Eugène Vidocq: The Convict Who Became the Father of Modern Criminal Investigation
Eugène François Vidocq was a self-reformed French criminal who turned a young life of fraud, theft, and womanizing into a crime-fighting legacy.
Vidocq’s 18th century legacy still persists today. He was the inspiration for a variety of famous literary characters. Vidocq’s expertise in French crime-fighting also served as the model for modern crime-fighting organizations such as the FBI and Scotland Yard.1
History, however, has seemed to snub the criminal-turned-detective. Rarely is he mentioned these days.
As my family and I walked the streets of Paris as American tourists, our tour group passed the French National Police building (pictured below). Our tour guide entertained us with tales of Vidocq—the first chief of the Sûreté (the detective bureau of the French police) and very possibly the world’s first private eye.
I wondered why I hadn’t heard of him before? Is Vidocq doomed to be an obscure footnote in history? Does he deserve more? You be the judge.
Born in 1775 to a French baker and an adoring mother, Vidocq sought both risk and adventure. Even as a child, he always seemed to find trouble, as he much preferred excitement and intrigue to the more stable pursuits of education and learning his father’s trade.
At age 14, Vidocq accidentally killed his fencing instructor. He ran away from home to escape legal consequences.
While on the run, he lost his savings when he became romantically entangled with a young actress. Vidocq then joined the 3rd Dragoon Regiment, a calvary unit in the French army. The army exposed him to battle-hardened soldiers whose exploits further encouraged his risk-taking nature.
In his first six months, Vidocq fought 15 duels and killed several of his opponents. He also distinguished himself on the battlefield. Unfortunately, his bravado soon got the best of him.
Vidocq’s military career came to an abrupt end when he was involved in a conflict with a superior officer. The officer refused to square off in a duel against Vidocq to settle their spat.
Vidocq subsequently struck the officer, an offense which carried a heavy consequence: hanging. To escape punishment, the 17-year-old deserted from the army to return home.
By this time, 1792, the French Revolution had begun. It was a period of radical social and political upheaval marked by the collapse of the French monarchy that had ruled the country for centuries.
During this time, traditional notions of hierarchy regarding the monarchy, aristocracy, and the Catholic church were overthrown. Those ideas were replaced with the more democratic ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity (“Liberté, égalité, fraternité“).
Both male and female aristocrats were routinely hauled off to jails to await their fates at the guillotine without the benefit of trial. Vidocq witnessed soldiers dragging off several such women prisoners to meet their deaths.
Bothered by the soldiers’ aggressive handling of the doomed women, the young troublemaker slayed the soldiers, allowing the women to escape.
Vidocq soon found himself in the town jail awaiting the same fate as the women he had freed. His father, however, used personal connections to come to his son’s rescue. Soon Vidocq found himself conned into marriage by a lover’s fictitious pregnancy. When he later caught her being unfaithful, the teenager skipped town.
Over the next several years, Vidocq was in and out of jail, arrested for brawls, various petty crimes, and forging the parole papers for a fellow prisoner. Thanks to his talent for disguising himself, he frequently escaped and blended back into society—that is, until trouble found him again.
When Vidocq learned that a guard was being falsely blamed for letting him go, the young man surrendered himself to save the jail keeper from punishment. For his honesty, Vidocq received a sentence of eight years of hard prison time, first in prison and then in the naval galleys.
However, only eight days after being transferred from the prison to the despicable conditions of the galleys—a brutal inferno of slave prison labor—Vidocq simply walked out. Having obtained a sailor’s suit by bribing a guard, he walked directly past the warden, strolling confidently through the prison gates to freedom.
Vidocq’s freedom would not last long. In 1798, a wanted fugitive, he stepped off a privateering vessel and into the custody of French authorities.
Vidocq was sent to Toulon Prison, a wretched place reserved for the most hardened of criminals. Confined to his cell, beaten regularly, and surrounded by disease and squalor, Vidocq could only bide his time as he strategized his escape.
Escape, would be difficult, however, because the warden was well aware of Vidocq’s use of disguises. He was therefore watched carefully. Vidocq tried another approach. He befriended a fellow inmate, a wealthy master thief, who bartered with guards for better conditions.
The friend obtained the key to Vidocq’s shackles, and again he was a free man. Unlocking his own irons, Vidocq fled out of the prison window.
Unfortunately, Vidocq became a victim of his own success. His notoriety had increased so much that living as a fugitive was becoming increasingly difficult. Frequently on the move, he spent time as a butler, privateer, and businessman. When he returned to jail, Vidocq again made a mockery of those who sought to detain him. He escaped once more.
In 1809, tired of being on the wrong side of the law, Vidocq contacted Jean Henry, Head of the Criminal Department in Paris. The 34-year old fugitive from justice proposed that in exchange for amnesty (he had not served all of his eight-year prison sentence), he would become a police informant.
After being permitted to feign an escape, Vidocq became an undercover police agent who mingled with the Paris underworld. According to his memoirs, Vidocq saw his job description as follows: “To prevent crimes, discover malefactors, and to give them up for justice.”
Vidocq soon suggested the creation of a new undercover detective unit that surreptitiously monitored all former convicts and known criminals as they moved into the city and made their homes there. The small unit assisted with arrests and crime prevention as well. Importantly, this plainclothes detective unit had free reign over the entire city. Such access was unprecedented.
Known as the Sûreté (French for “safety” or “security“), Vidocq’s brigade began with four detectives, eventually expanding to a force of 28. He insisted on hiring only former criminals, as they had the required street-smarts and toughness for the job. By 1820, they reduced Paris crime rates by as much as 40%.2
The underworld of Paris in the early 1800s was filled with gaming halls, brothels, and saloons that were frequented by scoundrels—hugs, thieves, and murderers. Brawls and drunkenness abounded.
Crime rates were high, as law enforcement was understaffed.
Within the city, police did not generally share information about crimes across geographical borders. The result was that a criminal could commit an offense in one part of the city and evade capture by hopscotching across geographical lines.
Vidocq had plenty of work to occupy him. He also proposed solutions.
Having rubbed elbows with the most hardened of criminals, Vidocq pioneered a number of techniques to track them down and bring them to justice.
Some of his lasting contributions included:
- undercover police work
- ballistics (the flight characteristics of bullets)
- record keeping system
- plaster of paris casting for shoe imprints
- indelible ink and unalterable bond paper (he held patents on both)
- crime scene security
- forensic anthropometrics (measurements of the human body in police work)
Vidocq’s legendary detective skills influenced a variety of writers of his time to either reference him in their work or to base literary characters on his larger-than-life persona.3
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in part based the fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes on Vidocq’s crime-solving.
- In his 1862 novel Les Misérables, Victor Hugo used Vidocq as the inspiration for two main characters: Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Jean Valjean is the novel’s protagonist who struggles to return to a normal life after serving a prison sentence for stealing bread to feed his sister’s hungry children. Inspector Javert is the chief antagonist in the novel, a police official who represents the justice system that seeks to punish Valjean.
- In Charles Dickens‘ 1860 novel Great Expectations, the fugitive Abel Magwitch was inspired by Vidocq’s experiences.
- Herman Melville mentions Vidocq in Moby Dick.4
- Edgar Allan Poe references Vidocq in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” his short story that is often credited as the first-ever detective fiction story
- Agatha Cristie‘s fictional Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, is in part based on Vidocq’s crime-fighting exploits.
Once a month, 150 forensic experts and business people gather at The Union League of Philadelphia over lunch to solve cases that have stumped law enforcement.
These elite crime-solvers are members of the non-profit Vidocq Society, named for the father of modern criminal investigation. The organization was formed in 1990 by three like-minded people—a sculptor/forensic reconstructionist, a prison psychologist, and a former FBI agent. The founders sought to lend their talents to law enforcement in solving the most difficult of cases.
During meetings, members carefully pore over evidence that is presented to them in order to help law enforcement reinvigorate unsolved cases. Members’ expertise areas represent a wide range of investigatory, business, psychological, and legal specialties.5
Some of these areas of expertise include:
- bloodstain pattern reconstruction
- document examination
- litigation, computer crime
- handwriting analysis
- psychological profiling and
- labor racketeering.
The Society has helped solve approximately 300 cases and furthered the investigation of about 90% of the cases that it has heard.6
The Father of Modern Criminal Investigation would be proud.
1Geringer, Joseph. “Vidocq: Convict Turned Detective Magnifique — Master Criminologist.” Crime Library—Crime News and Stories. (No longer published)
2Wikipedia. “Sûreté.” Last modified July 3, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surete.
3Hernandez, Rev. Anontio. “Master Detective.” The International Writers Magazine. Accessed July 4, 2013. http://www.hackwriters.com/Vidocq.htm.
4Matthews, Charles. “Ten Pages (or More): 14. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 390-423.” Ten Pages (or More). Last modified December 17, 2010. http://tenpagesormore.blogspot.com/2010/12/14-moby-dick-by-herman-melville-pp-390.html.
5Pilkington, Ed. “Vidocq Society—The Murder Club.” The Guardian. Last modified March 3, 2011. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/mar/03/vidocq-society-cold-case-murders.
6Pilkington, Ed. “Vidocq Society—The Murder Club.” The Guardian. Last modified March 3, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/03/vidocq-society-cold-case-murders.