Vidocq: Convict Turned Detective Magnifique
"Be it true or false, what is said about men often has as much influence upon their lives, especially upon their destinies, as what they do."
The last two decades of Eugene Francois Vidocq's life remained as busy as preceding years; venerable, he never surrendered his principles, and stayed alert and active to the end, when he died at 81 years old.
He wrote a series of novels based on his reminiscences as an investigator. One of the most memorable is Les Voleurs (The Criminals), which, more than anything else, is a close-up of Paris' underworld as seen through the eyes of a detective who traversed it. "Turning the pages, the dark world of the old criminals seems to rise about one like a vapor from a witches' cauldron," says biographer Philip John Stead. "And there is a good deal of the later Vidocq in it (who) came to believe that the criminal should be regarded as a sick man, not past cure, and who turned against the inhumanities of the Law." Certain historians believe that the great author Honoré de Balzac, who became a personal friend of Vidocq's, may have written some of the more fluent pages.
Other works he penned, whose fictional cast of characters also greatly reflect on his own personality and experiences as a detective, are Les Vrais Mystéres de Paris (The True Mysteries of Paris) and Les Chauffers de Nord (The Chauffeurs of the North). Vidocq's sleuths are credited as the inspiration for Edgar Allen Poe's Daupin and Balzac's Vautrin, among others such as those created by the celebrated Parisian novelist Victor Hugo. More so, and quite complimentary to his talent for tale spinning, Vidocq's books are considered the central genesis of the European detective novel to come.
While his written works received applause in his native France, it was actually Great Britain that craved them. In the United Kingdom, law enforcement officers were greatly respected, unlike French gendarmes of the time who were oft viewed as puppet figures of a conniving monarchy. Scotland Yard in London drew reverence; the plainclothes inspector won high regarded for ingenuity and loyalty to adulated Queen Victoria.
British bookstores and newspapers had already made him a hero by the time he toured England on a promotional tour in 1845; as well, British theatre had headlined the Vidocq name in several stage plays based on his Memoirs.
The Regent Street Cosmorama featured the visiting Vidocq himself in his own exhibition of original artwork he had amassed over the years and, the real clincher, his personal collection of artifacts associated with crime. To gawking Londoners he displayed several disguises he had worn when with the Sureté, along with weapons, clothing, utensils and instruments of torture once owned by or used upon name criminals. The suspenders worn by Fieschi when he attempted to assassinate Louis-Philippe, a frock worn by killer Lacenaire on his climb up the guillotine steps these were two of Vidocq's diverse assortment. Admission cost five shillings per person and Londoners lined up around the Cosmorama for days.
Upon his return to Paris he decided to go into semi-retirement, but continued to accept as many cases as a 70-year-old man could handle. He even performed a few investigative jobs for upper-crust society outside of France. But, when his wife Fleuride passed away in his arms in September of 1847, some of the heart went out of him. He closed his agency on the Galerie Vivienne, sold his country estate at Sainte-Mandé, and moved into a smaller house in the Marais district of Paris.
It is fitting that a man who saw so many political changes in the city he loved, and had served as a champion D'Artagnan through all of them, should live through another. An uprising in 1848 crushed the monarchy and the country became a republic. "Attempts to set up a new government were dogged by riot," according to Michelin's guide to Paris, "and in June, 1848, the National Guard slew some 4,000 workers in the Faubourg-Sainte-Antoine. Louis-Napoleon emerged as President." As Vidocq had always swayed to the side of the politics he thought best for France, he once again was there cheering when Louis-Napoleon rode into Paris. Over the next few years, in his seventies and despite failing health, he went undercover again and again to investigate potentially dangerous parties for the Department of the Interior.
In late April, 1857, he was struck at home with a paralysis. Friend and neighbor, Dr. Dornier, who had cared for him through his old age, rushed to his bedside with a local Catholic priest, Pere Orssant. For days, both men kept vigil over him. On May 11, Vidocq asked forgiveness for not having attended Mass since a boy; the priest assured him God would be forgiving. Then, the dying man touched the hand of Dr. Dornier and whispered his final words, "You...you...my only physician."
The funeral that was held the following day at the Basilica de Sainte-Denys was a small one. Most of the great men he had known were gone before him, and his remaining friends from life were there in attendance. Above him, the spectacular, colored lead-glass windows of the church reinvented the bright sunlight and bathed the coffin below in a reverential blue.
That day, people remembered him, France remembered him, and the citizens wept. Even a few of the criminals who had survived him, they wept too. Now, what eulogies were spoken that day, none better expressed the man Vidocq than those spoken about himself many years before when addressing an august body of lawmakers:
"I have the consolation of having remained an honest man amid the darkness of perversion and the atmosphere of crime. I have fought for the defense of order, in the name of justice, as soldiers fight for the defense of their country, beneath the flag of their regiment. I had no epaulettes, but I ran as many risks as they, and I exposed my life every day as they do."