Way Ahead of Her Time — Detective Kate Warne
The world’s first female detective helped save President-elect Abraham Lincoln — and the Nation — in 1861
No one could have been more surprised than Detective Allen Pinkerton was when the petite woman wearing a fashionable dress stepped into his Chicago office, looked him straight in the eye, and revealed the purpose of her visit. She was seeking employment, but she was not applying for a secretarial job.
She wanted to be a detective.
The year was 1856 and the woman’s name was Kate Warne — a twenty-three-year-old widow with no children seeking better work in order to support her aging parents back in New York. After reading a job posting for detectives in the local paper, Ms. Warne knew she would be perfect for the job.
How so? asked Pinkerton.
It was simple. “Women could be most useful in worming out secrets in many places which would be impossible for male detectives to gain access.” After all, even the most tight-lipped scoundrel was more likely to open up in the presence of a pretty woman.
Pinkerton told her to come back tomorrow and she would have his answer. She returned the next morning and was told she had the job, thus making her the world’s first female private eye.
In those days a Pinkerton agent was expected to be part private investigator, part bodyguard, and part undercover spy. As chronicled by Brad Meltzer in his 2020 book The Lincoln Conspiracy, this ground-breaking collaboration wound up saving the life of President-elect Lincoln from a cabal of assassins in 1861, and, by extension, rescued the fate of our nation as we know it.
Yet befitting the undercover agent she was, her story remains largely unknown to this day.
Kate Warne was born in the town of Erin, New York, in 1833. What happened with her first marriage is lost to history. But it was in Chicago when she met the founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency that her story really begins.
Breaking down gender barriers in any profession has always been a never-ending fight for respect and a fair chance to succeed — or fail. So it was with Kate and detective work. But following that fateful job interview with Pinkerton, Warne eventually earned the respect of her male counterparts. It didn’t take them long to figure out they had better take her seriously because she damn sure did.
In his memoir, Pinkerton described her as “a slender, brown-haired woman, graceful in her movements and self-possessed.” Beyond that, she proved a quick study in the art of disguise and carrying on different accents. But most essential was her skilled ability to gain the trust of wives or mistresses of criminals, picking up pieces of incriminating evidence along the way.
Over the coming years, it seemed no assignment was too daunting for this agent provocateur.
A New President
The future wasn’t looking bright for the country as a whole in the fall of 1860. The burdensome issues of slavery and states’ rights were polarizing more Americans every day, north and south.
It came to a head with the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860. Lincoln was viewed as a stalwart defender of freedom by many in the north. But throughout the southern states he was vilified as the primary enemy of the south’s most vital economic resource — slavery.
After the election of 1860, southern states started threatening to secede from the Union. There was even talk of taking up military arms against the federal government if it became necessary.
Amidst all this turmoil, the President-elect was scheduled to take the oath of office on March 4, 1861, in Washington, D.C. Following the tradition of the day, he was to travel by train on a pre-arranged — and well-publicized — route from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to the nation’s capital for his inauguration.
That route would take Lincoln and his entourage east through Indiana and Ohio, into New York and Pennsylvania, before turning south through Maryland into Washington D.C. All this with stops at numerous cities and towns along the way so that he could be seen and heard by as many people as possible.
The problem was that, when viewed by today’s standard, security for the President of the United States in those days was a joke. There was no Secret Service yet, no FBI. There were no trained security teams or bulletproof modes of transportation. Just a few uniformed bodyguards standing near the president every time he presented himself in full view to the public.
Just a few uniformed bodyguards standing near the president every time he presented himself in full view to the public.
So when Allen Pinkerton was asked to help protect the president, he knew he and his small team of agents were going to have their hands full. He also knew the stakes could not have been higher.
The Baltimore Plot
Maryland never did secede from the Union, but during this time it had more than its share of impassioned southern sympathizers. One city in particular — Baltimore — was known to harbor a strong contingent of slaveholders and white supremacist militias who loathed everything Abraham Lincoln stood for.
(One such local militia unit counted amongst its members the popular stage actor John Wilkes Booth.)
Pinkerton was the first to learn of the plot to assassinate the president. Members of a militia known as The National Volunteers had read in the newspapers the exact time and place when Lincoln would be passing through Baltimore. These armed conspirators — nobody knew how many there were — planned on being in the crowd when Lincoln arrived, each and every one of them determined to prevent him from ever making it to Washington, D.C. alive.
Pinkerton knew he and his team had to take action quickly, all the more so when reports came in that Baltimore’s chief of police was in on the plot as well. Sending an army of federal troops into that town to rescue the president might well lead to a bloodbath. No, somehow Pinkerton had to slip Lincoln through the city before any potential assassin could spot the tall and all too conspicuous president.
Enter Kate Warne.
On February 23, 1861, Warne, acting on instruction from Pinkerton, secured tickets on an earlier train bound for Baltimore. She posed as a matronly sister caring for her ‘invalid brother.’ That invalid brother was to be none other than Lincoln himself in disguise.
Late on the night of February 23, 1861, Warne and the president quickly walked side-by-side and onto a different train, fully aware that if anyone were to spot Lincoln they might try to kill him on the spot.
Warne found an open sleeper compartment and saw to it that Lincoln entered without anyone noticing. She stood guard outside the car for the rest of the night.
As expected, a huge crowd surrounded the train depot in Baltimore the next day, expecting to see the president-elect. Among that crowd were several would-be assassins. Then word got out that Lincoln had already passed through the city hours earlier and was now safe in Washington.
There would be no assassination. Not on this day. Abraham Lincoln would live to take his place in history.
The End of Her Career
As for Kate Warne, she went on to serve the Pinkerton Agency in other cases of espionage during the Civil War. She even started training new female agents. But her career and her life were sadly cut short when she contracted pneumonia and died suddenly on January 28, 1868, at the age of 34.
Allen Pinkerton was reportedly at her bedside when she died, and following his instruction she was buried in the Pinkerton family plot in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.
One surviving obituary, from the Democratic Enquirer of Ohio in 1868, said of Kate Warne: “She was undoubtedly the best female detective in America, if not in the world….a most remarkable woman, and as such deserves a passing notice.”
Indeed she does.