Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Vidocq: Convict Turned Detective Magnifique

A Private Detective's Adventures

"For want of a nail the shoe is lost, for want of a shoe the horse is lost, for want of a horse the rider is lost."

George Herbert

Vidocq was restless. But, as in a man of his fiber, where drive is essential, genius is usually the result. In 1832, at 58 years old, not long after retiring from the Sureté, he created one more benchmark to become a role model of his industry. He opened the world's first formal private detective agency.

Freelance private investigation a client-dedicated operation of crime solution without the bureaucratic quagmire had never been heard of until Vidocq created the occupation. As he had done with the creation of the Sureté, he again brought a new challenge to criminals and a new advantage to law abiders; his was a system of law enforcement that Allan J. Pinkerton was to emulate twenty years later in Chicago.

In advertising his business, he wrote, not humbly but concisely, "For a long time, I have been maturing the project which I now put before the public, and which, it may be, I alone can successfully undertake and realize."

Vidocq's shingle and business cards read, "Le Bureau de Renseignements," or "Office of Intelligence". The cases Vidocq took were of a particular concentration, aimed at eradicating Paris of financial cheats and sycophants who craftily took advantage of individuals and business during what Philip John Stead calls "the money-mad, mercantile city of (King) Louis Phillipe (in) that great age of capitalism."

The writer Stead goes on: "Vidocq could isolate and attack a kind of criminal which had grown with the economic change itself. This time the hunt was up for the parasites that preyed on commerce, the swindlers and the confidence men, the apparently easy and leisured individuals who lived on perpetual and never-to-be liquidated credit. All those dandies with...smart apartments in the Chaussée d'Antin, the tilbury with the English horses, clothes by Chevreuil, gloves by Walker, hats from Bandoni, boots by Concanon, cane by Thomassin, cigar case by Giroux! Some of the big men even turned banker (who) cleaned up fast by getting false drafts honored by other banks. When things got too hot, the whole establishment moved elsewhere and opened under another name."

Using the same it-takes-a-thief-to-know-one principle, as had been the foundation of his Sureté, Vidocq hired as his agents many reformed swindlers. These men knew the perpetrators, the schemes, the plays, and the circuit.

In less than two years, the agency had, to its credit, rounded up a small army of charlatans who would have otherwise continued to gyp and embezzle banks, law offices, shipping firms and other establishments that had had the sense to hire Vidocq. At one period, appraisers estimated that Vidocq's Bureau de Renseignements had recovered 60,000 francs in stolen property from eleven assorted clients.

Vidocq in about 1841 (Bilbiotheque Nacionale, Paris)
Vidocq in about 1841
(Bilbiotheque Nacionale, Paris)

As the business grew, Vidocq's staff rose to a personnel of twenty men and he began taking general theft cases now, also, which brought in a vast number of new clients. From time to time, agents took on impromptu cases, such as finding missing persons. Some of these were rather out of the ordinary. Take the young woman who had vanished from home to hide out, where Vidocq traced her down, in the Convent of Sainte-Michele. She had left her lover and children when she felt she was becoming too materialistic; confused and feeling guilty, she sought coventry from the superficiality of the world. After some coaxing, Vidocq convinced her to return to the people who cared for her and to take each day at a time.

The agency moved twice from 1834 to 1836, each time to a more fashionable area, from the original location on the Rue Cloche-Perce to the Rue Pont Louis-Philippe, overlooking the Seine, thence to the busy Rue Nueve-Sainte-Eustache. In 1838, he opened his doors onto the busiest commercial area in Paris, Galerie Vivienne.

The Galerie, relates Stead, "outdid the Palais-Royal in terms of elegance and popularity. It was the smartest center in Paris, and the world of fashion patronized its modistes and couturiéres, perfumers and confectioners; their fine new glass fronts shone before exquisite and imaginative displays."

Daybreak through the door of Number 13, which cut ominously into the façade of the Galerie, the figure of Vidocq could be seen entering every day; up a tight flight of stairs, past its wrought iron fancies, and into the suite of chambers beyond where, the office never closing, a dozen agents were already making out reports, interviewing clients or suspects and waiting to see their master on a matter that could not wait. Much after dark, lantern light flickered through the portieres reminding passersby on the avenue below that Vidocq was catching crooks.

His old enemies at the Prefecture continued to be obsessed with Vidocq's fame. Even though they had pushed him from the Sureté, it wasn't enough; they wanted the venerable old man gone from the scene of Paris. As long as there was Vidocq arresting and indicting, they knew the people of Paris would be comparing them to him and there was no comparison. Even the brother of the current head of the Sureté, when his bank was embezzled, had gone to Vidocq not the police for recovery of the money. Now, even on his own, Vidocq was embarrassing the authorities, being viewed as the man to go to when in trouble.

The recorded history of the Champaix case, as will be related here, seems to indicate that the powers-that-be finally gathered to set him up for disaster. Although Vidocq himself claimed that it was a frame-up, history claims no proof, only surmising. But, Vidocq suddenly found himself in a wedge that nearly ruined everything he had aspired for, including his good name.

It began simply enough, this matter. In late summer, 1842, a band of tradesmen hired Vidocq to hunt down and prosecute a swindler by the name of Champaix who, under false accreditation, had borrowed trade and money from their shops before disappearing into oblivion. They wanted to be repaid and were willing to give Vidocq 45 percent of the accumulated renumeration if he could nab Champaix. The case fell into Vidocq's expertise and he quickly accepted it.

Champaix was not a notorious fellow, but a roustabout who had scored a big hit on unsuspecting business types. As he was more of an artful dodger than anything, he managed to elude even the shadow-chasing Bureau de Renseignements for some time. At last, an informant named Landier approached Vidocq and agreed to lead him to Champaix for a price. A handshake followed and the next morning, August 12, Landier ushered Vidocq and a few of his agents to the Rue de Bac on the riverfront, where indeed they caught their man, unprepared, on the boardwalk.

Back at the Bureau de Renseignements' offices, a trembling Champaix admitted his crime and tearfully agreed to turn over a savings of 2,200 francs to the cheated clients; he also signed contracts of obligation promising to return the remainder of monies owed within a reasonable span of time. Vidocq, not sensing a desperate character, didn't prosecute, but released him on his own faith, even giving the hungry man money for that night's supper. Case closed. He contacted his clients and gave them the good news.

The Conciergerie (The Travel Library)
The Conciergerie (The Travel Library)

Before the week had ended, the present Chief Inspector of the Sureté, leading a brigade of gendarmes, arrested Vidocq at the Galerie Vivienne. Charging him with false arrest, unlawful detention of a prisoner and obtaining money under false pretense, they threw him into the dreaded Conciergerie, the 14th Century castle-prison that fifty years earlier had held Marie Antoinette and so-many royalty before they were guillotined during the Reign of Terror.

Throughout the winter months, 67-year-old Vidocq lay in the rat-infested dampness of the ancient fortress, unable to hear the details of the charges set against him. He was treated no better than the worst criminal there. In fact, Vidocq feared for his life since many of the worst criminals there were men he had helped commit. He wrote his wife that he was afraid to go to the lavatory lest his throat be cut. Suffering from rheumatism, his health went untreated until his wife Fleuride, after many supplications, was permitted to visit him, briefly, and attend to him.

As Spring and his trial neared, he received right to obtain a lawyer. Through his chosen attorney the brilliant Jules Favre Vidocq at last was able to read his indictment. Champaix, the man he had treated so humanely, claimed that he was arrested under false pretense that Vidocq had claimed to be an officer of the King and that he was coerced into handing over the 2,200 francs for fear of his life.

The charges reeked of duplicité.

The Palais de Justice (Richard Glover)
The Palais de Justice (Richard Glover)

Court opened May 3, 1843, at the Palais de Justice to a packed courtroom; the public pressed to see their hero who they were sure had been unjustly accused. In court, under the watchful eye of President Monsieur Barbou, Champaix attested that when Vidocq approached him on the Rue de Bac he had ordered him to stop "in the name of the law!" It was only later, he claimed, when delivered by hansom cab to the Bureau de Renseignements that he realized he had been apprehended not by the official police but by a private detective. The swindler also testified that the agents roughly interrogated him through the night in a hot, stifling small room, threatening him with bodily harm, until he agreed to hand over his life savings.

In turn, Vidocq answered the allegations. In the first place, he denied having ever impersonated an officer of the law. When meeting Champaix on the street, his greeting had been, "Good morning, monsieur. Have you any money for your creditors?" He then introduced himself and, without pressure, asked if the man would accompany him to his headquarters to talk over the situation. Champaix agreed. At no time throughout the ride was the man held against his will and could have jumped from the conveyance had he the notion to do so.

As for his detention at the Bureau de Renseignments and his treatment there, Vidocq explained that their session was held in a very open room, adjacent to the foyer, and which opened onto a busy public terrace. This claim was supported by witnesses who saw Champaix chatting freely, looking relaxed and under no restraint whatsoever. A client of Vidocq's told of meeting Champaix on the street the day after and, when asking him what he was doing at the Bureau, Champaix confessed what had transpired, heartily complimenting Vidocq's all-too-fair treatment of him.

In summary, Champaix came to the Bureau de Renseignments fully aware that he was dealing with Vidocq the private detective, was never manhandled, and of his own concurrence arranged to deposit the 2,200 francs into Vidocq's account as a payment toward the bet he owed his victims.

Defense Attorney Jules Favre brought into court dozens of people who vouched for Vidocq's ethics, including proprietors of business who had hired him to collect large amounts of debt; his conduct and his honesty, they lauded, were both exemplary.

Favre also hinted at an official hoodwink, asserting that the police had confiscated Vidocq's private business ledgers unlawfully and interviewed a throng of people in order to find one disparaging remark about Eugene Francois Vidocq. "You had him arrested and made a thorough search of his files. He keeps everything, the most insignificant letters as well as those most able to compromise him. You have not stopped there; you have called before you people with whom he has done business more than five hundred of them. Well, speak. Have you found one with cause of complaint against him? Have you been able to marshal them in support of the charge? Not one of them has been able to tell the judiciary that Vidocq has been a disloyal agent except the one " and he pointed to Champaix. "And yet that plaintiff has been several times before the courts and received just retribution for his actions."

The crowd cheered, but the panel of jurists under officiate Barbou were less impressed with the defense. Found guilty, Vidocq was sentenced to five years in prison and was fined 3,000 francs as added punishment. Paris was stunned.

But, no sooner had the echo of Barbou's gavel died away than the Court of Appeals threw out the verdict. Reviewing the case, the appellate ruled that Vidocq's conduct was entirely professional from beginning to end and that no subterfuge had been committed.

The following day, Vidocq's agency reopened for business. In the arched windows facing Galerie Vivienne smiling pedestrians read decorative signs of large scrolled letters reading, Résurrection!

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