinkerton called upon her to assist them in keeping Johnson from being impeached.

According to the February 23, 1868 edition of the Detroit Free Press, “the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson arose from uncompromised beliefs and a contest for power in a nation struggling with reunification.  Before President Lincoln was killed his plan of reconstruction called for leniency toward the South as it rejoined the Union. He planned to grant a general amnesty to those who pledged an oath of loyalty to the United States and agreed to obey all federal laws pertaining to slavery.  Andrew Johnson was intent on carrying out his plan when he took office. The idea didn’t sit well with the Radical Republicans and they organized an effort to impeach Johnson.

Influential members of the Radical Republicans like United States Senator Charles Sumner and Representative Thaddeus Stevens, threatened to expose Vinnie as a Pinkerton operative if she didn’t help persuade Senator Edmund Ross (a friend of the Ream family) to vote in favor of impeaching Johnson.  “The vote of Senator Ross of Kansas was needed to help secure a unanimous vote of Johnson’s impeachment,” an article in the September 22, 1909, Des Moines Register noted, “and the Radical Republicans tried to get

the sculptress to influence him.  She refused. The men then asked her to give them access to her home where Ross was living at the time so they could speak with him personally about the matter.  She reluctantly consented, but when the politicians arrived at the house Vinnie “placed herself in their path and would not allow them to pass.”

On Friday, February 28, 1868, Congress voted to impeach President Andrew Johnson.  The February 29, 1868 edition of the Warren Mail reported that the “bold, bad man and accidental President’s fate had been sealed.”  The article went on to explain that “after an able discussion impeachment was passed by a vote of one-hundred-twenty-six yays to forty-seven nays.  As a penance for defying the Radical Republicans Vinnie was nearly thrown out of the capitol, but the intervention of powerful, influential New York sculptors stepped in and prevented anything serious from happening to her.  

The white, marble statue Vinnie Reams sculpted of President Abraham Lincoln unveiled in the United States capitol rotunda occurred on January 25, 1871.  The January 9, 1871, edition of the Harrisburg Telegraph noted that among the government leaders present were Associate Justices Davis and Clifford, the Secretary of the Interior, and several members of the Illinois Congressional delegation.  Mr. Lincoln was presented as holding in his hand the Emancipation Proclamation.

Vinnie died at her home in Washington, D.C. on November 20, 1914, after suffering with an illness for a long period of time.  Pinkerton called on the artist in 1875 when she sculpted a bust of George Custer and in 1878 after receiving a commission to sculpt Admiral David G. Farragut.  What they discussed at either occasion is not known.

Absolute discretion was one of Vinnie’s most admirable qualities.  She never elaborated on her role with the Pinkerton Agency even in the memoirs she wrote and privately distributed in 1908.  Neither is there any reference to the Pinkerton Agency in any of her biographies. She seems to have taken the secret of their association to her grave.  

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