Long before the screen placed the face of Mary Pickford before the eyes of millions of Americans, this girl, born August 13, 1800 and who was christened Phoebe Anne Oakley Moses and was destined to make the shortened form her name, “Annie Oakley,” known throughout the world, had won the right to the title of the first “America’s Sweetheart.” The life story of Annie Oakley is a combination Cinderella fairy story and frontier melodrama.
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.
Most students of the Old West and American law enforcement history know the story of the notorious and ruthless Pinkerton Detective Agency and the legends behind their role in establishing the Secret Service and tangling with Old West Outlaws. But the true story of Kate Warne, an operative of the Pinkerton Agency and the first woman detective in America—and the stories of the other women who served their country as part of the storied crew of crime fighters—are not well known. For the first time, the stories of these intrepid women are collected here and richly illustrated throughout with numerous historical photographs. From Kate Warne’s probable affair with Allan Pinkerton, and her part in saving the life of Abraham Lincoln in 1861 to the lives and careers of the other women who broke out of the Cult of True Womanhood in pursuit of justice, these true stories add another dimension to our understanding of American history.
In a time when notorious Depression Era criminals were terrorizing the country, the Barker-Karpis Gang stole more money than mobsters John Dillinger, Vern Miller, and Bonnie and Clyde combined. Five of the most wanted thieves, murderers, and kidnappers by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the 1930s were from the same family. Authorities believe the woman behind the band of violent hoodlums that ravaged the Midwest was their mother, Kate “Ma” Barker.
Ma Barker is unique in criminal history. Although she was involved in numerous illegal activities for more than twenty years she was never arrested, fingerprinted, or photographed perpetrating a crime. There was never any physical evidence linking her directly to a specific crime. Yet Ma controlled two dozen gang members which jumped to her behest. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called her a “domineering, clever woman who coldly and methodically planned the abduction of two of the nation’s most wealthy men.”
Ma’s misdeeds were well plotted, schemed, and equipped. “The most important part of a job is done weeks ahead,” she is rumored to have told her boys. She is remembered early on as a woman who took her four sons, Herman, Lloyd, Arthur, and Fred to church every Sunday and to every revival meeting that came along. She was also known as a woman who never admitted her sons were capable of wrong doing. She ruled the family roost, defending her brood against irate neighbors whose windows had been shattered by the boys, and later against the police when the boys began their lives of crime in earnest. At a young age they were involved in everything from petty theft to murder.
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From the earliest days of the western frontier, women heeded the call to go west along with their husbands, sweethearts, and parents. Many of these women were attached to the army camps and outposts that dotted the prairies. Some were active participants in the skirmishes and battles that took place in the western territories. Each of these women-wives, mothers, daughters, laundresses, soldiers, and shamans-risked their lives in unsettled lands, facing such challenges as bearing children in primitive conditions and defying military orders in an effort to save innocent people.
Soldier, Sister, Spy, Scout tells the story of twelve such brave women-Buffalo Soldiers, scouts, interpreters, nurses, and others-who served their country in the early frontier. These heroic women displayed a depth of courage and physical bravery not found in many men of the time. Their remarkable commitment and willingness to throw off the constraints of nineteenth-century conventions helped build the west for generations to come.