Set in 1899, Red Dead Redemption 2 has become one of the year’s best selling games. It’s a sweeping western, taking place at the turn of the century, just as the old west is starting to fall and a new world rises. And believe me when I say this game is packed with incredible historical story arcs, themes and (of course!) Easter eggs
Now before we get to looking at the best hidden and not so hidden history gems in RDR2, let’s get this out the way – In no way am I saying RDR2 is historically accurate all the time. It’s not. Like at all. It’s a game; it’s entertainment, not a documentary.
Think of RDR2 as a really long (like 60 hours long) western film. It can’t be accurate all the time because it would massively impact the pace, plot and entertainment.
But that doesn’t mean that the history it does contain isn’t incredible!
Historic events are intertwined with several of the games main quests. Then there’s the Easter eggs and nods to the macabre side of US history. And all that’s not even mentioning the stunning turn of the century backdrop!
Basically, if like me, you’re both a gamer and a history nerd, it’s Christmas.
1.The real life murderers!
During the course of RDR2 you might come across two sets of really messed up serial killers, both of whom are based on real life murderers of the old west (yes this stuff actually happened! Sleep tight.)
First up we have the ‘Aberdeens’ and their pig farm. Upon coming across the farm you’ll be invited in by Bray Aberdeen to have dinner with him and his wife, Tammy.
It quickly transpires that Tammy and Bray are in fact super close siblings. And if you stay for their offer of dinner and drinks, you’ll wake up in a blood soaked mass grave, having had all your money and valuables stolen.
And this all happened in real life! In the 1870s The Kansas based Bender family opened up a general store come inn, The Wayside Inn, right by the Osage Trial. Run by the John Sr and his wife, Elvaria, as well as grown up children, John and Kate (who claimed to be brother and sister, but also, separately, claimed to be married)
The Benders took the Osage trails tired travellers into their inn. They’d offer them a warm bed for the night, feed them and thenbeat them to death with a hammer (slitting their throat for good measure) before robbing and throwing the corpse into a mass grave. Sound familiar?
The Bender family soon realised that people were starting to suspect something was up with them. So they fled.
By the time the authorities arrived at the Benders inn, it was completely empty. Inside was a foul smell, the source of which turned out to be the mass grave that was hidden underneath the floorboards.
Around a dozen victims were found, but it’s suspected the Benders killed many more. Though, as the family successfully disappeared without a trace, we’ll never know what other bloody secrets they were hiding. (Shout out to historian, Mike Stauchberry, who was the first person to spot the Bender Aberdeen link!)
RDR2s second serial killer is the fully deranged, Edmund Lowry Jr, who you meet as part of the American Dreams side-quest.
Throughout the game you stumble across several male corpses, all brutally murdered (with by the looks of it, an axe) their body parts strewn around the landscape. Clues are left to track the killer; which is how you’ll find Edmund Lowry Jr and his kill bunker.
The bunker is littered with hacked apart bodies. And, by the differing size of bodies, as well as the several posters for missing children, we can tell that Edmund really isn’t picky about who he murders.
Edmund himself is a gentleman, well spoken and dressed, but with a deranged look in his eye.
Now, Edmund Lowry Jr is some Inception level Easter eggery. His character name is a nod to serial killer, Eddie Low, from Rockstar games other series, GTA. AND, he is also based on real life serial killer, Stephen Richards
Richards was Nebraska’s first serial killer (earning him the nickname, The Nebraska Fiend). Much like his RDR2 counterpart he murdered wherever he went. Shooting 4 men between 1876 and 1877 in both Nebraska and Iowa. With most of the victims killed either because they bored Richards, or they’d had a minor falling out.
Then in 1978, Richards proved himself to be totally indiscriminate in killing, when he murdered the Harleson family.
He crept in their house in the dead of night. Taking an axe and murdering a lone mother, her young daughters and baby.
For some reason, after butchering an entire family, Richards decided to stay in Kearney, the town where he had just committed one of the eras most brutal crimes. But Richards being Richards, he couldn’t just lay low and within months had to flee Kearney after beating his neighbour to death with a hammer.
Running from the law initially went well for Richards. Despite the fact that behind his calm smile he was clearly unhinged, he just didn’t look the part of a murderer. In fact the only reason he was caught was that police had time to catch up with, after Richards took the night off being on the run to go to a ball!
2. The suffrage of it all
Now, there’s been a lot of bad press about the inclusion of the suffrage movement in RDR2.
With the setting of the game 20 years before much of America gained equal voting rights across the genders, the player comes across several suffrage campaigners throughout the course of the game. Both as side characters and characters you go on side missions with.
So of course, the internet being the internet, a few YouTubers decided to use RDR2’s open world mechanics to film themselves brutally murdering suffrage campaigners. The media immediately fell on this and decried RDR2 for encouraging players to kill women’s rights campaigners.
But that’s just not true, because:
RDR2 is really good at exploring & explaining suffrage!
The game slowly introduces the concept of suffrage. It works as a sort of playable history lesson. Introducing individual suffrage campaigners before immersing the player into a local suffrage group.
Early on we see a woman campaigning on the street. And, my god, the details around her peaceful protest are just fantastic.
In fact I’d be surprised if her paper set up and stance weren’t partly inspired by the below picture of English suffragette, Sophia Dulep Singh.
At one point, the player actually helps facilitate a suffrage rally. Driving a wagon of campaigners through streets of people jeering at the women.
The whole time, the leader of the suffrage branch explains the movement and what they’re campaigning for. It’s a fantastic way of introducing people to a chapter of history that everyone knows happened, but many don’t actually know much about.
3.The landscape inspired by a 19th century art movement
RDR2 arguably has one of the most stunning explore-able landscapes in any game. And that takes your breath away, luminous rural art is all inspired by 19th century art movement, The Hudson River School.
Started in the early 19th century by a group of landscape painters led by Thomas Cole, the Hudson River School created dramatic and somewhat enhanced depictions of America’s great sweeping lands.
But it’s this movements second generation that clearly had the biggest impact on RDR2.
From around 1850 until the mid to late 1870s, artists like Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Beirdsadt pushed the movement out West. Going to extreme lengths to get inspiration, they’d join Westward Expeditions. Putting themselves at the forefront of America’s quickly changing landscapes.
These artists also bought the new style of ‘luminisim’ to the Hudson River School. Experimenting with how light effected an environment and creating hyperreal worlds of hazy skies and glowing streams of light.
These paintings took America by storm. Often standing at 6ft (or taller!) people would pay to come and look up at this new world that was being created around them.
In Oct 2018, RDR2s studio, Rockstar ,welcomed the comparisons with Hudson River School and it’s citation as a source for inspiration. However, in a December email exchange with Polygon, the studio denied having used any art as a source of inspiration.
Now I’m really polite, so I’m hesitant to call straight up bullshit on Rockstar’s statement from December…. instead let’s use this as an amazing example of how such iconic art movements ingratiate themselves into our societal psyche.
Even though the movement was created more than 150 years ago, The Hudson River School lingers. It helped shape how America saw itself and that impact lasts for centuries. All the way from the canvas to the computer screen.
4.The Pinkerton Detectives
Throughout RDR2, pretty much every major character either has a run in or a bitch session about ‘The blasted Pinkertons’ (these guys are criminals after all!)
And oh my, have these guys found fame online. With countless threads excitedly chatting about how the Pinkertons were actually real (and not a yarn created for westerns)
The Pinkertons were the FBI before there was an FBI. Founded in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton, the agency were essentially super cops for hire. Contracted out by everyone from the government and private business groups.
In 1861 the agency successfully uncovered a plot to kill Abraham Lincoln, eventually foiling the murder (though Lincoln would still be assassinated 4 years later)
Forerunners in crime, the Pinkertons hired one of the world’s first female detectives and created arguably the first modern crime data system.
By the 1890s the agency had grown so much that there were more Pinkertons than there were standing US army (so Arthur wasn’t lying, you really couldn’t get away from them!)
But just like in RDR2, these ‘good guys’ weren’t always nice. Take for example the time when the Pinkertons threw flares into Jesse James family farm, in an attempt to flush the outlaw from his hiding place. Except Jesse James wasn’t there. And one of the flares exploded, killing James kid brother and leaving his mother armless.
5. You get tuberculosis!
Ok, this might seem like a wierd one to end on, but for a game jam packed with guns, knives, shoot outs and the odd blood thirsty bear, it’s fair to say that it’s surprising when the big nasty turns out to be tuberculosis.
But… is it surprising? After all, Red Dead 2 is set in 1899, when tuberculous was a massive killer! You were way more likely to die from tuberculosis than bounty hunters or rival gangs.
The US census shows us that in 1899, TB was the biggest killer in America (gun shot wounds coming in last on the list of causes of death). And TB wasn’t just ravaging America. It was an epidemic that was attacking both Europe and the US so much, it became known as the white plague.
Tuberculosis related deaths were now so common that they were just a fact of life. The illness even became romanticised! Poet, Lord Byron, actually once commenting that he would ‘like to die of consumption.’
So of course, if anything was going to put the games protagonist, Arthur, in real mortal peril, it’s TB. And what makes this even better (historically speaking at least) is that when Arthur, is diagnosed with tuberculosis, there is no cure.
Because it’s 1899 and if you have tuberculosis, you’re pretty fucked.
Though in 1882, Robert Koch successfully demonstrated the exact causes of TB, medical science just wasn’t ready to use this information to provide a cure. In fact it would be anouther 50 years until a widespread TB medicine would be available.
So, when Arthur gets diagnosed with TB, it’s a real death scentence.
And the fact that RD2 sticks to its historic guns on this one is amazing and rare!
To give you an idea of how rare this is in gaming – swathes of Red Dead players are still hitting up the internet looking for a cure to save Arthur.
Spoiler: there isn’t one. Sorry lads.
And that’s the list, for now! I couldn’t fit in so much and I know that 2nd time around, I’m going to find even more. So let me know what you think I’ve missed and what should make the list next time.