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Wild Women of the West: Kate Warne

June 28, 2017

Photo courtesy of Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Her smile could be shy; her glance at times demurs, but her ears never missed a secret.  She was a master of disguises; could change her accent at will, infiltrate social gatherings, and collect information no man was able to obtain.  She cried on command; was stoic while interrogating a suspect, and composed when necessary.  She was tough when needed; accommodating when warranted, and never, ever slept on the job.  She was a detective working for the nation’s first security service – the Pinkerton Detective Agency.   Allan Pinkerton, founder of the organization and pioneer in the field, dared to hire women as agents.

Kate Warne, recognized by many historians as America’s first female detective, persuaded Pinkerton to take a chance on her sleuthing skills in 1856.  Prior to her being hired at the agency, women were relegated to secretarial duties at the company.

Allan Pinkerton was born on August 25, 1819, in Glasgow.  His father, William Pinkerton, was a police sergeant in that city and died from injuries inflicted by a prisoner he was taking into custody.  Until the age of thirty-three, Allan Pinkerton followed the trade of a cooper which he learned in Scotland and subsequently practiced in Canada and the United States.

Pinkerton’s search for a location to live took him to Chicago and then to Dundee, Kane County, Illinois, thirty-eight miles from Chicago.  He had a habit of making the wrongs of the community his own, and it led him to uncovering a ring of counterfeiters living and working in the area.  All were captured and tried for their crimes.

The fame of this exploit, together with his success in capturing horse thieves on various occasions, gave Pinkerton a wide, local reputation; he was made deputy sheriff of Kane County in which capacity he soon became the terror of cattle thieves, horse thieves, counterfeiters, and mail robbers all over the state.  He was a born detective with such rare genius for the craft and such an extraordinary personality that there was no keeping him in obscurity.  Pinkerton parlayed his talent into his own company established in 1850.  He had an excellent instinct for selecting the right people to work for him.  Kate Warne proved herself to be one of Pinkerton’s finest agents and paved the way for other women detectives.

Over the course of Kate’s twelve year career as an agent, she used numerous aliases.  She would spend months undercover assuming various roles, from a benevolent neighbor to an eccentric fortune teller.  Kate and other female investigators willingly put themselves in harm’s way to resolve a case.  Whether it was searching the home of a suspected murderer for clues or transporting classified material past armed soldiers, lady Pinkerton agents demonstrated they were fearless and capable.

After a little more than four years, Kate had so impressed Pinkerton with her aptitude for investigation and observation he made her the head of all female detectives at the agency.  In early 1861, he placed her in charge of the Union Intelligence Service – a forerunner of the Secret Service.  The function of the Secret Service was to obtain information about the Confederacy’s resources and plans and to prevent like news from reaching the Rebel army.  There, too, Kate and the other lady operatives excelled at their duties.  According to Pinkerton’s memoirs, potential recruits were made aware of how valuable Kate’s work was to the organization.  “In my service you will serve your country better than on the [battle] field,” Pinkerton told hopeful employees.  “I have several female operatives.  If you agree to come aboard you will go in training with the head of my female detectives, Kate Warne.  She has never let me down.”

Among the key members of Kate’s staff was Hattie Lawton, a dedicated supporter of the Union stationed in Washington where she posed as the wife of the first spy in the Civil War to be executed.  Accomplished sculptor Vinnie Reams was another operative.  She acted as a spy inside the White House while creating a marble bust of President Lincoln.  Mrs. E. H. Baker uncovered Confederate plans for the development of sophisticated weaponry that could have changed the course of the Civil War had it not been discovered.  Masquerading as a nurse, Elizabeth Van Lew supplied General Ulysses S. Grant with vital tactical and strategic information which gave the Yankees a decided edge over the Rebels.

It’s difficult to fully research the career of a spy because a spy deals in subterfuge and misdirection.  If you’re a good spy, few know anything about you at all.  Agents spend several months on covert missions.  They might use the same alias for the entire job or change their handle in the middle of a case if the investigation has been compromised.  Pinkerton kept meticulous records of the work his operatives performed, but volumes of files stored at his Chicago office were destroyed in a fire in the early 1930s.  What remained was eventually transferred to the National Archives and the Library of Congress.  The trail of the operatives was charted using Pinkerton’s records, newspaper articles, and memoirs of the various agents.

Critics of Pinkerton argue that he not only exaggerated his role in helping to solve the cases he undertook, but invented the capers to promote the agency and generate business.  Pinkerton disregarded the insults and credited the comments to envious competitors.

Pinkerton was a sharp businessman who could not be bullied and who knew what battles were important to fight.  In 1876, three of Pinkerton’s top agents banded together to persuade him to reconsider hiring female detectives.  Pinkerton learned the request had been made at the urging of his male operatives’ jealous wives.  The men admitted their wives had difficulty with the idea of them working alongside women, but cited the job had become too dangerous for women as their reason for not wanting females at the company.  Pinkerton was outraged and made his position clear.  “It has been my principle to use females for the detection of crime where it has been useful and necessary,” he announced.  With regard to the employment of such females I can trace it back to the moment I first hired Kate Warne, up to the present time…and I intend to still use females whenever it can be done judiciously.  I must do it or sacrifice my theory, practice and truth.  I think I am right and if that is the case, female detectives must be allowed in my agency.”

Pinkerton was loyal to the women he had hired.  It was while working with Kate in 1861 that he came up with the idea for the company’s logo and slogan; “We Never Sleep” is scrawled below an all-seeing eye.  While on assignment to protect President-elect Abraham Lincoln, Kate refused to close her eyes and rest until the politician was out of danger.

More than one hundred years after the first female was hired by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, hundreds of women now work for the firm.  Whether in plain clothes as investigators or in snappily-tailored, steel-blue uniforms as security officers for industrial plants, colleges, hospitals, and convention centers, ladies fill a variety of assignments.

Like their predecessors, Lady Pinkertons or Pinks for short, continue to be level-headed and curious as well as think-on-their feet agents who know what to do in a crisis.

Although women were not admitted to any police force until 1891 or widely accepted as detectives until 1903, Kate Warne and the women she trained paved the way for future female officers and investigators and are regarded as trailblazers in the private eye industry.

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