You know you’ve done your job excellently as a detective if you died and left nothing but a shroud of mystery. You have no official photograph, no vivid details on identity, no legacy but your thrilling tales of awesomeness and misadventures straight out of spy novels and movies. That was the best way to describe 1800’s first female detective, Kate Warne. Not much was known about her personal life, but here’s her untold story.

Allan Pinkerton’s Agency

First logo for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Color version. (Original logo created by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

During the Civil War, Allan Pinkerton spent his first two years as head of the Union Intelligence Service. As known in history, he was the one who foiled an alleged assassination plan while he was guarding Abraham Lincoln on his way to Washington, DC. He had an agency called the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. His all-male agents often worked undercover as Confederate soldiers or sympathizers to gather valuable military intelligence. It was something that Pinkerton himself did, too, under the guise of his fake identity as Major EJ Allen.

The counterintelligence that Pinkerton and his agents did was comparable to what the US Army Counterintelligence Special Agents of today were doing. Succeeding him was Lafayette Baker who worked as Intelligence Service Chief.

Not Here for the Clerical Job

In the summer of 1856, a young woman approached Pinkerton’s desk in his agency’s office based in Chicago. Thinking that the woman had mistaken their job posting for a detective, he told her they were not looking for a secretary. The woman responded that she knew exactly what they were looking for: a new detective. And that’s what she came for.

This photo comes from the Library of Congress. Seated: R. William Moore and Allan Pinkerton. Standing: George H. Bangs, John C. Babcock, and Augustus K. Littlefield

The woman was Kate Warne, a 23-year-old woman, a widow who recently moved from New York. There were women working for Pinkerton’s agency as clerks and secretaries, but none was a detective, claiming it was not the “custom” to hire female detectives. Naturally, Pinkerton turned her down, but Warne was not to be easily swayed away with a simple “no.” She argued that she could be of value as it would be easy for her to infiltrate places without raising suspicions. As Pinkerton said, it was not a custom to hire women as spies. Who would expect that she was on an undercover mission? More so, she could befriend the wives and girlfriends of the suspected persons and even said that women have an eye for details and are excellent at observing. According to co-author of The Lincoln Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill America’s 16th President— and Why It Failed, Brad Meltzer,

What I love in that moment is she basically comes right at him and says, ‘I can see things and hear things that you’re not going to see and hear,’

Pinkerton was convinced, and he immediately hired her later that night. A decision that would later prove to be right.

Hustling Hard

Warne did not waste time and hustled hard right away. She befriended a thief’s wife and convinced her to spill the location of the stolen money. She did so by befriending Mrs. Maroney, the wife of an expressman who was believed to be the culprit. It wasn’t long until Mrs. Maroney trusted her new friend enough that she started to tell her confidential information. She soon confirmed the guilt of Nathan Maroney and was able to identify where the stolen cash was.

A watercolor portrait of Kate Warne. (Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

She also disguised herself once as a fortuneteller and convinced the suspect to provide her with valuable information. However, her most famous case was when she helped stop an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln, known as the Baltimore Plot.

Uncovering the Assassination Plot

By 1860, slavery, secession, and abolition all became the common talk of the country. Abraham Lincoln was just elected, although he had not been inaugurated yet. At that time, Pinkerton assigned Warne and four other agents to investigate threats and activities of secession against the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad. Their collective field reports showed that it was not just a simple agitation but a plotted assassination of Lincoln en route to his inauguration.

United States President Abraham Lincoln (center) and Allan Pinkerton (left).

Posing like a typical wealthy Southern lady named Mrs. Cherry (sometimes Mrs. Barley), who sympathizes with secessionists, she was able to confirm that such a plot existed. Not only that, but she also uncovered the details of the plan: Lincoln was to be ambushed at Baltimore’s Calvert Street railroad station. They would stage a brawl to distract the security officers and railroad guards, leaving Lincoln vulnerable to the conveniently placed secessionist mob.

As a result, Pinkerton was able to arrange a safe passage for Lincoln. After the Civil War, Pinkerton was appointed as Union Army Commander George B. McClellan’s chief of intelligence. As for Warne, she continued posing as a wealthy Southern lady to gather information about the Confederates. Their agency gained much publicity after saving Lincoln from his assassination, but not much was mentioned about Warne.

As Meltzer also said, “At the end of the day, what she was amazing at is understanding how people don’t look at you, depending on what they think of you.”

Kate Warne died at the early age of 34 or 35 from pneumonia with Pinkerton beside her.