Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Vidocq: Convict Turned Detective Magnifique

Office of the Sureté

"Do your duty, and leave the rest to the gods."

Pierre Corneille

At the time of Vidocq's ingress to government service, 1809, the police force, or Prefecture, in Paris was comprised of two divisions: the First Division, or the Administrative Branch, and the Second Division, or Special Investigative Branch. The latter, managed by Monsieur Henry, was the unit to which Vidocq belonged; it concerned itself with the overall battling of crime. Overseeing both sectors was a Prefect (Chief of Police), Baron de Pasquier, housed on the Rue de Jerusalem. It was a very military system in a decade of austere empirical rule that began wit the ascendancy of Napoleon in December, 1804.

To monitor criminal activity, the city was divided into geographic sectors, each under the jurisdiction of a commisaire (commissioner). Allotted throughout were officers de paix (police captains); there was generally at least one such officer on duty in each district 24 hours a day.

As tidy and compact as it sounds, there were difficulties. One was borne from overpopulation. Paris had become the hub of Europe and its allure as a city on the move had drawn thousands from across the continent; strangers roamed the streets; many of them had come for employment, others just to play; unfortunately, often this meant foul play.

Simultaneously, Napoleon's military campaigns had drained France of many of its able-bodied young men who ordinarily would have made excellent gendarmes; Paris, as well as other cities in the country, found their law-keeping forces markedly understaffed while crime rose.

Then there were the turf wars in Paris. The parochial delineation in the city forbade gendarmes to pursue criminals across district borders without consent of the commissaire, who rarely gave it, regarding his territory as singular. More often than not, the latter concerned himself with crimes committed within his own allotted area and had no time to worry about miscreants passing through as long as they did not offend any laws within his district. Wrongdoer remained untouched. That said, a thief knew that in order to escape punishment all he had to do was rob a market in Chaillot and step into a safeway house in Montmartre. Escape was as easy, then, as crossing one of many bridges over the River Seine.

Vidocq, witnessing the results of these calamities, stepped forward with what Monsieur Henry and Baron de Pasquier considered a magnificent solution: creation of a new, small, plainclothes undercover unit to keep strict surveillance over all ex-convicts and known criminals living in and migrating into the city; to pursue all lawbreakers and make arrests; and to prevent criminal activity before it occurred. This Brigade de SuretÚ (Brigade of Security) would not be confined district to district, he recommended, but have free rein across the entire CitÚ de Paris. Criminals, unable to hopscotch, would be forced out in the open more prevalently.

The two men in charge, the baron and Monsieur Henry, applauded Vidocq's ingenuity and observed it as a plan long overdue and one worthy of the man who had proved to be their most clever and industrious spy. Baron de Pasquier allocated funds for the new service, which would be under the auspices of Monsieur Henry, and allowed Vidocq four men to begin with (the number eventually rose to twelve) and a suite of offices at Number 6, Quai de Orfevre, near the Prefect.

The SuretÚ was born. This dream of Vidocq's would, over the years, grow to become the SuretÚ Nacionale. But, even in Vidocq's days, it reached a status as professional as Scotland Yard in London or as the FBI a century later in America.

Vidocq required agents who knew Paris and, more than that, who knew what doors to peek into, what alleys to look down, and had cat's eyes to see in the dark. It is fact, then, that his first agents were all former criminals, the only men he considered tough enough and verbally street-wise to handle the dangerous job he had in store for them. Laying the foundation for something he hoped would blossom required action and results. Translated: penetrating the abyss.

The only way to accomplish that, Vidocq ascertained, was to first captivate the trust of the underworld. And only those who had been there once could pull it off. No one was that great of an actor. His men would be called upon to move in among the rogues, become one of them in concept, and maintain the masquerade so that the murderous lowlife would never catch on. For, if they smelled an informer, they would happily roast him over hot coals when the time came.

Overtaking a thief (Engraving by Cruikshank)
Overtaking a thief (Engraving
by Cruikshank)

With the aid of these men "Vidocq caught a tremendous amount of criminals in a critical period in the history of Paris," relates the book, Vidocq, Picaroon of Crime. "And it was in his nature to employ them, for he genuinely believed (and the belief was still revolutionary in his time) that the ex-convict, if he were helped, could be a useful member of society...The memory of his own struggle predisposed him in favor of the unlucky."

Years later, Vidocq wrote of some of his police peers' skepticism over his hiring of ex-criminals, and defended his choice: "I preferred men whose record had given them a little celebrity. Well! I often gave these men the most delicate missions. They had considerable sums to deliver to the police or the prison offices; they took part in operations in which they could have easily laid hands on large amounts (of money), and not one of them, not a single one, betrayed my trust."

Yet, there was dissention from the units in the Prefecture. District commissioners and the officers de paix did not approve of undercover agents working their areas yes, and ex-convicts at that! The official departments began referring to the SuretÚ as "Vidocq's Gang," and scoffed at the idea that a runaway convict who had never been formally pardoned, was treated with the same respect if not more by the Prefect.

Quite frankly, much of the resentment was based on jealousy, for Vidocq and his men were able to accomplish in a short time what the city police had been unable to do for years. The number of arrests and convictions, due in large part to Vidocq's intervention, skyrocketed since he was given tenure.

Take for instance the raid on the saloon, Desnoyer's. It had long been known as one of the principle watering holes for the crooks, bashers, thieves, muggers, rollers and illegitimates of Paris. At any given time, the number of wastrels gathered there resembled an army, an ugly, mean army. When one of the elder officers de paix, Monsieur Yvnier, was told that he should lend some gendarmes to Vidocq who was just about to raid the tavern, Yvnier replied, "To raid the place would require a battalion! Vidocq will fail!"

But, Vidocq took with him only two of his own men, four of Yvnier's policemen, a piece of chalk, a sack of handcuffs and a warrant. And he stepped into Desnoyer's to survey the usual night revelry he had seen it often, and the place hadn't changed an iota drunken whores in low-cut blouses hanging on drunken thugs in caps with brims yanked low, dice players swearing their bad luck or blaming a fellow player for cheating, confidence men hovered over their tables trading anecdotes, ruffians of a varied sort arm wrestling, dart throwing, spitting, growling, drooling, drinking. In the corner a squeezebox heaved a song and a canary warbled a ditty to which no one listened. The place smelled of stale beer, rancid whiskey, opium, must, dust and urine.

Those who spotted Vidocq cross the threshold were about to shout a greeting of "Where the hell ya' been?" when they stopped short at the site of those other men behind him, some with leather gendarme capes tossed back over their shoulders.

"Vidocq ordered the musicians to stop playing and the couples to clear off the dance floor," Philip John Stead pens in Vidocq, Picaroon of Crime. "There was some grim murmuring as the crowd surged away from him. When there was an uneasy movement towards the door, he knew there would be no trouble. He thrust through the crowd and placed himself there. Then he ordered the men to pass out into the street in single file. As they went by he scrutinized their faces. When he saw a man he wanted, he made a cross on his back with the chalk (indicating to the gendarmes whom to detain)...Vidocq took thirty-eight men to the depot-prison that night."

It was a rousing victory for Vidocq who clearly showed how much he could accomplish with so very few men and the right men. But, blustering in the face of the established police force would create a rivalry that would develop into a bitter feud whose repercussions to come would be near-fatal for the creator of the SuretÚ.

For now, however, there was honor, and drama. After that evening, Vidocq knew that word of his being would blast like an icy wind throughout the underworld. In fact, in case anyone did not know who he was or had doubts about who had ordered such a nervy raid, he ended the incursion by telling those he left behind at Desnoyer's, "I am Vidocq! Remember me!"

He ordered the word spread. And that is why he self-elected to visit the prison at Bicetre. The time he had served there under different circumstances had given him a valuable lesson: that Bicetre was one of the prisons that bred, more than reformed, the animal in human nature, and its convicts cane out tiger-sharp and salivating hungry. Most of them headed straight to Paris upon their parole to lever their prospects, this time more experienced.

He had the warden assemble the worst of them, hundreds strong, in the courtyard so he could study their visages, one at a time, and remember them when they dared come to Paris. Because the word had gone out ahead of time that they were to be examined by Vidocq the police spy, there was general wailing and gnashing so that by the time Vidocq appeared the corps of prisoners were Hottentots. Nonetheless, Vidocq strolled amid them, refusing to recoil from their glares and grimaces. He recognized many of them whose paths he had previously crossed. No one said a thing; only the wind whispered through the yard; but he knew and they knew that he had recorded each of their faces, every line, every mole and knife scar, and would be on them forthwith should they meet again in Paris.


The history of 17th- and 18th-Century France is slammed with political change. The country leaped from one form of government to another in an effort to find itself a way of life that suited its nature, a blend of fire and romance. Vidocq's earliest years survived the Reign of Terror, which saw an end to a monarchy and the beginning of a peoples' republic. While Vidocq was still on the run from the law, a young lieutenant named Napoleon Bonaparte had wiggled his way into the ruling body created by the revolution and, backed by bayonets, crowned himself emperor in 1804 in a spectacular coronation at Notre Dame Cathedral. Napoleon had big dreams, to give the world to France on a platter. As part of his ambition, he simultaneously named Paris la capitale of his dynasty. The period of his reign (1804-1815) is considered France's most glorious moment.

Reads Michelin Company's excellent guidebook to Paris: "The Louvre Palace was altered; the Arc de Triomphe de Corrousel erected; new bridges (Austerlitz, IlÚna, and the smaller Pasterelle des Arts) were built across the Seine...and the Ourcq and Sainte-Martin canals were dug. The spoils of war increased the artistic treasures of the Louvre. Roads were built, and everywhere monuments were raised to himself and his armies..."

The Arc de Triomphe today (Richard Glover)
The Arc de Triomphe today (Richard Glover)

But, in 1814, Paris' gaiety was shaken when Napoleon's once-unbeatable forces floundered at Waterloo. Long-time foes Britain and Austria pounded French borders and by the following April the city of Paris was overtaken. Louis XVIII was crowned king and Napoleon was exiled to the Isle of Elba. Thus began the period later termed the Restoration (due more to the transitory nature of the government than the municipal changes the king made within the city), and in effecting a "restoration," Paris once again found itself in the type of upheaval that is genetic with the collapse of an Empire. Paris' streets screamed with disorder and shouts of enfranchisement.

The official police had their hands full trying to calm the general chaos. Vidocq's SuretÚ worked around the clock to not only squelch the thieves and killers who took advantage of the dark situation, but also to stamp out any insidious movements by rebels who sought to add panic on top of panic by creating a provisional form of government while King Louis' monarchial slippers were still wet.

Throughout, it had been and would continue to be part of Vidocq's nature to roll with the reshaping of conservative government. While he devoted his time to battling civil outlawry, he, being a man who loved his country, always found time to assist the government whatever form it took to crush the peoples who considered radical turnabouts that might destroy France forever. These he rubbed out with a heavy heel.

It was Vidocq's earnest belief that man was basically a creature of God, and was Good; he did not disfavor any caste over another, nor did he openly prefer one religion or race. There were lawbreakers and those who abided the law. But, he hated the hypocrisie that came as a result of the Restoration when, in the wake of a more social awareness it became fashionable once again to be aristocratic, so many of the lower echelon artificially claim themselves members of a gentryship. It had been twenty years since the Reign of Terror had sent the families of nobility racing for their lives out of France; now with the monarchy restored, many sons and daughters of patricians returned to reclaim their rightful etch in the Parisian community. With the blue-blood lineage separated from the city for two decades, it was easy for an astute swindler and forger to claim himself an heir to such and such an estate or, if naught else, to the polite favors due the suffering rich.

One afternoon, Vidocq noticed an older man in noble attire and medallions emerge from a doorway of the Pavillion de Flore. Something did not match up, for this gentleman of ruffles and silks and gold-knobbed cane was also wearing the face of a ruffian he had known from prison named Chambreiul; Chambreiul was supposed to be serving a long sentence for stealing bank-notes

The SuretÚ investigated. It learned that this fellow had recently come to Paris bearing papers that linked him to noblesse oblige. Charming society (including the Minister of France), he won the envious appointment of Chief of Palace Police!

Vidocq and another agent appeared at the palace and, to the horror of the home office and the embarrassment of the Paris police arrested Chambreiul on the spot.

"Audacity!" challenged the man in cuffs to his detainer. "I will have your head for this error!"

Monsieur Henry ordered a search of Chambreiul's residence and uncovered documents directly linking him to the forger who had escaped prison. The Marquis de Chambreiul was no more. Paris laughed. The Minister groped for an explanation. The police fumed; Vidocq, that ex-convict who they said would take Paris for everything he could get his hands on, was instead giving Paris something it needed but never quite manifest: a belief in: law enforcement.

The people loved Vidocq; he was a hero to little boys and a heartthrob to their mothers; women adored him and when he passed in his carriage down the scented byways of Paris, wrapped in his blue cloak and high collar, they edged to the curbs to catch a glimpse of his rugged, handsome face. Citizens called him the Sultan, for he had at his finger-click the attention of a city that treated him with le majestÚ and doted on him, their warrior triumphant.

"Vidocq was a household word in Paris," exclaims Philip John Stead. "It was the little people of the capital who spoke of him most the concierges in their leather aprons, the small shopkeepers of the quarter, the regulars in the bistro, the porters, the cabmen, the laborers. For them he became the police hero, the first police hero the world had ever had. The thieves cowered in their dens as the powerful silhouette, caped coat and square hat, elegant boots and riding crop, was flung on the blind."

As head of the already-fabled SuretÚ, and still in his forties, Vidocq had instituted remarkable and novel crime-fighting procedures, including the study of murder weapons, the use of plaster of paris casts to trace boot sizes, and a card-indexing system identifying every known wastrel in Paris by his or her crimes and vital statistics. By 1817, his security organization had grown to a dozen men, each chosen personally by their chief. In that year alone, Vidocq's SuretÚ garnered 811 arrests among them, 349 thieves, 46 forgers, 43 parole breakers, 38 fences of stolen property, 15 assassins and 14 escaped prisoners. Two hundred and twenty nine of those apprehended were banished from Paris.

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