The Untold Story of Kate Warne, America's First Female Private Eye

    When Kate Warne marched into Allan Pinkerton's office, he couldn't have imagined all she would achieve as his agent.

    She's known as America's first female detective. 

    Kate Warne, who died in 1868, left behind a thrilling legacy that remains shrouded in mystery. A master of assumed identities, no official photograph of the trailblazing figure exists—fitting for a person whose profession required hiding in plain sight.  

    Little is known of Warne's early years. She was born in the year of 1833 in Erin, New York. By 1856, at the age of 23, Warne's husband passed away, leaving her a widow. Finding herself at loose ends–likely with no way to support herself–she decided on a rather unorthodox course of action. She walked into Allan Pinkerton’s office and asked for a job as a detective.

    Related: 15 Important Women in History You May Not Have Heard of 

    Although Pinkerton had many women working for him as clerks and secretaries, he had never hired a female detective, claiming it was not the “custom” to do so. Despite his initial skepticism, Pinkerton was soon charmed by Warne’s manner. She offered up the many potential merits of a female detective, from her ability to manipulate targets into believing that she was on their side in a way men could not.

    Won over, Pinkerton hired her. American law enforcement, such as it was in the 1860s, didn’t have uniformed female officers or detectives. It would be many years before women were allowed into front-line policing. Pinkerton, however, decided to take on Warne’s services. 

    kate warne

    Allan Pinkerton

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    Two years after she was hired, Warne scored her first major case. She was sent to investigate reports of embezzlement within an important client’s staff. Adams Express Company (still operating today as an equity fund company) was a freight carrier, running throughout the north and south in the mid-1800s. The Pinkerton Agency had first worked with the company to solve a robbery in 1866. Now, they called upon the Pinkertons to find out who in their own ranks was stealing from the company’s bankrolls.

    Upon her arrival, Warne befriended Mrs. Maroney, the wife of an expressman believed to be the culprit. Soon, Mrs. Maroney trusted her new friend Kate and confided in her–so much so that Warne was not only able to prove Nathan Maroney’s guilt, but also track down almost $40,000 of $50,000 that had been stolen. 

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    By 1860, it became obvious to Pinkerton that not only was Kate Warne immeasurably valuable to him, but that more female operatives, as he preferred to term his detectives, would be as well. He opened a Female Detective Bureau–and put Warne in charge.

    Of course, by this time, talk of slavery, abolition, and secession had begun to dominate the country. The election of Abraham Lincoln in November did little to defuse tensions. Pinkerton, who had long been an abolitionist, dispatched Warne and four other agents to investigate secessionist threats and activities against the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad. Comparing their field reports, Pinkerton believed his agents were close to finding something far bigger than simple agitation. President-elect Lincoln was to be assassinated in Baltimore en route to his inauguration.

    Warne, using various aliases including Mrs. Cherry and Mrs. Barley, posed as a secessionist sympathizer and wealthy southerner. To her marks, she seemed a typical “rich Southern lady with a thick Southern accent”.

    Warne first confirmed the Baltimore plot existed. She also uncovered its details. Lincoln was to be ambushed at Baltimore’s Calvert Street railroad station. While a mock brawl distracted police officers and railroad guards, Lincoln would be left at the mercy of a conveniently placed secessionist mob.  

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    Pinkerton now had to arrange Lincoln’s safe passage to Washington, which would not be as easy it sounded. Lincoln had three engagements in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that he refused to cancel. Being the tall and distinct man that he was, Lincoln stood out in a crowd. So they hatched a plan: Once finished with his Harrisburg engagements, Pinkerton, Warne, and Ward Hill Lamon (the President-elect’s self-appointed bodyguard) disguised Lincoln as an invalid. Warne played the role of the invalid’s sister. To conceal changes in Lincoln’s itinerary, Pinkerton arranged a temporary telegraph fault, forestalling any warning to the conspirators.

    From Harrisburg a special train took them to Philadelphia. Another special train took them to the very heart of the plot, Baltimore. And from Maryland, to the fury of the plotters, Lincoln safely reached Washington. The Baltimore plot had come to nothing.

    kate warne

    Warne foiled an assassination attempt on President-elect Lincoln en route to his inauguration.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    Warne was central to uncovering and defeating the conspiracy, with her travel arrangements seeing Lincoln safely to his destination. It was said that she never rested during the entire journey, constantly watching over Lincoln and supposedly inspiring the Pinkerton Agency’s now-legendary motto: “We Never Sleep.”

    Warne’s work didn’t end with the start of the Civil War in 1861, although its tenor shifted. Alongside George Bangs and English-born spy Timothy Webster, she was sent to establish a forward intelligence base in Cincinnati. Using a dozen or more aliases, she worked as a spy and also continued her work as Pinkerton’s Superintendent of Female Detectives when she wasn’t down south doing her southern belle act. She was lucky, but Webster wasn’t. Unmasked as a Union agent Webster was hanged in Richmond on April 29, 1862.

    After the surrender at Appomattox in 1865, Warne continued as one of Pinkerton’s most senior employees. She solved the murder of bank teller George Gordon, killed by colleague Alexander Drysdale for $130,000. She took on the case of Captain Sumner and Mrs. Pattmore, both of whom were convinced their spouses were trying to murder them. While investigating the Sumner case she still spent time out of the field coordinating Pinkerton’s bureau of female agents. 

    Related: How the Pinkerton Detectives Took Down Chicago Grave Robbers in 1857 

    Before hiring them on, Pinkerton would tell female applicants, “In my service, you will serve your country better than on the field. I have several female operatives. If you agree to come aboard you will go in training with the head of my female detectives Kate Warne. She has never let me down.”

    Given a new title, Supervisor of Female Agents, Warne was set for a long, high-flying career with Pinkerton. Already America’s first female detective, she’d also saved a President-elect from assassination. She had become a senior private detective years before women were allowed to join a police force in uniform, never mind as detectives. She was a trailblazer and, sadly, a shooting star that burned out all too quickly.

    In January of 1868, Kate Warne contracted a lung infection, possibly pneumonia. Unable to combat its spread, and with antibiotics not yet available, she died on January 28. She was just 34 or 35 years old. Today, she rests in the famed Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, although her last name remains misspelled as “Warn.” Despite this indignity, Warne was a deeply memorable woman whom Pinkerton named as one of his best five detectives of all time.

    Featured Pinkerton Agency logo: Wikimedia Commons 



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