History isn’t certain if Kate Warne, America’s first female detective, had that career path in mind when she walked into the Pinkerton Detective Agency. It’s possible she was applying to be a secretary. But she so impressed Allan Pinkerton that he hired her as an agent — a job she proved unusually well-suited for.
This was 1856. To say that Pinkerton, who founded his Chicago-based agency in 1850, was breaking with convention by hiring a newly-widowed 23-year-old woman is an understatement. But his hunch proved prescient, and Warne broke ground for other women who aspired to be private investigators. In a ringing endorsement after her successes led him to hire on more women, Pinkerton declared:
“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.”
The novelty of a female detective in those days meant Warne was able to go undercover with ease (including pretending to be a fortune-teller as a means to gather intel), and gain the trust of other women (like the wife of a man suspected of embezzling $50,000 from the Adams Express Company in Montgomery, Alabama).
Warne’s biggest case came in 1861, when she proved a key operative in Pinkerton’s successful thwarting of an assassination plot being hatched against then-president-elect Abraham Lincoln. Though Warne was a New York native, her time spent working the Adams Express Company case meant she was able to convincingly impersonate a Southerner. Once he caught wind of the plot against Lincoln, Pinkerton knew exactly how Warne could help crack the case:
He sent Warne to Baltimore as a spy to infiltrate the southern sympathizers. Posing as a Mrs. Barley, a visitor from Alabama, Warne’s job was to “cultivate the wives and daughters of suspected plotters.” The attempt on the president-elect’s life would be made while he was passing through the city.
Warne’s involvement went even further. Not only did she courier messages to Lincoln’s party, but she also helped smuggle the president himself onto a train that would ultimately pass through Baltimore with him undetected.
Her technique included some major cloak-and-dagger cleverness:
Lincoln donned an overcoat and hat, abandoning his signature “stovepipe.” His role was that of Kate Warne’s “invalid brother.” Warne purchased tickets for herself and her “brother,” and saw to it that the rear sections of a sleeping car were secure. Kate charmed the conductor into keeping the back door of the sleeping car open, so that her “sick brother” could enter in privacy.
For this accomplishment, some call Warne a trailblazer for women who’d later serve as presidential guards and in the Secret Service. Months after “the Baltimore Plot” case, the Civil War broke out, and Warne was said to have worked as a Union spy on behalf of the Pinkertons. Unfortunately, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed most of Pinkerton’s unpublished records, so more details of Warne’s life beyond Pinkerton’s praise-filled remembrances are scarce. He named her Supervisor of Women Agents so that she could pass on her skills to new recruits, but her life was cut tragically short in 1868 when she suddenly fell ill. She was estimated to be just 35 years old when she died.
It was rumored that Warne and Pinkerton’s close working relationship was also intimate (problematic, since Pinkerton was married), but whatever scandal that might suggest can’t eclipse the importance of her work. Surprisingly, she hasn’t had much of a pop-culture presence despite her incredible story. In 2011, the USA Network announced it was developing a drama about Warne (that never materialized); a more homespun homage came via author and graphic designer Lauren R. Silberman’s delightful web comic Kate Warne, Pinkerton Detective, which ran throughout 2013.
Public domain photo via Library of Congress depicts Pinkerton (sitting, right), with what is believed to be the only known photo of Warne (in disguise, standing behind), during the 1862 Battle of Antietam.
Correction, Aug. 16, 2018, 5:11 p.m.: This page from the Library of Congress suggests the elusive Warne is not actually one of the people in the above photo...so perhaps there are no photos of her after all. However, you can see a watercolor portrait of Warne here.