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  • Steve Navarrete

THE COLORFUL LIFE OF THE WORLD'S FIRST PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR.


François Eugène Vidocq is considered by many as the Sherlock Holmes of Paris but in all actuality, Sherlock Holmes is really the François Eugène Vidocq of England. His life as a criminal and subsequent police spy lead him to be the world’s first private detective. He is one of many children born of Nicolas Joseph Vidocq and Henriette Francois Vidocq who allegedly gave birth to him in a jail cell in Arras, France July 24, 1775. Few believe this tale but controversy and exaggeration will follow him for the rest of his life. By the age of 14 he allegedly killed his first man, a fencing instructor who challenged 14 year old Vidocq to a duel. By the age of 15 he was a member of the Bourbon Regiment and claimed to have fought in as many as 15 duals. His military record is riddled with numerous reprimands, desertions and reenlistments. After his military career he commenced a life of crime. His crimes are too numerous to recount but to name a few he served a prison term for forging public documents, he later got a job as a school teacher, but he was run out of town after he was caught having “relations” with his older female students, and after that he became a pirate and was sent to prison for piracy but he escaped incarceration. By now he was 24 and felt as though he needed a more respectable career so he convinced the the Paris police department chief to hire him as a police spy. He revolutionized his position and his practices are used to this day. He was the first to maintain records he called criminalistics better known as forensics. He is the first to incorporate the science of ballistics into police work. He was also the first to make plaster–of-paris casts of foot and shoe impressions. His unique methods for that time, including the use of surveillance and disguises, were wildly successful thus prompting the creation of a security department within the police department called la Sûreté, which is still the name used to this day. By 1817 Vidocq had twelve subordinates comprised of his fellow ex-cons. Vidocq’s crew lead the French police department in the arrest of France’s most notorious criminals. Vidocq's biographer, John Philip Stead, notes that 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. By 1827 Vidocq’s ants in his pants began crawling again and he resigned from the police department. He set up a paper and cardboard mill, where he once again employed former convicts. The business was a failure, but in 1828 he published his first book at the failing business and he called it “Mémoires de Vidocq, chef de police de sûreté jusqu'en 1827, aujourd'hui proprietetaire et fabricant de papiers à Saint Mandé” translated as "The Memoirs of Vidocq, Chief of Police of the Sûreté Until 1827, and Now Proprietor and Maker of Papers from Saint Mandé'.” Although the book was filled with exaggerations recounted by Vidocq, no one can argue the broader aspects of his life as mentioned in the book. For example, had did in fact have a verifiable spotty military career and he did fight in a war. He then had an extensive criminal career as evidenced by his numerous arrests and subsequent prison sentences. He was in fact an innovator in the field of police work as his methods have never been seen until he introduced them into practice at the Paris Police Department. To that end the book is not so much a detailed chronicle of actual events as it is his fantastic account of already captivating events. This book is believed to have influenced authors such as Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe, and Arthur Conan Doyle to name a few. By the way, he also revolutionized the printing industry and held patents on indelible ink and unalterable bond paper. In 1833 he became the world’s first private eye and he established the first ever private detective agency, Le bureau des renseignments, a private version of the Sûreté, that boasted the motto, "Hatred of Rogues! Boundless devotion to the trade!" The official police felt threatened by Vidocq’s success which resulted in many attempts to shut down the agency. Vidocq was arrested several more times and charged with obtaining money under false pretenses, corrupting public officials and "usurping police functions." His golden years were not so bright. In 1848 he lost an election for 2nd Arrondissement of Paris. One year later he was charged with fraud and jailed. Even though the charges were dropped his last few years were filled with misfortune and hardship. On May 11, 1857, at the age of 82, he died in his home in Paris. He did not live his life within society's constructs. He invented constructs for society to fit his life. He was involved in constant struggles throughout his life. Ultimately the world was better for having him in it but in the end he was just trying to keep his head above water. It is doubtful that he ever had any idea how his inovations in investigations would impact the world. Today, this outsider and rule breaker is considered to be the father of modern criminology. In 1946, a movie adaption on Vidocq's memoirs by Ellis St. Joseph called “A Scandal in Paris” was released starring George Sanders, Signe Hasso and Carole Landis.

This engraving was taken from one of Vidocq's 1959 Memoirs.

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