By Nancy J. Farrier
The Pinkerton Detective Agency, founded in 1850, often struck fear in the hearts of criminals. Allan Pinkerton started his agency to ferret out crimes that regular law enforcement didn’t have time or resources to solve. The Pinkerton men were famous for their detective skills, along with other talents for stopping strikes and finding information.
But not all were men. In 1856, Kate Warne, a twenty-three-year old widow walked into Allan Pinkerton’s office to apply for a job she’d seen listed in the paper. Pinkerton thought she was there for a clerical position, but she quickly informed him she wanted to be a detective.
Chicago History Museum
Pinkerton asked Warne what she thought she could do as a detective and she proceeded to convince him of the value of a woman in his agency. She pointed out that a woman could go undercover, becoming a friend to wives or family members of suspects and gather valuable information unavailable to the men in the agency. Pinkerton hired her on the spot.
In his book, The Spy of the Rebellion (1883), Pinkerton wrote that Warne was a “commanding person, with clear cut, expressive features ... a slender, brown-haired woman, graceful in her movements and self-possessed.” He went on to say she had the type of face that would make others choose her as a confidante. And she lived up to that assessment.
In 1858, Pinkerton engaged Warne’s help in solving an embezzlement case. Kate became a confidante of the wife and acquired evidence of the husband’s guilt. She not only found that evidence, but she also found out where the embezzled funds were hidden. With Warne’s help, nearly $40,000 were recovered.
Perhaps the biggest case Kate Warne helped with was the first assassination plot against then President-Elect Abraham Lincoln. Warne was one of several assigned to find out details of the suspected plot. She went undercover as a Southern belle, complete with the accent and attitudes common among that set of women.
Warne infiltrated secessionist meetings in Baltimore and the surrounding area. She was able to gather details here and there and piece together the plot. Abraham Lincoln would be traveling from Illinois to Washington DC by train to arrive for his inauguration. The plan was to trap him when he would have to travel one mile by city streets from one train to the next in Baltimore, Maryland.
|Allan Pinkerton, Seated|
Kate Warne, Standing
Warne brought the plan to Pinkerton, who then met with Lincoln and other key figures. At first Lincoln didn’t believe them, but when they laid out the gathered evidence, he agreed to take precautions.
The new plan included Lincoln traveling part of the way as himself and then ducking out and going the rest of the way in disguise. He became an invalid traveling with his caretaker and sister, Kate Warne. No one suspected a thing and Warne was able to get Lincoln safely to Washington DC for his inauguration. It is said she stayed awake the whole night to watch over Lincoln and ensure his safety, thus adding the words “we never sleep” to the Pinkerton logo.
|Pinkerton National Detective Agency Logo|
Warne went on to solve many cases, befriending the wives of suspected murderers and once posing as a fortune teller. Pinkerton hired more women and put her in charge of the women detectives of the Pinkerton agency.
Warne died in 1868 of pneumonia and was laid to rest in the Pinkerton family plot. Her name was misspelled as Warn. Pinkerton liked her so much he accorded her this honor. Her obituary in the Democratic Enquirer stated, “She was a marked woman amongst her sex, with a large, active brain, great mental power, and excellent judge of character, and possessed of a strong, active vitality…”
Have you ever heard of Kate Warne. She has been depicted in a few movies and mentioned in television episodes, but her name is largely unknown. I admire her spunk and determination.
Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website: nancyjfarrier.com.