Women had proven their mettle as spies for centuries. So when a 23-year-old widow named Kate Warne responded to an ad for a detective agency in a Chicago newspaper in 1856, she was not interested in clerical work. Fortunately, the owner hired her as his First Female Pinkerton Detective and the first female detective in America.
Allan Pinkerton was the deputy sheriff of Cook County, Illinois when he formed the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1850. It was the first detective agency in America. Early on, the Pinkertons protected trains and apprehended criminals. During and after the Civil war, the Agency often performed duties that are now handled by the FBI, Secret Service and CIA.
Allan Pinkerton published numerous popular detective books based on his agency’s cases.
In The Expressman and the Detective, 1874, he wrote about his first meeting with Kate Warne:
“I was seated on 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. She seemed possessed of the masculine attributes of firmness and decision, but to have brought all her faculties under complete control…”
“In a very pleasant tone she introduced herself as Mrs. Kate Warne, stating that she was a widow, and that she had come to inquire whether I would not employ her as a detective. p.94.
At this time female detectives were unheard of. Pinkerton asked her what she thought she could do for his agency.
She replied that she could go and worm out secrets in many places to which it was impossible for male detectives to gain access. She had evidently given the matter much study, and gave many excellent reasons why she could be of service.
Pinkerton decided that it would be a good idea to give Kate Warne a chance.
“True, it was the first experiment of the sort that had ever been tried; but we live in a progressive age, and in a progressive country. I therefore determined at least to try it, feeling that Mrs. Warne was a splendid subject with whom to begin.” p. 95
He signed a contract with her and assigned her first case.
“She succeeded far beyond my utmost expectations, and I soon found her an invaluable acquisition to my force.”(p. 95)
It seems fitting that no confirmed photographs exist of the first official female Pinkerton. A master of disguises and accents, Kate Warne changed her identity to coax information from snitches. She played everything from a high-society Southern Belle to a fortuneteller to President Lincoln’s sister.
Warne befriended the wives and girlfriends of suspected criminals to gain their confidence. And it was easy for her to encourage men to brag about their criminal exploits.
She was known to have many aliases and various spellings of her real name. Even her tombstone reads Kate “Warn” rather than Warne.
Kate Warne played a significant role in countless high-profile cases for the Pinkerton Agency. The most important historically took place in 1861. The agency had been hired to squelch secessionist activity and threats against the Maryland railroad. Pinkerton and his team soon realized that the ultimate target was not the trains but President Lincoln himself.
Allan Pinkerton’s 1883 book, The Spy Of The Rebellion, retells the story. Kate Warne was at the center of this profound historical event that reads like a spy novel. We have no documentation of Kate Warne, but Pinkerton paints a vivid picture of her. He writes:
“I had sent for Mrs. Kate Warne, the superintendent of my agency. This lady had arrived several days before, and had already made remarkable progress in cultivating the acquaintance of the wives and daughters of the conspirators.
Mrs. Warne was eminently fitted for this task. Of rather a commanding person, with clear-cut, expressive features, and with an ease of manner that was quite captivating at times, she was calculated to make a favorable impression at once. She was Northern birth, but in order to vouch for her Southern opinions, she represented herself as from Montgomery, Alabama, a locality with which she was perfectly familiar, from her connection to the detective agency.
…She was a brilliant conversationalist when so disposed, and could be quite vivacious, but also understood that rarer quality in womankind, the art of being silent.
The information she received was invaluable, but as yet the meetings of the chief conspirators had not been entered. Mrs. Warne displayed upon her breast as did many of the ladies of Baltimore the black and white cockade, which had been temporarily adopted as the emblem of secession, and many hints were dropped in her presence, which found their way to my ears, and were of great benefit to me.” P 75
The assassination was to take place at the Calvert Street depot. A large crowd of secessionists would be assembled to wait for the train carrying Mr. Lincoln. The men would arrive early to clog the narrow streets in the immediate area. The Marshal of Police would arrange only a small number of policemen to protect Mr. Lincoln. All of them were part of the plot to kill Lincoln.
When the train arrived, a group of men would engage in a conflict nearby. The police detail would be dispatched to attend to that skirmish. Meanwhile, Mr. Lincoln would be surrounded by a dense crowd. One or more of the men in that crowd would stab him.
“The plan was designed. Kate Warne would engage berths in the sleeping car bound for Baltimore.
Feb 22, Lincoln delivered a memorable speech, although tinged with sadness. Once the conspirators realized that Lincoln was missing, Pinkerton assumed the telegraph would be put into “active operation to apprise the movers of this scheme to move the president. “The telegraph wires which connected Harrisburg with her neighboring cities should be so ‘fixed’ as to render communication impossible.
Lincoln “signified a cheerful willingness to adapt himself to the novel circumstances.
In Harrisburg, Lincoln left a gathering at the hotel. “A carriage was waiting at the side entrance of the hotel…Mr. Lincoln exchanged his dinner dress for a traveling suit, and soon returned with a shawl upon his arm and a soft felt hat protruding from his coat pocket.” p. 78
Pinkertons spirited Lincoln away in a carriage.
“As we approached the train, Mrs. Warne came forward, and familiarly greeting the President as her brother, we entered the sleeping-car by the rear door without unnecessary delay, and without any one being aware of the distinguished passenger who had arrived. “
The conductor was handed a package of documents, the whistle sounded and the train was whirling on towards the capital of the nation.
“So carefully had all our movements been conducted, that no one in Philadelphia saw Mr. Lincoln enter the car, and no one on the train, except his own immediate party—not even the conductor, knew of his presence, and the president, feeling fatigued from the labors and the journeys of the day, at once retired to his berth.” p. 78
According to Pinkerton, Kate Warne remained awake the entire trip. According to some accounts, this is how the Pinkertons got their slogan, “We Never Sleep.”
Kate Warne became the Supervisor of Women Agents of Pinkerton’s Female Detective Bureau. She took her place as the first female Pinkerton and then helped develop the careers of other female detectives. Her life was cut short in 1868 when she died of a lung infection.
Nellie Bly was a journalist for the New York World newspaper in the late 1800s. Like Kate Warne, she donned disguises, accents and fake names. Bly went undercover to learn the truth about people, situations and institutions for news articles.
In one of her most famous series, she went undercover in the New York Blackwell island insane asylum. Her investigative series triggered a grand jury investigation. Ultimately, her work launched changes in the treatment of inmates in asylums.
Bly’s career topper was a whimsical race around the world to beat Jules Verne’s fictional record of 80 days. The day she set sail on an eastward course, her arch rival Elizabeth Bisland set off on a westward course.
Healthy competition between publications and journalists was at the core of the challenge. But by joining the race, Bisland, like Kate Warne, proved that women could handle jobs traditionally left to men.
Allan Pinkerton was an avid abolitionist. His own home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. As a young man in Scotland, he was a Chartist, a movement for political reform of the working class in Britain from 1838 to 1857. As evidenced in his hiring of the first female Pinkerton, he rejected traditional boundaries for women in the work world.
The Pinkertons played an active role in instigating hostilities against the emergence of an empowered labor movement in the United States. Pinkerton detectives sided violently with wealthy owners. They played important roles in many bloody labor conflicts included the massacre of miners in Ludlow, Colorado, the Homestead Battle and the Coeur d’Alene strike of 1898.
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