You Want to Get Kids Interested in History? Give Them a Jewel Heist to Solve.

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Pinkerton Mystery

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

That’s just what the New York Historical Society, in conjunction with the Live in Theater, did. They have produced a new history play aimed at kids and their parents, the Pinkertonian Mystery, about the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, in which the kids try to solve a string of jewel robberies tied to a fictional 1880s international criminal named El Diablo.

The society, at 170 Central Park West, wanted something different, and the Live in Theater produces plays that are different. For years, the theater company has been staging street plays in lower Manhattan in which theatergoers, as teams of detectives, walk through neighborhoods, sometimes in rain, meet characters from historical crime settings, compare notes and solve the case. The Pinkertonian Mystery follows the same concept. Here, though, teams are made up of kids and their parents.

I was happy to join them to crack the case and be a kid again (most of the children are 8-12 year old). All of us went through twenty minutes of training to become detectives first. We learned how to stand at attention, stand at ease, box (not really), conduct interviews, think like criminals and figure out cipher codes. The fabled Allan Pinkerton, who served as a bodyguard to Abraham Lincoln before starting his agency in Chicago, in his long coat and signature brown derby, led the training. Then we went, notebooks in hand, eyebrows raised and suspicions aplenty, to a half dozen stops throughout the museum to meet complex and richly drawn 1880s characters, gather evidence and try to solve the jewel heists (the jewels belonged to the Prince of Burma and were on a national exhibit tour).

The play is a real winner. Everybody learns a lot about crime and about history, too, and, of course, you get a chance to smash an international jewel theft ring and go after the notorious El Diablo.

The best thing about the play is that Live in Theater producer/writer Carlo D’Amore did NOT write this as a children’s play. It is just as fascinating to parents as it is to the kids. You need a good police mind to crack the case, plus the ability to figure out ciphers. I couldn’t do it. Many of the parents had trouble solving the case and were as baffled as the children. One ten year old kid in my group, though, was a wizard at police work. The FBI should hire this boy, and right now.

The actors in the show (no names provided) are wonderful, especially the woman playing the very attractive, and very duplicitous Kate Warren, the ten year Pinkerton veteran who seems to forget a lot of things, and Augustus McCort, the newly arrived Scotsman cop with a heavy brogue, a lot of jealousy and a strange patch over his eye.

You learn a lot about the history of crime and the police, but you also learn much about the Orphan Trains, the railroads that carried some 30,000 New York orphans to the mid-west for years after the Civil War. All were adopted there and given new lives. The orphan trains and those 19th century children connect perfectly to the kids participating in the play.

Being in the play is a lot of fun for children and their parents. Participating in the mystery not only gave them the chance to learn about history and solve a case, but to have some fun together as a family – and, since we are in the 1880s, without smart phones or text messaging..

The New York Historical Society has struck gold with this interactive theater idea. It will stage the play again April 12 and April 26. They should extend the run into the summer and add additional plays by the Live in Theater.

If your town is terrorized by jewel thieves, put these kids on the case!

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the New York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, and the Live in Theater. It will be staged again on April 12 and April 26.

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