Vidocq: Convict Turned Detective Magnifique
"Youth is a continual intoxication; it is the fever of reason."
"I was born at Arras (France); my continual disguises, the flexibility of my features, and a singular power of grimacing, having cast some doubt concerning my age, it will not be superfluous to declare here, that I was brought into the world on the 23rd of July, 1775, in a house adjoining that in which Robespierre was born sixteen years before." Thus begins Eugene Francois Vidocq's Memoirs. "It was night; the rain fell, lightning flashed, the thunder rolled; and a relation, who was both midwife and fortune-teller, predicted that my career would be a stormy one."
Much of Vidocq's printed reminiscences were, by his own admission, dramatized by an unscrupulous ghostwriter to sell a book. We will get into that later, but, for now, it might be advantageous at this point to clarify that the above prediction turned out to be very accurate. Vidocq's chain of life's adventures was stormy.
The son of a solid-tempered baker and doting mother, there was little in Vidocq's genetics that perpetuated a rapscallion. Yet, little Eugene was a trouble-making child, preferring raising a fist to learning his studies. Catholic, the good nuns who tried to teach him that a peace-loving boy is a happy boy, were constantly reminded that their instructions went nowhere. Their pupil was not a bad boy, they conceded, and he was always an honest child, but he simply loved the intrigue and disposition of adventure. Schoolhouse studies bogged him down; slate board arithmetics and geographies kept him from dreaming of wilder times and less-placid places outside sleepy old medieval Arras.
Accidentally killing his fencing instructor at the age of 14, he ran away from home and an unsympathetic constabulary. He had planned to voyage to the Americas, but lost his saved money to a young actress who turned his head so far that the teenager lost all vision of common sense. Instead, he joined the Bourbon Regiment.
The company of battle-hardened ruffian soldiers would have intimidated most youngsters his age, but Vidocq found their quarrelsome attitudes his kind of company. "(Vidocq) had taken to the army," says biographer Philip John Stead in Vidocq, Picaroon of Crime. "In the first six months he fought fifteen duels with saber or epee and killed some of his opponents...He had hung about the fencing schools to good purpose when he should have been delivering bread to his father's customers."
In melees against the invading Austrians, the boy distinguished himself in his corps; he soon earned a promotion to the rank of Corporal of Grenadiers. Off the battlefield, he continued to become embroiled in duels, and when an insulting and cowardly sergeant-major refused to meet him in honor, Vidocq struck the man, a superior a hanging offense. Facing a court-martial, and quite possibly a noose, he deserted camp and made his way home to Arras.
By then, 1792, what historians would later call "the French Revolution" had begun. (It would be the first of many governmental upheavals that Vidocq would witness in his lifetime.) Citizen revolutionaries had dethroned tyrannical Louis IXV and beheaded his Marie Antoinette; gaols throughout France crammed with now-removed aristocratie waiting to share their king's fate. Non-discriminatory, the "Reign of Terror" brought both male and female gentry to the executioner's axe or the terrible instrument of decapitation named after its inventor, Joseph Guillotine.
While in Arras, Vidocq spotted three dragoons dragging a couple of frightened women prisoners to the chopping block at the Place de la Comedie. Incensed by their lack of gallantry, the boy unsheathed his cutlass and took on the trio of soldiers, slaying them while the women fled. Spectators found the duel thrilling, but not so the Citizen-Represented Courte de Inquirie who didn't approve of the 17-year-old's uninvited defense of convicted noblesse. He quickly found himself in the town gaol, awaiting the same unpalatable fate as the women he saved.
Only by the intervention of his father was young Eugene saved. Luckily, the baker was a loyal supporter of the peoples' cause and persuaded one of the leading Citizen families, the Chevaliers, to vouch for his son. Vidocq was released and, once free, he visited the patronizing Chevaliers. Befriending them, he soon enamored the daughter of the household, Louise. Unchaperoned moonlight walks through ancient Arras eventually brought the hand-clasping teens to the Chevalier stables where, on haystack, they ventured beyond handholding. Louise soon announced she was pregnant.
Vidocq considered returning to the road, but the family's sponsor, Magistrate Lebon, dampened his wandering spirit by proclaiming should he set one foot across town limits more than bread would be in his bread basket by morning. Throughout his life, Vidocq considered himself a rational creature; even now, when he was still in his rascally years, he understood common sense. He married the girl in a Catholic ceremony in Arras.
Wedded bliss it was not. First, his bride announced on wedding night that her pregnancy was a ruse. Second, the adventure-loving Vidocq was now forced to resort to the life of a grocer (his father had set him up in a store) and it peppered him to hear the drum-rolls of other men marching off to war and derring-do. That perennial stretch of road out of town lured.
Option for escape presented itself one evening when he returned from the shop earlier than usual and spied an officer of the Seventeenth Chasseurs slipping from the bedroom window, naked Louise planting a kiss on the soldier's cheek. Stepping into his home only long enough to pack, and to tell his stunned wife what he thought of her evening habits, Vidocq bid adieu to Arras and did not pause until he set foot in Brussels.
Without appropriate passport, he procured some through a forger named Labbe, and Vidocq for now took on the fictional guise of Monsieur Rousseau. He knew that the family Chevalier hunted his person and that, if he hoped to survive, a pseudonym was necessary. Under that name, he took up with a beautiful but much older Belgian baroness. When not in her arms, he rousted with the Roving Army, a self-styled group of soldiers of fortune living off the fat of the land, loving women and dueling for frolic. When the baroness proposed marriage, however, he admitted he was still married and apologized for his trickery. For his honesty, the baroness awarded him with a kiss for good luck and a farewell going-away present of fifteen hundred golden francs.
Vidocq wandered to Paris. There, in the metropole of sin, he squandered his fortune in various cafes on femmes of no scruple but benefits aplenty. His money a memory, he spent the next several months loafing about the countryside with whatever pickpocket, thief or whore crossed his path. He was arrested for various malefactions nothing serious but always managed to escape from the small village gaols where detained.
During one brief stint behind bars, in the hamlet of Lille, Vidocq committed a transgression that in the long run would change his life. He sought to aid a fellow prisoner whom he thought had received too heavy of a sentence by procuring for him, through contacts, a forged parole of release. When the document was identified as a forgery, and Vidocq's part in the deceit was discovered, Vidocq found himself facing a much more serious charge than the minor infraction for which he had been jailed (brawling). With the threat of a long sentence upon him if found guilty, Vidocq, as had been his habit, escaped from his cell.
"For a short time, he made one of a gang of smugglers at Ostend, but soon he was arrested for being without papers," reports author Stead. "(Escaping again) he joined a theatrical troupe as a mime, but the clown became jealous and denounced him. This time they imprisoned him at Douai, center of the judicial system of the North...and once again he got away."
While concealed in Sainte-Omer, the fugitive learned that a certain jailkeep had been wrongly accused of having helped him make his last escape. Remindful of Victor Hugo's honorable Jean Valjean, Vidocq returned to Douai to surrender himself in order to save the guard from unjust punishment. He explained to the authorities that the jailer had nothing to do with his flight, but that he himself had thrown a guard's tunic over his shoulders and simply walked out the front door. The officials were unamused by the prank. Braced in chains, Vidocq rolled off for eight years of hard labor, first to the solemn penitentiary at Bicetre, outside Paris, thence to the galleys of the dreaded naval prison of Brest.
"Working the galleys", Stead explains, meant "performing the convict labor on the wharves, at the pumps, in the workshops. (Brest) was a modern Inferno (where) long files of men in red blouses, trousers and sabots, with shaven heads and sunken eyes, (toiled) to the eternal metallic chatter of irons, under heavy guard." Cells sweltered, homosexuality raged, and guards brutalized.
But, Vidocq managed to bribe one sentry for a suit of sailors' clothes, which he promptly donned. Eight days after he arrived at Brest, Vidocq ambled from detail, past Warden Lachique (whom he asked for a match to light his pipe) and through the gates of the prison into the avenues of town.
He was realizing, one event at a time, his own ability to disguise himself, an attribute to serve him well for decades to come. In fact, after separating himself from Douai, Vidocq roved from post town to post town, in each one adopting another disguise. In Memoirs, he recalls spending several days in a convent dressed as a nun. He was still a pretty-faced boy, says he, and was able to hide his broadening shoulders under the loose robes of a holy sister.
By 1798, Vidocq had grown to medium height and his once-skinny frame had squared off. A pair of blue eyes under light brows had changed from question marks to exclamation points and, according to those who had encountered him, they kept ever busy memorizing details around him that less observant folks would overlook.
Wanted by French law, he repaired to Holland. After being nearly shanghaied on a Dutch schooner, he sought the comfort of his own people after all and enlisted on the privateering vessel Barras, captained by the notorious Fromentin. All winter, the corsair pirated English ships in the Atlantic, hoarding booty for the wealth of France. Vidocq planned to disembark at Ostend at voyage end, from where he would make his way inland. But, at the descent of the gangplank he found authorities waiting for him with steel bracelets. This time they took him to Toulon Prison, the disciplinarian for hardened criminals.
Toulon was a hellhole. Vidocq was a master of escape and the warden knew it. Therefore, he was not permitted outside of his cell; he remained locked up, double-ironed, flogged daily and spat upon like a dog by humiliating guards. The sparse food he was given molded, but it was not as rotten as he was fast becoming. Around him lay other hardship cases that lay in the dark succumbing to dampness, disease, despair. Hope for them had vanished, trickled away, melted in foul heat.
"Never had Vidocq felt so miserable as at Toulon, where he found himself, at twenty-four years of age, in constant contact with the most hardened criminals," states E.A. Brayley Hodgetts in Vidocq: A Master of Crime. "He would have infinitely preferred to be reduced to live with plague-stricken people. He dreaded the contagion of this association with men whose minds were so hopelessly perverted, and all his thoughts were bent on means of escape. Various plans passed through his mind, but no favorable opportunity for carrying them out presented itself. Patience was the only remedy."
Vidocq remained resilient. And he ingratiated himself with a fellow named Jossas, a grand thief from Paris who, because he was a very rich man, bartered with the guards for better food and overall better treatment than that afforded other prisoners. Jossas, in fact, pretty much ruled his cellblock and the posterns that watched over it. What he wanted, he got: such as a manacle key so that his friend Vidocq (who he said shouldn't be in prison to begin with) could simply walk away some dark night. When the gift was presented, its recipient undid his braces, slipped out his cell window, fell in with a large company of passing sailors just off one of Napoleon's frigates and followed the motley mob to freedom. Under the green Toulon moon, Vidocq hiked out of the city.
During the first year of the new century, Vidocq spent his time living in his home town of Arras, staying with his mother and venturing outdoors only in disguise. About 1801, he took up with, of all people, the daughter of a town [gendarme] who lived alone in her own home and ran a textile shop staffed by indentured Austrian prisoners of war. Vidocq posed as one of the Austrians and worked as her butler by day her lover at night.
Again the police drew upon him. He fled, along with his lady, to Rouen where together they set up new quarters. The elder Monsieur Vidocq had passed away and the son invited his mother to live with him and his friend. Two years passed happily uneventful until the local constables once again grew interested in the Austrian's background. Alone this time, he scooted for Boulogne and, in a twinkling, found himself back on the deck of a privateering ship sailing the seas for Napoleon. More than once he proved shrink-proof in the face of enemy English cannonading; one night he bravely extinguished a random fire in the powder magazine moments before it would have blown him and the entire crew to Hades. Acts like these impressed his captain, Paulet. Vidocq may have spent his career in the service had it not been for one of the men, a former inmate at Brest, who recognized him and informed the naval police when they docked back at Boulogne.
The case of the versatile and ever-elusive Eugene Francois Vidocq caught the ears of one Monsieur Ranson, Procurator-General. After reading the file on the recently reinstated prisoner (Vidocq was currently serving the remainder of his eight-year sentence at Douai), it became apparent to the magistrate that that fellow locked in prison had tried time and again to live a respectful life between his sporadic incarcerations. Ranson urged Vidocq to appeal to the Minister of Law for re-trial.
The prisoner was delighted, but months passed without a word from the Depot de Justice. The only news he received from the outside world came from the long-forgotten Louise Chevalier, who was divorcing him through proxy. Five months passed and Vidocq decided that his patience had drawn thin this had been his longest stretch behind bars and one twilight he leaped out the mess hall window to the river below.
The same as before: Vidocq lived an impeccable and honest life (this time as a merchant), in a tiny village (this time Faubourg Sainte-Denis) with his mother and a mistress (this time a dark beauty named Annette). Underneath their feet, the dust hadn't settled long before they were on the lam again, dodging prying policemen and turncoats seeking reward. By 1809, Vidocq had had enough of running. He had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor a very short part of it having actually been served more than a decade earlier. He was about to turn age 34 and had accomplished nothing lasting in all those years. It was his turn to live.
On a cool Paris May evening of 1809, the Head of the Criminal Department at the Prefecture agreed to see a man who, his clerk said, had been waiting patiently for some time in the antechamber. Monsieur Henry's eyebrows pushed his forehead upward when, without ado, the nice-looking, squarish man sauntered into his office proclaiming, "Monsieur Inspector, I want to be an honest man; perhaps you can help me. I am Vidocq."
Vidocq knew the criminals, he knew their whereabouts, and he knew where the most wanted thieves, smugglers and killers lurked and where they could be picked up. In his travels from the law, crouching among the scoundrels out of sunlight in their hideaways, listening to them talk their talk beside them in a prison cell, he could tell more about them than any investigator in Paris, nay, in France nay, in the world. He could deliver to the Prefecture names and addresses and anything else the authorities wanted to know. He could conger up confessions and a dozen witnesses to hang these villains twice over. Best of all, he could continue catching criminals better than any officer at the Prefecture oui, including Monsieur Henry, Head of the Criminal Department! He could do all this and much more. If only Monsieur Henry would let him.
Vidocq wanted a job. He wanted amnesty from his sentence to prove he was an honest man.
Henry was very interested. The man's audacity was refreshing. And his idea quite practical. But Henry could not say yes to Vidocq overnight. After all, he reminded the speaker that he was still a convicted criminal himself. "Finish your sentence and I promise to discuss your offer with you when you are paroled man having paid his debt to society."
"But, I can do society better now," Vidocq urged.
But, Henry was a stickler for the law. He beseeched Vidocq to do the honorable thing and return to prison.
"I will surrender myself here and now in your office on one condition."
"And that is...?" asked the inspector.
"If I escape from your gendarmes on the way to prison and come back here to your office instead of going on the lam, will that not prove I am in earnest? Will that action not escalate the value and the urgency of my offer?"
"I believe it would," Henry answered. "It would definitely prove to me you are an honest individual. But " he shrugged, somberly, "there is no way my men will let you out of their sight. You will have to be a magician to escape them."
Vidocq nodded and went away with his captors quietly.
A few hours later he walked into Monsieur Henry's office. "Your men they seemed to have misplaced me."