Oped: Kate Warne: America’s first female detective

Chris Hertig, Spring Garden

 In 1856 a young widow named Kate Warne came to see about getting a job as an operative with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. When she approached Agency founder Allen Pinkerton, he at first thought she was applying for a clerical position. There had never been a female detective. The New York Police Department had their first female investigator in 1903. Other police agencies began to hire women around this time, but generally in very limited roles.

Kate Werne

Some intriguing light is shed on the early policewoman by Georg Sheets in The Setting Of The Sun: The Story of York. He discusses Mabel Rozelle, York’s first policewoman. On Saturday night, April 1, 1922, Officer Rozelle raided a dance hall, pulled couples apart and notified the patrons that certain dances would not be tolerated by the York police department. She also organized classes for men, warning them of flappers who tried to pick up men in dance halls and give them venereal disease.

Officer Mabel Rozelle was one example of the different duties early policewomen had. They were not regular police officers. And they arrived on the scene decades after Kate Warne, attesting to the revolutionary decision which Allen Pinkertion faced.

Mrs. Warne told Pinkerton:

“A female detective may go and worm out secrets in ways that are impossible for male detectives … A criminal may hide all traces of his guilt from his fellow men, but he will not hide it from his wife or mistress. The testimony of these women, then, becomes the sole means of resolving the crimes, and this testimony can be obtained in only one way — a female detective makes her acquaintance, wins her confidence, and draws out the story of the wrongdoing.”

Pinkerton told the young widow to return the next day and he would give her his decision. That night he agonized over whether he should hire the young widow. But he was convinced that it was a good idea. Innovator that he was, Pinkerton was not afraid to try new things. He established branch offices worldwide, long before the FBI existed. He used the telegraph for rapid communications, developed files on criminals which were given to the International Association of Chiefs of Police and later to the FBI. He coined the term  “private eye” and was a conductor on the Underground Railroad at a time when the Fugitive Slave Act meted out heavy penalties for those involved in harboring escaped slaves.

He hired Mrs. Warne the next day. One of her first cases was with the Adams Express Company where she befriended the wife of a dishonest manager; doing exactly what she told Pinkerton female detectives could do. Mrs. Warne took part in many important cases. One of these was protecting President-Elect Lincoln from the Baltimore plot on the eve of the Civil War. She later recruited and trained women for the Pinkerton Agency and became Superintendent of the Female Detective Bureau or Female Department. 

Alan Pinkerton was way out in front.

And Mrs. Warne was with him.

— Chris Hertig has written and taught about police, security and investigative history as a York College professor and writer. He is a contributor to Women In The Security Profession and is on the York Dispatch Editorial Advisory Board.