A woman is the only thing I am afraid of that I know will not hurt me.
IN OCTOBER OF 1856, Pinkerton took a momentary break from the reports and correspondence piled on his desk and dashed off a quick note to his friend Henry Hunt, the Dundee shopkeeper who had set him on the track of “Old John Craig” a decade earlier. Much had changed since the day Pinkerton stood barefoot in Hunt’s store and admitted that he had never seen a ten-dollar bill. The Pinkerton agency now stretched across the region, with branch offices in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana. The previous year, Pinkerton had signed a contract with the Illinois Central Railroad, undertaking to guard its “road” and rolling stock as the line pushed south to Mobile and the Gulf of Mexico. Several other railroad companies followed suit, employing a growing cadre of Pinkerton men for any “special and sudden exigencies” that might arise. For these services, Pinkerton received annual retainers amounting to ten thousand dollars a year, as well as “several funds hereinafter specified” to help the agency expand. As he told Hunt, “I am overwhelmed with business.” The grueling pace sometimes left him so exhausted, he admitted, that he could scarcely stand: “I never removed my clothes this evening but fell across my bed.”
That same year, Pinkerton made a decision that would change forever what it meant to be a Pinkerton man. One afternoon, as he sat “pondering deeply over some matters,” Pinkerton looked up and saw a young woman standing in the door of his office. The visitor introduced herself as Mrs. Kate Warne and explained that she was a widow seeking employment. Pinkerton estimated her age at twenty-two or twenty-three. “She was above the medium height,” he observed, “slender, graceful in her movements, and perfectly self-possessed in her manner.” Kate Warne was perhaps the most remarkable person ever to pass through the doors of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Her pale, broad face was frank and unassuming, Pinkerton noted, but her dark blue eyes were captivating—sharp, decisive and “filled with fire.” She was not a conventional beauty—her features, Pinkerton admitted, were “not what would be called handsome”—but she radiated a quiet strength and compassion. Kate Warne appeared to be the sort of person to whom one would turn in times of distress.
“I invited her to take a seat,” Pinkerton recalled. He assumed, understandably, that she had come in hopes of a secretarial position. “I’m afraid there are no openings at present,” he said, glancing down at his papers.
Mrs. Warne folded her gloved hands. “I’m afraid you have misunderstood me,” she said.
Pinkerton looked up. “Have I?” he asked.
The young widow gave him a level gaze across the cluttered expanse of his desk. Her blue eyes, he saw, were now burning with resolve. “I have come to inquire,” she said, “as to whether you would not employ me as a detective.”
These words, Pinkerton admitted, left him dumbfounded and thoroughly unsettled. Up to that moment, the possibility of hiring a female operative had simply never occurred to him. The very suggestion was shocking, and entirely outside the compass of his experience. Pinkerton agents, by definition, were rugged men of action, good with their fists and cool in the face of danger. The work was physically demanding, as well; one operative had recently trailed a horse-drawn carriage on foot rather than lose sight of a suspect, covering more than twelve miles at a dead run. This was not Pinkerton’s idea of women’s work.
To his credit, Pinkerton decided to give Mrs. Warne a fair hearing. “It is not the custom to employ women as detectives,” he told her. “How, exactly, do you propose to be of service?” The young widow leaned forward and spoke with sudden urgency. “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 nodded his head as Mrs. Warne spoke, and continued nodding after she had finished. In spite of his instinctive reservations, he could not fail to see the merits of her reasoning. “She had evidently given the matter much study,” he admitted. Still, as Pinkerton knew all too well, his operatives routinely placed themselves in harm’s way—he himself carried scars along the length of his left arm from the night he had been shot in the back. He had grave misgivings about exposing a woman to such dangers.
Mrs. Warne, seeing the indecision in his face, tried to continue pleading her case, but Pinkerton held up a hand to stop her. “Thank you, madam,” he said. “I must consider the matter in private. If you will return tomorrow afternoon, I will give you my decision.” Mrs. Warne clearly wished to say more, but after a moment’s pause, she thought better of it. She gave a polite nod, thanked Pinkerton for his time, and swept from the room. Pinkerton spent several moments gazing at the empty doorway, an uncharacteristic look of puzzlement on his face.
Pinkerton spent a restless night weighing the “moral costs” of employing a female detective, but he admitted that “the more I thought of it, the more convinced I became that the idea was a good one.” When Mrs. Warne returned the next day at the appointed time, Pinkerton signed her up as America’s first female private eye.
There was no precedent for Kate Warne. The work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony had barely begun in 1856, and their National Woman’s Suffrage Association was more than ten years in the future. The New York City Police Department would not have a female investigator in its ranks until 1903. Nevertheless, Kate Warne at once became an integral part of the Pinkerton agency, and she proved to be a versatile and utterly fearless operative. In one investigation, she posed as a fortune-teller—“the only living descendant of Hermes”—to lure secrets from a superstitious suspect, and on another occasion she forged a “useful intimacy” with the wife of a suspected murderer. “She succeeded far beyond my utmost expectations,” Pinkerton admitted, “and I soon found her an invaluable acquisition to my force.” Mrs. Warne proved so indispensable that Pinkerton encouraged her to recruit other female operatives. Soon, the Pinkerton agency had a female detective bureau running out of the Chicago office, with Mrs. Warne acting as superintendent.
In later years, Pinkerton chafed at criticism that he should never have hired women to do work that was not only dangerous but also morally compromising. “It has been claimed that the work is unwomanly, that no respectable woman who becomes a detective can remain virtuous,” he wrote. “To these theories, I enter a positive denial. I have no hesitation in saying that the profession of a detective, for a lady possessing the requisite characteristics, is as useful and honorable employment as can be found in any walk of life.”
At the time of Mrs. Warne’s hiring, however, Pinkerton was more concerned with solving cases than with social convention, and his new operative was soon given a chance to test her mettle. In the early months of 1858, Pinkerton received a letter from Edward S. Sanford, vice president of the Adams Express Company, describing the theft of several thousand dollars from a locked courier pouch. The money had been in transit from the Adams Express offices in Montgomery, Alabama, to a branch depot in Augusta, Georgia. Oddly, Sanford did not want Pinkerton to launch an investigation; he simply wanted the detective’s advice on how to proceed. After describing the circumstances of the theft in some detail, Sanford expressed a hope that Pinkerton might be able to shed light on how the theft had been managed—based solely on the information contained in the letter—and, if possible, point his finger at the thief.
To Pinkerton, this appeared to be a fool’s errand. For all his skill and resourcefulness, he had little hope of cracking the case at a remove of six hundred miles, without ever seeing the crime scene or interrogating the suspects. After reading the letter a second time, however, he found that the challenge stirred his professional pride. Setting aside his reservations, Pinkerton spent a weekend in his office pulling together a nine-page report, an extraordinary attempt at playing armchair detective, his information based solely on an inexperienced observer’s account of the matter.
Pinkerton had a solid business reason for making the effort. “Up to that time I had never done any business for the Adams Express,” he recalled, “and as their business was well worth having, I was determined to win.” Pinkerton’s eagerness was understandable, as the Adams Express Company—together with Wells Fargo & Company and American Express—had created a business that was growing as rapidly as the railroads themselves. In spite of the ongoing efforts of Pinkerton and other special mail agents, the United States Postal Service had not yet found a means to guarantee the safe delivery of large parcels and freight, especially when those shipments contained currency or other valuables. As the country’s frontiers expanded, the need arose for bonded messenger services that promised both speed and security. These “express service” companies made use of whatever delivery methods were at hand, including horses, stagecoaches, and, later, as the railroads moved west, special train compartments fitted with armor plating. The delivery agents, or “expressmen,” who undertook these arduous and often dangerous assignments were, in Pinkerton’s words, “men above reproach.”
Not surprisingly, Pinkerton paid close attention to the workings of express companies. The presence of cash and other “express material” presented an irresistible target to a rising breed of train robbers. In some cases, bands of outlaws would stop a train, or even derail it, in order to break into its express compartment. Over the next decade, railroad companies would turn again and again to Pinkerton for protection.
There had been no brazen show of force in the Adams Express case, however. Instead, the shipment had simply vanished en route from Montgomery to Augusta. From Edward Sanford’s letter, Pinkerton knew that the missing money had been placed in a locked pouch in Montgomery before it was handed over to the expressman. Pinkerton also knew that, as a matter of policy, Adams Express messengers were not informed of the contents of their pouches, nor were they given any access to their cargo while it was en route—the pouches were locked away in armored safes during transport. “The messenger was not furnished with a key to the pouch,” Pinkerton noted, “but it was handed to him locked by the agent at one end of the route to be delivered in the same condition to the agent at the other end.” As the lock on the pouch boasted a “peculiar construction” and showed no signs of tampering, Pinkerton concluded that the robbery had not actually occurred during the train journey. In all likelihood, he believed, the money had never made it into the pouch at all. Instead, the cash had been stolen before the train ever left Montgomery, and the empty pouch had been placed into the hands of the expressman as a decoy. Based on this theory of the crime, Pinkerton’s suspicions fell on a man named Nathan Maroney, the manager of the Adams Express office in Montgomery, who had been the last person to have possession of both the pouch and the key. Though Pinkerton could offer no evidence without a firsthand examination of the scene, he advised Sanford to keep Maroney “under strict surveillance, before he bites you twice.”
Pinkerton took a great deal of satisfaction at having provided a probable solution to the case without ever stirring from his desk in Chicago. “The letter was a very long one,” he admitted, “but one of which I have always been proud.” He heard nothing more from Sanford, however, and in time he put the affair out of his mind. One year later, a cryptic telegram arrived: “Allen Pinkerton: Can you send me a man—half horse and half alligator? I have got ‘bit’ once more. When can you send him? Edward S. Sanford.”
The phrase “half horse and half alligator”—used to describe the type of rugged outdoorsman who was equally at home in the backwoods or on the river—suggested something of the challenge that lay ahead. Pinkerton soon learned that Sanford had taken his advice to heart and had arranged for the arrest of Nathan Maroney, the Montgomery office manager. The evidence against Maroney was shaky at best, but Sanford believed he had no other way to prevent the suspect from slipping out of town with the company’s money.
What Sanford had not foreseen was that Maroney’s arrest would spark a wave of public outrage. The integrity of the office manager, according to the local press, “had always been unquestioned.” Though it was well known that Maroney had a “love for fast horses, which often threw him into the company of betting men,” the suspect’s friends believed he was being unfairly maligned. The city’s leading citizens denounced Adams Express and raised forty thousand dollars for bail. Under fire, and fearful that his case was too weak to stand up in court, Sanford pleaded with Pinkerton to find the proof that would “end this thing for good and all.”
In many ways, the Maroney case was an index of a worsening political climate. In May 1858, a scant three weeks after the robbery, the city of Montgomery had convened the highly contentious Southern Commercial Convention, ostensibly to discuss business concerns. The official agenda was soon pushed aside, in the words of a New York Times reporter, for “an exhibition of low, contemptible demagogueism and political cant.” Amid calls for the removal of “existing prohibitory laws” concerning slavery, the convention became a platform for “denunciations hurled forth against the North.” The Nathan Maroney case provided the city with yet another grievance against the North. The local press rallied behind Maroney as a man of “high character and Southern citizenship,” while the Adams Express Company—headquartered at that time in New York—was widely seen as a hostile Northern concern launching a campaign of baseless persecution. As the trial date loomed, the consequences for Adams Express were potentially ruinous, as the majority of the company’s business was conducted in the South. If he had any hope of defusing the situation, Sanford realized, he would have to tread carefully and construct an airtight case against Maroney.
Responding to Sanford’s summons, Pinkerton devised a plan of attack that relied heavily on the talents of Kate Warne. Although Nathan Maroney was free on bail, Pinkerton knew that he would be at pains not to do anything to draw suspicion. The solution, in Pinkerton’s view, rested with close observation of Maroney’s wife. She undoubtedly knew the truth of her husband’s actions, Pinkerton believed, and had probably taken possession of the stolen money during his imprisonment in order to keep it safe from investigators in Montgomery.
Gathering a team of operatives, Pinkerton established a base of operations in Philadelphia, where Mrs. Maroney had gone with her young daughter, Flora, to escape the unwelcome notoriety as her husband awaited trial. There, Pinkerton hoped, Kate Warne might find an opportunity to strike up a useful friendship. “As confidence begets confidence,” Pinkerton told her, “Mrs. Maroney will most certainly, in time, unbosom herself to you.” In fact, Mrs. Maroney appeared to be unbosoming herself freely in her husband’s absence. She ranged from city to city in pursuit of “social pleasures,” often in the company of handsome young men. It did not escape Pinkerton’s professional eye that Mrs. Maroney was an uncommonly lovely and exotic woman. “She was a medium sized, rather slender brunette,” he observed, “with black flashing eyes, black hair, thin lips and a rather voluptuously formed bust.”
In time Mrs. Maroney alighted in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, a convenient stopping point on the road between Philadelphia and Doylestown. She had relatives in the town, Pinkerton learned, and was planning a lengthy visit at a local boardinghouse. To get the lay of the land, Pinkerton sent an operative from house to house; posing as an itinerant clock repairman, he gathered local gossip at each stop. Next, Mrs. Warne took a room at the boardinghouse, posing as the wife of a Southern businessman, and waited for a chance to cross paths with Mrs. Maroney. “The desired introduction was brought about by an accident,” Pinkerton recalled. Mrs. Maroney and her daughter, Flora, had been taking their “accustomed stroll through the pleasure grounds” of Jenkintown when the girl, running ahead of her mother, tripped and pitched forward onto a gravel path, badly scraping her hands. Mrs. Warne was close at hand, and she rushed forward to help the girl. By the time Mrs. Maroney caught up with her daughter, Mrs. Warne was binding Flora’s wounds with a handkerchief.
Mrs. Warne’s kindness brought a “rush of womanly feeling” from Mrs. Maroney, and soon the two women were having tea together at the boardinghouse. In the course of their conversation, Mrs. Warne managed to let slip that she bore a secret sorrow—her husband had been “enticed into committing forgeries,” she said, and was now serving a prison term. Mrs. Maroney said nothing of her own husband’s circumstances, but she appeared to regard Mrs. Warne with renewed interest.
Meanwhile, another Pinkerton operative appeared on the scene. “A woman of Mrs. Maroney’s stamp, while separated from her husband, would most likely desire gentlemen’s company,” Pinkerton observed, “and as she, like most of her class, would put up with none but the handsomest, it was necessary to select as fine a looking gentleman to be her wooer as could be found.” As it happened, Pinkerton had just such a person in his employ, a man named De Forest, who soon joined Mrs. Maroney on her strolls through the pleasure grounds of Jenkintown. Now that all the pieces were in place, Pinkerton believed that Mrs. Maroney would, in time, lead his team to the money her husband had stolen. No sooner had he set the plan in motion, however, than he received word that time was growing short. A letter from Edward Sanford informed Pinkerton that the Adams Express Company’s lawyers had lost hope of building an effective case against their suspect. With the trial date fast approaching, the company’s hopes now rested entirely on Pinkerton’s investigation. “Do not fail us,” Sanford wrote.
An unexpected break came when Maroney traveled to New York for a brief rendezvous with his wife. While in the city, he visited a locksmith to have an unusual key duplicated. The key proved to be of the same type used to open messenger pouches, like the one from which the Adams Express company’s cash had gone missing. “On discovering this, I saw through Maroney’s plan at once,” Pinkerton said. “He wished to have a key made similar to the pouch key, and introduce it as evidence at his trial.” The appearance of a duplicate key would cloud the prosecutor’s assertion that only Maroney could have had access to the missing money. In this way, Pinkerton believed, Maroney might well “overthrow the testimony” of his accusers.
Maroney’s attempt to cover his tracks gave Pinkerton an idea. “If we could get him in prison,” Pinkerton reasoned, “I could introduce a detective, disguised as a fellow prisoner, whose duty would be to get into his confidence.” Pinkerton readily admitted that certain “points of law” did not favor this plan, but he pressed ahead nonetheless. Maroney was taken into custody on unspecified charges and placed in a New York holding cell with one of Pinkerton’s men, John White, who posed as a forger. The two men soon developed an easy rapport over countless hands of euchre, but Maroney remained tight-lipped about the Adams Express robbery. Pinkerton stirred the pot further by sending anonymous letters to the prison, informing Maroney that his wife was receiving the attentions of a gentleman caller in Jenkintown. Maroney grew agitated and restless, telling White that he was more anxious than ever to get out of prison so he could rush to his wife’s side.
In a few days, a man representing himself as a lawyer—actually Pinkerton’s superintendent, George Bangs—appeared to deliver John White’s release order. At this, Maroney roused himself to action. Fearing that his wife would run off with her suitor while he languished in prison, Maroney pleaded with White for assistance. White allowed as how he might be able to make himself useful if “the right kind of money” could be found to buy Maroney’s way out of trouble. Maroney took the words to heart. If White would agree to go to Jenkintown on his behalf, Maroney said, his wife would provide all the money they would need. After a convincing show of reluctance, White agreed to undertake the mission. Greatly relieved, Maroney sat down and wrote a letter to his wife, instructing her to “hand over everything you have in the packages” to White. “Now, I say to you, trust in him implicitly!” Maroney urged. “He will take care of all.”
As White made his way to Jenkintown, however, a fresh complication arose. Initially, Pinkerton had expected that Kate Warne and the handsome Mr. De Forest would have several weeks in which to work their way into Mrs. Maroney’s confidence, drawing out incriminating evidence by slow, steady degrees. With Adams Express pressing him for quick results, however, Pinkerton had been forced to adopt the faster, messier expedient of throwing Maroney into jail to extract an admission of guilt. Now, as the twin strands of the investigation crossed, it appeared that Pinkerton had tripped himself up. Mrs. Maroney, having grown fond of De Forest’s company, did not seem especially anxious to see her husband released. “I don’t know what to do,” she told Mrs. Warne. “I am almost crazy!”
Pinkerton realized that the success of the operation now rested entirely with Mrs. Warne. If she could persuade Mrs. Maroney to hand over the mysterious “packages” to White, and if—as Pinkerton assumed—those packages contained the stolen Adams Express money, the case would be solved. Otherwise, Maroney would stand trial in Montgomery without the evidence needed to convict him.
It took three days. During that time, Mrs. Warne “talked incessantly” as she attempted to coax Mrs. Maroney into revealing where she had hidden the packages. “She appealed to Mrs. Maroney’s sense of duty,” Pinkerton wrote. “She depicted in glowing terms the happiness of the wife who looks only to her husband’s interests, and makes sacrifices in his behalf. She drew a touching picture of Maroney’s sufferings in jail, and tried to impress upon her the conviction that it was more than probable that he had taken the money so as to be able to place her in a situation where she could command any luxury. ‘He loves you,’ said she, ‘and would do anything for you.’”
Mrs. Maroney was unmoved. She acknowledged that her husband had placed “certain funds” in her care, but she denied any knowledge of wrongdoing. Moreover, she insisted that the money should remain hidden at all costs: “I will burn it before I will give it to White,” she declared.
As the hours wore on, Mrs. Maroney “invoked the aid of stimulants” time and time again, growing even less inclined to assist her husband as the alcohol did its work. “I don’t want anyone with me but you,” she told Mrs. Warne at one stage. “Would you be willing to run away with me? We could go down to Louisiana, where we are not known, buy a small place in some out of the way town and live secluded for four or five years, until our existence was forgotten.” Mrs. Warne pretended to fall in with the plan, certain that it would bring the hidden money to light, but even now Mrs. Maroney refused to say where the cash was hidden. Instead, she proposed to live on Mrs. Warne’s income until the excitement over the Adams Express robbery died down. Only then, she insisted, would it be safe to recover the hidden banknotes and “make our appearance once more in the fashionable world, with plenty of money to maintain our position.” Mrs. Warne gave a heavy sigh, gathered herself, and tried again.
Pinkerton, meanwhile, waited in Philadelphia with Edward Sanford and other officers of Adams Express, who were pressing harder than ever for a resolution. During the long wait, Pinkerton assured his anxious clients that the case was in good hands, as Mrs. Warne’s “subtle but very potent” powers of persuasion were far greater than his own. In fact, Mrs. Warne had vowed in a letter to Pinkerton that she would see the money delivered safely to Philadelphia, “even if she had to walk in with it herself.”
At the end of three days, Mrs. Maroney’s reserves finally broke. “Your duty as a wife is plain and simple,” Mrs. Warne told her. “Do as your husband wishes you to do.” Mrs. Warne’s long hours of pleading and cajoling had done their work, said Pinkerton, “but to Mrs. Maroney it was a bitter pill.” Without another word, she led Mrs. Warne to the dirt cellar of the boardinghouse. There, a heavy bundle wrapped in an oilskin cloth was pulled from a deep hole and handed over to John White. This done, Mrs. Maroney withdrew to her room to seek the consolation of brandy. “This excitement has nearly killed me,” she declared.
Within hours, at the La Pierre House, a hotel in Philadelphia, Pinkerton’s team gathered one by one, shedding the various disguises they had assumed over the course of the investigation. Edward Sanford summoned the president of Adams Express to count up the recovered money personally. “The package proved to contain thirty-nine thousand five hundred and fifteen dollars,” Pinkerton reported, “within four hundred and eighty-five dollars of the amount stolen.”
Kate Warne burst into the room shortly after the money had been tallied, still covered in grime from the dirt cellar and hovering at the point of exhaustion from her three-day effort. On being assured that all was well, she sank heavily into a chair. “Her strength seemed suddenly to leave her,” Pinkerton wrote. “The victory was complete, but her faculties had been strained to the utmost in accomplishing it, and she felt completely exhausted. She had the proud satisfaction of knowing that to a woman belonged the honors of the day.”
* * *
IN FACT, THE VICTORY was not yet complete. Even now, Nathan Maroney remained confident that he would be acquitted of all charges at his trial in Alabama. The money found in Jenkintown, he insisted, had nothing to do with any robbery; it had been raised by the sale of his property in Montgomery. As the trial commenced in December 1859, Maroney appeared relaxed and self-assured, smiling broadly at his friends in the courtroom and nodding approvingly as witnesses spoke in glowing terms of his character and service to the community.
Matters took a sudden turn on the second day of testimony, as the clerk of the court rose at the prosecution’s behest to summon John White to the witness stand. Only then did Maroney realize that his cell mate was a Pinkerton operative. “His cheek blanched with fear,” Pinkerton recalled. “His eyes were filled with horror and he gasped for breath. A glass of water was handed to him. He gulped it down, and, vainly endeavoring to force back the tears from his eyes, in a hoarse, shaky voice he exclaimed, ‘Tell the court I plead guilty … I am gone!’”
“This,” Pinkerton noted with satisfaction, “ended the matter.”
Pinkerton and his team had every reason to feel pleased with the operation. “The recovery of forty or fifty thousand dollars today is considered a small operation,” he would write, looking back on the case years later, “but in 1859, before the war, the amount was looked upon as perfectly enormous.” Though Pinkerton would investigate many high-profile robberies in the years to come, the Maroney case did more than any other to advance his reputation. By the time the verdict was delivered in Montgomery, Allan Pinkerton had become the most famous detective in America.
Every railroad baron in the country took note. The following year, when Samuel Felton—the president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad—heard vague rumors of a plot to disrupt the forthcoming presidential inauguration, he knew that only one man could be counted on to prevent it.