Kate Warne: How America's First Female Detective Broke Into Pinkerton

To hear more about Pinkerton detectives, listen to True Spies: Undercover In The Old West.
Podcast: In the Old West

In the untamed Old West, the thunder of six-guns echo through rugged canyons and women are painted as saloon sirens or virtuous maidens. Kate Warne was determined to be neither. The 23-year-old widow had her eye on a bigger prize: she wanted to be America’s first female detective.

Warne convinced legendary private eye Allan Pinkerton that she was made of true grit and talked her way onto the all-male investigation team at the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1856, some 35 years before women were allowed to join US police forces.

Warne: America's first female P.I.

“As a detective, she had no superior, and she was a lady of such refinement, tact, and discretion, that I never hesitated to entrust to her some of my most difficult undertakings,” Pinkerton writes in his Great Detective Stories.

The plot to kill President Lincoln

In one of her most significant cases, Kate helped uncover a plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln before his 1861 inauguration. Pinkerton was in charge of his security and heard that a mob might attack the president-elect when he changed trains in Baltimore. Kate helped colleagues foil the plot by posing as a Southern Belle - attending parties with a cockade (the emblem of secession) - and reportedly infiltrating meetings of a secret society, the Knights of the Golden Circle, who planned to create a new nation dominated by slavery.

Warne and Pinkerton also joined Lincoln and the president’s bodyguard on his overnight journey to D.C. via Baltimore. Warne was disguised as Lincoln’s caregiver and the president-elect dressed as her ill brother. Kate’s sleepless vigilance is said to have inspired Pinkerton’s slogan: We Never Sleep.

Emily Blunt is set to take on the role of Kate Warne for Amazon Studios 
Emily Blunt is set to take on the role of Kate Warne for Amazon Studios 

Leader of the Pinkerton ‘Pinks’

Born into a large, impoverished family in Erin, New York in 1833, Kate ran the household for her father, a minister. She dreamed of becoming an actress but married instead. The circumstances of her husband’s death are unclear. When Warne answered a Help Wanted ad for private detectives based in Chicago, Pinkerton described his surprise in The Expressman and the Detective (1874).

“Her features, although not what would be called handsome, were of a decidedly intellectual cast,” he recalled, noting Warne had fire in her blue eyes. “She had a broad, honest face, which would cause one in distress instinctively to select her as a confidante, in whom to confide in times of sorrow, or from whom to seek consolation. She seemed possessed of the masculine attributes of firmness and decision, but to have brought all her faculties under complete control.” 

Warne matter-of-factly told Pinkerton that she could worm out secrets in places where it was impossible for male detectives to gain access. She convinced him that it would be a good idea to employ her. “True, it was the first experiment of the sort that had ever been tried; but we live in a progressive age,” Pinkerton said. “She succeeded far beyond my utmost expectations.”

Within months, Warne had traveled to Montgomery, Alabama and befriended the wife of Nathan Maroney, a man suspected of stealing $50,000 (although some reports say $10,000) from the Adams Express Co. He’d confessed all to his wife and Kate soon knew Maroney’s secrets, obtained a confession, and recouped most of the money.

Kate Warne: How America's First Female Detective Broke Into Pinkerton

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To hear more about Pinkerton detectives, listen to True Spies: Undercover In The Old West.
Podcast: In the Old West

In the untamed Old West, the thunder of six-guns echo through rugged canyons and women are painted as saloon sirens or virtuous maidens. Kate Warne was determined to be neither. The 23-year-old widow had her eye on a bigger prize: she wanted to be America’s first female detective.

Warne convinced legendary private eye Allan Pinkerton that she was made of true grit and talked her way onto the all-male investigation team at the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1856, some 35 years before women were allowed to join US police forces.

Warne: America's first female P.I.

“As a detective, she had no superior, and she was a lady of such refinement, tact, and discretion, that I never hesitated to entrust to her some of my most difficult undertakings,” Pinkerton writes in his Great Detective Stories.

The plot to kill President Lincoln

In one of her most significant cases, Kate helped uncover a plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln before his 1861 inauguration. Pinkerton was in charge of his security and heard that a mob might attack the president-elect when he changed trains in Baltimore. Kate helped colleagues foil the plot by posing as a Southern Belle - attending parties with a cockade (the emblem of secession) - and reportedly infiltrating meetings of a secret society, the Knights of the Golden Circle, who planned to create a new nation dominated by slavery.

Warne and Pinkerton also joined Lincoln and the president’s bodyguard on his overnight journey to D.C. via Baltimore. Warne was disguised as Lincoln’s caregiver and the president-elect dressed as her ill brother. Kate’s sleepless vigilance is said to have inspired Pinkerton’s slogan: We Never Sleep.

Emily Blunt is set to take on the role of Kate Warne for Amazon Studios 
Emily Blunt is set to take on the role of Kate Warne for Amazon Studios 

Leader of the Pinkerton ‘Pinks’

Born into a large, impoverished family in Erin, New York in 1833, Kate ran the household for her father, a minister. She dreamed of becoming an actress but married instead. The circumstances of her husband’s death are unclear. When Warne answered a Help Wanted ad for private detectives based in Chicago, Pinkerton described his surprise in The Expressman and the Detective (1874).

“Her features, although not what would be called handsome, were of a decidedly intellectual cast,” he recalled, noting Warne had fire in her blue eyes. “She had a broad, honest face, which would cause one in distress instinctively to select her as a confidante, in whom to confide in times of sorrow, or from whom to seek consolation. She seemed possessed of the masculine attributes of firmness and decision, but to have brought all her faculties under complete control.” 

Warne matter-of-factly told Pinkerton that she could worm out secrets in places where it was impossible for male detectives to gain access. She convinced him that it would be a good idea to employ her. “True, it was the first experiment of the sort that had ever been tried; but we live in a progressive age,” Pinkerton said. “She succeeded far beyond my utmost expectations.”

Within months, Warne had traveled to Montgomery, Alabama and befriended the wife of Nathan Maroney, a man suspected of stealing $50,000 (although some reports say $10,000) from the Adams Express Co. He’d confessed all to his wife and Kate soon knew Maroney’s secrets, obtained a confession, and recouped most of the money.

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The Female Detective Bureau

Kate Warne was a natural sleuth, gaining the trust of suspects by using disguises and cunning strategies. She extracted critical information, and - much like Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective Sherlock Holmes - used her shewed powers of observation and unique ability to evoke emotions at will. 

Kate soon rose to become superintendent of Pinkerton’s female department, known as the ‘Lady Pinks’, renown for their listening skills as well as their ability to encourage targets to talk about themselves. She reportedly helped recruit the agency’s female detectives, including Hattie Lawton and Elizabeth H. Baker, both Union spies during the Civil War, and went undercover herself when Pinkerton was appointed chief of intelligence for Union Army commander George B. McClellan..

Under Warne’s leadership, the Chicago bureau expanded into several regional Pinkerton branches and Warne personally oversaw the Female Detective Bureau in New Orleans. She understood that men sometimes underestimate women and fully used it as an advantage. 

Warne suffered from pneumonia and died in her mid-30s. Her boss, Allan Pinkerton, arranged for Kate to be buried in the Pinkerton family plot at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. “She was undoubtedly the best female detective in America, if not in the world,” her obituary notes.

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