Forgotten Figures: Kate Warne

The door exploded with the force of the boot on it, before he could rise from the bed be was surrounded by armed men and then a voice “you’re under arrest”. There was something unusual about the voice, the pitch was high, he looked up at the Pinkerton Detective in front of him, A Woman!


Kate Warne was born about 1833 in New York State and had a fairly unremarkable childhood however by the ae of twenty-one she was widowed and at a loss. She didn’t want to support herself through the means typical for women at the time, washing, sewing, cleaning or sex work. However, without a husband she lacked an income. At a loss she was looking through some local adverts and found exactly what she was looking for. The famous Pinkerton Detective Agency were looking for a new Detective. She smiled at the stir simply applying for the position would cause. She saw no reason she couldn’t be a detective however this was a job never occupied by a woman before, and the land of the free wasn’t free yet for everyone yet.

Our account of what happened after she entered the Pinkerton offices in Chicago comes from Allen Pinkerton himself. He presumed she was applying for a clerical role and as he started waving her to the lady who deals with clerical or cleaner hiring, Kate stopped him. She told him she was here for the Detective Position. Pinkerton stared at her, expressionless whilst the processed what she had just said. It was unheard of “It is not the custom to employ women detectives!”. He was about to turn and walk away when Kate started talking, eloquently describing the benefits of hiring a woman as a detective; women could befriend the wives and girlfriends of suspects allowing them to illicit information. Men were also boastful around a woman and were more likely to say something incriminating. She finished off by pointing out that women had a very good eye for detail.

Her argument clearly swayed Pinkerton as he offered her the position the following day. He must have been very impressed with her; I would imagine there was a huge amount of risk to his reputation personally and professionally if he got this wrong. In his memoirs he reports never regretting this decision.

Pinkertons description of Warne written years after her death resonates with a certain fondness but doesn’t overtly indicate any romantic attachment as has been suggested since. A sexual relationship would have compromised Pinkertons valuable reputation and undermined Kates’s achievement in getting the role. Whether she liked it or not she was now a test case and the whole world was watching.

“graceful in her movements and self-possessed. Her features, although not what could be called handsome, were a decidedly intellectual cast. Her face was honest, which would cause one in distress instinctively to select her as a confidant.”

Within days of taking the job she was assigned a multi-million-dollar embezzlement case. The Pinkertons were not commissioned for anything small so her first case was never getting to be low-profile. She closed the case in short order by befriending the suspects wife. The relative ease with which she accomplished this cemented her reputation within the organisation.

Her successes steadily piled up and in 1861 she was sat with Allan Pinkerton in front of president-elect Abraham Lincoln. She had infiltrated a group in the southern states during the course of an investigation and extracted information about a plot to assassinate Lincoln on a train to Baltimore. Whilst the president may have had very progressive thoughts about race in the context of the era, his thoughts on women were far more conservative. He dismissed the claims and refused to make any changes to his plans without proof.

Kate, although northern born went undercover as a southern lady of wealth, laying on a particularly thick Louisiana accent. Throwing about comments on race and politics that today would probably be as good as walking into a rough pub in a police uniform. However, at the time, due to the discontent, a convincing accent and a confident performance won the day.

Side Note: So, the whole point of this series is to highlight women who did incredible things but due to the patriarchal narrative of history have fallen into obscurity. Kate was a woman, despite that she had galaxy sized, titanium balls.

She obtained sufficient evidence of a conspiracy to assassinate the president on his train to Baltimore. Lincoln arrived disguised as an old man with a cane, supported by Kate posing as a family member. He entered the carriage on an earlier train than publicised, where Kate and another Pinkerton stood guard, constantly. This was where the Pinkerton motto “We never sleep” which is still used today comes from. The Pinkerton logo is an unblinking eye in memory of this event.

Side Note: Alas there is no connection with Sauron the crime fighting Miar.

The plot involved one gunman on the train and multiple knifemen in the crowd at a point where the president was expected to change trains. No attempt appears to have been made by the gunman, perhaps realising Lincoln wasn’t actually on the train. The knifemen who were arrested as part of a later investigation were in the crowd of the later train and found the president had already gone.

After this Warne who was already a “superintendent”, headed her own branch of women detective, referred to as The Pinks. The first of its type in the world. Pinkerton gave the same speech to all prospective female detectives, “In my service you will serve your country better than on the field. I have several female operatives. 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”.

They would investigate and prevent hundreds of high-profile crimes over the following years. Kate Warne who had achieved more than most men of the time in her short life died, aged 34 of what was probably tuberculosis.

Allen Pinkerton, whose affection for Kate Warne resonates in his memoires arranged for her to be buried in his family plot, with a slightly misspelled name on her headstone to offer a challenge to any who would wish to desecrate her grave. He also put a provision in his will that the grave must never be disturbed or dug up and moved. Citing that “Kate must be allowed to rest after her tireless service”. However, this has given rise to conspiracy theory and speculation of treasure to be found.

A Bit of Analysis

Prior to this the majority of my knowledge about the history of America comes from the musical Hamilton. I can’t believe the life of this remarkable woman hadn’t entered the history syllabus despite American History being one of the themes. I probably would have paid far more attention in class. Whilst all of her actions are to her credit and all started from her having the confidence to walk into the Pinkerton offices in Chicago. Had she not done this its likely the attempt on Lincoln’s life would have been successful and world history would look very different.

Whilst the focus of this post is Kate Warne, none of what followed would have been possible without Allen Pinkerton shaking off the expectations and the possible catastrophic damage to his reputation that hiring Kate could have and recognising the benefit. However, before we praise Allen Pinkerton too highly, in one of his descriptions of Kate he recalls “she was possessed of a gift for silence almost unheard of in womankind”. He was doing so well, and this is the only derogatory sentiment I can find in his memoirs so perhaps I shouldn’t judge him too harshly.

Kate’s life paved the way for the first female police officers in the 1890’s. Due to Kates influence the Pinkerton Detective Agency also recruited Hettie Lawton, the first female mixed-race detective. There are elements to Warnes life and accounts of her personality that put me in mind of Anne Bonnie the famous female Irish pirate.      

My primary source for most of this post was Allen Pinkertons book and memoir which makes an absolutely fascinating read.

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