A few weeks ago, we briefly mentioned the possibility of setting a game of dark, vampire-hunting adventure horror in a less than modern century, specifically positing that some historical fun could be had by placing your blood-suckers and their hunters in early or middle 19th century.
Our previous article broadly hinted at a few potential vampire conspiracies hidden in the shadows of America’s first hundred years, and suggested that — in the style of paranormal action from Delta Green to Agents of Oblivion — the protagonists of our little horror show could (or should) be spies or other sorts of clandestine operatives, probably living somewhere in the conceptual space between Jim West and James Armistead (the double agent who famously betrayed Benedict Arnold and the British General Cornwallis to George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, laying the foundation for the Continental Army’s decisive — and Revolutionary War-ending — battle at Yorktown in 1781).
The only real problem is that — for most of the 19th century — the United States had no formal intelligence apparatus from which to draw our heroes.
Secret Services, Secret Histories
The really strange thing about the history of American espionage is that it is essentially blank for the roughly 80 years between the end of the Revolutionary War and the beginning of the U.S. Civil War. This could be at least partially because espionage (at least as we understand it today) in the 18th and 19th centuries was considered largely dishonorable and only dubiously necessary except in times of war. Or it could be because the intelligence apparatus of the young United States were then so — well, secret — that records of their existence and activities remain hidden to this day.
This is not impossible.
The existence of George Washington’s own Culper Ring — a Revolutionary War spy ring centered in New York, led by then-Major Benjamin Tallmadge — was effectively hidden from the general public until the 1930s, when documents started to surface that revealed the organization’s activities. Some disputed evidence suggest that Tallmadge’s secretive Culper Ring discovered Benedict Arnold’s infamous betrayal, and there’s absolutely no doubt that the group was instrumental in providing reports on British troop movements throughout New England. The Culper Ring was supposedly dissolved after the end of the war, but its survival is a relatively common theme in comics and fiction from Y: The Last Man to Brad Meltzer’s The Inner Circle. There’s certainly no reason to believe that a group who’s very existence remained secret for 150 years wouldn’t have had the capability to continue to protect the United States from the shadows for years, if not decades, more.
There’s even some evidence to suggest that a few of the earliest laws laid out by the newly-formed Federal government in 1789 were specifically written to give the the Executive branch the ability to empower such agents. The laws underpinning the creation of the U.S. Marshals are exceedingly nonspecific, giving agents working under the law the ability to…
…execute throughout the district, all lawful precepts directed to him, and issued under the authority of the United States, and he shall have the power to command all necessary assistance in the execution of his duty, and to appoint as shall be occasion, one or more deputies…
…which certainly seems like it could be used to grant authority and resources to a group of secret agents to me. Why lurk in the shadows when you can hide in plain sight?
I’m not necessarily saying that there’s a 240 year old secret intelligence service operating in the shadows of the modern U.S. Marshals Service (though it certainly has potential if that’s the way you want to go), but I think we’ve established that there’s sufficient grounds to insert a powerful, secretive group of agents into the history of the early American Republic if that’s where you want to take your game. And, since we started this discussion by talking about vampires, let’s not forget that Benjamin Tallmadge settled in a town called Litchfield (to better watch the dead?) in the years after the war, and — as a Congressman and president of the Phoenix Branch Bank — would have had access to substantial resources that could have been diverted to the time’s equivalent of an intelligence black budget.
Tallmadge was a consummate spymaster, but our theoretical spy ring needs operatives, too: and there are few better models than William Eaton, a failed diplomat and self-proclaimed general who helped lead the fledgling United States military to a shoe-string victory during the First Barbary War between 1801 and 1805. Eaton (who has been mentioned in a few other articles around these parts) probably deserves a whole post of his own, but suffice to say that he led a group of mercenaries and inexperienced marines across the deserts of North Africa to defeat a technically superior (and certainly better resourced) military power, used guile and deception to push a potentially friendly government into power in the Barbary State of Tripoli, only to have his actions disavowed at the last moment by his own government. Which, if you’re interested in learning more, is amusingly detailed in Richard Zacks’ The Pirate Coast, which I recommend wholeheartedly.
Eaton’s career is fascinating, violent, and tragic — and in a campaign like the one we’re building, very possibly the public reflection of a hidden war occurring within the government itself. This may point to a secret war within our as-yet unnamed post-Culper Ring, or the development of a counter-movement led by men like Aaron Burr and Tobias Lear (who, as the last person to see George Washington alive, could easily be cast in your game as a presidential assassin). In any case, if Eaton is one of the good guys, Burr and Lear absolutely are not.
If our hidden sect of the church of American espionage grew up in the shadows of Tallmadge (who lived until 1835) and Eaton (who died in 1811), its subsequent directors and influences are less well known to history. Tallmadge could have easily shepherded the organization through a secret war against Imperator Burr, on up to the War of 1812: battling British-backed Voodoo priests in the Louisiana swamps right up through (then-future-President) Andrew Jackson’s famous Battle of New Orleans. But after that point, things get a little messier, and it’s very hard to tell who would have been charged with preventing the supernatural (and again, possibly vampiric) assassination of President William Henry Harrison (which we dubiously alleged as secret history just a few weeks ago) in 1841.
With Enemies Like These…
This, then, brings us back to the central question: just what are our stalwart heroes fighting against? There’s ample potential in the conflicts above for a rip-roaring espionage adventure even without the introduction of the paranormal…but the clashes between Old Europe and the New World are good excuses to throw in a little bit of the supernatural.
If you want to back to our original thesis, the threatening undead could be anything from hungry Wendigos awakened by Shawnee shaman seeking revenge for Tecumseh’s death in 1813 to an angry ultraterrestrial Lorelei accidentally brought to North America by England’s Hessian mercenaries.
Clearly, there’s work to be done in identifying the monsters hiding out on the frontier…but that’s a post for another time.