Celebrating International Women’s Day!

It’s International Women’s Day, and we thought it’d be fun to share the story of Kate Warne, who is widely acknowledged as the country’s first female private detective.

Warne joining the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1856. Little is known about Warne’s life prior to her work for the agency. She was born in Erin, New York in 1833, becoming a widow before age 23.

She eventually found her way to Allan Pinkerton’s Chicago office, which he wrote about in The Expressman and The Detective, published in 1874.

“I was seated one afternoon in my private office, pondering deeply over some matters, and arranging various plans, when a lady was shown in…”

She had a broad, honest face, which would cause one in distress instinctively to select her as a confidante…” 

“In a very pleasant tone 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.

At the time, it was unheard of for a woman to work as a private detective. Upon asking Mrs. Warne what she thought she could do for the firm, Pinkerton wrote,” she replied that she could go and worm out secrets in many places to which it was impossible for male detectives to gain access.”

He decides to give her a chance. It turns out to be the right decision.

“She succeeded far beyond my utmost expectations, and I soon found her an invaluable acquisition to my force,” he wrote in The Expressman. It’s also rumored that Warne became Pinkerson’s lover, and she often posed as his wife while working undercover.  

Though Warne worked primarily in the Chicago area, she was able to infiltrate variety of situations across the country in her work for Pinkerton. She solidified her notoriety on two key cases. The first one involved posing as a southern belle within Montgomery Alabama society circles in an effort to win the friendship of the wife of a suspected thief. Pinkerton had been hired by Adams Express Company, a company that provided shipping services and invested in railroads, which had been robbed. He had a hunch the money was stolen by the manager of the company’s Montgomery office, a man named Maroney. Pinkerton sent Warne to befriend Maroney’s wife, who eventually spilled the beans on her husband’s involvement to Warne, leading to his arrest.

The company became known for its work capturing train robbers and counterfeiters and for hiring women and minorities, a practice uncommon at the time, according a reference linked from the company’s Wikipedia page, “as they were useful as spies.”

Highly impressed with Warne’s work in Alabama, Pinkerton placed her in charge of his newly created Female Detective Bureau in 1860, according to The Smithsonian Magazine.

Warne’s most famous case, however, is likely the 1861 foiling of an assassination attempt on the newly elected President Abraham Lincoln.  Pinkerton uncovered a plot to assassinate the president while investigating robberies on the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroads. He sent Warne to Baltimore as a spy to infiltrate the southern sympathizers. Posing as a Mrs. Barley, a visitor from Alabama, Warne’s job was to “cultivate the wives and daughters of suspected plotters.” The attempt on the president-elect’s life would be made while he was passing through the city.

According to Smithsonian: To avoid the would-be assassins, Pinkerton snuck Lincoln into Baltimore aboard an overnight train that arrived in the city at 3:30 a.m. The president-elect pretended to be Warne’s ‘invalid brother,’ with the woman detective posing as his caregiver. Warne gained the train conductor’s sympathy and secured an entire sleeping car for her party of four (herself, Lincoln, Pinkerton and Lincoln’s bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon). Nobody but the Pinkerton crew realized that the incoming president was on board, and Lincoln arrived in D.C. safely at 6 a.m.

It’s rumored that Warne never slept during the trip, inspiring Pinkerton’s famous slogan, “We Never Sleep” under an unblinking eye.

Warne continued to serve as the director of Pinkerton’s Female Detective Bureau for the rest of her life, overseeing the recruitment of the agency’s woman detectives. Exactly how many women Warne hired is unknown, but under her leadership, the Chicago-based bureau expanded into several regional Pinkerton branches.

As a company, Pinkerton has a long and storied history in Colorado, but it didn’t begin operations in Denver until years after Warne’s death in 1868 (and Pinkerton’s in 1884). It’s history, including its recent troubles during a 2021 Denver protest, is documented in this 2022 story in the Westword.  

Warne died with Pinkerton reportedly by her side. She is buried in the Pinkerton family plot in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Her work helped to break down barriers for women in the field of law enforcement and private investigation.

Of course, today you’ll find Colorado’s top female private investigators at Ross Investigators, P.C.!

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Nancy Kristof
Nancy Kristof

Nancy is a writer, editor and communications professional nearly 30 years of experience. Originally from the east coast, she's lived in Colorado since 2004 and owns her own communications consulting business and supports Ross Investigators as an information gatherer, blogger and editor.

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