Kate Warne

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Tales of the Civil War – First Female Detective

When was Kate Warne born?

Kate Warne 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.

Pinkerton employed women as clerks, stenographers, and other traditionally female roles. He wanted to politely dismiss Kate, or tell her he’d let her know when a secretarial position opened. Kate wasn’t having it – she refused to budge, and argued with him about the merits of a female detective – being able to manipulate unsuspecting men, gaining the confidence of women, and simply gaining entrance to areas where only women were allowed – much the same as the journalist Nelly Bly of a later era.

Allan Pinkerton

Amused by her spunk and tenacity, Pinkerton decided to let her try. At first, Kate was allowed only the cases that were trivial, that no one else wanted. After two years, she got a break – there was an embezzlement problem at Adams Express Company (still in business as Adams Diversified Equity). Pinkerton’s male detectives identified a suspect, but no one could find proof. Kate went undercover, the first of many times, working at the company. She chatted up the wife of the suspect, and the unsuspecting woman admitted that her husband had embezzled up to $50,0000 ($1.4 million in today’s money), and even told her where the money was – Kate had her first triumph. The embezzler was convicted and the money recovered.

From there, Kate’s success only increased. By 1860, Pinkerton started a female division of detectives, and put Kate in charge. Then came the case she is remembered for – an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln.

Many today think of Lincoln as a revered figure in American history – but his election was not welcomed by many. It was the final straw that drove secession. On his way to inauguration, Lincoln was due to make stops and speeches. There was no Secret Service in those days. The tall man in the stovepipe hat was an instantly recognized figure. Pinkerton’s tried to convince him to skip the stops, but there were three in Harrisburg, Pa. that Lincoln refused to abandon. The plot was discovered, and the plan was to assassinate Lincoln en route to the inauguration.

Kate posed as a Southern secessionist with a thick Alabama accent, under the alias Mrs. Cherry. She attended secessionist parties, listening for gossip and gathering information. When the time came for Lincoln’s train ride, Lincoln listened to Pinkerton and Kate’s evidence for the assassination plot, and agreed to disguise himself as an invalid, with Kate posing as his sister/nurse. She engineered special trains to take Lincoln from Harrisburg to Philadelphia, then Baltimore, and finally Washington. During the entire days long train trip, she never slept. With Lincoln isolated as a sick man, no one recognized him in Baltimore, the site of the proposed assassination. Lincoln and Kate arrived successfully in Baltimore. On returning to Pinkerton’s in Chicago, Kate persuaded Alan to change the company logo, shown below.

Pinkerton’s logo, inspired by Kate

Kate continued working in a variety of roles. She was a master of disguise, with a low voice for a woman, and could pass for a man when required. Most of the time, her very femininity was her best disguise, however – no one expected a woman detective.

“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.”

Alan Pinkerton

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. 

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