Have you ever heard the name Kate Warne? Most people haven’t. And yet, she did amazing things – every bit as impressive as household names like Amelia Earhart, Sally Ride and Marie Curie. Not only did she convince the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency to hire her as a female operative – in 1856! – she rose through the ranks to head up a Bureau of Female Detectives within the agency, saved Abraham Lincoln’s life en route to his inauguration, and went undercover as a spy for the Union during the Civil War.
And yet her name is so unknown, it’s not even spelled right on her tombstone.
According to Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Kate Warne was a 23-year-old widow when she walked into his office. He thought she was looking for clerical work; she wasn’t. She made the case that a female operative could go places that men couldn’t go and do things men couldn’t do. He took a chance on her. Per his own accounts over the years, he never had cause to regret it.
Unfortunately, the historical record has more gaps than facts where Kate is concerned. Case files from the early days of the Pinkerton agency are archived in the Library of Congress, but the agency was founded in Chicago, and not all of their pre-1871 records survived the Great Chicago Fire.
Yet what we do know is compelling. Her documented cases include framing a suspected poisoner by going undercover as a fortune-teller and bringing a thief to justice and recovering tens of thousands of dollars. Most impressively, Kate was one of the key operatives involved in foiling the Baltimore Plot. While President Lincoln was tragically assassinated in 1865, the first attempt to kill him was actually planned four years earlier. Southern sympathizers planned to ambush, surround and murder the President-Elect as he changed trains in Baltimore on his way to be inaugurated as President. In Daniel Stashower’s 2014 book The Hour of Peril, Kate is named along with Harry Davies, Timothy Webster, Hattie Lawton, and Allan Pinkerton himself as the key agents who foiled the plot. Lincoln was disguised as an invalid. Kate pretended to be his sister, accompanying him on a late-night train—whisking him through Baltimore the night before his public schedule indicated, taking him all the way to Washington.
Many Pinkerton agents went undercover as spies for the Union during the Civil War. Kate was likely one of them. But there are no surviving records of her activities during and after the war. She reportedly died of pneumonia in January 1868 in her mid-thirties, and is buried in the Pinkerton family plot in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Her name is misspelled on her tombstone as “Kate Warn.”
Written for Sheroes of History by Greer MacCalister @theladygreer
Listen to this podcast about Kate: Herstory Podcast: Kate Warne
Read more about Kate’s fellow female detective, Hattie Lawton here
See a photo of Kate’s grave and read more about her life on this website
Greer Macallister is a historical novelist as well as a playwright, poet and short story writer. Kate Warne was the inspiration for her new novel GIRL IN DISGUISE, an Indie Next pick. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it ”a well-told, superb story.” @theladygreer.