The First Detective
Sherlock Holmes, Jean Valjean, and the FBI can all trace their roots back to one Frenchman who turned a life of crime into a life of fighting crime.
In 1809 a 34-year-old petty criminal named Eugène François Vidocq (pronounced vee-DOCK) was doing yet another stint in a French prison, this time for forgery. In and out of jail since he was a teenager, there were basically two Eugène Vidocqs: One was a hard-drinking brawler and womanizer who was quick to challenge any man to a duel. The other was a charismatic family man who had a knack for gaining people’s trust…so he could scam them. It was that persona that Vidocq used in prison to win the confidence of some of Paris’s most notorious criminals. And then he ratted out their plans to the city’s police chief, Jean Henry.
Why did the crook suddenly turn informant? For one, Vidocq was facing a long prison term and possibly the guillotine. But he was also growing tired of living life as a fugitive. He’d tried to go legit before, and this time he wanted it to stick. So after he proved his worth to Henry, in 1811 the chief arranged for Vidocq to “escape” prison, something he’d done for real many times before. After that, Vidocq became an undercover spy, working the streets of Paris. He burrowed into the city’s criminal underworld, often in disguise, and brought back what he learned to Chief Henry. The information he obtained put dozens of his former accomplices in prison…and sent more than a few to the guillotine. And he was just getting started.
THE WRATH OF CON
Born in 1775 in the northern French city of Arras, Vidocq’s early years were filled with one thrilling adventure after another. That is, if you believe his memoir, which historians say was quite embellished. But what is known: he spent his first stint in jail at age 13 after stealing his father’s silver, and ran away at 14 after stealing 2,000 francs ($6,000 in today’s money) from his parents’ bakery. Then at 15 he joined the circus (where he ate raw meat in a freak show). By this time, the teenager was already a veteran thief and a formidable fencer—a skill he picked up from off-duty soldiers as a boy. During the French Revolution, Vidocq (now 16) joined the army. He fought bravely in two battles against the Prussian army, but his military career was short-lived. He routinely challenged his fellow soldiers to duels (he was 14–2 by his own count), and once even assaulted his commander. By the time Vidocq was 19, it was clear to him and to his superiors that a military life was not for him.
After spending his 20s bouncing from family life (he married twice) to bachelor life (he was known as a gambler and a ladies’ man) to criminal life (he once masqueraded as Austrian so he could get at a widow’s money), he decided that his 1809 forgery conviction would be his last time in prison.
Once on the outside, Vidocq took to his new job as a spy with great enthusiasm, applying his skills as a keen observer and master of disguise. Those abilities, combined with his superior fighting skills, soon proved he could be even more effective than regular cops…because he wasn’t a regular cop. Whereas Paris police officers were restricted to their own districts, routinely allowing fleeing suspects to get away, Vidocq simply ignored those boundaries and would doggedly hunt down his targets day and night until they were apprehended.
In 1811 Vidocq convinced Chief Henry to let him form a plainclothes police unit that would be free to do their work unhampered. Henry agreed, and Vidocq rallied up a small band of former convicts like himself. Vidocq’s secret division soon began bringing in the worst of the Paris underworld. Vidocq himself single-handedly tracked down a notorious counterfeiter and beat a confession out of him, which led to an execution.
Within a year, Vidocq and his secret agents had proven so effective that Henry made them an official unit of the Paris police called the Brigade de la Sûreté (“Security Brigade”). A year after that, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte signed a decree that expanded the brigade. Now it was the official state security police force for all of France, and Vidocq was in charge.
Over the next 15 years, Vidocq laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the modern police detective:
- He introduced law enforcement’s first card-index record-keeping system—it cataloged all of France’s known criminals, complete with each one’s physical description, arrest history, and modus operandi (method of operation).
- Vidocq trained his agents to use disguises and go undercover without being discovered. No police force had ever made this a regular tactic before.
- He invented several forensics techniques, including the use of handwriting to identify a suspect, plaster of Paris to make casts of footprints, and even firearm ballistics. In an 1822 murder case, Vidocq was one of the first police investigators—if not the first—to have a bullet removed from a body in order to prove that it wasn’t fired by the prime suspect’s gun. Vidocq even tried to develop a way to record criminals’ fingerprints. (It didn’t work, but later became a common law-enforcement practice.)
- Another first: Vidocq recruited female agents to go undercover and gather information.
As innovative as some of Vidocq’s crime-fighting techniques were, many others would get him booted off any modern police force. He and his agents regularly engaged in bribery, entrapment, illegal searches, coercion, and outright violence. That didn’t sit well with many of Paris’s legitimate police officers, who still considered Vidocq a fugitive because he never completed his forgery sentence. In 1818 Chief Henry officially pardoned Vidocq for his crimes. But the bad blood between him and his fellow cops remained.
Meanwhile, the Sûreté kept rounding up scores of France’s most notorious bandits, forgers, counterfeiters, and killers. By the 1820s, the agency, now up to 28 agents, had been credited with reducing crime in Paris by more than 40 percent. Vidocq became a household name in France—a hero to some, a villain to others.
But when Chief Henry retired in 1826, Vidocq’s days on the force were numbered. The new chief was among those who objected to the Sûreté’s gang of ruffians, and he went out of his way to make things difficult for Vidocq and his men. After receiving one too many complaints about the behavior of his agents—who were, Vidocq admitted, seen regularly with crooks in the city’s lowliest taverns and brothels—he wrote to the new chief:
To save you, sir, the trouble of sending me further similar complaints in the future, and me the inconvenience of receiving them, I have the honor to solicit you for accepting my resignation.
In 1827, after 15 years as head of the Sûreté, Vidocq became a civilian again.
Out of the force, Vidocq tried his hand as an author and as a “legitimate businessman.” He wrote Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime, which detailed his adventures on both sides of the law. The book was a huge hit in France and was even translated into English. In 1829 a popular London theater ran a play based on the memoir, called Vidocq! The French Police Spy. That, too, was a hit, and Vidocq was flying high. Now in his 50s and living a comfortable life, he opened a small paper mill outside of Paris that employed ex-convicts, both male and female.
But despite his successes in civilian life, it soon became clear that fighting crime was Vidocq’s destiny. In 1831, amid tumultuous political upheaval in France—and the appointment of yet another chief of police in Paris—Vidocq found himself back as the head of the Sûreté. A year later he was out again. Rather than retire, he went on to make even more history.
In 1833 Vidocq opened Le Bureau des Renseignements (“The Office of Information”) at No. 12 rue Cloche-Perce in the Marais district of Paris. It was the world’s first private detective agency. For a fee, Vidocq or one of his agents (mostly ex-convicts) would hunt down thieves and confidence men, spy on cheating spouses, act as enforcers to collect unpaid debts, or do whatever else a paying client wanted. Not bound by police regulations, the agency, which at its peak had more than 40 agents, solved several high-profile criminal cases that made headlines all over Europe.
But those busts came at a cost. The Paris police force kept a close eye on the agency and raided Vidocq’s headquarters several times. Many of his agents were arrested—sometimes with cause, sometimes without. Vidocq himself was arrested more than once, resulting in a few more stints in prison
By 1848 Vidocq had had enough and closed the agency for good. Even at 72 years old, he refused to retire. He took on a few freelance cases, continued seducing women, and was even arrested one last time for good measure. In 1854 the old man survived a bout with cholera, but his health continued to decline. On May 11, 1857, he died in his home in Paris at the age of 82.
INTO THE DUSTBIN OF HISTORY
It’s surprising, given Vidocq’s storied life and the impact he had on law enforcement, that he isn’t better known today. But even if you’re not familiar with the name Eugène Vidocq, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the characters and agencies he inspired:
- In the 1820s, Vidocq became friends with many of the great French writers of the era, one of whom was Victor Hugo (who some say helped Vidocq write his memoir). In his 1862 play Les Misérables, Hugo wove both of Vidocq’s distinct personalities into the two main characters—the fugitive Jean Valjean, and the cop who won’t stop chasing him, Inspector Javert. Vidocq also provided inspiration for characters in the writings of Honoré de Balzac, Émile Gaboriau, and Alexandre Dumas.
- Edgar Allan Poe based his literary detective C. Auguste Dupin on Vidocq. In the 1841 short story “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe’s character describes Vidocq as “a good guesser, and a persevering man. But, without educated thought, he erred continually by the very intensity of his investigations.” Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was based, in part, on Dupin, who was modeled on Vidocq.
- In 1829 the Metropolitan Police of London, commonly known as Scotland Yard, was founded in England, using Vidocq’s Sûreté as a model. The same is true of the FBI, founded in 1908.
- In 1990 an exclusive group of the world’s most renowned forensic scientists, former police detectives, and FBI agents banded together to create a crime-fighting force unlike any that had ever existed. They called themselves the Vidocq Society. (That story can be found on page 445 of Uncle John’s Canoramic Bathroom Reader)
This article is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Canoramic Bathroom Reader. Weighing in at a whopping 544 pages, Uncle John’s CANORAMIC Bathroom Reader presents a wide-angle view of the world around us. It’s overflowing with everything that BRI fans have come to expect from this bestselling trivia series: fascinating history, silly science, and obscure origins, plus fads, blunders, wordplay, quotes, and a few surprises.
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I’ve been a fan of Vidocq for a lot of years 8) The French made some extremly nice movies with him as the main character also, sadly little known outside France.
Here is one of them : https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0164961/?ref_=nv_sr_1