Eugène François Vidocq

(1775-1857)

EUGÈNE FRANÇOIS VIDOCQ was the world’s first private detective, as we generally understand the term. He also  killed his first man at fourteen, and once posed as a cannibal in a traveling show.

Well, maybe.

I say “maybe” because almost everything we know about Vidocq comes from Vidocq himself and other, often contradictory sources. Like Allan Pinkerton, who followed in his footsteps, much of Vidocq’s legacy was based on his own not always accurate (or modest) memoirs.

He’s primarily known as the founder and chief of one of the world’s first plainclothes police forces, and his clever use of disguise and surveillance to capture some of France’s most infamous and deadly criminals. His life does seem to have been pretty flamboyant, that’s for sure.

But Vidocq was no angel. He was also a scoundrel and a thief, a liar and cheat, an active soldier and a military deserter, in and out of prison constantly, charged with everything from disturbing the peace to forging public documents, and sentenced at different times to the galleys and the gallows. He was a card sharp and conman, lived under other identities for years, and romanced widows and actresses. He became a master of disguise, on at least one occasion fleeing the law disguised as a nun. Along the way, he also allegedly worked as a schoolteacher, though that ended when he was run out of town for dallying with some of his older female students.

  • * * * * *

He was born in July 1775, the third child of Henriette Françoise Vidocq and Nicolas Joseph François Vidocq, a baker in Arras, a town in northern France.

He was apparently a problem child. At thirteen, he was arrested for the first time, for stealing some silver plates from his parents and selling them. He spent a short time in jail, at his father’s insistence.

At fourteen, he stole from his parents again, this time scoring a large amount of cash from his parent’s bakery. He ran away, intending to make his way to North America, but he was robbed himself. Alone and suddenly penniless, he joined a troupe of traveling entertainers and for a time posed as a Caribbean cannibal who ate raw meat, before aligning himself briefly with a group of puppeteers, before they kicked him out.

He took to bumming around the countryside, but soon tired of life on the road, and returned to Arras, seeking his parents’ forgiveness. His maman forgave him. No word on how papa felt.

THE WILD YEARS

He soon joined the Bourbon Regiment, and by the time he left, after a mere six months, he had killed his first man — a fencing instructor, who had had the audacity to challenge the young François Eugène to a duel. Vidocq boasted he had fought successfully in fifteen duels by then.

He wasn’t anyone’s idea of a model soldier. He was, by most accounts, an excellent swordsman, but his military record seems to contain mostly reprimands, desertions and reenlistments, and brief stints in the brigade. During one of those visits, he helped another inmate escape. It was an auspicious start for the young man.

By 1793, Vidocq and the army had parted ways (at least temporarily), and he found himself back home in Arras. In August 1794, Vidocq married Anne Marie Louise Chevalier, believing (mistakenly) that she was pregnant. It’s not clear if it was a ruse on her part or not, but the marriage was not a happy one, and when Vidocq learned that Anne Marie Louise was cheating on him, he returned to the army, only to desert a few months later

By the autumn of 1794, he was living in Brussels as “Monsieur Rousseau” from Lille, working small cons to stay afloat. He was almost nabbed by the police, but escaped while they were trying to confirm his identity.

In March 1795, he surfaced in Paris briefly, before moving  to the north of France where he joined a gang of thieves. He left them, however, when he fell in love with Francine Longuet — who in turn left him for a “real” soldier. Vidocq took it well — he beat up both of them. The soldier sued him for assault, and in September 1795, the twenty-year old Vidocq was sentenced to three months in the prison in Lille. But those three months turned into a much longer sentence.

Upon entering the prison, he soon befriended several men, among them Sebastien Boitel, who was serving six years for theft. When, shortly after, Boitel was suddenly released,  the curiosity of the local inspector was aroused. He soon discovered that Boitel’s early release papers had been forged. Guess who they suspected? Vidocq and another prisoner, César Herbaux, were charged with forging official documents, and their case went to trial.

While waiting for his case to be heard, Vidocq attempted to escape several more times, often with the help of Francine (I guess she forgave him for beating her). Somehow, though, he was always quickly recaptured, and the attempts stopped when Francine herself was convicted and sentenced to six months in prison.

Finally, in December 1796, the verdict arrived, and Vidocq and Herbaux were found guilty and sentenced to eight years of hard labour. It was during this period that Vidocq learned  savate, the French martial art that uses the hands and feet as weapons from a fellow inmate. He also tried to escape several more times (and got thrown in a dungeon for eight days), always unsuccessfully, but in November 1977, while being transferred to the prison in Brest in Brittany, where he was to be put to work on the prison galleys, he saw a chance and took it. He escaped and went on the lam, making his way to Paris, Arras, Brussels, Ancer and finally Rotterdam. But while in Holland, he was shanghaied by the Dutch, and became a privateer. However, his life as a pirate was cut short when he was captured and sent to prison. He escaped in March of 1800, with the suspected aid of a prostitute.

By 1800, he had returned to Arras, where he hid out in his mother’s house (his father had passed away the previous year) for almost half a year before he had to flee again. He assumed the identity of an Austrian and romanced another widow, with whom he moved to Rouen in 1802. There he posed as a businessman, earning a good enough reputation to risk inviting his mother to move in with him and the widow.

This period of relative calm domesticity was not to last — somebody squealed, and Vidocq was was arrested and brought to Louvres, where he discovered that he had been sentenced to death in absentia. He filed an appeal and spent the following five months in stir waiting for a retrial. During this time  Anne Marie Louise Chevalier, whom he hadn’t seen for years, found him and informed him she had divorced him. As court proceedings dragged on, and  it seemed there would be no decision concerning his sentence coming any time soon, Vidocq decided enough was enough. In November 1805, while nobody was looking, he jumped out of a window, and spent the next four years on the run.

He spent some time in Paris, where he witnessed the execution of César Herbaux, his former accomplice. Maybe this was when it occurred to him to go straight. Maybe not. But at this point he apparently had decided to become a legit businessman. To no avail — his past always seemed to always get in the way: Anne Marie Louise Chevalier, his ex, found him in Paris, where he had settled, and blackmailed him for money, and a couple of former criminal associates forced him to act as a fence for them.

GOING STRAIGHT & THE FOUNDING OF LA SURETÉ

Frustrated and desperate, no doubt tired of the fugitive’s life, and now thirty-four, he turned himself in to the Paris police, providing a detailed account of his, er, colourful past. He also offered them his services as an informant. M. Henry, head of the criminal department of the gendarmerie, was naturally suspicious, but decided to take a chance. Vidocq summarily went back to prison — undercover, this time, working for the police, spying on the inmates to garner information. He became so successful that by 1811 he had established a small plainclothes unit (with him in charge) within the police department called La Brigade de la Sûreté. It was officially decreed La Sûreté Nationale by Napoleon Bonaparte himself in 1813.

By 1817, Vidocq had twelve men under him, most of them also ex-cons, working under him, each with a “colourful” past of his own. The department maintained extensive files and experimented with fingerprinting, ballistics and other examples of early forensic science. Vidocq and his men were amazingly efficient. According to Vidocq’s biographer, John Philip Stead, in that year alone, Vidocq and his crew made

“… eight hundred and eleven arrests, including fifteen assassins, three hundred and forty-one thieves and thirty-eight receivers of stolen property. Fourteen escaped prisoners were recaptured, forty-three men who had broken their parole were brought in and two hundred twenty-nine bad characters were arrested and banished from the city. Thirty-nine searches and seizures of stolen goods were made. Forty-six forgers, swindlers and confidence men were captured.”

VIDOCQ THE WRITER

But by 1828, the ever-restless Vidocq had resigned his post, tired of constant harrassment from jealous rivals in the police department. He set up a printing company, mostly run by ex-cons, and set to work publishing his memoirs. Of course, having received little education, spending his formative years shuffling between duels, crime and prison, it’s generally assumed the book was ghostwritten, but nonetheless, Mémoires de Vidocq, chef de police de sûreté jusqu’en 1827, aujourd’hui proprietetaire et fabricant de papiers à Saint Mandé (literally “The Memoirs of Vidocq, Chief of Police of the Sûreté Until 1827, and Now Proprietor and Maker of Papers from Saint Mandé‘) was an instant bestseller upon its publication in 1828. An English translation was hot on its heels, and the book soon became something of an international sensation.

By 1929, there were already two plays based on the memoirs being produced on the London stage, making much of Vidocq’s penchant  for disguise, knowledge of the criminal life and familiarity with his world, and his memoirs were frequently reprinted in the nineteenth-century periodicals, penny dreadfuls and dime novels, although often plagiarised and rewritten, exaggerating his exploits even further. But in them all Vidocq is most definitely a detective: a plain-clothes thieftaker, doggedly tracking down criminals down the backstreets and alleys of Paris and out into the countryside, knocking on doors and asking questions, donning disguises and employing various ruses before revealing himself and making the arrerst. Invariably, Vidocq is portrayed as being “brave, courageous and bold.”

Although it may not have related Vidocq’s actual life (whatever that was), it was rip-snorting stuff, and served as a major influence and inspiration for everyone from Charles Dickens, Balzac, and Victor Hugo to Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. According to Stephen Knight in Crime Fiction Since 1800: Detection, Death, Diversity, Second Edition (2010), “Much of the detection that was to be a major part of crime fiction until the 1860s ultimately derives from Vidocq stories.”

THE WORLD’S FIRST DETECTIVE AGENCY

But Vidocq wasn’t done. Despite the success of his book, the printing company itself went bust. In his late fifties, he founded the world’s first private detective agency, Le bureau des renseignements in 1833. It was essentially a private version of La Sûreté, and boasted almost a dozen operatives, mostly once again ex-cons.

It’s not much of a surprise, perhaps, to note that Vidocq and his ops at Le bureau were not above cutting corners, or playing fast and loose with the rules, and Vidocq soon found himself once more up on charges, this time of making an illegal arrest of an embezzler, and the theft of the embezzled money. He was found guilty, and sentenced to five years in prison and a fine of 3,000 francs.

And thus, Vidocq also inadvertently established another long-held P.I. tradition: evidently, the official police were less than keen on Vidocq’s new agency, suspicious of his money, his power, his influence, his employees and particularly the legality of his work, and raided his offices regularly, and Vidocq found himself a guest of the state, on charges such as obtaining money under false pretenses, corrupting public officials and “usurping police functions.” Vidocq immediately appealed, and in February 1838, after numerous witnesses had testified, the judge dismissed all charges, and Vidocq was once again free, having served only eleven months.

THE LATER YEARS

Still, the legal proceedings and almost a year in prison had taken their toll, both physically and financially. Vidocq, now in his sixties, found his reputation in tatters, and increasingly spurious gossip began to spread, possibly spread by his political opponents. Business dropped off at the agency and Vidocq considered selling it. There were no takers.

He continued writing books, now not to build up his reputation but to defend it. In 1844, he published Considérations sommaires sur les prisons, les bagnes et la peine de mort, an essay on prisons, penitentiaries, and the death penalty. In 1847, his third wife, Fleuride, passed away, after seventeen years of marriage.

And in In 1849, Vidocq was arrested and charged with fraud, and spent a brief time in jail, until the case was dropped. He lived quietly, occasionally with a woman, and the agency took on only occasional cases. He lived another eleven years, a string of poor investments having cost him a large chunk of his assets, but hung on, even surviving a bout of cholera. . On 11 May 1857, Vidocq died at the ripe old age of 81 in his home, in the presence of his doctor, his lawyer and a priest.

* * * * *

BOOKS BY VIDOCQ

  • Mémoires de Vidocq, chef de police de sûreté jusqu’en 1827, aujourd’hui proprietetaire et fabricant de papiers à Saint Mandé (1828) | Buy this book Kindle it!
    By the time it was published, thanks to multiple ghostwriters, it had grown to four volumes. It was published in English alternately as “Memoirs of Vidocq;” “Vidocq, the Police Spy” or “Vidocq-The Personal Memoirs of the First Great Detective”.
  • Les voleurs (1836)
    A study of thieves and imposters
  • Dictionnaire d’Argot (1836)
    A slang dictionary.
  • Considérations sommaires sur les prisons, les bagnes et la peine de mort (1844)
    Deliberations on reducing crime. 
  • Les chauffeurs du nord (1845)
    A memoir of his time as a gang member.
  • Les vrais mystères de Paris (1844)
    A novel published under Vidocq’s name, though authored by Horace Raisson and Maurice Alhoy. Published in English as “Life in Paris; or, The Adventures of a Marquis.” 

REFERENCE

  • Stead, John Philip,
    Vidocq: A Biography
    New York: Ray Publishers, 1954.
  • Morton, James,
    The First Detective: The Life and Revolutionary Times of Vidocq: Criminal, Spy and Private Eye | Buy this book Kindle it!
    Harry N. Abrams; 2011.

FILMS

  • LA JEUNESSE DE VIDOCQ OU COMMENT ON DEVIENT POLICIER
    (1909 [France])
    Silent
    Black & white
    Premiere: August 13, 1909
    Based on Memoirs of Vidocq by Eugène François Vidocq
    Starring Harry Baur as VIDOCQ
  • L’ÉVASION DE VIDOCQ
    (1910 [France])
    Silent
    Black & whiteBased on Memoirs of Vidocq by Eugène François Vidocq
    Starring Harry Baur as VIDOCQ
  • VIDOCQ
    (1911 [France])
    Silent
    Black & white
    Based on Memoirs of Vidocq by Eugène François Vidocq
    Starring Harry Baur as VIDOCQ
  • VIDOCQ
    (1922 [France])
    Silent
    Black & white
    Based on the memoirs of Eugène François Vidocq
    Screenplay by Arthur Bernède
    Directed by Jean Kemm
    Starring René Navarre as VIDOCQ
  • VIDOCQ
    (1938 [France])
    Black & white
    Based on Memoirs of Vidocq by Eugène François Vidocq
    Screenplay by Arthur Bernède
    Directed by Jacques Daroy
    Starring André Brulé as VIDOCQ
    The first “talkie” devoted to Vidocq, this one focussed primarily on his criminal career.
  • A SCANDAL IN PARIS | Buy this video
    aka “Thieves Holiday” and “The Story of Vidocq”
    (1946, United Artists)
    100 minutes
    Black & white
    Based on Memoirs of Vidocq by Eugène François Vidocq
    Screenplay by Ellis St. Joseph
    Directed by Douglas Sirk
    Produced by Arnold Pressburger
    Associate producer: Fred Pressburger
    Starring George Sanders as FRANÇOIS EUGÈNE VIDOCQ
    Also starring Signe Hasso, Carole Landis, Akim Tamiroff, Gene Lockhart, Jo Ann Marlowe, Alma Kruger, Alan Napier, Vladimir Sokoloff(1909)
    The first American adaptation of Vidocq’s memoirs was not some dark, exciting adventure full of action and derring do, but a rags-to-riches yarn/bedroom farce played for laughs. It’s a decent enough flick, if you’re into that kind of thing, but sheesh!!!
  • LE CAVALIER DE CROIX-MORT
    (1948 [France])
    Based on Memoirs of Vidocq by Eugène François Vidocq
    Directed by Lucien Ganier-Raymond
    Starring Henri Nassiet as VIDOCQ

TELEVISION

  • VIDOCQ
    (1967 [France])
    Black & White
    13 episodes
    Premiere: January 7, 1967
    Based on Memoirs of Vidocq by Eugène François Vidoc
    Starring Bernard Noël as VIDOCQ
  • LES NOUVELLES AVENTURES DE VIDOCQ
    (1971 [France])
    13 episodes
    Premiere: January 5, 1971
    Based on Memoirs of Vidocq by Eugène François Vidoc
    Starring Claude Brasseur as VIDOCQ

ALSO OF INTEREST

  • The Black Tower (2008; by Louis Bayard)Buy this book
    A novel starring Vidocq himself, hot on the trail of the fate of the Man in the Iron Mask.
Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to T. Strickland for cleaning up my act. Portrait of Vidocq by Achille Devéria (1828).

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