Kate Warne, the world’s first female detective (part 1)

March 8, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism.

If the name of Kate Warne is unknown to you, you’re not alone. Most of the world has never heard of her, that is too bad — particularly with those of us in the detective-fiction-to-true-crime crowd.

Kate Warne, as far as we can tell, is the first woman ever hired as a fulltime, true-to-life detective.

That happened in 1856 when she walked into the Chicago office of Allen Pinkerton, founder of the world’s most famous detective agency. Pinkerton had advertised that he was hiring detectives, and Kate, a widow, decided to apply for a job.

Pinkerton was taken aback. He had not expected that a woman would apply for so male an undertaking, and his first instinct was to dissuade her from so foolish a venture.

Kate was obviously prepared for that reaction because she set about, in modern parlance, raising his consciousness. A woman would do and say things and go place a man would not or could not do or say. Women were naturally observant. Women saw things that men did not see. She told him, as Pinkerton would later write, that she “could worm out secrets to many places to which it was not possible for male detectives to gain access.”

Pinkerton was taken by Kate herself, not just her arguments. Little is known about Kate before she joined the agency. She was born in Canada and had been recently widowed. She had at one time wanted to be an actress. She was small and feminine, and later she was a detective, she passed herself off as a young man.

We don’t know when she got the idea of becoming a detective, but by the time she showed up at Pinkerton’s, she had set her goals and was determined to reach them.

Despite opposition from his brother, Pinkerton decided that what Kate had said made sense. He hired her, and he never regretted it. Kate became one of the agency’s most valuable assets, and she was involved in some its biggest and most famous cases.

We’ll have more to say about that next week.

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