The Untold Truth Of America's First Female Detective, Kate Warne

The mid-1800s were a time of massive change worldwide, from serious technological breakthroughs to massive social change in the form of actually seeing anyone other than a rich white dude as human. But the Victorian era was also full of problems — the Industrial Revolution had a dark side, freeing slaves wasn't a smooth process (hello, Civil War), and women were still generally repressed as a matter of course. The Wild West wasn't the only lawless segment of society – thieves and villains abounded, with little central policing to do anything about it, no matter if you were in the city or the countryside.

All of which makes the story of Kate Warne sound even more like something cooked up by Hollywood to sell a couple of movie tickets. But this real-life detective extraordinaire really did rise from poor beginnings to become one of America's top cops, laying the foundation for some of the law enforcement departments of today...not to mention breaking ground for generations of women to join the field.

Who was Kate Warne?

Kate Warne was the first woman Pinkerton agent — and the first female professional detective in America. And man, did she have guts. According to Mental Floss, she simply walked into the Chicago headquarters one day in 1856 with a newspaper ad in hand and demanded a job. Boss Allan Pinkerton thought she was there to apply for the secretary gig. She wasn't. Warne was going to become a full agent — basically, a private detective — and nothing would stop her.

At the time, women were only employed within law enforcement as prison matrons — assuming they had a job at all. Plus, mid-1800s law enforcement was spotty at best — police departments had their hands full with both major and minor crimes. Civil crime like embezzlement often went uninvestigated, simply because departments didn't have the resources.

That's where the Pinkerton Agency came in. Acting as a combination of a private security force and PIs, Pinkerton agents were hired to investigate upper-class crimes or provide security for the rich and powerful. But there was a gap in their lineup — no ladies. Warne knew this, and at just 23, she was determined, eloquent, and persuasive. As Mental Floss notes, she managed to talk Pinkerton into giving her a try as the first female member of his agency. She could befriend the wives of suspects, pick up gossip as a fake clerical worker, or flirt with baddies to get them to dish the dirt.

Kate Warne excelled as a Pinkerton agent

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was the country's first private detective agency — and arguably its most successful, given that it's still operating more than 150 years later, as the agency's official history notes. Kate Warne, an early hire, became one of its most successful operatives.

Founder Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish immigrant, had been Chicago's first police detective and left to form his own company when he realized that there was a market for private security services. By 1853, he was working alongside law enforcement across America. Later on, the agency would provide intelligence for the Union during the Civil War, hire the first Black intelligence officer, John Scobell, and hunt down Jesse James and other notorious outlaws, as History relates. Unfortunately, they'd also firebomb suspects' houses, break up unions, and use various unsavory tactics to achieve their aims, according to Legends of America.

Though she was tough and fearless, Warne didn't go along on any of the hunts for Butch Cassidy or other train robbers that the Pinkertons are most often known for. Instead, she specialized in white-collar crime, clearing the agency's books of dozens of embezzlement cases and even murders. As Pinkerton started hiring more female agents, Warne was put in charge of their training. Pinkerton often said, according to a quote from his memoirs in the Vintage News, "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."

Kate Warne was a woman of mystery

Perhaps to protect her identity or a family back home, Kate Warne kept her life a secret — no confirmed photograph of her exists, just a single watercolor. It's not known when, exactly, she was born, either — it was either 1830 or 1833. She grew up in Erin, a tiny town in upstate New York, and married young, according to How Stuff Works and the Wonder Women Project. When she ended up a widow in her early 20s, it was off to Illinois — either with her family or solo, it's unsure which.

But after she strolled into Allan Pinkerton's office and explained why she was going to be his first female detective, life was all about catching crooks. Warne wasn't a glamorous vixen. You'd probably never notice the slender brunette in a crowd. And that was the whole point. As Pinkerton himself recalled, "I ... observed that her features, although not what would be called handsome, were of a decidedly intellectual cast. Her eyes were very attractive, being dark blue, and filled with fire. She had a broad, honest face, which would cause one in distress instinctively to select her as a confidante. ... She introduced herself as Mrs. Kate Warne, stating that she was a widow, and that she had come to inquire whether I would not employ her as a detective."

He did, and with that, Warne's life as a woman of action began.

On her first case, Kate Warne busted a big-time embezzler

Despite Allan Pinkerton's personal confidence in her, it took more than two years for Kate Warne to get assigned a real case. But when she landed her first assignment in 1858, Warne came through — big time. She busted a major embezzler and even managed to get most of the stolen money returned. According to CrimeReads, Warne went undercover to solve the case of who had stolen some $50,000 from the Adams Express Company. She gained the trust of the chief suspect's wife and not only got her to confess that her darling hubby had stolen the cash but even managed to find out where the remaining money was hidden. Ultimately, as recounted by All That's Interesting, Warne won a conviction against the thief and recovered more than $39,000 of the stolen funds.

In her initial pitch to Pinkerton for a job, Vintage News relates, Warne had asserted that women could be "most useful in worming out secrets in many places which would be impossible for a male detective." That was certainly true for her, as she would bust several more robbers and embezzlers in quick succession, frequently by cozying up to their wives, mothers, or other women in the family. She also often posed as a secretary or cleaner. In no time, she became one of Pinkerton's most trusted agents, as he recalled in his records.

Kate Warne was a master of disguise

Kate Warne often achieved her successes by going undercover, disguising herself as a secretary, cleaner, or other menial job open to women. She was well known for her ability to assemble costumes, wigs, and more on short notice and assume any role needed for a job, as How Stuff Works points out. Her unassuming build and plain appearance helped her blend in, though several period observers noted her striking eyes, which Pinkerton described as "dark blue, and filled with fire."

Warne assumed so many identities that some scholars aren't even sure her name was really "Kate" at all — in addition to completely fake personas like "Mrs. Cherry" and "Mrs. Barley," she also regularly introduced herself as Kay Warne, Kay Waren, Kay Warren, Kate Warne, Kate Waren, Kate Warren, Kitty Warne, Kitty Waren, Kitty Warren, Kittie Waren, Kittie Warne, and Kittie Warren, as noted by the Vintage News and We Are the Mighty.

Warne sometimes disguised herself as the wife or mistress of other Pinkerton agents, including Allan Pinkerton himself, though there's no evidence that she carried on relationships with any of her colleagues, as the Vintage News notes.

Ever the skilled actress, Warne transformed herself for roles as different as confident southern belle and mystic fortuneteller to get close to her suspects, then faded back into obscurity for her next case, as highlighted by How Stuff Works.

Kate Warne spied for the Union

After just four years on the job, Kate Warne got a major promotion at work — she became the first head of the newly formed Pinkerton Female Detective Bureau in 1860, according to We Are the Mighty. But she wouldn't be behind a desk for long — at the start of the Civil War, Allan Pinkerton was tasked by Union Army Gen. George McClellan with spying on the Confederates, as History notes. He dispatched Warne on several missions to the South, relying on her keen ear for accents and ability to take on any guise needed.

Often posing as a rich southern heiress, Warne slipped through the ranks of secessionist intrigue, bringing back word of various plots and insurrections, according to Mental Floss. Eventually, she was assigned to a case brought to the agency by the president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad. Samuel Felton was worried about secessionist activity in Baltimore and, according to Women History Blog, retained the Pinkertons to protect his railroad from possible riots or damage. As part of a team dispatched to uncover the true extent of the rebel activity in the city, Warne went undercover as a flirty, eloquent lady visiting from somewhere further south — who had distinct secessionist leanings and would just love to hear more about that upcoming attack, y'all.

Kate Warne saved Abraham Lincoln's life

As it turned out, Kate Warne uncovered more than anyone at the agency had bargained for. At one party, whispers about an attempt on the life of the newly elected President Abraham Lincoln went from rumor to threat. As All That's Interesting notes, the local secessionists weren't content to simply grumble about the abolitionist president-elect – they were planning to assassinate him. Several crazy plots to kill Lincoln had already been uncovered — including one that involved dumplings full of spiders — but according to Mental Floss, this was a truly credible threat. Warne quickly passed the details back to Pinkerton, who informed Lincoln.

Incredibly, the president-elect had no interest in changing his plans for a whistle-stop train tour that would carry him from Illinois through significant parts of the South on his way to his inauguration in Washington, DC. So Pinkerton came up with a plan to protect him with a rotating set of undercover agents all along the way. In Philadelphia, that job fell to Warne, as Pinkerton himself points out in one of his many books.

Kate Warne smuggled Abraham Lincoln to his inauguration

When Honest Abe went to change trains for the trip to Baltimore, where the assassination attempt was to take place, Kate Warne was waiting. Museum Hack recounts that she quickly draped a shawl over the president-elect, ordered him to stoop over to disguise his characteristic height, and then took his arm. She hid both of them in plain sight, exclaiming loudly over how glad she was to be taking her poor "invalid brother" home as she slipped the Pinkerton team and president onto the waiting train. CrimeReads notes that she spent a sleepless, watchful night guarding Lincoln with pistol in hand as they made their way to Baltimore.

Early in the morning, the train pulled into Baltimore where the would-be assassins were waiting. But instead of getting off, getting mobbed, and getting killed as the rebels planned, Lincoln stayed put, sound asleep. Warne hopped off the train and watched as the sleeping cars were transferred to another engine. With that, the sleeping president was off to Washington for his inauguration, and Warne could be satisfied with another job well done.

It's rumored that her vigilant all-nighter inspired Allan Pinkerton to change the tagline for his agency to "We Never Sleep," as We Are the Mighty points out, and rebrand with a massive unblinking eye logo — the origin of the term "private eye" for detectives.

Kate Warne worked in what would eventually become the Secret Service

After the failed assassination attempt, folks realized that presidents needed protecting. And who better to do it than the agency — and the woman — who had already thwarted the bad guys once? As the official Pinkerton company history highlights, Allan Pinkerton quickly set up a protection service which would eventually become the Secret Service, with Kate Warne as head (via How Stuff Works).

Oxford Reference notes that President Abraham Lincoln himself requested the formation of Pinkerton's Secret Service, a semi-governmental agency devoted to doing what Pinkerton agents did best — stopping plots and uncovering financial crimes. If you've ever wondered why the modern agency deals with tasks as disparate as being political bodyguards and catching counterfeiters, you've got your answer — it was all down to the Pinkerton specialties in the 1860s, a tale recounted in more detail in Jay Bonansinga's book, Pinkerton's War: The Civil War's Greatest Spy and the Birth of the U.S. Secret Service.

Warne split her time in the 1860s between spying for the Union, helping to set up the presidential security detail, and running the Female Detective Bureau at Pinkerton, as biographer Chris Enss described to How Stuff Works. A lot of hats to be wearing, but you can be sure that they were all probably extremely stylish and perfectly suited to whichever role the master spy needed to be in at the time.

Kate Warne cracked dozens of thrilling cases

Saving the future president of the U.S. was only one of Kate Warne's made-for-movies cases. After the Civil War, Warne went to work on the case of a bank robbery gone wrong, in which a teller was murdered and the culprit got away with almost $130,000. The chief suspect, according to the Vintage News, played it cool, and Pinkerton's agents weren't able to gather anything more than whispers and circumstantial evidence. Until Warne stepped in, that is.

She quickly made friends with the suspect's wife, then managed to get the two to confess not only to the murder but to where they'd hidden the money.

Later, she went undercover as a fortune teller named "Lucille" to prevent a murder-for-hire plot, as The Vintage News relates. Once again, she went above and beyond — she not only prevented the client's sister and her lover from murdering their victim, according to CrimeReads, she also got them to confess that the lover had already murdered his late wife.

Warne worked for the Pinkerton agency for 12 years, rising steadily through the ranks, as Mental Floss recounts, and becoming one of the boss' most trusted lieutenants. Allan Pinkerton said in his memoirs that "she never let me down" and called her not only one of the top five detectives he'd ever seen but also "one of the greatest female detectives who ever carried a case to successful conclusion."

Kate Warne paved the way for generations of female PIs and law enforcement

By breaking new ground and proving that women were just as clever, brave, and cunning as the guys, Kate Warne paved the way for generations of female law enforcement agents. She trained at least a dozen female agents as part of her work with Allan Pinkerton, and word of their success spread through the country. At last, in 1903, the New York Police Department hired a female investigator, as related by the International Foundation for Protection Officers. But as Security Management Magazine notes, the first female beat officer wasn't sworn in until 1910 in Los Angeles.

Sadly, the intrepid investigator died young — probably of pneumonia — in 1868. In a tribute to her importance and valor– and possibly because no one knew of any family thanks to her covering up of her past — Warne was buried in Pinkerton's family plot in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery.

Perhaps fittingly, her last name is misspelled on the last disguise by the greatest female detective of her century.