Kate Warne wanted to become an actress. A Canadian by birth, she found herself in the mid-1850s in Chicago and recently widowed.
Then she saw an advertisement, and it changed her direction and an entire profession.
The ad was from the Pinkerton Detective Agency and said agents were being hired. It said nothing about “male only,” although that’s what Allen Pinkerton had in mind. Nobody’s fool, Kate knew that would be the assumption and had her arguments ready when she walked into Pinkerton’s office. (See last week’s post.)
Pinkerton was no fool either, and Kate got the job. In 1856, she became the first full-time female detective.
And in a way, she fulfilled another dream: She became an actress — though not one that performed on stage.
In her duties as a detective, she often took on roles, such as an anti-Union aristocratic belle or a sweet-talking, pitiable widow, or even a young male. Kate quickly proved her worth by helping to gather key evidence against an expressman who had stolen $50,000 from the Adams Express Company. To do so, she traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, where the suspect lived and befriended his wife, who confided their secrets to her. With the evidence she acquired, Pinkerton was able to recover most of the money that had been stolen, and the thief went to jail for 10 years.
The role of her life came in 1861 when President-elect Abraham Lincoln traveled to Washington, D.C., from Springfield, Illinois. The president of one of the railroad lines on which Lincoln was to travel got wind of an assassination plot and hired Pinkerton to prevent it. Kate played a key part in this drama by going to Baltimore and posing as a thickly-accented, rich Southerner. She fell in with the secessionists and learned their plans, which were detailed and elaborate.
Those details helped convince a skeptical Lincoln to take the plot seriously and to work with Pinkerton and his agents to avoid the danger. Kate worked to re-arrange the president-elect’s travel plans and to escort him onto a different train when it left Harrisonburg, Pennsylvania, for Baltimore. Kate and Pinkerton traveled with Lincoln on that leg of the trip. As the train traveled through the night, Lincoln slept, but Kate stayed awake and kept watch — giving rise to the Pinkerton motto, “We never sleep.”
With a disguise provided by Kate, Lincoln slipped through Baltimore unharmed and made it to Washington safely.
During the Civil War, Kate continued her work as a detective, often penetrating Southern circles and reporting back valuable information to her boss, who had become the chief intelligence source for the U.S. Army. After the war, Kate — by then head of Pinkerton’s female agency — worked on numerous important cases. She once posed as a gypsy fortune-teller to extract evidence from the wife of a murder suspect.
Her career was tragically short, however, because she died of pneumonia in 1868 at the age of 34.
Possibly because her life and career were so brief, Kate has remained largely unknown and uncelebrated. A Canadian television series about the Pinkertons had her as a major character, and there is a single biography directed toward children. But Kate’s skills and accomplishments deserve more.
Pinkerton in his memoirs wrote: “Mrs. Warne was the first lady whom I had ever employed, and this was one of the earliest operations in which she was engaged. 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.”
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Tags: Allen Pinkerton, detective stories, female detectives, Kate Warne