One day in 1856, a determined young woman made her way to the Chicago office of Allan Pinkerton, who founded and ran the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.
Pinkerton told the woman, Kate Warne, that he had no openings for secretaries. But Warne answered Pinkerton with a shocking declaration: She wanted to be an agent for his company. As a female detective, she believed that she could enter into spaces and investigate cases that men could not navigate as easily. Pinkerton bought her argument, and hired her onto his team, making her the first woman detective in the United States.
"She just ... was somebody who could hold her own in any situation, which made her perfect for a job with Allan Pinkerton," says Chris Enss, a New York Times best selling author who writes books about women of the Old West, including "The Pinks: The First Women Detectives, Operatives, and Spies with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency."
And Pinkerton really put Warne to the test. One of the undercover cases that Warne took on in her first few years with the Agency was the Adams Express case, which children's book author and illustrator Marissa Moss explores in her book "Kate Warne, Pinkerton Detective."
The case involved a man who used his position with the Adams Express company to embezzle money from his employer. When the company hired the Pinkerton Agency, Warne was dispatched as an undercover field agent to befriend the suspect's wife.
"The idea was for her to discover where the money was and to convince the wife when the time was right to hand it over. Kate acted her role to perfection and was brave enough to sneak into the house and find where the money was buried, then later use just the right strategy to get the wife to give the money to a supposedly trusted courier," writes Moss in an email.
But Warne really became famous for her work on the 1861 Baltimore plot, which was the conspiracy to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln. According to Enss, Warne worked on the case with a female, biracial detective: Hattie Lawson. Lawson's father was white and her mother was Black. Renowned for her beauty and owing to a white-passing complexion, Lawson could disguise herself as both a slave and as the wife of one of the male Pinkerton agents, allowing her the unique ability to spirit secrets out of the South on behalf of the Pinkerton Agency.
On this case, Lawson posed as the wife of a male Pinkerton agent, Tim Webster, who was disguised as a construction worker. Through talking to railroad workers in Baltimore, Lawson and Webster discovered that there was a conspiracy brewing to blow up the train that president-elect Lincoln would ride on his way to Washington, D.C., where he would be sworn into office.
Warne posed as Lincoln's sister and spirited him out of his hotel in Philadelphia, advising Lincoln to ditch his signature stovepipe hat and stoop down to hide his prominent figure. The Pinkerton Agency dispatched its own train, which Lincoln and Warne boarded. Meanwhile, the conspirators believed — falsely — that Lincoln was still on the original train bound for the capital.
While Lincoln slept, Warne stayed up all night, watching over the president-elect. The Pinkerton logo — an open eye — is due to Warne's steadfast watch over Lincoln, according to Enss. To this day, the Pinkerton homepage notes: "We Never Sleep." Of course, Lincoln made it safely to his destination, and Warne moved on to another case.
During Warne's time at the Agency, Enss estimates that more than 15 women worked with the Pinkertons. Pinkerton dubbed these women "the Pinks." And Pinkerton clearly held Warne — and the other Pinks — in high regard, regularly praising her work in the field and making her the superintendent of the female bureau in the Chicago office.
He also promoted Warne to head a subsection of the agency that later evolved into the very famous institution known for protecting American public figures: the Secret Service.
"You had the Civil War, and the Pinkertons were very much involved in ferreting secrets in and out of different places and getting to the essence of different crimes, and Kate was instrumental in that. And they formed, during that time, what we now know as the Secret Service," says Enss.
"And because Kate was so good at what she did, [Pinkerton] had her ... train these different agents [in] protecting some of our most prominent political leaders in the country."
Pinkerton wrote about Warne's invaluable assistance on a case in Alabama in his book, "The Spy of the Rebellion." "She was a brilliant conversationalist when so disposed, and could be quite vivacious, but she also understood that rarer quality in womankind, the art of being silent."
Although some have speculated that Warne engaged in an affair with Pinkerton, both Moss and Enss assert that those rumors hold little merit and that Pinkerton praised Warne in a professional capacity, not a personal one.
But hiring women and mixed-raced individuals to serve as detectives for his company was unusual, to say the least, given the time period. Moss notes that Pinkerton's open-mindedness may have stemmed from his impoverished childhood in Scottish slums, which "made him open to people's abilities, not their status."
Enss also describes Pinkerton as a progressive person who valued work ethic over political correctness. "He was more interested in solving a crime and making the clients happy and being good at his job," says Enss. "He was willing to hire people who he believed could get the job done."
The Meryl Streep of Undercover Detectives
Kate Warne had some pretty unique skill sets that suited her to this dangerous line of work. According to unverified rumors, Warne had developed an interest in the theater at a young age, which would have made her perfectly suited to become an undercover agent.
"I mean she was like the Meryl Streep of the detective agency. She could wear a disguise. She could take on an accent. And she could pull it off, no matter where she was," says Enss.
Moss similarly characterizes Warne as a risk-taker who took initiative and always got the job done: "Everything about her was surprising. She had the daring to answer an ad for detectives and talk her way into a job that was dangerous, the kind of thing only men did."
Warne's Life Is Shadowed in Mystery
One of the ironies of the first female detective is that, while she investigated mysteries, Warne was, herself, a mystery. She was born in upstate New York in 1830 to Israel and Elizabeth Hulbert, who had money problems. She had one brother, Allan. Warne married at a young age, but she became a widow by 1856 after her husband died. The family moved to Illinois that same year, and, not long after, Warne sought a job working for Pinkerton. Little else is known about her personal life.
As an operative who went by many different aliases, it was imperative for Warne to conceal her true identity. And many of the records in the Pinkerton office in Chicago burned down during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, according to Enss.
Warne contracted a "lingering illness" — likely pneumonia — and died in 1868, according to Enss. Since Warne had no known surviving family members, Pinkerton arranged for her to buried in his family's plot of land as a tribute to her years of work with the Pinkerton Agency.
However, following the death of Pinkerton some years later, Moss notes that the company's reputation changed and fewer women joined its ranks once Pinkerton's sons took over: "Once Pinkerton died and they took over the agency, they shut down the women's division. It was under them that the Pinkerton Agency became known for working with ruthless robber barons, suppressing workers' strikes with violence."
Nonetheless, Warne's work with the Pinkerton Agency — and the work of the other Pinks — leaves behind an undeniable legacy for women working as detectives in law enforcement and private security.
"I believe her legacy is that she was one of the very first women who paved the way for females to be involved in law enforcement and take a much more aggressive role than they ever had before," says Enss. "She was a field operative. She wasn't at the desk typing correspondence. And she was doing this at a time when no other agency had women doing anything like this."