The Science That Prison Created:
François-Eugène Vidocq- a man who inspired the greatest writers of his day
Reverend Antonio Hernández, O.M.D.

It is not a household name: François-Eugène Vidocq. Children do not ever hear it in school; college students too are deprived. Yet Vidocq was the first modern police detective, the founder of the Sûreté of France, the creator of the criminal file system, fingerprinting, ballistics, crime scene security, forensic pathology and reconstruction, sting operations and plainclothes police work. He was a man who inspired the greatest writers of his day, and a model for every literary detective since. The world’s least known and most elite crime-fighting organization, The Vidocq Society of America, was totally inspired by, and of course named after, him. A hero to the French, an unappreciated donor to humanity, a scientist in the noblest sense of the word, and perhaps the greatest law enforcement officer to have ever lived, François-Eugène Vidocq stands in a mist of injustice- lonely and unknown.

Here we will examine the brief facts of his life and work. The children’s book, The World’s First Police Detective by Judy R. Block (the only biography of Vidocq still available), must be acknowledged as a wonderful source. Aside from Vidocq’s own memoirs, which book is prohibitively expensive, the only other source in terms of biographic material is courtesy of the Vidocq Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Vidocq’s life is stunning, not only because of his accomplishments in detective work but because of his personal victories: creating and founding several new scientific branches, creating a nearly crime-free 19th century Paris, his triumphs over the criminal life and the elimination of his other personal demons.

François-Eugène Vidocq was born 24 July, 1775 in Arras, northern France. Vidocq’s father was a baker, and naturally the young boy had no intention of following such a boring life. He wanted adventure, excitement- and loved fighting. His temper was legendary. After too many brawls and scrapes with the police, the family thought the boy would benefit from joining the French Army. At the age of 17, he was conscripted.

During his first half year as a soldier, Vidocq fought 15 duels. Naturally this alone made him quite the hero. But one day the strain was too much ; Vidocq insisted on a duel with an officer over a point of honor, but was refused. Vidocq struck the officer. Somehow, before any action was taken against him, he deserted. Disguised as a captain, he evaded capture and supported himself by gambling. Then there was a fight- and ‘‘Captain’’ Vidocq was in jail at æ.20. Still irrepressible, Vidocq wrote a note to the warden demanding a re-investigation for a fellow who had been caught stealing food to feed his starving family. As a result, the man was freed a few days later. But after that Vidocq was in more trouble- the note he sent had been signed by him, with the perfectly forged signature of the chief of police. Only the chief was able to prove this.

Vidocq was 24 when he ended up in the terrible prison at Brest, which was alleged to be the Alcatraz of its day. It was also one of the worst prisons in history, where the inmates wore heavy irons, were constantly tortured and beaten, and worked 16 hours a day. After exactly 8 days Vidocq broke free. But he was recaptured and sent under special guard to Toulon Prison. In 1799, while on the prison ship docked near the prison, he effected his escape by posing as a sailor. It was to be his last. At this point Vidocq had a change of heart: crime was not the way. He was fed up, but too much difficulty surrounded the feasibility of going straight. Too many people knew him, and blackmail was rife.

Vidocq struck upon an answer. He went to the chief of police in Paris, turned himself in, and begged for a second chance. Anything to keep out of prison. The chief, Monsieur Henri, felt something special about Vidocq. He felt Vidocq was sincerely trying to reform. Vidocq offered to spy for the chief, to help the police catch as many criminals as they could have ever dreamed. He reasoned that he was the man to do it. The chief agreed, but did not yet accept Vidocq’s offer. He ordered him back to prison, with the proviso that he would be watched for a year. If Vidocq helped, he would be released.

He was sent to Bicêtre, a minimum security prison. Soon he had all the prisoners talking to him- everyone knew about the great criminal hero Vidocq and his daring escapes. Friends and family would visit Vidocq, and then carry the news back to the chief. It was a tense time; Vidocq could be killed if he was discovered, and it would be even worse if the police working with him made an error. But crime was brought to a near standstill, and Vidocq provided files worth of information. Finally, he was released- but a simple walking out could be dangerous. So on 21 March, 1811, Vidocq effected his last "escape" from prison, with the help of the police.

By 1811 Vidocq had clearly shown what a "plainclothes" policeman could do that ordinary police could not. Vidocq was also a master of disguise; he used three identities: himself, the great escaped criminal who was on the lam; Jean Louis, a 60 year old criminal "from the old days"; and Jules, a rough-and-tumble bully. Vidocq established quite an intelligence network with these alternate identities.

A young woman named Annette assisted Vidocq-- she helped him convince the chief that a group of plainclothes people was needed. In October of 1812, Vidocq was authorized to find eight more helpers. Only Vidocq and the chief would know who they were. The new group was named, a name that to this day inspires fear in criminals: the Sûreté ("security"). The chief, in the face of objections from the department, had the utmost faith in Vidocq. The new agency was quartered in a large, creepy old house that sat in the shadow of a cathedral, at No. 6 Petit Rue Saint-Ann. The address would be world famous one day.

Naturally, Vidocq chose ex-criminals as his new operatives. He thought they were the best detectives he could have- and he ruled with an iron fist. None of them ever disappointed him or the police chief. By 1817 Vidocq’s Security had grown to a dozen. Within a few years there were 28 detectives in all. The whole setup amazed the police, due to their excellent results. In 1817 alone they caught a total of 812 murderers and thieves.

Here begins the history of criminal detection, forensic pathology, and the general structure that would be followed by law enforcement agencies the world over- especially in America. Vidocq’s years in crime (and prison) gave him knowledge even most criminals did not possess, let alone the police. He ordered a card file to be made up of every known Parisian criminal- a complete description, list of aliases, and M.O. of every criminal was kept on file. He also conceived of fingerprinting, which unfortunately would be some years in perfection. He would establish the preservation of the crime scene- a thing no one had ever troubled to do before.

Vidocq created the science of ballistics, and began using it very early on; his incredible talent as an artist led him to create the science of police sketching and forensic reconstructions. (He himself made a fabulous sketch, constructed from descriptions, of a famous literary detective of his day, to prove out the value of forensic reconstruction.) As mentioned, he was a master of disguise and no doubt gave full training to his detectives. Vidocq was not only a master inventor, he was also a great teacher-- and a pretty good magician. In one particular case, he was able to sample a suspect’s blood (while in disguise of course) and compare it to blood he himself had found at a murder scene. With the science of the day, the samples were matched.

Vidocq was a big inspiration all over the world, but quite a while would pass before everyone else could catch up with him. In the meantime, he inspired many writers: Herman Melville, Victor Hugo and Edgar Allen Poe were inspired by him and mentioned him. In 1829, Alexandre Dumas was told by Vidocq that one day, every crime would be examined under a microscope. Vidocq was quoted as saying that "[in the future] the scientist will be an even greater enemy to the criminal than the police."

Often the Security detectives were approached by various criminals for assistance. Believing that the entire Security branch was a sort of cadre of criminals, and not realizing the full extent of that organization, criminals naturally sought out Vidocq as a sort of master accomplice. This is when Vidocq’s great mind and creativity served him best. In the most infamous of his experiences he became embroiled with a criminal named St. Germain (an alias), who was a murderer and burglar. He approached Vidocq for help in burgling a wealthy home, but St. Germain also planned to murder the master of the house, who had aided in St. Germain’s apprehension years earlier.

Vidocq was very nervous. He notified the chief, Monsieur Henri, who leapt with joy at the chance to nab the infamous St. Germain. Vidocq had to go all out and help St. Germain; if he was suspected, St. Germain would cut his throat in an instant. After a sudden change of plans, Vidocq nervously slipped away to leave a note for Annette in the store where she held a cover job. Would she get it, and tell the chief in time?

At the house, St. Germain and his rabble were quickly surrounded by police, who seemed to jump from every bush. St. Germain and others began firing at the police, and there was an exchange. Vidocq had been hit immediately, and fell. The chief, tears in his eyes, approached Vidocq as the criminals were taken away. But Vidocq whispered, to be on the safe side, before jumping up, unharmed. He had pretended to be shot right away so as not to be injured. The blood running from his shirt was from a butcher shop, which had been cleverly concealed in a bladder. After the rifles’ reports, Vidocq simply dumped the blood on himself and fell. The vital thing was that St. Germain thought, and soon the whole underworld would think, that Vidocq was dead. A noble, criminal-hero’s death.

Clearly, Vidocq’s other accomplishment was the equal use of women as detectives. He had several favorites, and they worked as skillfully and tirelessly as the men. But in spite of all their successes, Vidocq thought his detectives (and he himself) were losing touch with the criminal world. Puzzlingly, Vidocq is said to have been escorted to the Bicêtre Prison in order to confront and scrutinize the faces of all the prisoners. He had two objectives: to let them know exactly who he was, and to re-familiarize himself with the old criminals and meet the new. It is said that he confessed to these prisoners that he was a secret policeman. The secret Security Agency was a secret no longer, but it would be feared more than anything in the French criminal’s world.

In 1832, when Vidocq was 57 years old, he decided to retire from Security. A new police chief was in office now, and Vidocq had been ordered to fire all Security detectives who had criminal records. Vidocq believed in them- he disobeyed the order to fire them. The chief, angered at the insubordination, accused Vidocq and his detectives of using Security to steal and embezzle money. There was never any grounds for such an accusation and Vidocq walked out. He formed his own private detective agency- another first from the brilliant mind that literally founded criminal science single-handedly.

What is not realized about Vidocq is that he was, indeed, world famous at the last third of his life. His methods were mentioned and extolled all over the world. Every literary (and later, film) detective was based on him and his methods. From Gaston Leroux’s journalist-detective, Joseph Rouletabille, to Poe’s Auguste Lupin in "Murders in the Rue Morgue", to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, and beyond: all shades of Vidocq. Yet truth is stranger than fiction- no one has ever created a famous detective who was a former criminal and no one has attempted a novel or film abut Vidocq himself. To get too close to Vidocq’s real life experiences in a literary sense would have been too much for anyone to believe.

Today, the Sûreté is the "Scotland Yard of France". It holds its own with New Scotland Yard as well as with the FBI, and often works with Interpol. It has given us our most revered fictional police detective, Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau, of Blake Edwards’ "Pink Panther" films. It has also given America inspiration for its most elite (and secret) crime-fighting organization, The Vidocq Society. Vidocq’s personality and techniques were fundamental to J. Edgar Hoover in revamping the fledgling FBI in the 1920's, and the U.S. Marshal’s Service uses Vidocq techniques in tracking and apprehending fugitives. Without this man Vidocq, police today might very well be as blundering and incompetent as they often were in his day. As it is, the modern justice systems of the world owe their entire existence to this one man: François-Eugène Vidocq.

© Rev Antonio Hernandez September 2002

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