Born in New York and widowed young, Kate Warne was in her early twenties in 1855 when she walked into Allan Pinkerton‘s office and told him she wanted a job as a detective. The Scottish-born Pinkerton, himself America’s first private eye, was caught off guard that a woman was applying for the position, but despite the lack of precedence for female agents, he decided to hear her out. Kate argued that a female detective would be an asset to Pinkerton’s work, since a woman would be able to go places and get information that men couldn’t—for example, by forming friendships with the wives and girlfriends of suspects to get them to confide information about the crime. After spending a night thinking about it, Pinkerton decided to hire her.
Pinkerton never regretted his decision, and Kate became one of his best agents. Pinkerton described her as “an intelligent, brilliant, accomplished lady”1 who was an “invaluable acquisition to [his] force”2 and said she displayed “tact, readiness of resource, ability to read character, intuitive perceptions of motive, and rare discretion.”3 In fact, Kate proved herself so skilled and able that Pinkerton began hiring other women as well and made Kate the superintendent of the female department of his agency.
Using a wide variety of aliases and disguises, Kate was involved in solving numerous cases, including bank robbery, embezzlement, poisoning, espionage, murder, and beyond. Her best-known case involved working with Pinkerton to protect the life of president-elect Abraham Lincoln from the assassination attempt of the so-called Baltimore Plot in 1861. After Pinkerton learned of the possible plot, he sent Kate to Baltimore to disguise herself as a wealthy Southern woman and gather information. Then, when Lincoln passed through Pennsylvania on his way to his inauguration, Kate was in charge of securing some sleeping berths at the back of a public train, which was part of a plan that would allow Lincoln—disguised as Kate’s invalid brother—to make it through Baltimore without his would-be killers knowing.
Very little is known about Kate’s life. Much of the information we know about her today comes from the fictionalized books Pinkerton published detailing the cases his agency solved. Other information and records Pinkerton had relating to Kate were most likely lost when Pinkerton’s archives were destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871.
Kate died from an illness, possibly pneumonia, on 28 January 1868 at age 38 (some sources say 35). Pinkerton had her buried—not far from where he would later be interred—in a section of his family plot reserved for special employees.
1Pinkerton, Allan. The Somnambulist and the Detective: The Murderer and the Fortune Teller. 1875. New York: G. W. Dillingham Co., 1900. 144.
2 Pinkerton, Allan. The Expressman and the Detective. Chicago: W. B. Keen, Cooke & Co., 1874. 95.
3 Pinkerton, The Somnambulist and the Detective: The Murderer and the Fortune Teller. 145.