|This is my contribution to Round Twelve of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.|
Eugène François Vidocq was the 18th-century duellist, thief, forger, soldier and womaniser who is regarded as the father of modern criminology and an inspiration for the likes of Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas and for the world’s first detective story.
Vidocq was born in 1775 in Arras in northern France, the third child of the wealthy baker and corn dealer Nicolas Joseph François Vidocq.
What we know about his early years comes from his ghost-written autobiography and by his own admission Vidocq was clever, but lazy, and misspent his time fencing in the fighting halls of Arras.
He also began to supplement his idleness through theft. Aged thirteen he stole some silver plates from his parents and spent the proceeds the same day. Three days later he was arrested and put in prison for fourteen days having been turned in by his father.
Vidocq had his revenge a year later when he stole a large sum of cash from the bakery and fled to Ostend with the idea of heading for America, but he fell in with a bad lot who tricked the money from him.
Finding himself penniless Vidocq joined a travelling theatre as a stable boy and made his way up to playing the part of a Caribbean cannibal which involved eating raw meat. This turned his stomach and he left to join a band of puppeteers but was thrown out for flirting with the boss’s wife.
Vidocq worked for a while as an assistant to a peddler and eventually found himself back near Arras. He decided to throw himself at his parents’ mercy and they took him back into the family home, but he wasn’t to stay for long.
In 1791 aged sixteen he joined the army, enlisting in the Bourbon Regiment where he put his fencing skills to use by duelling with fifteen fellow soldiers, killing two of them.
France declared war on Austria in 1792 and Vidocq found himself part of the Battle of Valmy in September that year and shortly after was promoted to corporal of grenadiers. However, while waiting for the ceremony he had an argument with another soldier and challenged him to a duel. When the officer in charge forbade it Vidocq punched him in the face.
Striking an officer carried the death penalty so Vidocq deserted and joined the 11th Hussars instead and almost immediately found himself fighting at the Battle of Jemappes.
Vidocq’s past caught up with him in 1793 when he was identified as a deserter and only when a captain interceded on his behalf was he saved from punishment. At the age of eighteen, Vidocq decided that he’d had enough of the army life and he returned home to Arras.
Vidocq settled down to a life of disrepute, becoming a notorious womaniser with his dalliances often leading to more duels. At the age of nineteen, he married Anne Marie Louise Chevalier after she pretended to be pregnant. It was not a happy union and Vidocq left her to go on his travels again, not seeing her again until their divorce in 1805.
He spent some time in Brussels where he supported himself through petty fraud, eventually joining the armée roulante, or ‘flying army’ which was really just a bunch of rogues who raided and foraged but stayed well away from the fight and fury.
At this time Vidocq met a wealthy widow in Brussels who became besotted with him. He convinced that he was a nobleman on the run from the French Revolution and they became engaged to be married. He confessed all just before the ceremony and left town with a tidy cash gift from the jilted widow.
He moved to Paris where he squandered the money, mostly on women, and then fell in love with one Francine Longuet. However, she cheated on him with a soldier and Vidocq beat them both resulting in a three-month spell in the Tour Saint-Pierre prison in Lille.
It was there that he met Sebastien Boitel, a thief who had been sentenced to six years, who was released early and without warning. The authorities became suspicious and then realised that the release papers had been forged. Vidocq was the chief suspect (although he always denied it) and his original sentence was extended.
He escaped several times with Francine’s help but was always recaptured. During one of his brief freedoms, she caught him with another woman and he found himself on the run from her as well as the police.
When Vidocq was recaptured he learned that Francine had been found with multiple stab wounds and he stood accused of attempted murder as well as forgery. The charge was only dropped after Francine confessed that her wounds were self-inflicted.
Vidocq finally stood trial for forgery in December 1796 when he was sentenced to eight years hard labour. While in prison he was taught the martial art of savate (French kickboxing) which was to serve him well in later life.
In the years that followed he escaped at Brest disguised as a sailor, was recaptured and escaped again dressed as a nun. He worked as a cattle driver, taking him through France to Rotterdam in Holland where he was shanghaied. and had a short career as a privateer.
Still on the run, Vidocq returned to Arras in 1800, but his stay was brief when he was recognised. He assumed the identity of an Austrian and spent time in Rouen where he was successful in business, but it couldn’t last and he was again arrested and taken to Louvres.
He found that he had been sentenced to death in his absence and after a five-month wait for his appeal hearing he escaped yet again by leaping out of a window into the river Scarpe.
Vidocq spent four years evading the authorities. He started businesses in Paris with the ever-present threat of betrayal by figures from his past, including his former wife, Anne Marie, who blackmailed him for money.
It was shortly before his 34th birthday that Vidocq’s life took of in an entirely different direction. He had been arrested yet again and decided to offer his services to the authorities as an informer.
He was duly sent to Bicêtre and La Force prisons to spy on his fellow inmates. something he did successfully for 21 months before he was released in a way that made it look like an escape.
But Vidocq’s work as a spy didn’t end there. He lived in the Paris underworld in the guise of an escaped convict to learn about planned and committed crimes and even resorted to other identities when members of the criminal fraternity became suspicious of him.
In 1811 Vidocq set up an informal group of plainclothes agents that he called the Brigade de la Sûreté or ‘Security Brigade’. These ‘spooks’ made themselves so useful that they became a regular arm of the police force and in 1813 Napoleon signed the decree that made it the Sûreté Nationale and the model for Scotland Yard, the FBI and other forces of law and order around the world.
Most of the agents were former criminals like Vidocq and he even hired them fresh from prison. He trained all of them himself, particularly in the art of disguise.
Vidocq survived the Restoration of 1814 and in 1817 he was responsible for 811 arrests that included fifteen assassins and 38 handlers of stolen goods and by 1820 his actions had substantially reduced the amount of crime in Paris. Despite this, he remained a wanted criminal, something the authorities chose to ignore until he was officially pardoned his crimes by King Louis XVIII.
The climate of tolerance was about to change. The prefect of police was replaced by the Jesuit Guy Delavau, who demanded religiousness among his subordinates and King Louis was succeeded by the reactionary Charles X. Life was made impossible for Vidocq and he resigned his post in 1827.
Already a rich man, he opened a paper factory in the Saint-Mandé suburb of Paris, mostly employing former convicts which outraged local society and venture did not last long, and Vidocq was made bankrupt in 1832.
Things had changed in Paris in the meantime. Charles X had been forced to abdicate after the July Revolution of 1830 and those who disapproved of his methods had been removed from office. And after Vidocq provided leads that solved a burglary in Fontainebleau he was again appointed as the chief of the Sûreté.
Rumours spread that Vidocq had organised the robbery himself to engineer his reinstatement by demonstrating how indispensable he was, while the credibility of former criminals as agents was called into question and he was forced to resign yet again in 1832.
The new approaches he brought to crime-fighting was his legacy and why he is regarded as the father of modern criminology. Vidocq is credited with introducing undercover work, ballistics and a record keeping system to aid the investigation. He also made the first plaster cast impressions of shoe prints and his form of anthropometrics is still partially used by French police today.
And as I mentioned at the start, he counted the authors Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas among his friends and he was the inspiration behind both the main characters in Les Miserables, the reformed criminal Jean Valjean and his pursuer, Police Inspector Javert. Vidocq was also the model for Monsieur Jackal in Les Mohicans de Paris by Dumas.
He is also believed to have inspired Edgar Allan Poe to create C Auguste Dupin in The Murder in the Rue Morgue, the world’s first detective story, plus he also gets a mention in Moby Dick and Great Expectations.
Vidocq survived a bout of cholera in 1854 but was left debilitated and he died at his home in Paris in 1857 at the age of 82.