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Kate Warne: America’s First Female Detective

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.Kate Warne Photo 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.

Kate Warne ObituaryVery 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.

Do you have ancestors connected to Pinkerton or the Baltimore Plot? Tell us about it! Or search or browse on Fold3 for other topics that interest you.

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.

33 Comments

  1. That was very interesting reading about Kate Warne. I enjoyed reading about her. I never knew that Pinkerton hired women to help in gathering information for him. I would love to know if Kate Warne has survivors from either sides that are in the Security Business.
    My family has 6 generations in the Law Enforcement.

  2. What a wonderful legacy! Thanks to all for keeping us safe.

  3. My Dad’s cousin, Peggy Duell Hull, was the first ever woman war correspondent during WWI. Professors at University of Kansas wrote a book about her several years ago called “The Wars of Peggy Hull.” When I met her, I was about 11 years old. I don’t know how old she was. She was scandalous, and eventually lived with a man much younger than she. We understood that he was gay, something very unacceptable at the time, and when they moved, he didn’t tell us she had died. She had a home in Carmel, California where there are no addresses. We sent several letters to her for which we had no reply. We don’t know if she ever heard from us after she moved.

    • Patricia: How sad! You should write her story the WAY you would have wanted it to have happened. I’ll bet it would be a WONDERFUL READ!

      Eva Nell
      “Fiddler of the Mountains” PRIZE WINNING history book!ike, PhD

  4. I emailed my cousin Gloria Warne, whose late husband Dr. Ronson Warne was related to Kate Warne. Ronson’s family goes back to colonial days in New Jersey.

  5. I emailed my cousin Gloria Warne about Kate Warne if she was related to her late husbands Dr. Ronson Warne, whose family goes back to colonial New Jersey.

    • Very fascinating, indeed! Do you have any ‘dirt’ you can share? I just love these kinds of carryin’ ons!

  6. I must say, your story regarding Kate Wayne was extremely entertaining. Not only in it’s history, but, it is most interesting that Pinkerton chose her to a position of such importance at a time when women simply had no access to such authority. This moment in history should be known to the ladies who are still complaining about their place in the world. It is apparent that talent, instinct and moxy are the basis of success….not the premise of sexual orientation. Thank you for a great story. Keep it up.

  7. Oops! Just go to my new book “Fiddler” on AMAZON.com

  8. Very interesting information.
    Will discuss this with members of the Chapter. Thanks.

  9. My grandfather worked for the Pinkerton Agency as a special police. He was also a Justice of the Peace in Huntsville, Madison Co., Alabama. He passed away in 1945. My brother has his Pinkerton badge.

  10. Hmm….seems somewhat similar to a article I wrote titled “Kate Warne First Female Private Eye” by Barbara Maikell-Thomas I wrote, well over 15 years ago you can find it at http://www.pimall.com/nais/pivintage/katewarne.html

    • It’s also similar to the listing done by Iola at the website of her entry at finagrave.com

  11. As a retired NYPD detective myself, I enjoyed reading this story.

  12. I have enjoyed reading everyone’s comments about this buried treasure in America’s history! Unfortunately, most of my family records were destroyed decades before I was born in various long running infighting. I don’t even know most of my family…it’s a real loss.

    • Hi Adam, I live in Ghana, West Africa. Would you perchance be related to the late Dora Ingraham Roach? She served with the Peace Corps in Ghana in the 1970’s.

    • hi, seems there is lots of roach surname on my pat. side of rose family. scot. eng. , usa. diana spencers mat. side of her family, surname roach, pincess di. her moms name , nee, was ruth R. maybe i ve notes that i keep. have large fam. and ancestors, maybe can help. maybe cuzins, who knows, happy holidays.mb.

    • Mr Roach, if you know parents names, any of their siblings, cousins, etc you can build your ancestry lines using Ancestry.com, familysearch, fold3. You can do it. You might be astonished at family history you find. Good luck..it is a really interesting task to do.

    • I too have used Ancestry. I was surprised to find all of my relatives that have gone onto Heaven. I have used Find a Grave too. That is very interesting to find also long lost relations that you did not even think you even had.

    • To Lois & Mary,

      Thanks for your kind, encouraging suggestions. I do appreciate it.

  13. I was always told my grandfather was a Pinkerton detective. If anyone has any hints as to where I might find any information please text me. His name was Edward Cash Rich Jr., born in 1883
    Thank you

  14. OH so much has been lost one way or another. It is good to know that a female ‘Kate’ Warne young,widowed, had the ability to to to Pinkerton’s and apply for a position that she knew was ‘usually’ given to me, that she had the quality to debate her cause, and showed that she had the ability. One, her family had given her these qualities, or her husband had told her that was a worthy as any man, or the position of distitution had push her out of her comfort zone and she proved that she could do the work that Pinkerton needed done. That quality of Kate made Pinkerton hire more femal agents. It is a good thing we can pass on to our Grand daughters, etc. I’m proud of the way Pinkerton took care of her and treated her like family.

  15. In the novel, “Roots of Indifference,” which is true-based, the detective Pinkerton was killed and never found. He was hired by the wealth cattle baron in Texas, Mr. Juelson who suspected his father was murder. The Pinkerton detective body was never found, however, in the shocking end, it’s all resolved. Great action/adventure novel that takes place in South Texas. For all of the history buffs, this is a great one to investigate.

  16. she would have been a glorified whorepaid to sleep with people for information .she wasn’t like a police detective she worked for pinkertons who beat up working men trying to get workers rights to break strikes .. they were big business “facilitators” going round the country as paid vigilantes they werent honorable like todays law enforcement or even Texas rangers who were real law men

  17. To Johnny Bansah:

    Hi, Johnny!

    Don’t know why there’s not a ‘reply’ button under your name, but to answer your question…
    I’ve never heard of a family member in the Peace Corps, but it’s certainly possible! I have family members that I know of here in Virginia and throughout the Southern US states. I wish I had a more direct answer for you, but I don’t have copies of any family records that may have survived. Not knowing about my family history sometimes make me feel like an orphan. I’m not but my mom was orphaned at the age of 9 in 1951. I do know she got passed around from home to home but I’ve never been able to ask her questions about her past because it always upsets her. Roach is a fairly common name. I did an online search of my own name and came up with 25 ‘Adam Roach’ entries in the US alone! Thanks for your note. I hope you can find the info you’re looking for.
    Take care, ADAM

  18. Utterly fascinating.
    Is the Pinkerton Agency still operating?

    • I was curious about that, too. Here’s what Wiki has to say:
      PINKERTON (1850) along with his biggest rival, WILLIAM J. BURNS DETECTIVE AGENCY (1910) were purchased in 2003 by SECURITAS SECURITY SERVICES (founded 1934), which is based in Stockholm, Sweeden.

  19. hi, adam roach, did u rec. my reply iwrote, and also, not every in that line of work is —. or was that person just implying. mb.

    • If you’re referring to the remark about Kate being a ‘Glorified Whore’, I took offence because it seemed like the poster was automatically assuming that is pretty much all a woman could do in that type of job. If you’re making another point, I’m not sure of what you’re asking me.