Kate Warne: first female detective.
Subject: Women detectives (Appreciation)
Author: Ramsland, Katherine
Pub Date: 03/22/2010
Publication: Name: The Forensic Examiner Publisher: American College of Forensic Examiners Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Law; Science and technology Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 American College of Forensic Examiners ISSN: 1084-5569
Issue: Date: Spring, 2010 Source Volume: 19 Source Issue: 1
Persons: Named Person: Warne, Kate
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 219374135

Many people credit Allan Pinkerton with developing America's first detective agency, but few realize he also trained the first female detective. However, it wasn't exactly his idea. He wasn't even sure it was a good idea, but Kate Warne insisted that she could go places and do things that no male agent could. When Francois Eugene Vidocq started the Surete in Paris in 1811, he'd employed female undercover operatives, but none had made it a career. Pinkerton broke entirely new ground, but once he hired Kate, she became indispensable. He even entrusted her with one of the riskiest and most responsible jobs ever to land on his desk. Because Kate Warne died young and her records were lost, her legacy is difficult to establish, but her bold spirit makes her one of the most valuable women in forensic history.

A Mind of Her Own

Allan Pinkerton arrived in the U. S. from Scotland in 1842. He became Chicago's first police detective before he partnered with an attorney to found the organization that would evolve into the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. "The Eye," as Pinkerton came to be known, developed a reputation for reliability and expertise. "We never sleep," was his company motto and he trained agents for undercover operations, railroad security, government espionage, and the pursuit of the West's most notorious bandits. His early efforts during the Civil War gave rise to the Secret Service.

In 1856, a delicate young woman came into Pinkerton's office. He assumed she was looking for clerical work, but she said she was there in response to an ad he'd just placed for a new agent. Once an aspiring actress and recently widowed, Kate Warne was ready for any assignment. As unseemly as it was in those days for a woman to be bold, she'd made up her mind. Pinkerton studied her, and he would later record his impression: "[she was] a slender, brown-haired woman, graceful in her movements and self-possessed. Her features, although not what could be called handsome, were decidedly of an intellectual cast ... her face was honest, which would cause one in distress instinctly [sic] to select her as a confidante."

Pinkerton asked her why she thought she could do this kind of work. She told him she "could worm out secrets in many places to which it was impossible for male detectives to gain access." Warne might have described methods available exclusively to women that could elicit knowledge from even the most careful suspect. Men often told women things they kept secret from other men, whether to brag or unburden their conscience, or simply because women made them feel safe.

Pinkerton advised Mrs. Warne that he would consider her proposal. After she left, he talked it over with his brother, who thought it would be a mistake to train a woman as a detective. But Pinkerton had been impressed by the fire he'd seen in Mrs. Warne's eye.

The next morning, he offered her a position as an operative-in-training. It was his opinion that, male or female, detectives with "considerable intellectual power and knowledge of human nature as will give him a quick insight into character" would do an effective job. Apparently Kate had these qualities, as Pinkerton would one day write in his memoir that she had never disappointed him.

Kate was a natural for the job, able to play both a female from any walk of life as well as a young male. By some reports, she once even dressed as a Union soldier. She could adopt a Southern drawl, a false name, and the hoop skirts of a lady of means to create whatever impression she might need. She could exploit the way men viewed her as a fragile member of the weaker sex to deflect their attention from her methods and goals. She was quick to assess a situation, savvy about people, and had a flair for adventure. No matter where her boss sent her, she strove to do her best, but she was also pleased with the opportunities to exercise her penchant for drama.

Faux Friend

As various express mail companies formed to compete with the U.S. Postal Service, some hired Pinkerton to investigate financial crimes. One client was Adams Express, out of Chicago. Company executives were faced with the theft of a pouch containing $40,000. Pinkerton studied the details and identified a likely culprit in Nathan Maroney, the manager of a company office in Alabama. On slight evidence, Maroney was arrested. Since he was a popular figure in the area, he'd easily posted the minor bail imposed. It seemed likely that the company would lose its case, so Pinkerton was hired to strengthen it. To Kate's delight, she would get to dress up in fine clothing.

Pinkerton traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, with Kate and three male operatives. One detective surreptitiously shadowed Maroney's young wife, while Kate posed as the wife of a wealthy businessman to get an introduction. Soon, she'd become Mrs. Maroney's confidant, learning that the Maroneys' "good fortune" came from forging bank bills.

Another agent turned up the address in New York of a locksmith who'd copied a key for Maroney that was the property of Adams Express. Pinkerton advised Adams Express to get Maroney re-arrested for conspiracy, which would require a stiff bail and thereby keep him in jail for a while. Once Maroney was ensconced in a cell, Pinkerton sent in an agent to pose as a recently-arrested forger. Pinkerton also sent anonymous letters to Maroney that described another man (an agent) moving in on his wife. When she came to visit Maroney in jail, he confronted her. Flustered, she admitted it. He was so rattled that he needed to talk (just as Pinkerton had hoped). He confided in his cellmate, who offered him the name of a bribable lawyer (another Pinkerton agent). Maroney sent word to his wife to get the stolen money ready to pay the attorney.

Mrs. Maroney discussed this with her new friend. Kate considered the situation and agreed that paying the attorney was probably the best course of action. In short order, Mrs. Maroney handed over the stolen Adams Express pouch with the stolen money. It was incriminating evidence in the theft and Maroney was placed under arrest. At his trial, he was stunned when his former cellmate, the forger, testified against him, so he quickly pled guilty.

The case in which Kate's contribution is most renowned is the infamous Baltimore Plot.

Saving Lincoln

It was the end of winter in 1861. A number of southern states had seceded once it was clear that Abraham Lincoln would become the sixteenth U.S. president. He had recently stated in a speech that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," a veiled intimation that for America, slavery was finished. He had attracted many powerful enemies.

As Lincoln prepared to enter Washington, D.C., for his inauguration, he planned several stops along the way. Since railroad companies offered executive cars for his use, his route was no secret. Any crank could take a shot at him. To make matters worse, there was not yet Secret Service for presidential protection. Pinkerton's security firm had been hired to scout around, and they were quick to spot trouble.

Pinkerton developed the first lead at Baltimore's Barnum Hotel. He knew this place was a hotbed of anti-Lincoln conspiracy, so, with an alias, he opened an office, hung out in the bar, and got his hair trimmed in the hotel's barber shop. The barber, a member of a secessionist group, knew quite a lot about the meetings held there. He liked to express his dark opinion that Lincoln would not live to serve as president.

Pinkerton sent operatives into the city to gather the details of a possible assassination plot. Kate was among them, dressing as a wealthy Southern woman visiting Baltimore. She infiltrated the hotel's social gatherings, moving easily from one circle to another as she listened for details or confirmed what she'd already heard. Soon she was able to report that a plot was indeed afoot: she even knew how and where it would likely occur.

Pinkerton believed that a group of assassins would attack the president-elect where he'd be most vulnerable, either at a crowded reception, or somewhere along the stretch that required carriage transport for changing trains. To make matters worse, Lincoln could expect no extra protection from the local police force, as the chief sympathized with the South.

Pinkerton informed Mr. Lincoln of the dangers involved in a public appearance. Lincoln asked many questions until he was satisfied that the risk to his life outweighed the disappointment he would cause by not showing up. He placed himself in Pinkerton's hands. Pinkerton's security preparation included severing the telegraph lines out of Harrisburg to prevent messages about Lincoln's secret departure to Philadelphia from passing to his enemies.

Kate Warne coordinated the operatives' reports and devised a scheme to get Lincoln safely from Philadelphia to Washington. She reserved four sleeping berths close together in the last car of a night train, under the pretext that she and her relatives were escorting her invalid brother. She also made a disguise for Lincoln, wrapping him in a traveling shawl with an upturned collar, giving him a Scottish cap, and urging him to stoop as if burdened with illness. This would hide his signature height. Carrying a worn bag, he boarded through a rear door left unlocked for his convenience, with no one the wiser about his presence on this train save a close friend, his wife, and the Pinkerton operatives.

Pinkerton and two of his agents were on board. Kate, in the berth next to Lincoln, remained vigilant throughout the night, armed and ready to act. Pinkerton stood all night on the rear platform, despite the frigid air. His agents were posted at every crossroad and bridge along the way, using lanterns to signal their presence and to offer a code that all was well ... or otherwise. Lincoln's entourage traveled on the original train so that no one would suspect the covert operation. Only when he failed to disembark in Baltimore as expected did people realize he was not going to show. He'd passed through the city that night without incident. By the time the would-be assassins, mingling with the crowds, were aware that he had foiled their plan, Lincoln was preparing to accept his new office.

Journalists later revealed that the assassination plot had consisted of a plan to derail the train, with a back-up strategy involving a lone shooter. In any event, thanks to Pinkerton and Warne, Lincoln gained time in which to make a number of pivotal decisions for the country before John Wilkes Booth succeeded in ending his life.

War Effort

The Civil War during the 1860s brought new opportunities to Pinkerton's agency to assist with intelligence gathering and security. General McClellan had requested Pinkerton's service for his own security, setting up an office in Cincinnati, Ohio. Kate was one of the operatives assigned. Not long afterward in Washington, Pinkerton discovered a spy operation run by a female --"Wild Rose" O'Neal Greenhow. She was the aunt by marriage of Stephen Douglas, Lincoln's opponent for his party's choice for the presidency. Secretly, she worked for the South.

A popular and pretty widow with plenty of charisma, Rose moved easily in and out of the city's elite social circles. Among her friends and acquaintances were senators, diplomats, legislators, and military officers; she'd even been a close friend of President James Buchanan. Thanks to her smuggled information, General Beauregard defeated the Union army at the first battle of Bull Run, and Rose then organized a network of spies to ensure more such victories.

But a Pinkerton operative planted in the Confederate army notified his boss. Pinkerton put Rose under surveillance, and when she realized this, she and her ladies devised some clever games of deflection. It was difficult to catch them in the act of espionage, but after Pinkerton peered through Rose's window one night and watched a man provide her with key maps of military defenses, he had the information he needed to stop her. By August 1861, Wild Rose was under house arrest.

Still, she found ways to maintain her network, naively providing Pinkerton with more names. He decided to take his success a step further, so he called in Kate. With a code book discovered during a search of Rose's home, he composed messages full of false information to a Confederate colonel. To make these letters more convincing, he had Kate copy them in an imitation of Rose's handwriting. Unfortunately, the Confederates had learned of Rose's arrest, so they'd changed the code, foiling Pinkerton's plan.

Kate Moves On

As Kate proved herself over and over, she became the supervisor of Pinkerton's Female Detective Bureau. More female agents were hired and she passed along her expertise. However, her expenses became a sore spot between Pinkerton and his brother, who believed she was actually Pinkerton's mistress. But Pinkerton was the boss and he made the decisions. He adored Kate, personally and professionally, although he never admitted to a romantic relationship with her. Still, his grief was overwhelming when she fell ill at the age of 35.

Pinkerton stayed by her side through her lengthy and painful illness (there no record of what she had), nursing her through it. Finally, Kate Warne could hold out no longer, and on New Year's Day 1868, she passed away.

It was a sore loss for Allan Pinkerton. She'd been one of his key operatives for a dozen years and he'd grown to count on her as his right arm. Whether he wrote more about his time with her or about the cases she managed shall never be known, because in 1871, the infamous Chicago fire destroyed his archive.

Having no family of her own, Kate Warne was buried in Pinkerton's family plot in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery, in a spot that would be next to Pinkerton's when he was buried. (There's no record of what his wife thought of this arrangement.) In Pinkerton's will, made decades later, he would dictate that Kate Warne's plot was never to be sold.

In later years, when Pinkerton's son Robert conspired with two other lead agents in 1876 to cease hiring female detectives, Pinkerton sent him a blazing telegram, insisting on maintaining his long-held views. "It has been my principle to use females for the detection of crime where it has been useful and necessary," he wrote. "With regard to the employment of such females, I can trace it back to the time I first hired Kate Warne, up to the present time. And I intend to still use females whenever it can be done judiciously. I must do it or falsify my theory, practice and truth."

The agency today carries on Pinkerton's far-sighted legacy.


Horan, James D. (1967) The Pinkertons: The Detective Agency that Made History. New York: Crown.

Levy, Lynn H (2005) "Kate Warne: The First Female Private Investigator had a Baltimore Connection," PI Magazine, January/February.

Mackay, James. (1996). Allan Pinkerton: The First Private Eye. Edison, NJ: Castle Books.

Pinkerton, Allan. (2002) A Double Life and the Detectives. Fredonia Books.

--(1884) Thirty Years a Detective, 1500 Books, 2007.

Rowan, Richard W. "Lincoln's Sister," The American Weekly, Feb 11, 1951, sameshield.com.

By Katherine Ramsland, PhD, CMI-V

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., CMI-V has published over 900 articles and 36 books, including The Devil's Dozen: How Cutting Edge Forensics Took down 12 Notorious Serial Killers and Beating the Devil's Game: A History of Forensic Science and Criminal Investigation. Dr. Ramsland is an associate professor of forensic psychology and the department chair at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. She has been a member of the American College of Forensic Examiners since 1998.
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