Crime and the Pinkertons in Red Dead Redemption 2
Robert Whitaker 0:00
Hi, welcome to History Respawned. I'm your host, Bob Whitaker. I'm appearing on camera today because today's episode marks a special occasion. It's the 50th episode in the history of the show. And it also comes on the week of the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the show, way back in 2013. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you personally, or at least as personally as I could, for supporting the show through the years.
Now for today's episode, I'll be looking at Red Dead Redemption 2 and, in particular, I'll be looking at the game's depiction of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Red Dead 2 takes place in 1899 and follows the Van Der Linde Gang's exploits across five fictitious states in America. Although the game's characters and place names are made up, the narrative often refers to real places including New York City and Cuba. In addition, one of the game's main antagonist is Agent Milton, a member of the real-life Pinkerton Detective Agency. Milton is hired by the robber baron Leviticus Cornwall to hunt down and destroy the Van Der Linde Gang. Milton's tactics include not only direct confrontation against the gang, but also includes attempts to blackmail or bribe Dutch's gang members into becoming informants. You can see a bit of this latter tactic here in an early game confrontation between Milton and the player character, Arthur Morgan.
Robert Whitaker 3:31
Now it's really common to see Pinkerton agents show up in historical fiction set in the West. I mean, they show up in episodes of Penny Dreadful and Deadwood. There are in movies like The Molly Maguire's and the legend of Zorro and they've also served as video game protagonist in the past most notably with Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite. Now what's interesting about Red Dead 2 depiction of the Pinkertons is how relatively realistic that depiction actually is. You get a really good sense of the game about the close relationship between the Pinkertons and industrial capitalism in the late 19th century. And you also get a good sense of the techniques used by the Pinkertons in particular, trying to develop informants within criminal organizations.
In coming across this depiction, however, I was left wondering if Rockstar couldn't have improve their game by adding some more accurate historical details. In particular, with relation to both the Pinkertons as well as general criminal activity during the late 19th century. To give you a sense of what I'm talking about, let me go through some historical background.
Pinkerton national detective agency was founded in 1850 by Scottish immigrant Alan Pinkerton. Born in Glasgow in 1819 Alan Pinkerton was an active participant in the Chartist movement in Scotland. His participation landed him in trouble with local authorities, eventually forcing him to leave his homeland for America with his family in 1842. Their passenger ship, however, wrecked in Canada, and they lost most of their possessions. Luckily for Pinkerton, he was offered help from a burgeoning Scottish community in Chicago, Illinois, and found work there as a cooper or a barrel maker. Like other new territories and states in the Midwest at the time, Illinois suffered from gangs of counterfeiters. Counterfeiting managed to flourish because federal laws regarding currency did not yet extend to new territories. Counterfeit currency was a problem for everyone at the time, but it was especially a problem for recent immigrants like Pinkerton, whose lack of knowledge of legitimate local currency could lead them to being easily swindled
Pinkerton, along with other concerned businessmen in the area worked to discover and destroy counterfeit camps around Chicago, beginning in 1847. Pinkerton was soon made a deputy of Kane County, Illinois and later became a special agent for the Chicago post office. The focus of Pinkerton's work for the post office was the protection of remittance letters, which were letters of money sent home by immigrants to their families in their country of origins. In Chicago, most of these letters were being sent by Scottish immigrants, like Pinkerton. What Pinkerton discovered was that most of the problems related to stolen remittance money was the handiwork of disgruntled post office employees who would remove cash from foreign bound letters before sealing the back up and putting them in the outgoing mail. The problem of mail robbery pointed to a common issue faced by American law enforcement in general at this time, namely how to ward off criminal activity in a country that was growing both in terms of geography and population beyond the means of the state. Indeed, the growing size of the country at this time made gangs like Dutch Van Der Linde's group possible. Rather than staying in one location and avoiding the law a gang could simply pick up sticks and move to another state or territory without being pursued. This issue was nowhere more evident than in regards to railroads, which cut through multiple municipal and state jurisdictions. To solve this problem. a conglomeration of six Midwestern railway companies hired Pinkerton to develop a private police force that could protect westward bound cargo.
Contrary to romantic notions of railway robbery, most crimes involving railroads were perpetrated by railway employees, particularly conductors working with criminal gangs to avoid violence. As a result, most of the agencies time was spent using a new investigative technique called testing. In testing, a Pinkerton agent would pose as a criminal and offer conductors and station agents under the table deals in exchange for free rides on the train or access to the cargo. Now we don't see Pinkerton agents in Red Dead 2 using testing against Van Der Linde’s gang, but that's largely because the gangs tactics are so ahistorical. In the game, you're presented with several sequences like this one in which you follow the romantic archetype of train robbery. Galloping alongside a train you heroically jump on and then you battle your way to the conductor to stop the engine.
However, as I just mentioned, most successful train robberies in the 19th century relied on the coordination between a train conductor and a criminal. A train conductor would accept a bribe from a criminal, they would agree to a pre-determined stopping point for the train where an ambush would be set up, and then the conductor would fain distress once the ambush began. This historical reality reflects the common sense of most train robbers during the 19th century. Take a moment and forget everything that you've seen about train robbery in movies, or in video games like Red Dead and answer me this question: Is there anything more dangerous and stupid that you can think of than attempting to jump off of a galloping horse onto a moving train? I mean, as you've seen in Red Dead 2 just riding a horse by himself is sometimes incredibly dangerous.
19th century criminals were equally aware of these sorts of dangers, and they took active steps to try to mitigate those dangers. Why attempt to make this incredible leap off of a galloping horse when you could stop a train at a pre-determined ambush location where you are safely ensconced? The need for death defying feats is not a successful recipe for crime. And what we're seeing for the Van Der Linde gang here is not normal criminal activity. Instead, it's a mixture of desperation and stupidity.
Now, you might say that this type of dangerous activity fits in with the plot points and characterizations of the Van Der Linde gang throughout Red Dead Redemption 2. I mean, the whole story is based on the idea that we are following the disintegration of this group amidst the backdrop of the closing of the frontier at the end of the late 19th century. However, the game also shows moments where the Van Der Linde gang is a bit more premeditated in their actions and relies on actual techniques used by robbers in the 19th century. Consider, for instance, the mission Friends in Very Low Places, which follows Arthur Morgan setting up a robbery with the help of fellow gang member Josiah Trelawny and a discouraged station clerk and roads named Alden. In this mission we see Arthur and Josiah paying off Alden for inside information about inbound stage coaches that make for excellent robbery targets.
Robert Whitaker 12:46
Josiah and Arthur are able to pull off this robbery without violence, which is one of the very few such instances in the blood-soaked entirety of Red Dead 2. In addition to giving us a good insight into successful robbery techniques in the 19th Century, this mission also gives us an accurate understanding of what inspired train conductors and station clerks to participate in these sorts of criminal schemes. As Alden mentions in his mission, he's recently seen his wages cut, and as a result, he's willing to accept this bribe in order to make up that shortfall. Throughout most of the late 19th century, and particularly during the depression years in the 1870s, large railway companies routinely instituted wage cuts that affected workers like Alden, who often worked long shifts, sometimes upwards of 12 hours a day.
This reality in a large sense is what drove the type of criminality that Alan Pinkerton and others attempted to stamp out in the latter part of the 19th century. Surely, some of the criminality was a result of opportunism, but it's also likely that wealthy capitalist of the day could have avoided problems with pilfering employees had they simply paid them reasonable wages. As it was, however, these capitalists preferred to keep wages low and to hire Pinkerton agents to test employees for potential criminal activity.
This state of affairs led to robber barons hiring Pinkerton agents to protect strike breakers against union workers, most notably during the 1892 Homestead Strike in which dozens were injured and killed. It's strange to consider that an organization created by Allan Pinkerton, a labor supporting Chartist from Scotland would go on to become one of the great anti-Union forces in America, but such is the paradoxical nature of history.
To sum up, there's a lot to like about how Red Dead Redemption 2 portrays the Pinkertons. Their depiction feels accurate to the time period, and their inclusion makes for a natural foil to Dutch and his gang, particularly given the gangs anti-capitalist bent. But I can't help but feel that the game might have been better if a more accurate depiction of 19th century criminality and Pinkerton work had been included. Imagine, for instance, if you had to set up all the robbery missions in Red Dead 2 through a more deliberate process that included reaching out to informants and then weighing their trustworthiness and then working with them to establish an ambush point. Similarly, what if some of these informants had been flipped by the Pinkertons ahead of time, and you would go into each mission not knowing if you were heading into a successful robbery or your potential doom? There could have even been a mechanic by what you would call off missions that appear to be compromised from the start.
Perhaps the end result of this kind of addition would have been the same sort of shooting gallery you get from nearly every mission in the game. But I like to think it would have added an extra layer of complexity and historical nuance to missions that so often come off as one note, both in terms of narrative and mechanics. Furthermore, players would get to engage with a more accurate and sinister version of the Pinkertons, which I think would have added a lot to the overall sense of dread and paranoia present in the game's main story. And to be clear, I'm not trying to say here that I hate the train robbery missions in Red Dead 2. Obviously, it's thrilling to right alongside and then leap onto a moving train. What I am saying is that if you're going to set a game in a certain historical time period, it might pay off to use that history rather than to ignore it. That's all for today's episode of History Respawned. I've got more episodes scheduled on Red Dead Redemption 2 in the coming weeks. Until next time, goodbye.