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Why the first female private eye was hired 64 years before women could vote

A mysterious woman, photographed in 1860. There are no confirmed photos of Kate Warne.
A mysterious woman, photographed in 1860. There are no confirmed photos of Kate Warne.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Why did one of history's most ruthless men make a groundbreaking hire?

Kate Warne was a private eye who helped save President Lincoln's life, recovered thousands for her clients, and led the first "female bureau" of the infamous Pinkerton detective agency. Her employment with Pinkerton raises a big question: why did Allan Pinkerton, a man whose agency was all about brute force, take a giant step forward for gender equality?

When Pinkerton hired Kate Warne in 1856, it was 64 years before women could vote. But he had good reason to make sure she was on his side — Ms. Warne had skills that no man did.

How the first female private investigator talked her way into a groundbreaking job

Pinkerton in 1862, on horseback.

Pinkerton in 1862, on horseback. (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

How did Kate Warne manage to get her  job? The story starts with her boss.

Born in 1819, Allan Pinkerton immigrated to the United States from Scotland, getting his start as a barrel-maker near Chicago. By 1849, he'd made his side detective work into a business.

In the 1850s, Pinkerton's agency had plenty of work investigating the rampant train robberies of the Wild West. Pinkerton and his agency gained a reputation as "thief catchers," dealing with matters ranging from petty theft to the exciting train heists that captured the public imagination. The agency's slogan was "We never sleep."

That's when Kate Warne showed up (fittingly for a private eye, we don't have any pictures of her). In 1856, she walked into Allan Pinkerton's office after seeing an ad in the Chicago Tribune. Instead of applying for a receptionist's job, she asked to be hired as a detective. As described in Jay Bonansinga's book Pinkerton's War, it took a surprising argument. But after some convincing, Pinkerton agreed.

So what swayed him? According to Pinkerton himself, Warne made her case clearly: "She replied that she could go and worm out secrets in many places to which it was impossible for male detectives to gain access."

Pinkerton also had an idealistic core that probably helped. He originally left Britain after advocating for political reform, and he became known as an abolitionist in the United States. At one point, he even claimed that hiring Kate Warne was, to some degree, about idealism: "We live in a progressive age," he wrote, "and in a progressive country."

Ideals aside, Warne had one skill no man did: she was able to investigate sources who wouldn't otherwise open up to male PIs. Her first big case came from befriending a train robber's wife, using her to find a hidden cache of stolen money. That access to female sources led Pinkerton to build out a full "female bureau," even though the idea of hiring women for investigative work was unheard of in the 1850s. That savvy led to Kate Warne's greatest triumph.

Pinkerton and Lincoln.

President Abraham Lincoln and Allan Pinkerton in 1862. (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

In 1861, Warne completed an even more incredible feat: she saved Abraham Lincoln's life by foiling an assassination plot. According to Allan Pinkerton's own telling of the events, Warne wore a secessionist's pin, affected a slightly Southern accent, and smuggled Lincoln onto a train — in disguise — that took him safely into Washington. By the time Warne died in 1868, she'd become an influential private eye. At the same time, the company she worked for stayed focused on success at any cost.

The Pinkertons were brutal. That makes Warne's hiring even more impressive

During the Civil War, the Pinkertons went from small agency to national juggernaut. As Kevin Kenny writes in Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, Chicago and the rest of the West lacked a significant organized police force. So Pinkerton agents stepped in — a private company performing public policing functions, with all the associated police powers (and opportunities for abuse).

By the 1870s, the company had become a ruthless private police force that did almost anything to get the job done. In 1875, while in pursuit of Jesse James and his brother, Pinkerton's men didn't hesitate to maim the Jameses' mother and kill their nine-year-old brother.

The Pinkertons were also deeply involved in battles between companies and unions from the 1870s onward. In Pinkerton's own recounting of the Mollie Maguires, an activist group that became involved in coal mining disputes, he believed he was fighting a "noxious weed." By the time of the Homestead Strike in the 1890s, a brutal Pinkerton/union battle, the force had become synonymous with corporate-backed thuggery.

A depiction of violence during the Homestead Strike. (Photoquest/Getty Images)

A depiction of violence during the Homestead Strike. (Photoquest/Getty Images)

Pinkerton died in 1884, but until then, he remained an active participant in his company. It's difficult to draw a line between Pinkerton and his operatives — some accounts hint that the company may have grown too big, too fast and he lost control over his employees' tactics. But he at least had some role in his agency's brutal, uncompromising approach to getting the job done.

That all makes Kate Warne's hiring more remarkable. Was Pinkerton's idealism really the reason he hired the nation's first female private investigator? Maybe, but Pinkerton's ideals weren't always so firm. Despite being an abolitionist, Pinkerton aided the Spanish in their efforts to suppress the emancipation of Cuban slaves, according to James Mackay's Allan Pinkerton: The First Private Eye. The record makes it seem like his company was always his first priority.

That's why Warne was right for the job. She represented progress not just for women, but for Pinkerton's investigative ambitions. Kate Warne could get the job done — and to a merciless boss like Pinkerton, that, not gender, was the most important thing about her.

Thanks to the Library of Congress for reintroducing Kate Warne's story.