Throwback Thursday: Kate Warne, First Female Private Eye

posted on March 7, 2019


In the outer office of Pinkerton's National Detective Agency, Kate Warne tapped her foot impatiently, her eyes glued to the closed door on which were the words "ALLAN PINKERTON." The door opened.

"Mr. Pinkerton will see you now," said the young man. Kate took a deep, calming breath and walked in.

Allan Pinkerton stood as Kate approached and offered her hand. "I'm afraid you've had a wasted journey, Mrs. Warne," he said with a smile. "I'm not in need of any secretarial help."

Kate's eyes flashed for just a moment before she smiled serenely and reached into her handbag for a folded newspaper clipping. She opened it slowly and smoothed the creases, revealing a Pinkerton Agency ad. "I'm here to see about this job," she told him. "It says you need a new agent."

Pinkerton couldn't quite hide his astonishment-or his amusement. "It's not my custom to employ female detectives," he replied with a chuckle.

Kate merely arched a brow. "Then it's time you did," she said. "As a woman, I can worm out secrets in ways and places that a male detective can't. For instance, I can befriend the wives or girlfriends of suspected criminals. I can gain their confidence in a way that a man could not."

 "Yes, I can see that," said Pinkerton, "but I ..."

Once again, Kate bulldozed ahead. "In addition to which," she said, "we women have an eye for detail and we're excellent observers."

Pinkerton stroked his beard thoughtfully. She was intelligent, he thought, and right. A woman detective could be extremely useful. "Tell you what," he said, "let me talk it over with my brother, and I'll give you an answer tomorrow."

In fact, Pinkerton's brother Robert argued against the idea. "It's a mistake," he exclaimed angrily.

Kate, however, had impressed Pinkerton, and he offered her the job.


When Kate Warne accepted Pinkerton's offer, she became America's first female private detective-and a very good one, at that. Handy with both disguises and accents, she could pose as a woman or a young male-anything from a Union solider to a Southern belle, from a lady of wealth to someone born to poverty. At one time, Kate had been an aspiring actress. As a private detective, she made good use of her dramatic abilities.

Perhaps Kate's most famous case involved an assassination plot against President-elect Abraham Lincoln. While investigating another case in Maryland, Pinkerton became convinced there was an assassination plot in the works.

So it was that on February 3, 1861, Kate and four other Pinkerton agents were sent to Baltimore, Md., to look into what was going on. This time, Kate would adopt a thick Southern accent and pose as a wealthy Southern lady visiting from Baltimore. As such, she attended lots of parties, flirting with the men in order to learn important details about the plot. She learned that the attempt on Lincoln's life would be made on February 23 as his train arrived in Baltimore from Harrisonburg, Pa., on the final leg of the train trip to Washington, D.C., where Lincoln was to be sworn in as president.

Over the next several days Pinkerton would devise a plan to foil the plot. During that time Kate delivered secret messages and bought train tickets under an assumed name for Lincoln-whom she referred to as her "invalid brother"-his bodyguard, Pinkerton and herself. Meanwhile, Pinkerton met with Lincoln to discuss the details.

On the evening of February 22, after Lincoln had delivered his speeches in Harrisonburg, his private secretary called him away from a dinner party. Around the same time, Pinkerton shut down the telegraph lines to Baltimore so that the plotters would be unaware of Lincoln's change of schedule.

A short time later, the president-elect and his armed bodyguard joined Kate and Pinkerton, who were also armed, at the train station. Lincoln was wearing a traveling suit and a felt cap, and he carried a shawl over one arm. As the foursome boarded the train through the rear of the sleeping car, Lincoln assumed a stooped posture, which masked his 6-foot-4-inch height. Kate, in turn, appeared to be supporting him with her arm. Indeed, the disguised Lincoln looked very much the weak invalid.

With firearms at the ready, Kate took the seat next to Lincoln, and Pinkerton and the bodyguard stationed themselves at either end of the car. There would be no sleep that night.

The train pulled out of the station at 11:00 p.m., arriving in Baltimore at 3:30 on the morning of February 23. From there, Lincoln's sleeping car was shifted to another train and continued on to Washington without further event. The plotters had been foiled, and Lincoln was sworn into office as the sixteenth president of the United States.

Seven years later-in 1868-Kate Pinkerton contracted pneumonia and died at just 35 years of age, but not before she'd made significant contributions as this nation's first female private detective. She is buried at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, Ill., in the Pinkerton Family Plot.


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