In 1856, twenty-three-year-old widow Kate Warne walked into the office of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago announcing that she had seen the ad and wanted to apply for the job. Alan Pinkerton told her “sorry,” but they had no clerical staff openings, and were looking to hire a new detective. Pinkerton later described her as having a commanding presence. “I’m here to apply for the detective position,” she replied. Pinkerton explained to Kate that women aren’t suited to be detectives, and then Kate determined and eloquently made her case. Women have access to places male detectives can’t go and women can befriend wives and girlfriends of suspects and gain information from them. And men tend to be braggards around women who encourage their boasting and women have keen eyes for detail. Pinkerton was convinced and hired her.
Her first success involved a major case of embezzlement where she befriended the wife of the suspect. Not only had enough to arrest and convict the thief, but she discovered where the embezzled funds were hidden and was able to recover nearly all of them. Another time. Posing as a fortune teller, she extracted a confession from a suspect. Pinkerton created a Women’s Detective Bureau and made Kate the leader of it.
Her most famous case may have changed the course of history when an assassination plot was uncovered by Pinkerton while investigating rumors and threats against the Wilmington-Baltimore railroad. Here he found evidence more dangerous – a plot to assassinate Lincoln on his way to his inauguration. Pinkerton assigned Kate to the case. First, she took on the persona of Mrs. Cherry, a Southern woman visiting Baltimore, where she managed to infiltrate the secessionist movement and learn specific details to kill the president-elect as he passed through Baltimore on his way to Washington.
Pinkerton relayed the threat to Lincoln and urged him to travel to Washington from a different. But Lincoln was unwilling to cancel his agreed speaking engagements along the way, so Pinkerton devised a new plan. For the trip through Baltimore Lincoln was secretly transferred to a different train disguised as an invalid. Kate posed as his caregiver. Later she described her sleepless night with the President. Pinkerton inspired to adopt the motto that became associated with his agency: “We never sleep.” The details Kate had uncovered, thwarted the “Baltimore Plot.”
During the Civil War, Warne and the female detectives under her supervision conducted many risky espionage missions. After the war she continued to handle dangerous undercover operations on high profile cases, all while overseeing the growing staff of female detectives.
Kate died of pneumonia at age 34, on January 28, 1868. “She never let me down,” Pinkerton said of one of his most trusted and valuable agents. Look at what she accomplished in her short decade of work as the first Pinkerton Detective. She is buried in the Pinkerton family plot in Chicago. Many books have been storied about her. Kate was depicted as a young detective in the Canadian TV series The Pinkertons, played by Martha MacIsaac.
During these times of new discoveries of our divided past, I feel it is important to show what patriotism looks like and what the motto “One Nation Under God” truly represents, liberty and justice for all.
Coming next week, Civil War Women Spies.