Emily Warren Roebling, the Woman Who Helped Build the Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By all accounts, Emily Roebling had an exceptional mind. Born Emily Warren on September 23, 1843, in Cold Spring, New York, she graduated with top honors from the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington, D.C., where she excelled in science and algebra. But in the mid-19th century, a woman entering those fields was almost unheard of—the more acceptable path for her would have been settling into the standard life of raising children in the tiny Hudson Valley community where she was born. Thankfully for the sake of New York City's iconic skyline, Emily was anything but standard.

The Warren family had been part of the Cold Spring community for generations. Its most famous member was Emily's brother, who found a place in history books as General Gouverneur Warren, a prominent Civil War figure who also helped create some of the best maps of the land west of the Mississippi River for the Corps of Topographical Engineers.

It was while Emily was visiting her brother during the war that she met Washington Roebling. The son of John Roebling—an engineer responsible for a number of prominent suspension bridges in Niagara Falls, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh—Washington himself was a civil engineer serving underneath Gouverneur at the time. He and Emily soon began a feverish courtship that ended with their marriage in January 1865, less than a year after they first met, and just months before the war's end.

It was only a few years later that John Roebling took on the biggest job of his career: the creation of a suspension bridge that would unite Brooklyn and Manhattan. Originally called the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, the project would eventually just be known as the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the great engineering marvels of the late 19th century.

Washington and Emily were involved in the project from the start. In 1867, John Roebling sent the young couple to Europe so Washington could study the techniques used on some of the most notable bridges in France, England, and Germany, including the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England, and the Menai Suspension Bridge in Wales.

Most importantly, Washington was to study the caisson technique, which had originated in Europe decades earlier. These pressurized chambers were the future of bridge construction—built so that water could be kept out of them to provide a dry working environment, they gave engineers the ability to build underwater on sites that were once totally inaccessible.

Sadly, John Roebling's work on the Brooklyn Bridge would be short-lived: An injury sustained while scouting construction locations in 1869 proved fatal, leaving the project in Washington's hands. Luckily, the time spent in Europe had prepared him well.

As with any construction process, Washington knew he had to focus on the foundations—the caissons, which would become the base of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge towers. These took the form of mammoth, bottomless boxes of wood and iron that were piled with large granite blocks to sink them through the muddy ground toward bedrock. As the caissons slowly sunk to their destination, workers entered through a shaft at the top and excavated the riverbed until they hit stable ground. Each caisson was pumped full of compressed air to allow the workers to remove the mud and gravel, and when it settled into its final location, it was filled with concrete. The men who built the caissons worked around the clock in hideous conditions, with most of them earning around $2 a day.

In 1872, as construction on the bridge was well underway, tragedy again struck the Roebling family. Many of the men working in the highly pressurized caissons were becoming cripplingly ill, and even dying, due to an ailment that wasn't yet understood. It was known as "caisson disease," soon to be called "the bends," a potentially deadly reaction to changes in pressure. This was a time before the principles of decompression were fully fleshed out, and Washington's penchant for appearing deep underground with his workers—sometimes staying inside for longer than a typical shift—led him to come down with the affliction. It eventually induced cramps, hindered his eyesight, and threw off his equilibrium, leaving him in near-constant pain. Though he would live for another 50 years, he would never recover (although the extent to which the bends were to blame for all of his troubles is debated).

Portrait of Washington Roebling
Washington Roebling
Théobald Chartran, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Washington stayed on the project, but during the rest of the construction he observed progress through a telescope from his bedroom window on Brooklyn's Columbia Street. To communicate orders to his assistant engineers, Emily would write down detailed notes from her husband and give them to the various departments. She was his eyes and ears at the site, while doubling as nurse and confidant.

Soon enough, there were rumblings that Emily was doing much more than simply parroting information given by her husband. She was gaining a keen understanding of the engineering of the bridge and was able to speak to Roebling's assistant engineers on their level. As historian David McCullough says in his book The Great Bridge, "In truth she had by then a thorough grasp of the engineering involved. She had a quick and retentive mind, a natural gift for mathematics, and she had been a diligent student during the long years he had been incapacitated."

McCullough stresses that Emily never took over for Washington as the bridge's chief engineer, but the rumors at the time said otherwise [PDF]. A New York Times article published in 1883 quoted a source close to the family as saying, "Since her husband's unfortunate illness, Mrs. Roebling has filled his position as chief in engineering staff."

While the news about a woman at the helm of one of the most significant construction projects in New York history must have sold newspapers, according to McCullough, it also led to whisperings about the mental condition of her husband. Washington's illness was still a mystery to most, and it led to speculation he'd given Emily a larger role in the construction only because he was losing his mind. But while people on the outside were worrying, those closest to the project knew Emily's worth was immeasurable, despite not having the formal education of her husband or father-in-law. She was even becoming an "idolized figure" among assistant engineers, McCullough writes.

Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge
Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge
George Bradford Brainerd, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Histories of the Brooklyn Bridge are filled with anecdotes highlighting the importance of Emily during this time. One of the most well-known took place when representatives of a steel mill appeared on the Roeblings' doorstep to ask Washington a question about how a part of the superstructure should be formed. Only they didn't get to see Washington; instead, Emily invited them inside and sketched out the specs herself. Her quick decision-making had, according to the Times, "cleared away difficulties that had for weeks been puzzling their brains."

But Emily's job stretched far beyond her burgeoning engineering know-how. She was heavily involved in the politics of the bridge, at one point successfully lobbying for her husband when the bridge company was to vote on his ouster due to absence. And when rumors emerged that one contractor was trying to renegotiate their contract, the company sent a letter of reassurance addressed to Emily Roebling, not Washington.

For all her work on the bridge, Emily was still a doting wife, and stayed vigilant about protecting her husband's health and privacy. She made sure that visitors were rare, including Washington's own assistant engineers, and that no interviews were conducted from the bed where he was so vulnerable.

After 14 years of construction, the Brooklyn Bridge was nearly ready for its unveiling in May 1883. A week and a half before the official opening, the engineers wanted to test the new structure with an inaugural carriage ride. Everyone agreed the first rider to cross the bridge should be Emily—and she did so with a rooster on her lap, a symbol of victory, as the workers and other onlookers removed their hats and cheered her on.

At the official unveiling ceremonies on May 24, hundreds of thousands of people rushed over to celebrate the completion of the bridge that would forever alter Manhattan and Brooklyn, two separate cities on the path to becoming one. President Chester A. Arthur was among the guests, as was the governor of New York (and future president) Grover Cleveland. There was music and fireworks so dazzling they could be seen in New Jersey. Though Emily stayed for a few of the speeches, she enjoyed much of the opening day at the home her husband had been confined to for years.

It's possible that Washington Roebling never stepped foot on the bridge that he dedicated his life to. It was the bridge that killed his father and left him in constant pain, but that also helped Emily Roebling contribute to a world of engineering otherwise inaccessible to her. Today, her contributions are far from forgotten, and, along with her husband and father-in-law, she is immortalized on a plaque on the Brooklyn-side tower, which reads:

THE BUILDERS OF THE BRIDGE
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF
EMILY WARREN ROEBLING
1843 - 1903
WHOSE FAITH AND COURAGE HELPED HER STRICKEN HUSBAND
COL. WASHINGTON A. ROEBLING, C.E.
1837 - 1926
COMPLETE THE CONSTRUCTION OF THIS BRIDGE
FROM THE PLANS OF HIS FATHER
JOHN A. ROEBLING, C.E.
1805 - 1869
WHO GAVE HIS LIFE TO THE BRIDGE

“BACK OF EVERY GREAT WORK WE CAN FIND
THE SELF-SACRIFICING DEVOTION OF A WOMAN"

The Story of Kate Warne, America's First Female Private Detective

The young woman smiled as she met her brother at a train station in Philadelphia on the evening of February 22, 1861. Her sibling was tall but stooped over and covered in a shawl, rendering his facial features difficult for passerby to discern. To anyone who asked, she explained that her brother had taken ill and needed some breathing room.

On the sleeper car of the passenger train, the woman slipped cash to the conductor, urging him to avoid placing anyone else at the rear of the car. Accompanied by three other men in addition to her sibling, she settled in for a long night’s train ride.

It was no ordinary trip, however. The woman had lied when she said the man was her brother. In fact, he was president-elect Abraham Lincoln, traveling through a hotbed of secessionist activity on his way to his inauguration in Washington, D.C. Her name was Kate Warne—and she was the first female private detective in America.

 

Given her status as a pioneer in law enforcement, surprisingly little is known about Warne’s past. No verified photos of her are known to exist, and she left behind no comprehensive chronicle of her landmark work. Then again, adopting various guises in the pursuit of intelligence meant that obscuring her true history was often a matter of professional obligation.

Warne was born in Erin, New York, in 1830 or 1833. Coming from a family of modest means, she had only a limited education. She was interested in becoming an actress, but her family opposed the idea and she soon abandoned that ambition. While she later described herself as a widow, there are no details about her marriage or the fate of a husband, who reportedly died in an accident. Warne’s life seemed to begin in 1856, when the 23-year-old walked into the Pinkerton National Detective Agency offices in Chicago and declared that she would like to become a detective.

Pinkerton was named for and run by Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish immigrant who worked as a deputy sheriff and for the Chicago police department. In the 1850s, he opened a private agency that soon had offices in several major cities. The Pinkerton name became renowned for its diligent approach to complicated matters that perplexed local law enforcement.

Pinkerton had high standards, but he was also prey to the gender biases of the era. Female police officers or detectives were virtually unheard of at the time, and Pinkerton assumed the young woman in front of him—whom he later described as “slender, graceful in her movements, and perfectly self-possessed in her manner” with “eyes filled with fire”—was looking for secretarial work.

A magnifying glass and papers are pictured

Warne corrected him. She pointed out that he had placed an ad looking for new hires and that she had come to Pinkerton for the express purpose of becoming a private detective. She explained that his force lacked a key component when it came to gathering intelligence—being able to assume the role of a woman’s confidante. By ingratiating herself, she said, she would be likely to discover information about crimes plotted by husbands, who tended to make their wives privy to schemes that involved enriching the family’s coffers. And she would also be able to take advantage of the fact that men tended to brag when women were around.

Pinkerton was not wholly convinced. It took several meetings with Warne before he decided to ignore convention and hire her. Later, Pinkerton would describe her as one of the five best agents he had ever employed.

A compelling dossier of cases followed. In 1858, Warne was tasked with obtaining a lead on a case involving the theft of $10,000 from the Adams Express Company railroad. The agency suspected a man named Nathan Maroney, the manager of the company’s Montgomery, Alabama, offices, since he was believed to be the last employee to see the money before it disappeared. Warne was dispatched to Montgomery, and when she arrived, she quickly charmed Mrs. Maroney. She soon divulged that her husband had not only taken the cash, but that she knew where to find it—hidden in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. Nathan Maroney was convicted, and all but a few hundred dollars recovered.

On another occasion, Warne thwarted a plot to poison a wealthy Captain Sumner by posing as a fortune teller. Pinkerton rented out a space for her to ply her trade—which she quickly learned from books on the subject—and hosted Sumner's sister, Annie Thayer. Thayer was impressed by Warne's knowledge of her life, which had been prepared by the Pinkterton agents. Trusting that Warne had a real gift for divination, she eventually disclosed that she was under the direction of a lover named Mr. Pattmore to assist in the murder of Pattmore's wife and her own brother, Captain Sumner, so they could enjoy his fortune. (Pattmore was convicted of his wife's murder and spent 10 years in prison; the pair were caught before they could murder Sumner.)

Warne’s success in these efforts was due in large part to her demeanor, which Pinkerton would later describe as being warm and affable. People seemed eager to share secrets with her, even if those secrets were incriminating. But part of it was also Warne’s unique place among law enforcement officials. Early on, no one could suspect her of being a detective because it was considered impossible that a woman would be occupying that role.

 

As successful as Warne was, it was her efforts on behalf of Abraham Lincoln that became the highlight of her career.

Shortly before Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, railroad magnate and Lincoln ally Samuel Morse Felton realized that the secessionists stirring against the new president were growing more dangerous by the minute. There were even rumors they might interfere with railroads to and from Washington to disrupt Lincoln's entry into office. In the absence of a Secret Service, which had yet to be conceived, Felton wrote to Pinkerton for assistance.

Though Felton didn’t yet know it, the secessionists planned on more than just blocking Lincoln’s travels from Springfield, Illinois: Lincoln was also receiving death threats involving everything from a knife to a spider-filled dumpling.

 A photo of Allan Pinkerton circa 1861
Allan Pinkerton
Brady's National Photographic Galleries, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Felton and Pinkerton met in Philadelphia. Pinkerton advised that any true threat against the president was likely to materialize in Baltimore, the only major slaveholding city on Lincoln's itinerary aside from Washington, as well as an inevitable stop—all potential routes to the inauguration involved a stop there. Worse, Lincoln planned to arrive at one train station and then depart from another one mile away. There would be ample opportunity for a person or persons to commit an assault.

Pinkerton dispatched several agents to investigate, including Warne, who posed as a southern ally complete with an accent and a cockade, or a knot of ribbons that signaled Southern sympathies. It was a routine she had already practiced during the train robbery investigation. Pinkerton himself also went to Baltimore to investigate, posing as a stockbroker.

Collectively, the Pinkerton agents assembled a portrait of conspirators who were planning to intercept Lincoln as he changed trains in the city. The plan had been concocted by one Cypriano Ferrandini, who transferred his love of Italian revolution to the Southern cause. The idea was that a mob would surround Lincoln while others created a distraction to draw police away from the scene. Beforehand, the secessionists would draw ballots to determine who would shoot Lincoln dead. (In fact, several men drew the fatal red ballot in a dark room, fulfilling Ferrandini’s desire to have several would-be assassins hunting for Lincoln during the stopover.)

Lincoln, when he was debriefed on the plot, was reticent to change his touring plans. Eventually, though, he relented. Pinkerton formulated a scheme, one that involved bringing Lincoln to Baltimore in advance of his expected arrival and cutting off telegram lines so his would-be assassins couldn’t be easily tipped off. Covering Lincoln in a shawl and declaring him frail, Warne, Pinkerton, and two others—Pinkerton lieutenant George Bangs and Lincoln's friend Ward Lamon—got him on board the train in Philadelphia without incident.

As they traveled through the night, Warne gripped a pistol she carried, wondering if Lincoln’s rivals would force her to use it.

When they got to Baltimore, Warne, no longer needed to pose as a sibling, departed. Thanks to a noise ordinance, the sleeper car had to be unhitched from the train and carried by horse through the city until it reached the station with the Washington-bound train. Once there, the men spent a few nervous hours inside their sleeper car waiting for the connecting train. But Lincoln stayed unnoticed. The president-elect went on to his eventual destination of Washington, safe for the moment.

The next day, Lincoln asked the agents to visit him so he could thank them, including Warne, for protecting him. “I am sensible, ma’am, of having put you in some inconvenience—not to speak of placing you in danger,” he told her.

Warne continued to work for Pinkerton through the Civil War, sometimes posing with Allan Pinkerton as a couple. Pinkerton himself was appointed head of the Union Intelligence Service, the forerunner of the Secret Service, and gathered information during the Civil War. Warne eventually became superintendent of the agency’s bureau for women, training a growing number of female detectives.

Unfortunately, she wouldn’t live to see the ranks continue to expand. Warne died in 1868 at the age of 35 (or perhaps 38) of pneumonia. It’s a testament to her mysterious background that she wasn't delivered back to family, if indeed Pinkerton knew of any. Instead, she was buried in Pinkerton’s family plot in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Today, her headstone is worn to the point that it reads “Kate Warn.” If time winds up taking more of her name from her final resting place, there’s little doubt that history will remember it in full.

Additional Sources: The Spy of the Rebellion.

Kitty O'Neil, Trailblazing Speed Racer and Wonder Woman's Stunt Double

PHOTO COLLAGE BY DAMON AMATO, MINUTE MEDIA. MOTORCYCLE/CAR/DIVINGBOARD, ISTOCK VIA GETTY IMAGES. PORTRAIT, MIDCO SPORTS MAGAZINE // YOUTUBE
PHOTO COLLAGE BY DAMON AMATO, MINUTE MEDIA. MOTORCYCLE/CAR/DIVINGBOARD, ISTOCK VIA GETTY IMAGES. PORTRAIT, MIDCO SPORTS MAGAZINE // YOUTUBE

Kitty O’Neil could do it all. A stuntwoman, drag racer, and diver, the legendary daredevil's skills were once described by the Chicago Tribune as “full and partial engulfment in fire; swimming; diving; water skiing; scuba diving; horse falls, jumps, drags, and transfers; high falls into an air bag or water; car rolls; cannon-fired car driving; motorcycle racing; speed, drag, sail, and power boat handling; fight routines; gymnastics; snow skiing; jet skiing; sky diving; ice skating; golf; tennis; track and field; 10-speed bike racing; and hang gliding.”

During her lifetime, O’Neil set 22 speed records on both the land and sea—including the women’s land speed record of 512 mph, which remains unmatched to this day. Through it all, she battled casual sexism and ableism, as she was often not only the lone woman in the room, but the lone deaf person on the drag strip or movie set.

"It Wasn't Scary Enough for Me"

O’Neil was born on March 24, 1946, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Her father, John, was an Air Force pilot and oil driller, while her mother, Patsy, was a homemaker. When she was just a few months old, O’Neil contracted mumps, measles, and smallpox, an onslaught of illness that damaged her nerves and caused her to lose her hearing. Patsy, who had packed her in ice during the worst of the fever, went back to school for speech pathology so she could teach her daughter how to read lips and form words. She placed the young girl’s hand on her throat as she spoke, allowing her to feel the vibrations of her vocal cords.

Feeling those sensations helped Kitty learn to talk, while the sensations associated with engines would teach her something else. At the age of 4, O’Neil convinced her father to let her ride atop the lawn mower in what would be a transformative experience. “I could feel the vibrations,” she told the Associated Press. “That’s what got me into racing. When I race, I feel the vibrations.”

But racing wasn’t her first thrill ride. As a teenager, O’Neil showed such an aptitude for diving that Patsy decided to move the family to Anaheim, California, where O’Neil could train with the two-time Olympic gold medalist Sammy Lee. She was on her way to the qualifying rounds for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when she broke her wrist, eliminating her from consideration. Soon after, she contracted spinal meningitis. Her doctors worried she wouldn’t walk again.

She recovered, but found she was no longer interested in diving. “I gave it up because it wasn’t scary enough for me,” she told the Chicago Tribune.

Motorcycle racing proved to be a better adrenaline rush, so she began entering competitions along the West Coast. It was at one of those races that she met another speedster named Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton, who offered his assistance after O’Neil crashed her bike, severing two fingers. Once she had gotten stitched up, the pair began a professional and romantic relationship. O’Neil moved onto a 40-acre ranch in Fillmore, California, with Hambleton and his two children from a previous relationship.

Hambleton would act as O’Neil’s manager, often speaking to the press for her after stunts or record attempts. However, O’Neil later alleged that he stole money from her and physically abused her during their partnership. In 1988, a Star Tribune reporter would describe O’Neil’s scrapbooks as containing a photo of Hambleton with his face scratched out; she had also written “not true” in the margins of newspaper clippings touting his profound impact on her success.

The Need for Speed

O’Neil wanted to go fast and she didn’t care how. So she expanded her scope beyond motorcycles, setting a new women’s water skiing record in 1970 with a speed of 104.85 mph. Her national breakout arrived six years later, when she drove a skinny three-wheel rocket car into the Alvord Desert. The hydrogen peroxide-powered vehicle was dubbed “The Motivator,” and it was the work of William Fredrick, a designer who normally created cars for movie and TV stunts. When O’Neil got behind the wheel of The Motivator, she quickly smashed the women’s land speed record. Her average speed was 512 mph, over 1.5 times faster than the previous 321 mph record held by Lee Breedlove since 1965.

She believed she could beat the men’s record of 631.4 mph, too, which should’ve been great news for her entire team. Fredrick and his corporate sponsors were gunning for a new record, and O'Neil had already reportedly hit a maximum speed of 618 mph in her initial run. But before she could take The Motivator for a second spin, she was ordered out of the car.

As O’Neil would discover, she had only been contracted to beat the women’s record. Marvin Glass & Associates, the toy company that owned the rights to the vehicle, wanted Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham to break the men’s record. The company claimed it was purely a business decision, as they had a Needham action figure in the works. But according to Hambleton, the company reps had said it would be “unbecoming and degrading for a woman to set a land speed record.”

“It really hurts,” O’Neil told UPI reporters as she choked back tears. “I wanted to do it again. I had a good feeling.” She earned the immediate support of the men’s record holder, Gary Gabelich, who called the whole incident “ridiculous” and “kind of silly.” She and Hambleton tried to sue for her right to another attempt, but she wouldn’t get a second ride in The Motivator. Needham wouldn’t break the record, either, as a storm dampened his chances. Not that he was especially polite about it.

“Hell, you’re not talking about sports when you’re talking about land speed records,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “It doesn’t take any God-given talent … even a good, smart chimpanzee could probably do it. Probably better—because he wouldn’t be worried about dying.”

As the messy legal battle dragged on, O’Neil focused on her budding career in stunt work. According to The New York Times, she completed her first stunt in March of 1976, when she zipped up a flame-resistant Nomex suit and let someone set her on fire. For her second job, she rolled a car, which was practically a personal hobby. (She liked to tell people she rolled her mother’s car when she was 16, the day she got her driver’s license.) O’Neil eventually became Lynda Carter’s stunt double on Wonder Woman, where she famously leapt 127 feet off a hotel roof onto an air bag below. “If I hadn’t hit the center of the bag, I probably would have been killed,” she told The Washington Post in 1979.

Her work earned her a place in Stunts Unlimited, the selective trade group that had, until that point, only admitted men. O’Neil continued racking up credits with gigs on The Bionic Woman, Smokey and the Bandit II, and The Blues Brothers. Although few stunt doubles achieve name recognition, O’Neil was a media darling who inspired her own 1979 TV movie starring Stockard Channing and a Barbie in her trademark yellow jumpsuit.

A Pioneer's Legacy

But by 1982, feeling burned out after watching the toll the work had taken on colleagues, O'Neil decided she was finished. She retired from the business at the age of 36, packing up and leaving Los Angeles entirely. She wound up in Minneapolis and then in Eureka, South Dakota, a town with a population of fewer than 1000 people. She would live out the rest of her days there, eventually dying of pneumonia in 2018 at the age of 72.

O’Neil lived her life as a never-ending challenge—to go faster, jump higher, do better. She always said that her lack of hearing helped her concentrate, eliminating any fear she might’ve felt over the prospect of breaking the sound barrier, let alone self-immolation.

“When I was 18, I was told I couldn’t get a job because I was deaf,” she told a group of deaf students at the Holy Trinity School in Chicago. “But I said someday I’m going to be famous in sports, to show them I can do anything.”

O’Neil did exactly that. Over her the course of perilous career, she carved out a name for herself in a space that was often openly hostile towards her, setting records and making it impossible for anyone who doubted her to catch up.

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