On the morning of August 23, 1856, a slender, brown-haired, widow stepped into Allan Pinkerton’s office and changed the course of history. Kate Warne had come to the famed detective, not seeking secretarial work, but in response to an ad for detectives to join his Agency. Pinkerton balked at her request, but with determined eloquence, Warne argued her point and won a chance to become a “Pink”.
She’d asserted that women could be “most useful in worming out secrets in many places which would be impossible for a male detective.” And throughout her twelve year career, Kate Warne proved her point.
Donning countless disguises and numerous aliases, she ingratiated herself with embezzlers, southern secessionists, assassins and desperate characters of every description. She befriended the wives or sisters of suspects to gather information. She would flirt unabashedly, in the guise of a southern belle, to lure gentlemen into confessing more than they really should. And once, she even posed as a fortune teller to extract information from a suspected murder’s confidants. But perhaps her most notable achievement occurred in February of 1861, during the Baltimore Plot, when she orchestrated the overthrow of an attempt to assassinate President-elect Abraham Lincoln.
Mrs. Warne was part of a team of agents sent to Maryland to investigate secessionist activity against the Agency’s client, the Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad. Not only did she help to confirm a plot against the railroad, but she also uncovered evidence to suggest a real threat against the life of Abraham Lincoln.
The assassins’ plan was to attack Lincoln en route from his home in Springfield, Illinois to the capitol in Washington, D.C. During his final stop over in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Lincoln would be required to disembark and transfer from the northbound station to the southbound station (a distance of about one mile by carriage), where a train would take him on to Baltimore. Men were hired to start a disturbance to draw the attention of the policemen at the depot, thereby leaving Lincoln unprotected. Once Lincoln was alone, the killers would shoot him, before fleeing to a small Steamer ship they’d chartered to wait for them in one of the streams running into Chesapeake Bay.
Though the plot seemed farfetched, Pinkerton managed to piece together a compelling case thanks in large part to Kate’s evidence. Eventually, Lincoln was persuaded to believe he was in real danger and permitted Pinkerton to organize countermeasures to stop the assassin’s plans. Pinkerton’s chosen assistant to carry out those preparations was Kate Warne.
Serving as Pinkerton’s courier and scout, she secured four berths under the pretext that they were for her sick brother and family members. She obtained the proper clothes for Lincoln to disguise himself as an invalid during the trek to the station and acted out the part of Lincoln’s sister to perfection. Then during the long overnight journey, Warne did not sleep a wink, but kept watch over Lincoln until the next morning when the train arrived safely in Baltimore. Her vigilance that night is said to have given Pinkerton the notion for his agency’s’ slogan “we never sleep”.
Two months later, in April of 1861, Kate was called upon again to serve President Lincoln, when she joined Pinkerton and two of his other most trusted agents to launch a military intelligence service for the Union Army under General George B. McClellan’s command. With headquarters in Cincinnati, Kate and fellow agents Timothy Webster and George Bangs worked undercover during the Civil War to root out Confederate secrets. Often posing as Webster’s wife, Kate frequently assumed the role of a southern woman garnering valuable information from the female relations of Confederate officers and politicians.
During the years of the Civil War, Kate Warne also had a hand in the capture of several murderers and the recovery of over $130,000 in stolen funds, while simultaneously overseeing the operation of all of Pinkerton’s other female detectives as Head of the Pinkerton Agency’s Female Detective Bureau. She was one of Pinkerton’s five best agents, one of only two he personally thanked in his memoirs and the only one Allan Pinkerton considered as his “right arm.”
Despite the fact that Pinkerton adored her, his brother, Robert did not. Her mounting expenses as Supervisor of Women agents galled him and suspicions that Kate was really Allan Pinkerton’s mistress became a sore spot that tainted the Women’s Bureau throughout its existence. While Robert Pinkerton tried everything he could to see it shut down, Allan Pinkerton ignored his brother’s arguments and sustained the Bureau, refusing to address the rumors about his relationship to Kate.
Whatever the truth was, there was no denying the bond between them. After her death on New Year’s Day in 1868, Allan Pinkerton was devastated. She’d suffered from a long and painful illness, possibly pneumonia, before slipping away with Allan Pinkerton at her side. She was only in her thirties when she passed away, yet she’d managed to make a place for women in the male dominated profession of crime prevention.
Though women were not admitted to any police force until 1891 or widely accepted as detectives until 1903, Kate Warne blazed a trail for women everywhere.
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