Science That Prison Created:
François-Eugène Vidocq- a man who inspired the greatest
writers of his day
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 worlds
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 childrens
book, The Worlds First Police Detective by Judy R. Block (the only
biography of Vidocq still available), must be acknowledged as a wonderful
source. Aside from Vidocqs own memoirs, which book is prohibitively
expensive, the only other source in terms of biographic material is courtesy
of the Vidocq Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Vidocqs 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
François-Eugène Vidocq was born 24 July, 1775 in Arras,
northern France. Vidocqs 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 Vidocqs 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
Vidocqs 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
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. Vidocqs 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 suspects 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 Vidocqs 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. Germains
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-heros death.
Clearly, Vidocqs 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 criminals 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 Lerouxs journalist-detective,
Joseph Rouletabille, to Poes Auguste Lupin in "Murders in the
Rue Morgue", to Agatha Christies 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 Vidocqs
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. Vidocqs
personality and techniques were fundamental to J. Edgar Hoover in revamping
the fledgling FBI in the 1920's, and the U.S. Marshals 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
© Rev Antonio Hernandez September 2002