Who was Kate Warne?

Kate Warne

Did you know that the first female private detective in the U.S. was key to saving the life of President Abraham Lincoln?

In the time leading up to his inauguration, Lincoln faced profound political opposition. Southern states had been threatening secession if Republicans gained the White House and by March 1861, seven had done so and the Confederate States were formally established.

An assassination plot to kill Lincoln in Baltimore, en route to his inauguration, was in the works.

Allan Pinkerton whose private investigation and security company was preeminent at the time

was brought in a few weeks before the inauguration, when rumors, threats and hate mail had reached a tipping point. After intense intelligence work to uncover details of the plot, Pinkerton told Lincoln that assailants were “ready and willing to die to rid their country of a tyrant, as they considered Lincoln to be.”  

The plan was to kill him in Baltimore where his train was scheduled to stop before reaching D.C.  Pinkerton warned Lincoln that if he kept to the published schedule, “an assault of some kind would be made upon his person with a view to taking his life.”  The solution was to ferry Lincoln to D.C. on passenger cars and very quickly. He would already be safe in the Capitol at the time he was due to arrive in Baltimore, where his assassins lay in wait.

Kate Warne, a young widow, had walked into Pinkerton’s Chicago office in 1856 in response to an advertisement in a local newspaper.  She was asking for a job not as a clerk but as an investigator. At the time, a female detective was unheard of.  She argued that not having a woman on staff was a liability, as she had access to places and people that no man did.  Pinkerton gave her the job. Warne was 23 years old.  

She soon proved herself a natural, quick thinking, creative and courageous.  Over the course of her career, she played a part in many high profile cases, once posing as a fortune teller to elicit secrets from a suspect, in another, making friends with the wife of a suspected murderer.

Pinkerton now enlisted Kate Warne to help gather intelligence about the Lincoln assassination plot.  She used various guises including that of a well bred pro-secessionist visiting Baltimore.  With a thick southern drawl and flirty attitude, she infiltrated secessionist social gatherings and got close to key people.  She was also tasked with couriering secret information and setting up meetings in support of the plan to get Lincoln to D.C. safely.

Then on the night Lincoln was to travel, she tipped the conductor handsomely to keep other passengers away from the four double berths she had reserved at the back of the train.  She explained that she was traveling with her 'sick brother' who needed privacy and quiet.  Lincoln was smuggled in, draped in a traveling blanket, old coat and soft felt cap to try to disguise his distinctive height and looks.

Warne played her role as nursemaid sister perfectly.  Upon arrival in Baltimore some five hours later, she helped smuggle Lincoln into the next carriage poised to take him directly to D.C.  He arrived safely and that assassination attempt was successfully thwarted.

Kate Warne later became Supervisor of Women Agents of Pinkerton’s Female Detective Bureau, helping to develop the careers of other female detectives.

Had Pinkerton let gender sway his hiring process, he would have lost out on a most valuable employee.  

I asked Private Investigator Lorna Soroko who has been in the business for over 30 years, on for her take on gender discrimination in this sector.

"Since there are many different types of private investigators with very different investigative focuses, it's hard to generalize about gender issues in this field. But in my personal experience, I've found that there are definite advantages to being a female investigator. I find that people may be more comfortable when I approach them and more likely to reveal things to me than to many of my male counterparts. Bringing compassion to the job is often more powerful than force. The discrimination I faced in my earlier days as an investigator came more from male investigators than from anyone else.”

Kate Warne is a hot topic these days - Amazon Studios has acquired a project about Kate Warne, to be produced by and starring Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson.  Here’s the logline: “The movie is a propulsive action adventure built around Warne, a real life female Sherlock Holmes in a male dominated industry whose singular sleuthing skills paved the way for future women in law enforcement and forever changed how detective work was done.”

I'd see that movie.

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