In every field, someone has to be the first. Often, we know their names. Sally Ride. Amelia Earhart. Marie Curie. But often, their names aren’t known – either because we don’t know who was the first to break a particular barrier, or because the story just hasn’t been told often enough.
The first female detective in the United States was named Kate Warne, and her story should be told more often.
In August 1856, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, headquartered in Chicago, advertised for operatives. The ad didn’t specify that only men were allowed to apply – it was hardly necessary at that time. So when Kate Warne, reportedly a 23-year-old widow born in New York State, came to apply for the position, Allan Pinkerton thought she was looking for clerical work. She was not.
According to Pinkerton’s account, Kate convincingly made the case that a female detective would be able to do things his team of male operatives couldn’t. “A Woman would be able to befriend the wives and girlfriends of suspected criminals and gain their confidence…. Women have an eye for detail and are excellent observers.” He hired her and put her to work.
It’s true, there are some good reasons why her name isn’t better known. The historical record has more gaps than facts where she’s concerned. Allan Pinkerton wrote about her on occasion, but we can’t really take his word for the details, and they’re hard to verify. Some of the case files from the early days of the Pinkerton agency still exist in the Library of Congress, but the agency was based in Chicago, and not all of their pre-1871 records survived the Great Chicago Fire.
Yet what we do know is compelling. The handful of surviving case files in the Pinkerton Agency archives includes impressive successes in which Kate played a key role. We know she went undercover as a fortune-teller to get a confession from someone suspected of trying to poison a relative in order to get their inheritance. We know she worked on the Adams Express case, where $50,000 was stolen – a sizable sum today, and think how much more it meant then! – and helped bring the thief to justice. But we don’t have her logbooks, her diaries, or any detail on her time with the agency beyond the broad strokes that Allan Pinkerton’s books for public consumption give us.
It was Pinkerton who wrote first about the role she played in foiling the Baltimore Plot, when Southern sympathizers planned to ambush, surround and murder Abraham Lincoln as he changed trains in Baltimore on his way to be inaugurated as President. Daniel Stashower wrote a great non-fiction account of this in his 2014 book The Hour of Peril, and Kate is named along with Harry Davies, Timothy Webster, Hattie Lawton, and Allan Pinkerton himself as the key agents involved in protecting the President-Elect. Lincoln was disguised as an invalid and Kate’s role was to play his sister, accompanying him on a late-night train (scheduled ahead of the announced arrival time in order to foil the plotters) all the way to Washington. Some accounts indicate that the Pinkerton Agency motto, “We Never Sleep,” was developed in honor of Kate’s sleepless night guarding Lincoln on the train.
Many Pinkerton agents went undercover as spies for the Union during the Civil War, and it is believed that Kate was among their number. But her activities during and after the war seem to be undocumented. We do know her end, unfortunately. She reportedly died of pneumonia in January 1868 at the age of only 35, and is buried in the Pinkerton family plot in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Her name is misspelled on her tombstone as “Kate Warn.”
Greer Macallister, Guest Blogger
Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist who earned her MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her debut novel THE MAGICIAN’S LIE was a USA Today bestseller, an Indie Next pick, and a Target Book Club selection. It has been optioned for film by Jessica Chastain’s Freckle Films. Her new novel GIRL IN DISGUISE, about real-life 19th-century detective/bad-ass Kate Warne, was an Indie Next pick for April 2017 and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which called it “a well-told, superb story.”