Kate Warne: First Female Detective

Kate Warne was a master of disguise.

Kate Warne was a master of disguise. Photo from Pixabay.

Undercover Female Detectives

Men can do some things better than women. It’s no different in the world of undercover investigation. Men’s strength and ability to infiltrate male society makes men uniquely suited for certain undercover tasks.

But women can do some things better . They can more easily gain the confidence of other women. They’re sometimes better at reading nonverbal signals. In the 19th century, people were less likely to suspect a woman of spying than a man. Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, recognized that. Pinkerton’s became the first detective agency in America to employ female PIs.

Pinkerton Hires Kate Warne

Pinkerton  had only been operating his detective agency for one year when a young widow entered his office seeking a most unusual job, at least for a 19th century woman. Kate Warne wanted to become a detective. Pinkerton dismissed the idea at first, but Warne was persistent. A woman is far better in worming out secrets from other women, she pointed out. A female detective can befriend wives and girlfriends of suspects and charm her way into their confidence. Besides, men tend to become braggarts in the presence of females. Who knows what they might say?

Pinkerton, impressed with her arguments, hired Kate Warne in August, 1856.

Kate Warne helped solve a murder by posing as a fortune teller.

Kate Warne helped solve a murder by posing as a fortune teller. Photo (c) Shutterstock; with permission.

An Expert in Disguises

She was an immediate success. Kate Warne’s had a talent for disguises and could mimic foreign accents. Allan Pinkerton could count on her to slip into any social setting without arousing suspicion.

Her first case dealt with embezzlement in a delivery firm. By befriending the suspect’s wife, Warne gleaned crucial evidence. Combined with evidence obtained by the other detectives, it was enough to convict the thief.

Kate Warne later helped solve a murder case. The murder suspect’s girlfriend, Pinkerton determined, was the type to fall for a fortune teller. Warne disguised herself as a fortune teller and started telling fortunes in the girlfriend’s town. The girlfriend came for a consultation. Armed with confidential information about the girlfriend that Pinkerton’s detectives had obtained, Warne gained the woman’s trust. Convinced that Warne really had powers, the girlfriend confided her secrets, which helped lead to an arrest.

A sketch of the carriage transfer in Baltimore from Pinkerton's 1884 book, The Spy and the Rebellion. Lincoln is depicted wearing a shawl. One of the women was probably Kate Warne.

A sketch of the carriage transfer in Baltimore from Pinkerton’s 1884 book, The Spy and the Rebellion. Lincoln is depicted wearing a shawl. One of the women was probably Kate Warne. Public domain.

Abraham Lincoln Assassination Plot

Kate Warne’s most famous case involved Abraham Lincoln.

In 1861, Pinkerton sent Warne to Baltimore to scout out rumors of a plot to assassinate President-elect Lincoln en route to Washington, D.C. Warne adopted a southern accent, and posing as a belle from Montgomery, Alabama, she charmed her way into Baltimore society. Kate Warne not only confirmed the plot, she could provide new details. Agitators planned to kill Lincoln as he transferred by carriage from Baltimore’s north train station to the south train station.

Lincoln hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to protect him, and part of Pinkerton’s plan was to send Lincoln to Washington, D.C. ahead of schedule. Kate Warne accompanied him. Lincoln abandoned his signature cylinder hat and wrapped himself up in a shawl. Warne played a sister travelling with her “invalid brother,” even embracing him and greeting him as a brother. The rest is history, because Kate Warn successfully delivered the president-elect to Washington, D.C.

Pinkerton hired several female detectives but made Kate Warne their superintendent. Unfortunately, Kate Warne didn’t survive long after the Civil War. She caught pneumonia and died in 1868. No contemporary images survive, and even her true name is unclear. She went by a variety of names ranging from Kate Warne to Kitty Warren. Her cover was so good, in fact, that it is hard to track her down in the archives today.

Whatever her true name was, Kate Warne played a role in American history and did it well.

Which of Kate Warne’s accomplishments impress you the most?

A female detective can do some things better than a male one.

Undercover women can do some things better than undercover men. Morguefile photo.

Literature on point

Allan Pinkerton, The Somnambulist and the Detective; The Murderer and the Fortune Teller (New York: G. W. Dillingham: 1875)

Allan Pinkerton, The Spy and the Rebellion (Toronto: Rose, 1884)

Eve Stephenson, Pinkerton’s Belle: Kate Warne, America’s First Female Detective (2013).

4 Comments

  1. MA Scott
    Jan 9, 2016

    What a wonderful post about a remarkable and skilled woman! Well done [as always.]

    • Ann Marie
      Jan 11, 2016

      Thanks, MA Scott! Kate is fun to write about and she certainly deserves more historical recognition.

  2. Linda Nusbaum
    Jul 29, 2016

    So many fascinating women have been left out of our History books! These stories should have been told!

    • Ann Marie
      Jul 29, 2016

      I agree, Linda! I find Kate Warne especially interesting because she broke into a man’s world at a time it wasn’t very common. Unfortunately, the undercover nature of her work left far too little information for the history books.

      Thanks for commenting!

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