By Kate E. Stephenson
I was tempted to title this Trivia installment “Kate Warne, First Female Private Eye” but it just couldn’t express the extraordinary life of this Kate, the early feminist power that Ms. Warne exhibited during her life and the portion of the glass ceiling she broke through. So I avoided the conservative temptation because Kate Warne’s life was so the opposite of conservative, she was a powerhouse.
Before women gained the right to vote; before “respectable” women worked outside of the household; before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation that finally provided legislative guarantee that all people of the United States are free; before it was conceivable that women had the ability, much less the agency to think for themselves—On the morning of August 23, 1856, Kate Warne became the first known female detective in the United States at the famed and enduring Pinkerton Detective Agency (now Pinkerton Government Services, Inc.).
Warne was born in New York around 1830 in the tiny town of Erin in Chemung County, New York. While it is not exactly known who her family was, notably there was a single Warn[e] family living in Erin in the 1830 census—Israel and Elizabeth (nee Hurlbut). They had a little girl by 1830, but her name is unknown. The family had moved to Illinois by 1856, when the couple’s oldest son, Allan, married a woman there. Whether this was Kate’s biological family or not is uncertain.
What is fairly certain is that Warne was married and widowed early in life. When Kate Warne first entered his office, she undoubtedly didn’t stir much of a response. But that would quickly change. Allan Pinkerton describes Kate in his Criminal Reminiscences and Detective Sketches, as “a slender, brown haired woman, graceful in her movements and self-possessed. Her features, although not what could be called handsome, were decidedly of an intellectual cast… her face was honest, which would cause one in distress instinctly [sic] to select her as a confidante.”
Allan noted that Kate came into his agency with a request that shocked his sensibilities, with the an unbelievable assertion that she was fit for the open detective position. According to Pinkerton’s records, he
“was surprised to learn Kate was not looking for clerical work, but was actually answering an advertisement for detectives he had placed in a Chicago newspaper. At the time, such a concept was almost unheard of. Pinkerton said ‘It is not the custom to employ women detectives!’ Kate argued her point of view eloquently—pointing out that women could be ‘most useful in worming out secrets in many places which would be impossible for a male detective.’ A Woman would be able to befriend the wives and girlfriends of suspected criminals and gain their confidence. Men become braggarts when they are around women who encourage them to boast. Kate also noted, ‘Women have an eye for detail and are excellent observers.’”
Warne’s arguments swayed Pinkerton, who at 10am August 23, 1856 employed Kate Warne as the first female detective. Kate quickly proved that her arguments were not only logically sound but successful in practical application. Kate became an essential team member, by successfully infiltrating the inner circles of valuable assets in undercover operations that allowed necessary evidence to come to light.
In one case, the Adams Express Company embezzlements, Kate was successfully able to bring herself into the confidence of the wife of the prime suspect, Mr. Maroney, thus acquiring the key evidence leading to Maroney’s conviction. Mr. Maroney was an expressman who stole $50,000 from the Adams Express Company. With Warne’s help, $39,515 was returned and Maroney was convicted and sentenced to ten years.
This large-dollar case was only the beginning and Kate went on to provide invaluable assistance quelling radical groups in the pre-Civil War era, performing Intelligence work for the government during the War, and assisting the high office of President Lincoln in the dangerous and uncertain times of the post-War period until her untimely death.
Kate succumbed to pneumonia on January 28, 1868 with Pinkerton at her bedside. She was not yet 40 years of age. Kate is buried in Pinkerton’s employee lot in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, where the firm was based. Most of the information about her life comes from Pinkerton’s writings about her, obituaries, and a few scattered reports. Almost all of Pinkerton’s files were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, so none of Kate’s own reports or recollections survive.
Kate’s tenure at Pinkerton’s was less than 15 years, yet she accomplished so much in those few years—enough to ensure her inclusion in the historical annals, especially those who seek to do the untiring work of those who “never sleep”. Warne’s service to her country deserves great recognition. This courageous, outspoken, and clever woman was a patriot and a crack detective who broke barriers and helped to preserve the United States. There is so much to know about this intriguing historical figure and unimaginable real life heroine. Learn more: