Eugène Vidocq: A Criminal Who Became The World’s First Modern Detective

Apr 18, 2023 0 comments

It is paradoxical that a former delinquent with a colorful life ends up being the creator and director of the French police; even more so if he is also the founder of the first detective agency and a pioneer in the development of modern criminological investigation techniques, such as fingerprint analysis, ballistics, anthropometry, case file preparation, etc. But if on top of that, he inspired great writers for some of their immortal characters, such as Auguste Dupin in Edgar Allan Poe's stories ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Purloined Letter," "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt"), then it is impossible not to take a brief look at his juicy biography. We're talking about Eugène-François Vidocq.

Detail of a poster for a film about Vidocq from 1922. Image: Wikimedia

Surely all the authorities were astounded in 1812 when they learned that one of France's most persistent and elusive criminals had just been put in charge of a new civilian crime-fighting unit called the Brigade de Sûreté, composed of eight agents, many of whom had the particularity of coming from state prisons, like him. The police prefect, the Duke of Paquier, must have thought that since he couldn't be tamed, it was more practical to attract him and pay him to work for the law instead of against it. And he was absolutely right.

Vidocq was born in Arras in 1775, into a lower-middle-class family. His father, who was a baker and, along with his mother, traded in wheat, was unable to keep in line the third of his six siblings - four boys (one of whom died before Vidocq was born) and two girls - and watched as he started getting into trouble often in his adolescence. At just thirteen, he stole the family's silver cutlery and squandered his earnings the same day; his parents sent him to the Badets reformatory with the idea of teaching him a lesson, but when he came out a couple of weeks later, he was still the same.

The following year, Vidocq took possession of his parents' savings, about two thousand francs, and left home for Ostend with the intention of sailing to America. However, one night he was swindled and lost the money, so he joined a small traveling circus as an acrobat thanks to his strength. There he also worked as a stable boy and actor (playing the role of a cannibal Indian), but was eventually expelled for flirting with the owner's wife. He survived by working as a traveling salesman, a job in which he at least did not receive beatings, although he eventually returned home hoping to be forgiven.

Indeed, that's how it happened, and in 1791 he obtained permission to enlist in the army, in a regiment of grenadiers, something he achieved easily due to his strong constitution and because he had been a regular visitor to fencing rooms since childhood and handled the sword well. That had its negative side, as during his time in the ranks he was involved in fifteen duels, killing two of his opponents. For this and his indomitable character, he was more than once thrown in jail, but the outbreak of the war against Austria and Prussia in 1792 allowed him to unleash that hot temperament in combat: for example, in the Battle of Valmy, earning him a promotion to corporal.

Eugène François Vidocq.

Unfortunately, on the day of the ceremony, he had a quarrel with his sergeant major, challenged him to a duel, and when the other refused, he struck him. That could have meant a death sentence, so Vidocq deserted and joined the 11th Chasseurs à Cheval (Horse Hunters), fighting in the Battle of Jemappes under the command of General Dumouriez, who replaced La Fayette in command of the Army of the Center. But he couldn't enjoy that destination for long; soon after, his desertion was discovered, and he had to carry out another one, accompanying a general who had attempted a failed coup. A few weeks later, an officer interceded for him, and he was authorized to return; however, he was required to leave the regiment.

So he returned to the starting point in Arras. He had just turned eighteen and had lived intensely in the last few years, although that was just the beginning. For the time being, with nothing to do, he devoted himself to frequenting female company, which brought him two things: on the one hand, more duels with angry boyfriends, husbands, and fathers, which landed him in Baudets again; on the other hand, marriage in 1794 to Anne Marie Louise Chevalier, forced because she had become pregnant. Anne was the daughter of a local potentate who intervened to save Vidocq from the guillotine, as he had been accused of helping some nobles to escape.

As can be deduced, they were in the last throes of the Terror unleashed two years earlier by the Jacobins during the French Revolution. Chevalier put his new son-in-law in charge of a grocer's shop, but when Vidocq found out that his wife was not only not pregnant but was cheating on him with an employee, he once again left for the army. Despite entering under a false name, Rousseau de Lille, he didn't last long and then chose to head to Brussels, then a refuge for people of ill repute. He turned to petty crime, but the police identified him as a deserter and he had to escape again.

In 1795, he joined the Armée Roulante, an irregular military unit where he rose to the rank of captain of hussars, which allowed him to charm a wealthy widow by posing as a persecuted noble. Although she discovered the deception just before they were to marry, she had grown so fond of him that she did not dismiss him without giving him a generous amount of money. Vidocq lived in Paris for a while with that money, but once he had squandered it on his dissolute lifestyle, he joined a caravan of gypsies following a woman he had fallen in love with, Francine Longuet. She was involved in simultaneous relationships with an officer, whom the hot-tempered young man obviously attacked, resulting in him spending three months in Tour Saint-Pierre, the prison in Lille.

He made friends with several inmates there. One of them was released thanks to a pardon that turned out to be a forgery; since it had been made in Vidocq's cell, he was considered an accomplice and sentenced to eight years of hard labor, a sentence aggravated by several failed escape attempts with Francine's help and her denunciation that he had tried to kill her in a fit of rage. Although she later admitted that the wounds she showed were self-inflicted, the other charges proved decisive. But the intrepid character, destined for the galleys in Brest, managed to escape disguised as a sailor in 1798, while being transferred from the Bicêtre prison.

During the following two years, he was caught several times, always managing to escape in the most audacious ways: sometimes he would dress as a nun, other times he would join Dutch corsairs... In 1800 he returned to Arras, where he was hidden in his mother's house (his father had died). But he was not destined to lead a peaceful existence. Continuing that dynamic of escapes and arrests, he learned that he had been sentenced to death in absentia, so he had to remain a fugitive for several years, at the end of which he began to feel tired of that situation. In 1809, after another arrest, he decided to change and offered himself to the police as an informant at the Bicêtre prison.

Vidocq and the Brigade de Sûreté arresting bandits, according to a 19th-century engraving. Image: Wikimedia

As the inmates saw him as one of their own, his information proved useful and after almost two years, he was granted freedom, faking an escape so that there would be no repercussions against him and he could continue collaborating. Thus, 1811 arrived and the prefect of the Parisian police placed his trust in him by giving him command of the aforementioned Brigade de Sûreté, whose number of members would increase from the initial eight to twelve, including women. Vidocq personally trained them in unorthodox techniques at that time such as facial recognition, disguise, or fingerprinting, and his success was such that in 1818 he received a pardon for his past actions.

Napoleon had fallen and a new era opened up, the Restoration, in which the brigade, which would later be renamed Sûreté Nationale and later Police Nationale, grew to reach twenty-four agents in 1823 and twenty-eight the following year. With them, crime was forcefully curbed. In 1817, they made over eight hundred arrests, three times that of the regular police, in part thanks to the photographic memory of their leader and the methodological innovations he introduced, including analyzing every detail of the crime scene and creating a file of criminals with descriptions of their features, measurements, and other data, which would later be the basis of bertillonage (forensic anthropometry). He even faked his own murder when suspicions arose about his double activity in the underworld.

Moreover, he now had a well-paid job (a salary of five thousand francs) which he supplemented with the occasional fees he received as a private investigator. This stability allowed him to enter into a second marriage (he had divorced Anne) in 1820 - the same year his mother died - to Jeanne-Victoire Guérin, a poor and sickly woman who would not live long either, until 1824. In those years, the death of King Louis XVIII also took place, succeeded by Charles X, the last Bourbon and an absolutist who turned the forces of order into a private army against all political opposition.

An example of the filing system created by Alphonse Bertillon based on the work of Vidocq. Photo: Karl Pearson/Wikimedia

The head of the police was dismissed and his replacement clashed with Vidocq, who was said to be a Bonapartist. Accused of wasting time in brothels and fraternizing with criminals - all essential to his work - the situation became so tense that in the summer of 1827 he resigned, retiring to Saint-Mandé to marry his cousin Fleuride Maniez three years later. During this time, he commissioned a black man, L.F. L'Héritier de l'Ain, to write his memoirs - probably quite fanciful - and founded a paper factory that provided employment for many ex-convicts: it did not do well and went bankrupt in 1831. By then, the national political situation had changed radically.

And it was because Charles X was forced to abdicate after the July Revolution and the new police prefect reinstated Vidocq to his position in the Sûreté. He didn't last more than seven months; the insecurity that arose after his departure and a cholera epidemic that provoked a revolt against the new king, Louis Philippe I, led to accusations of immorality against Vidocq and his men, who were said to instigate crimes to show off. In November 1832, citing his wife's illness as a pretext, he resigned again. The Sûreté was dissolved and reorganized with agents without criminal records.

As if responding to the challenge, he founded Le Bureau de renseignements universels dans l'intérêt du commerce ("Universal Information Office in the Interest of Commerce"), considered the first detective agency, whose staff was made up of eleven ex-convicts, of course. It offered services to companies and individuals for various cases, from investigating fraud and adultery to private surveillance and the like. Taking as its motto "Hatred and war against rogues, unlimited devotion to commerce," it had up to eight thousand clients, but had to close in 1837 by court order; the police seized thousands of files and Vidocq spent a few days in jail, accused of fraud and bribery of officials, until the charges were dismissed and he was released.

By then, Vidocq was already frequenting the gatherings of the philanthropist Benjamin Appert, where he mingled with intellectuals such as Honoré de Balzac (Vautrin, the protagonist of his novel La Comédie Humaine, is inspired by him), Victor Hugo (the characters Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert from Les Misérables also have elements of his life), or Alexandre Dumas (the police officer Monsieur Chacal from The Mohicans of Paris); he was even a model for Flambeau in Chesterton's works, and Agatha Christie adopted his triumphant cry "I am Vidocq!", replacing it with "I am Hercule Poirot!". However, this did not prevent them from continuing to search for ways to end this competition, and in 1842 they closed down his agency again for embezzlement, illegal detention, and blackmail. This time he was not spared and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Thanks to influential friends, he was able to appeal and be released from prison eleven months later, but with his reputation damaged and his business diminished. Aware that the persecution could repeat itself, he tried unsuccessfully to sell the agency, even though for a week he was training two British agents who wanted to found what would become Scotland Yard. Meanwhile, he settled in London, where he patented some security inventions (non-manipulable bond paper, a type of lock that was pick-proof, and an indelible ink that France would use to print banknotes) and published books recounting his adventures against crime to try to repair his image; as well as an essay on penal institutions, which he knew better than anyone.

In 1847, he became a widower and would not remarry, although he did resume his turbulent love life with numerous women. The following year, the king abdicated and the Second Republic was proclaimed, to which Vidocq offered his services receiving the commission to infiltrate among the prisoners of the Conciergerie (the state prison, located in Paris) to spy on opponents of the regime; among them was Louis Napoleon, who shortly after won the elections that led him to the presidency to become Napoleon III. Vidocq had also presented himself for his district, but only received one vote and was ignored by the new ruler when he proposed to work for him as well.

It was all an omen because in 1849 he was sentenced again, for fraud, although he again managed to get the case dismissed. His last years were marked by decline, tormented by the pain caused by an old poorly healed arm fracture and an economic strait that he occasionally patched up by accepting minor cases or tricking lovers into testifying in his favor. In 1854, at the age of seventy-nine, he survived cholera, but by the time he turned eighty-one, he was so deteriorated, with paralysis in his legs, that his body gave up. It is unknown where the man considered the father of modern criminology was buried.

This article was originally published in La Brújula Verde. It has been translated from Spanish and republished with permission.


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