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Security History: Detective Hattie Lawton

​​In this new series from ​Security Management, we will examine historical events and people throughout the year that influenced the development of the security profession.

On 8 August 1861 veteran Pinkerton detectives Hattie Lawton and Timothy Webster were recruited by Allan Pinkerton for his secret intelligence service on behalf of the U.S. Union Army, often operating behind enemy lines. 

Pinkerton was an ardent abolitionist and was active in the Underground Railroad, putting him in flagrant violation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The Act carried heavy penalties including fines and imprisonment for aiding fugitive slaves in any manner. He was also deeply involved in Union intelligence missions under Union Major General George McClellan. 

The Pinkertons’ intelligence operation uncovered the Confederate plan to build an ironclad ship—the CSS Virginia—and interviewed escaped slaves to gain information about Confederate plans and movements.

Lawton, whose real name was probably Lewis, is something of a mystery. She was of mixed race with light skin, and she could easily pass as a white woman. Pinkerton may have met her in 1856 when he was part of a delegation formed to investigate a slave hunter. She was likely the first official female detective of mixed race. 

In one intelligence operation in early 1862, Lawton posed as Timothy Webster’s wife in Richmond in order to gain information about Confederate operations. Unfortunately, both operatives were caught and arrested by the Confederates. Lawton and three other Federals were later returned to the Union in a prisoner exchange. The Confederates hanged Timothy Webster, refusing his request to be shot. 

After an intelligence misstep during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 and the subsequent firing of Major General McClellan, Pinkerton resigned from his official intelligence function, but the Pinkertons continued to do work for the Union, investigating fraud and other issues on a contract basis. Private detective agencies were used extensively by municipal, county, state and the federal government up until the 1920s. 

Read more about the Pinkerton National Detective Agency’s female agents in The Pinks​, a new book by Chris Enss. 

By Chris Hertig, CPP, CPOI (Certified Protection Officer Instructor), is a member of the ASIS International Professional Development Council and the International Foundation for Protection Officers board of directors. He has recently started a Security History Group​​​​​ on Facebook.