The French Sherlock Holmes, Detective Eugène François Vidocq

Eugène François Vidocq. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The French Sherlock Holmes, detective Eugène François Vidocq, was born on the 24 July 1775* in Arras in the Pas de Calais, Nord, France. He was the third child of a baker named Nicolas Joseph François Vidocq and his wife Henriette Françoise Dion. Vidocq earned the nickname le Vautrin (“wild boar”), and this was the same name that the French author Honoré de Balzac later used for a fictional character based on Vidocq in his La Comédie humaine series. Moreover, the famous writer Victor Hugo based two characters from his book titled “Les Miserables” on Vidocq – both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. If being immortalized by two famous writers was not enough, Vidocq earned the nickname “French Thief Taker,” a name similar to that used by London’s Jonathan Wild, a notable crime figure who was called the “Thief Taker General” and who operated on both sides of the law in the late 1600s and early 1700s.

What is known about Vidocq’s early life is based on a ghost-written biography of questionable accuracy. In it he claims to have been a terror at eight years old and by thirteen a thief, stealing shop coins with a feather dipped in glue, robbing hen roosts, and pawning coffee-spoons. The remainder of his teenage years were turbulent.

“Vidocq was a herculean, improvident, and intemperate youth with a taste for dueling. Before age sixteen he sought a military career in infantry and light cavalry, fighting alternately on behalf of the French revolution army and Austrian counterrevolutionary forces. After an interlude as a deserter, and briefly caught in an ill-fated marriage, at age nineteen Vidocq joined up with the armée roulante, a ‘roving army’ of grift officers who scammed displaced aristocrats and chaotic military bureaucracy. Over the next twenty-five years Vidocq was in and out of prison accused of various petty crimes and a major one of forgery (in the memoir he claims the forgery charge was trumped up, but nonetheless it stuck to him until he received a royal pardon from Restoration monarch Louis XVIII in 1818). Branded and reviled everywhere a convict, Vidocq was an outlaw. But his fortunes changed once he agreed to become a police spy.”[1]

Remaining column of La Force Prison, close-up detail of wall, and Histoire de Paris plaque. Author’s collection.

Although Vidocq tried to get away from his past and become a legitimate businessman, he could not do it. Every time he attempted to his true identity was discovered and he was imprisoned. He always escaped, but then found he was busy looking over his shoulder. Added to his life on the run was his ex-wife, who found him in Paris and blackmailed him for money. Former convicts added to his woes as they forced him to fence stolen goods for them. Thus, when he was arrested a few days before his 34th birthday, Vidocq decided he had to do something different. This time he offered to be a police spy and began working as a spy on 20 July 1809. In his memoirs, he stated:

“I was removed to the [La] Force [prison]; and to avoid suspicion, it was stated amongst the prisoners, that I was kept back in consequence of being implicated in a very bad affair, which was to be inquired into. This precaution joined to my renown, put me entirely in good odour. Not a prisoner dared breathe a doubt of the gravity of the charge against me. … It was then whispered, and at last stated openly at La Force, in speaking of me, ‘He is a cutthroat!'”[2]

On 28 October, Vidocq spied on his fellow inmates at La Force Prison and learned some were forging identities. He passed this information on to authorities through a woman named Annette, a very pretty woman whose husband had abandoned her and whom Vidocq had met while living on the run. She gave the information to the Parisian police chief, Jean Henry. More information followed over the next 21 months, and then on 25 March 1811, Henry arranged for Vidocq’s release, but it was done in such a way that the prisoners thought he had once again escaped. Vidocq may have been free, he was now obliged to Henry and continued to work as a police spy.

Napoleon. Public domain.

Using the guise of a hardened criminal, Vidocq was able to gain the trust of lawbreakers involved with France’s criminal underworld. He also used his time wisely, learning about crimes that had been committed and ferreting out crimes that were being planned. In fact, he supposedly participated in a couple of felonies and then betrayed his partners by arresting them. If and when he became suspect, he assumed false identities or used disguises to hide his true identity.

Realizing that he could make greater contributions, Vidocq began an experiment near the end of 1811. It was at that time that he organized an informal plainclothes police unit known as the Brigade de la Sûreté (“Security Brigade”). It initially had eight secret agents, whom he personally trained, and the majority were ex-criminals like Vidocq.

“It was with a troop so small as this that I had to watch over more than twelve hundred pardoned convicts, freed, some from public prisons, others from solitary confinement: to put in execution, annually, from four to five hundred warrants, as well from the préfet as the judicial authorities; to procure information, to undertake searches, and to obtain particulars of every description; to make nightly rounds, so perpetual and arduous during the winter season; to assist the commissaries of police in their searches, or in the execution of search warrants; to explore the various rendezvous in every part; to go to the theatres, the boulevards, the barriers, and all other public places, the haunts of thieves and pickpockets.”[3]

Portrait of Louis XVIII by François Gérard. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The brigade proved to be so valuable that within a year, it became an official unit under the Prefecture of Police and Vidocq was appointed to head it. Moreover, on 17 December 1813, Napoleon Bonaparte signed a decree that established the brigade as a state security police force, known since that time as the Sûreté Nationale.

Despite Vidocq’s exemplary work, he remained a wanted criminal because his forgery charges had never been dismissed. The prison director also continually requested that Vidocq be incarcerated and pay for his crime. In addition, rumors circulated that he was organizing crimes and arresting the perpetrators to further his own reputation. Eventually, however, that same year he reportedly achieved a record 811 arrests. the prefect of the Paris police obtained an official pardon from Louis XVIII, which was granted to Vidocq on 26 March 1817. 

The year 1820 was also another good year for Vidocq. Parisians reported a notably reduction in criminal activity within their city, and Vidocq’s yearly income was 5,000 francs, partially acquired from the fees he charged working as a private investigator. Additionally, 1820 was the year he married again. His wife was the delicate and unhealthy Jeanne-Victoire Guérin. She came to live with him at 111 Rue de l’Hirondelle where his mother and his cousin, 27-year-old Fleuride Albertine Maniez, also lived. Vidocq’s wife did not last long as her health began to fail and she died in 1824.

During Vidocq’s years with the police force, he earned a fortune, and he had that fortune when the 52-year-old submitted his resignation on 20 June 1827. Part of the reason for his resignation had to do with the fact that he disliked the newly appointed police prefect. After his resignation, he wrote his memoirs using a ghostwriter because he had broken his arm. His memoirs were critiqued and many critics complained that the book contained nothing but fictitious tales. Snippets of three of these critiques from different sources found their way into one newspaper article:

[First,] Napoleon and Vidocq must go down to posterity together … [Secondly,] from its commencement [the book] has combined cheapness, ornament, and utility in no ordinary degree … the present memoirs … are one of the most entertaining … It has all the enchaining interest of an oriental romance with all the recommendation of reality. [And thirdly,] this is a very remarkable work, and surpasses in rapidity of incident and singularity of details, the most romantic production of fiction with which we are acquainted. And there is in it an impress of truth and sincerity which carried a strong internal evidence of integrity.”[4]

Besides the publication of the questionable memoirs, Vidocq also opened a paper manufacturing plant in St. Mandé. The plant employed ex-convicts “on the pious but economical principle of giving work to people which might find their old reputations somewhat a bar to progress with more fastidious employers.”[5] Unfortunately, there were many objections to his employment of criminals, and his endeavors did not last long because he went bankrupt.

Marriage certificate for Vidocq and Fleuride. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1830, Vidocq married a third time. This time he married his cousin Fleuride, who had been living with him. A new police prefect was also appointed around this time, and he requested that Vidocq return and work for him. Vidocq’s methods during this stint with the police were not always approved of and rumors began again that he was involved in certain criminal activities. Once again, on 15 November 1832, Vidocq resigned, but this time he claimed his resignation was due to Fleuride being ill.

Vidocq then founded a company that was a mixture of a detective agency and private police force. He named it Le bureau des renseignements (“Office of Information”), and his subordinates were once again primarily ex-criminals. His new business operated on behalf of private citizens but occasionally used illegal means to nab crooks, fraudsters, and bankruptcy artists. Police officials began to quarrel with him and question his tactics and on 28 November 1837, a search and seizure warrant was executed. According to one newspaper, police confiscated “5,670 rolls of paper.”[6] A few days later, Vidocq was arrested and spent Christmas and New Year’s in jail. He was charged with three crimes: swindling or acquiring money by deception, corrupting civil servants, and usurping public functions. A trial was held in February 1838. Supposedly, 3,000 witnesses testified. The result fell in Vidocq’s favor as the judge dismissed all three charges and Vidocq was set free.

Gabriel Delessert. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although his agency was flourishing, so were his enemies. One enemy was the new prefect of police Gabriel Delessert who stormed Vidocq’s office on 17 August 1842 and arrested an employee and Vidocq, whom he charged with “illegal detention of persons and fraud.”[7] Nearly a year later, on 3 May 1843, the hearing was held with the judge being a friend to Delessert. Vidocq was convicted and sentenced to five years in jail and a fine of 3,000 francs. However, he immediately appealed and thanks to some influential political friends, he got a new trial. The second trial occurred on 22 July 1843, and within a matter of minutes, he was set free, but bad publicity cost his business to suffer, the trial cost him a lot of money, and his reputation was permanently damaged. In addition, Delessert unsuccessfully attempted to get him expelled from Paris for his former crimes.

Hoping to improve his standing, Vidocq published several small books to refute the allegations and rumors that had been made about him. In 1844, he presented an essay on prisons, penitentiaries, and the death penalty, and in 1845, he decided to hold an exhibition in London. The exhibition included a collection of his disguises, instruments used to restrain criminals, and stories of his exploits. One visitor to the exhibition declared:

“He is now a man of seventy-two, but looks, not more than fifty. The proportions of his limbs are herculean, and his features, which are well-formed and regular, deeply expressive of daring and firmness. He told me that he had given to Victor Hugo most of the detail introduced into Le dernier ourn d’un Condamné. I asked whether Eguene Sue had been also indebted to him. ‘Sue,’he replied, ‘Sue borrowed a good deal for his celebrated Mysteries from my memoirs … but,’ pointing round the room to the disguises and the chains and manacles hanging about, ‘look sir, these are the true mysteries of Paris.'”[8]

Title page and frontispiece of Vidocq’s Memoirs of 1828. Public domain.

On 22 September 1847, his third wife Fleuride died. This time Vidocq did not remarry, but he did enjoy several intimate relationships thereafter. Two years after Fleuride’s death, Vidocq found himself back in prison for a short time once again charged with fraud. Like before, the case did not hold up and the charges were dropped. Nevertheless, he was wearied by all the accusations, rumors, and problems and withdrew from public life only accepting minor cases from this point forward.

In the last few years of his life, he began to suffer pain in his right arm from the break he had experienced years earlier (it never healed properly). Additionally, he began to suffer financially as he had invested unwisely and lost a large portion of his assets. The financial losses caused him to rent accommodations and curb his standard of living. More bad news occurred after he contracted cholera in August of 1854. It seemed as if he might die, but to everyone’s surprise he rebounded, although it debilitated him. Three years later, he died at the age of 81 in his home in Paris on 11 May 1857 and was buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. His death prompted one newspaper to write the following:

“A great historical personage has just died in Paris – the famous Vidocq, who from one of the most expert thieves in Europe, was promoted … [and] whose adventures and experience, in both capacities, have been communicated to the world in his own memoirs. … At his own express desire no friends were present at his funeral, which was attended only by hired mourners, at the church of St. Louis in the Marais.”[9]

* A genealogical website claims his birth happened 23 July 1775.

References:

  • [1] Vidocq, François Eugene, Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime, 1935, p. xii.
  • [2] Vidocq, Eugène François, Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent of the French Police, 1835, p. 269.
  • [3] Vidocq, Eugène François, Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent of the French Police Until 1827 and Now, 1828 p. 254.
  • [4] “Vidocq,” in The Globe, 31 December 1828, p. 1.
  • [5] Dallas, Eneas Sweetland, Once a Week, 1872, p. 276-277.
  • [6] “The Celebrated Vidocq,” in the West Kent Guardian, 13 January 1838, p. 5.
  • [7] Vidocq, François Eugene, 1935, p. xiii.
  • [8] “Vidocq – Singular Exhibition,” iInverness Courier, 25 June 1845, 1845, p. 4.
  • [9] “Death of a Famous Character,” in Wrexham Advertiser, 23 May 1857, p. 2.

Google+ Comments

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>