Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Vidocq: Convict Turned Detective Magnifique

Police Spy

"Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind."

Louis Pasteur

Vidocq returned to prison, but this time as an informant. As far as his cellmates were concerned, he was just one of many like them whose luck had run out but in the eyes of French law, he was an employee of the Prefecture de Police in Paris. His pay at first was not monetary, but a verbal contract for full exoneration should he perform his duties well. The bargain was initially a probation, or, better, a compromise. If the magistrate didn't think Vidocq was fulfilling his part of the bargain, the contract would be voided and Vidocq would regress to being just another number, literally.

Monsieur Henry installed him at La Force Prison in the Marais district of Paris in mid-1809 and vanguarded the rumor among the institution that the tricky Vidocq had finally been apprehended on a capital charge. By then, the master's reputation as an escape artist had preceded him and the convicts welcomed with open arms this colorful character that had made a sham of so many French gaols.

"Vidocq gave his employers no cause for dissatisfaction," asserts biographer Philip John Stead. "His genius for playing a part...made him an ideal secret agent. Whole gangs of escaped convicts were recaptured through the information he sent to Henry. Annette (his amour) came to visit him in prison and carried messages for him, even undertaking investigations outside the walls. When Henry wanted to see him...an order went from the Head of the Division to Monsieur Parisot, departmental head of the prison service, instructing Vidocq to be brought from La Force as if to go before the Examining Magistrate, thus avoiding suspicion on the part of the prisoners. It was dangerous work. A careless word from a police agent, an injudicious question on the part of Vidocq himself, and next morning the wardens would find another victim of criminal justice lying in the courtyard or battered to death in his cell."

After twenty months of the same, Monsieur Henry and his superior, the Prefect Baron de Pasquier, collaborated to have Vidocq "escape" La Forte so that he could serve them better beyond prison walls. Paris was engaged in crime and the force needed a man of Vidocq's knowledge and cunning to roam the streets, blending in with the denizens of the lower quarters, learning their ways, their safe houses and their plans. In March, 1811, inmates at La Force were overjoyed to hear that Vidocq once again shamed the administration by disappearing from their midst into thin air.

As he had done so often in the past, Vidocq took up private residence with his mother and current mistress (the raven-haired Annette), and he changed his name for the interim, to Monsieur Jean Luise. Of course, the criminal element knew by sight he was Vidocq; that was as it should be and was meant to be; for the face that had defied and buffooned the authorities for years was his ticket to their company. The police played along. From time to time, for show, they harassed the louts on the fringe of their society for the whereabouts of Vidocq; of course, these gadabouts never suspected a thing.

*****

Paris was a city in conflict. It stretched on miles forever away from both banks of the River Seine, too large for a police force that was not only too small to cover it, but too conservative to comprehend its diversity. Its personality was defiant of description and limitless of labeling, and it wore as many faces as the multitude of expressions on the faces of the gargoyles limp roundabout the eaves of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Paris lay vivid in its own confusion, vibrant in its tumultuousness, and delightful in its immorality. It was jabberwocky, it was contradiction. Velvet-coated primps matched well with the soot-cheeked trollops and well-raised porcelain angels with the grizzled jack knives in berets too tight and trousers even tighter. Sun white parasols twirled gaily in the gloom of streets too narrow and the dimmer the oil light in the salon the more colorful it became. Saints and sinners professed their creeds and compromise seemed inevitable.

On canvas, Paris was a jumble-splash of things, really. Ancient belfries and winding walks, and half-tired steeple clocks and tiled roofs that sank so low they seemed to languish to the pavements; and shaky muffin carts on worn wheels, and crooked fences with crooked gates, and ornate wrought iron lamp-posts and shingles so weathered the mercantiler's name had long worn away; and marshy lowland that melted into canals and high stone steps that led to Montmartre heights; and carved storefronts with glistening glass and beveled door-frames round lop-sided doorways; and over-painted delivery wagons and spitting fountains chiseled into cherubim; and brass and silver and woolens and satins and gingham; and hemp and ribbons; and capes and top hats and heels raised and neck lines lowered and women who smoked cigarillos and men who wore roses in their lapels.

By sound, the river barges honked and the street-callers sang and the children giggled and cabriolets clattered. If every face in Paris several times a day twisted unglamorously it was because the lips formed eccentric shapes to mouth the rolling accents and tongue clicks of the language as only they, by birth, could do so well.

Paris was Beauty, and Paris was Beast. And it frolicked, no matter how it looked, sometimes a little too roughly; sometimes the games were dangerous, especially if the checkmate was a sack of gold. But, it was a city designed for tough playtimes, with too many doorways to watch, too many alleys to patrol and too many hours of darkness, even in daylight, to observe.

At night, Vidocq would slip from his home, Number14 Rue Nueve-Sainte-Francois in Marais, and visit the gaming dens, brothels and saloons in such places as the La Courtille on the east barriere of the city. At either Desnoyer's, La Guillotin, Boucher's or Mere Bariolet's, his cap arched low over one eye, he shared the cheap gin and the cheap women; here he brawled and cursed with the best of them.

In his Memoirs, Vidocq recites: "In so populous a capital as that of Paris, there are usually a vast many places of bad resort, at which assembled persons of broken fortune and ruined fame; in order to judge of them under my own eye, I frequented every house and street of ill fame...till the rogues and thieves whom I daily met there firmly believed me to be one of themselves...Not only had I acquired their fullest confidence, but their strongest regard."

Quite often, Vidocq would leave the place laughing with tales of his escapes from prisons Douai or Toulon. For effect, he would growl out the name of some member in authority who he swore to kill one day a warden, a policeman or a judge who had made the life of Eugene Francois Vidocq so miserable.

But, most of all, he listened. One ear always remained cupped on schemes being perpetrated at the table behind him or to rumors whispered stool to stool at, say, Desnoyer's worm-eaten bar. Of course, he could never allow himself to be seen in a compromising posture of eavesdropping, so if a group of men seemed to be huddled in a mischievous tableaux in a suspicious corner of the room, Vidocq improvised. Feigning intoxication, he would waver towards them as if on his way to the bar then drop in a swoon at a nearby table, seemingly out cold. Or he would lift his mug in merry song and canter from crowd to crowd until he reached the busy bees in the corner where between his own naughty verses captured fragments of their buzzing until he deciphered the whole hum of the hive.

Much of the information he garnered was not the result of eavesdropping, however. Most of it, for that matter, came naturally and with the scene. Ingratiating himself with the underworld of Paris as he had done opened doors to learning about thieves' latest plunders, escapees' latest whereabouts, and murderers' latest victims. The swindlers and killers and con men and fences talked freely amidst their own fraternity without culpability; Vidocq was one of them he had proven that and under the swirl of ugly cheroot smoke tongues wagged, wagged, wagged while Vidocq's brain recorded it all indelibly.

Vidocq did not see himself as a traitor to his own, for he never saw himself as an outlaw only a man driven to the outer limits of outlawry by a universe of sins that labeled a hot-headed, wild young boy named Eugene an outlaw. He could have been bitter and betrayed his own sense of honor to shun a world that had wronged him. But, rather, he had decided to help that world clean up its mess and better define the line between sheer criminality and human mistakes. Betraying humanity, he would say, was one thing; eradicating those who preyed on humanity was another. Of his own admission, he never turned in a man or woman who he felt had been driven to stealing a loaf of bread because he was hungry or picking a pocket of a half-dozen francs because his children needed medicine.

Vidocq's principal functions were, according to his Memoirs, "To prevent crimes, discover malefactors, and to give them up to justice."

The hunter went after the big game: Watrin, a forger of bank notes who had eluded the gendarmes for years; Saint-Germain and Boudin, a pair of knife-wielding thieves; and even a police informer named Hotot who, while being paid for his espionage by the police, actually ran stolen merchandise.

Disguised Vidocq (Engraving by Cruikshank)
Disguised Vidocq (Engraving
by Cruikshank)

After a year of playing himself on the lam, Vidocq began masquerading as other people, caricatures achieved by an innate acting ability and some creative and well-donned disguises. Certain criminal types in the city, noticing the sudden rise of arrests of their own over the last year, were beginning to get suspicious; feelers had gone out to catch a spy. Vidocq, cognizant of this fact, slowly evaporated his familiar self from the nighttime scenario to replace himself by a cast of characters of his own imagination. Each was crustier than the other and in search of underworld belonging. He played pirates with black-patched eyes, runaway convicts under a month's chin growth, aged thieves behind gray side whiskers, pickpockets with a limp and a cane and a ragged frock, even persons displaced from their homeland a scar-faced German swordsman wanted by the Berlin police for killing two men in a duel, the dark, Sicilian Gypsy who had killed a wife in Castelvetrano, the British barrister, complete with spectacles, wanted for cutting the throat of a rival attorney in London. With dialects and colloquialism to accompany each caricature, Vidocq carried every animation with aplomb.

"(Vidocq) loved acting, and he was a great actor, without footlights," Stead tells us. "It was more necessary for the detective of his day than ours to master disguise; the distance between the classes was more marked. Clothing and manner immediately distinguished people's walk of life. With Vidocq, it was more than acting and costume, too; he could even contort his body and make himself another man."

In time, Vidocq as the rag-tags knew him, faded entirely from the Parisian coves of infamy.

He had not realized the value in his changing of courses until one amusing and very enlightening incident occurred in early 1812. The Prefect had put him on a special mission to track down a gang of robbers that had been hitting homes across the Faubourg-Sainte-Germain district. Vidocq, while enacting one of his various roles, learned that its leader was a man named Guevive, a former fencing master gone bad. This Guevive could usually be found haunting the low-beamed establishment Boucher's with his lieutenant, a sneak thief named Joubert. Engaging the seedy duo in dialogue one spring night, Vidocq convinced the pair that he was a smuggler named Jules in bad straits, but reliable, who would like to join them in their next operation.

His timing was inveterate, for Guevive confessed that his filchers were assembling that very evening on Rue Cassette to rob one of the mansions along the boulevard but. Guevive told him, "You're a well-muscled brute, and I'd prefer you to help me perform [another] job instead tonight."

"Anything, m'nsieur!" Vidocq exclaimed.

Guevive nodded. "Have you ever heard of a scoundrel called Vidocq?"

It took total verve for the other not to show surprise. "Vidocq? Vidocq? No, I don't think so," answered the smuggler Jules. "It is not familiar to me, that name."

"Well, nevermind who he is, you and I are going to kill him tonight."

"Kill him?" Vidocq chuckled. "Shouldn't I know who he is that I should have to kill him?"

"Well," Guevive sighed after a pause, "many of us think he is an informant to the gendarmes."

"Sacre bleu!" Vidocq crossed himself dramatically. "Lowest of the low!"

"Then you will help me?"

"Oui, m'nsieur, count me in!" Vidocq slapped the tabletop. Their mugs rattled. "Where do we find this...er, serpentin?"

"Number14 Rue Nueve-Sainte-Francois," Guevive responded. "Meet me outside his home at midnight. We will wait for him to come in or go out. After the scum is thrashed, you and I will meet Joubert and my men at my warehouse on Rue Sainte-Jacques where we, yourself included, will split the gains from the evening's heist."

Vidocq winked. Grinning. And he wondered how the hell they had gotten his address.

After notifying the constabulary of the planned robbery at Rue Cassette, Vidocq rushed back to his own street where he found Guevive sulking in its shadows; there he spent until dawn waiting for himself to appear on the walk. After a while, the gang leader tired of the hunt and postponed the murder for another night.

 "Vidocq decided that it should be postponed longer than Guevive expected," author Stead muses. The two men returned to the Rue Sainte-Jacques to convene with the housebreakers. Continues Stead: "Before they even had time to set out the plunder on the table, the police were in the room. Vidocq had got under the bed at the first alarm and, when the room had been 'searched' and the police had departed with their prisoners and the booty, he scrambled out to find himself alone with Joubert's mistress. She was delighted. Now she could spend the night with him!"

She must not have been a great beauty, hints the author, for Vidocq excused himself and went home.

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