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.