Her name’s Warne, Kate Warne, and she was America’s first private eye

Everyone loves a good spy story. The highest-grossing movies and T.V. shows seem to be filled with dangerous missions and clever aliases. All I’ve been hearing the past several weeks is how good the new “Mission Impossible” is. When I was in middle school, some of my favorite books were the Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter. The books were about an all-female boarding school that trained its students to be operatives. They learned martial arts in P.E., became fluent in nearly every language, and went on missions disguised as field trips. Carter was actually the first author that I ever went to a book signing for, which shows just how much I loved the world she created in her books.

That world would not have been remotely imaginable had it not been for Kate Warne, the first woman to become a private eye. She infiltrated Confederate societies to stop the first assassination attempt on President Lincoln and provided crucial information that helped the Union army win the Civil War.

Kate was born in Erin, New York in 1833, as the first of many children to a poor family. She took on the brunt of household chores and additional work required to keep her family afloat. This prevented her from receiving any of the already limited resources for education for women at the time.

Little else is known about Kate’s life between her childhood and 1856 when she stepped into the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in Chicago looking for work. Most of the information on her work burned down along with the majority of other Pinkerton records in a fire in 1871 and any info on her personal life has been obscured by the multiple aliases she used for herself throughout her life. These included Kay Warne, Kate Warren, Kay Warren, Kay Warne, Kitty Warne, Kitty Warren, Kittie Warne, and Kittie Warren. In fact, even her tombstone lists her name as Kate Warn with no “e.”

Historians tend to support the spelling provided by Allan Pinkerton in his memoirs when he recounted his first meeting with Kate that day in 1856. She came into the office, claiming to be a widow, and asked about an open secretary position she saw in the paper. The job had already been filled, and she desperately needed a job, so she asked to join the agency as a detective. Pinkerton told her that “it is not the custom to employ women detectives,” and considered the issue resolved. However, Kate met with Allan several more times to convince him to take her on. In the end, Allan agreed that she could be “most useful in worming out secrets in many places which would be impossible for a male detective.” Allan’s brother and partner in the agency, Robert, was less thrilled with the idea of employing a woman but despite his strong objections, Allan hired her on August 23, 1856.

She quickly became a valuable asset to the agency, using disguises and accents to infiltrate social events and befriend the girlfriends and wives of suspected criminals. Because the majority of the Pinkerton records from that time are now ash, the first reference to one of Kate’s cases occurs two years after she joined. In 1858, she cracked the Adams Express Company embezzlement case by gaining the confidence of the primary suspect’s wife. The wife confessed to her husband’s crime, allowing most of the stolen funds to be returned and sentencing the thief with ten years in prison.

With Kate’s help, the agency went from a small private firm to a nationally-acclaimed enterprise, as many cities failed to supply a sufficiently-organized police force, and led to one of their most significant accomplishments: deterring the Baltimore Plot.

If you are as big of a fan of “Drunk History” as I am, you may remember the episode on this little-known first assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln’s life. If you’ve never heard of the Baltimore Plot at all, strap in and hold on tight. This gets wild.

The Pinkerton Agency’s first connection to the plot came in early 1861 when it was hired by the president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, Samuel Felton. Felton was concerned about the high secessionist activity in Maryland and accompanying threats of damage to the railroad. Pinkerton agents, including Kate, spread throughout the state and blended into popular secessionist groups to gather information on whatever protest or riot they were planning to stage. It didn’t take long for them to discover that the central plan of action was the assassination of President-Elect Lincoln as he traveled through Baltimore to D.C. for his inauguration.

With this new information, Allan’s plan shifted, and he selected a team of five agents to travel to Baltimore and focus solely on uncovering the details of the plot. It was Kate, or should I say Mrs. Cherry and Mrs. M. Barley, who was able to not only confirm the existence of the assassination plot but also discover that it was to be done as Lincoln passed through Calvert Street Station in Baltimore. Secessionists would stage a fight to draw the few policemen away from the train depot, leaving Lincoln exposed and vulnerable.

After Kate relayed the details back to him, Allan traveled to Philadelphia to meet with Lincoln and inform him about the plot. He offered Lincoln his agency’s services to deliver him to Washington safely. Lincoln accepted.

Lincoln was originally scheduled to stop in Baltimore and make a speech, riding publicly and unprotected through the streets to and from train stations before boarding a train for D.C. Kate instead argued that the president-elect should take a midnight train directly to Baltimore and then be moved to an express train bound for D.C. early in the morning.

She booked four berths on the train to Baltimore, one for her “invalid brother,” who she insisted needed complete peace and quiet on the train, and the other three for other members of her family. This invalid brother was, of course, Lincoln, disguised in a tightly-wrapped shawl and soft felt cap who boarded the train with Kate and the other Pinkerton detectives through the rear of the sleeping car shortly before the train departed at 11 p.m.

Allan had stationed additional Pinkerton operatives at every bridge and crossing point along the route who would signal as the train passed that all was well up ahead. Except for an hour’s delay due to a noise ordinance that required the sleeper car to be transported through Baltimore by horse, the plan went off without a hitch, and Lincoln arrived safely in Washington around 6 a.m. on the morning of February 23.

Many believe that the Pinkerton agency slogan “We Never Sleep” is based on Kate because she never left Lincoln’s side the whole night, poised to defend him should she need to. The slogan was often accompanied by a drawing of an open eye on posters for the agency across the nation and came to be referred to as “the private eye.” So, in some ways, Kate was not only the first female private eye, she was the inspiration.

Image Credit: All That’s Interesting

The Pinkerton Agency continued to expose Southern secrets when it was hired by General George B. McClellan as his military intelligence service. Kate once again blended into Confederate societies, this time in Virginia and Tennessee, and wormed out secrets about the locations, commanders, and fortifications of regiments. Occasionally, she and Allan would pose as a married couple when the two thought the cover might serve to extract additional information.

This continued to ruffle Robert Pinkerton’s feathers who thought of Kate as little more than Allan’s mistress, suspecting the two might have carried on an affair. When Kate would submit her travel expenses from her work, Robert would argue with her and saw little need for the company to be paying for Allan’s travel companion and to be condoning a “sordid relationship.”

Kate refused to let Robert’s hostility prevent her from working, especially once the agency was hired by President Lincoln to weed out any traitors who might be lurking in D.C. Kate became part of the first government-approved spy ring in American and continued to ingrain herself in the heart of Southern-minded communities in the capital.

Pinkerton (left) and Lincoln (center) // Image Credit: Library of Congress

Her time in Washington was brief, however, when Lafayette Baker, a Union spy, convinced Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that the Pinkerton approach was not aggressive or focused enough to be useful and replaced Allan as the head of the capital’s spy network. The agency could no longer revert to working for McClellan, as he had been fired by Lincoln around the same time they were, so Kate and the rest of the Pinkerton agents withdrew to Chicago, leaving Lincoln the hands of people in theory more capable than them.

Of course, it’s easy to play the “What If” game and think about what might have happened at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, had the Pinkerton agency still been in charge of the President’s safety.

After leaving Washington, Kate continued to serve as an integral part of the agency, solving murders and bank robbery cases left and right. During one of these cases, she disguised herself as a fortune teller to expose a woman who was accused of poisoning her brother. Again, we know little about these cases due to the scant remaining records, but, from the few details we do know, Kate’s stellar wit and resourcefulness are clearly apparent.

Allan not only named her as one of his top five detectives but he also credits her as one of two specific agents who associated the Pinkerton agency with honor and efficiency. Her talent convinced him that women could provide invaluable service as detectives and he hired more to the firm, placing them under the command of Kate. He told the new “Lady Pinkertons” or “Pinks” that “in my service, you will serve your country better than on the field…if you agree to come aboard, you will go in training with the head of my female detectives, Kate Warne. She has never let me down.” He admired her so much that, when she passed away suddenly of pneumonia on January 28, 1868, Allan had Kate buried in his family’s private cemetery plot.

Image Credit: Chicago History Museum

Kate and the women she trained provided critical information that helped the Union to win the Civil War and shed light on some of the most baffling crimes in the nation. They also managed to make a living in a profession that didn’t officially admit women until 1903. Additionally, their work helped to transform the public perception of detectives, who, at that time, were considered as little more than deceitful thugs breaking the law to uphold it. With the help of the “Pinks,” the profession turned into a noble and brave cause, one that continues to fascinate people today with each new spy thriller that is read or watched by kids and adults alike.