America’s First Female Detective

We have featured many ground-breaking women on History Imagined. Their achievements against all odds are something to applaud and emulate. However, there is an often overlooked fact with regard to these women, especially when it comes to traditional businesses. For each woman who rose to break through glass ceilings in corporate America, there was a man who gave her that chance. A man who bucked conventional thinking that a woman’s place is in the home, who is to be unheard and unseen, and gave these women a chance to prove their mettle. It could not have been easy for these men of vision to take such a leap of faith, but thankfully, there were men willing to do so. One such man was Allan Pinkerton, the owner of the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency. 

Allen Pinkerton

Imagine Mr. Pinkerton’s surprise when, in 1856 the lovely Mrs. Kate Warne entered his Chicago offices in response to an advertisement for help. She inquired about a position, not as a clerical worker, but as one of his detectives. To his credit, he did not immediately usher her out of his office, but instead asked her what she thought she could do for the agency that men couldn’t. Her invisibility would be her greatest asset. 

“At this time, female detectives were unheard of,” Pinkerton wrote in one of his many memoirs. 

When Kate Warne explained she could go into places and ferret out information where a male presence would be noted but a female wouldn’t be, Pinkerton saw an opportunity. Of the encounter, he said “True, it was the first experiment of the sort that had ever been tried; but we live in a progressive age, in a progressive country.” 

Kate Warne was only 23 when she became a widow, if in fact she ever was married in the first place. Little is known about her family or her background before her initial meeting with Pinkerton. Following their initial meeting, Pinkerton described her thusly: “A commanding person, with clear-cut expressive features…a slender brown-haired woman, graceful in her movements and self-possessed. Her features, though not what could be called handsome (beautiful), were of an intellectual cast…her face was honest, which would cause one in distress instinctly (sic) to select her as a confidante.”

After a few wildly successful missions in the southern states, Mrs. Warne was given the biggest assignment of her life. She was to guard Abraham Lincoln as he took the train from his home in Springfield, IL to Washington, DC for his inauguration as President of this country. America in 1861 was a splintered country, and armed secret societies were springing up all over, bringing wild plots with them. Most of these plots focused on the elimination of Lincoln before he was installed as president. Unlike today, there was no Air Force One or a phalanx of armed bodyguards to shield the head of the country. There was only one private bodyguard, Allan Pinkerton and his group of private detectives. 

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln embarked on an eleven-day whistle-stop tour by train from Illinois to Washington, DC for his inauguration. All the rumors swirling around the president-elect pointed to an attempt at assassination in Baltimore, MD, when Lincoln made his stop there. But Kate Warne was on the case. She had cultivated a southern accent during her earlier missions for Pinkerton, and pulled it from her bag of tricks in order to party with the secessionists in Baltimore, where she uncovered the various plots being developed to kill the incoming president. The most plausible plot was to attack Lincoln as he moved from the train that had carried him from Illinois to the one bound for Washington. The shift in trains involved a carriage ride across the city and placed Lincoln in a vulnerable position. A fake brawl was to break out, distracting police officers and railroad guards, leaving Lincoln to the mercy of the assembled secessionist mob. 

Finally accepting the assassination plot as real, Lincoln went along with the idea the Pinkerton Agency had come up with. Mrs. Warne purchased four sleeping berth tickets on the Washington-bound train, for herself, her tall “brother”, and two other associates. The berths were not assigned on this particular train, as was most often the case, so she tipped the conductor to keep the four berths unoccupied and together while she waited for Lincoln, his private bodyguard, and Allan Pinkerton. The president-elect posed as an invalid traveling with his care-giver sister, disguising himself in an old overcoat, a soft hat, and possibly a shawl around his shoulders during the cross-town carriage ride. He made it safely to the train bound for Washington, but Kate Warne stayed awake all night guarding the president until he was safely delivered to Washington, giving rise to Pinkerton’s now-famous slogan “We Never Sleep.” 

Protecting the president-elect might have been the most famous of Kate Warne’s missions, but due to her successful ventures, she inspired Pinkerton to hire more female detectives, which she supervised. During the Civil War, she and Allan Pinkerton often posed as a couple, dipping into Southern society to gather intelligence for the Union. 

Kate Warne died in 1868, during a bout with pneumonia, at the early age of 34 or 35. Her obituary regales her properly. “In her career while she lived she developed that her sex could do much more than had ever before been ascribed to their sphere. She leaves a void in the female detective department which it will be difficult ever to fill. As she lived, so she died, a strong, pure, devoted woman.”

Allan Pinkerton was at her side when she departed this earth. His son, Robert, was not nearly the visionary his father was. Upon Allan’s death in 1884, Robert and his other sons fired all the female detectives on staff at the time. Today, however, the Pinkerton Agency employs more than 28,000 women. 

For more information on Kate Warne, check out books available through Amazon on the groundbreaking detective.


Becky Lower would have enjoyed being a Pinkerton agent, had she lived in another era. She now lives in the South and is trying daily to develop a southern drawl, y’all.