Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Vidocq: Convict Turned Detective Magnifique

Master Criminologist

"The shortness of life cannot dissuade us from its pleasures, nor console us from its pains."

Marquis de Vauvenargues

Throughout history, legends abound of citizens taking it upon themselves to fight local crime and criminals in a splendid number of ways; most of these stories are fictionalized accounts of actual people whose real lives were more mundane than the heroic poems and songs that lauded them; chief among these is England's Sir Robin of Locksley (Robin Hood). It was not until the early Nineteenth Century, however, that a Frenchman a one-time criminal himself utilized his first-hand knowledge of his country's underworld to create a whole new, formalized entity called "criminal investigation". In doing so, Eugene Francois Vidocq brought crime fighting to a higher plateau, up from a disorganized and often-negative milieux and into a social science.

Yet, unlike so many others whose achievements nowhere exact those of Vidocq's, he is little known in the world today. Outside the files of the Sureté, the detective bureau of the French police that he helped create, he is rarely recognized.

The Vidocq Society, a precise consortium of forensic and law-enforcement professionals whose practices are based on the teachings of Vidocq, lists the master detective's credits as many. Besides holding the honor as the Sureté's first appointed chief (1811), the Vidocq:

  • introduced record-keeping (a card-index system), criminalistics and the science of ballistics into police work.
  • was the first to make plaster-of-paris casts of foot and shoe impressions.
  • was a master of disguise and surveillance.
  • held patents on indelible ink and unalterable bond paper.
  • and founded the first modern detective agency and credit bureau, Les Bureau des Renseignements.

After his directorship in the Sureté, the latter "gave him the necessary tools...to eventually set himself up as quite possibly the world's first bona fide private eye," writes Axiom Investigative Consultants' history web page. "His agency was a tremendous success, building a reputation in the best traditions of detective fiction."

Eugene Francois Vidocq, 1829
Eugene Francois Vidocq, 1829

Vidocq's factual successes inspired world-class authors who borrowed his brilliance to embody their fictional heroes. Doyles' Sherlock Holmes character is much based on Vidocq; so are both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in Hugo's Les Miserables. Dickens mentions Vidocq in Great Expectations; Melville cites him in Moby Dick; and Poe refers to Vidocq's methods in Murders in the Rue Morgue. And there are more beyond these.

Crowning his triumphs was Eugene Francois Vidocq's value for his fellow man. "He was a philanthropist who helped the poor and abandoned of Paris," says the Vidocq Society. "At the same time that he was pursuing the guilty, he was also freeing the innocent."

Fugitive, undercover agent, chief of detectives, private investigator, author, inventor and humanitarian all these personalities combine to produce one of the most amazing biographies of one of the most amazing men in the history of criminal pursuit.

"Just as his behavior irritated the conventional police, his personal behavior was frowned upon by the conventional people who did not have his sheer love of life," writes Philip John Stead in [Vidocq, Picaroon of Crime]. "(He preferred) the tumultuous life of danger to the contentment of security. His story is one long swashbuckling adventure as he breaks out of jails, pursues actresses, duels to the death, raids the hells of criminals and stalks the Paris night in a thousand disguises."

Such was Vidocq a rare talent, a rare man.

*****

The engravings that accompany this story are taken from one of the earliest English translations (1859) of Vidocq's Memoirs. They are by the famous Cruikshank, who is best known for his illustrations of many first publications for Charles Dickens and his Victorian contemporaries.

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