In the Beginning: Early Historical and Literary Influences

François Eugène Vidocq

The first private detective we have any record of supposedly killed his first man at fourteen. I say "supposedly" because almost everything we know about VIDOCQ comes from Vidocq himself. Like Allan Pinkerton who followed in his footsteps, part of his legacy was a, well, less-than-modest account of his own life.

Of course, he's best known as the founder and chief of one of the world's first plainclothes police forces, and his clever use of disguise and surveillance to capture some of France’s most infamous and deadly criminals.

His life does seem to have been pretty flamboyant, that's for sure. The man he killed was a fencing instructor, who had challenged young Françcois Eugène to a duel. It was an auspicious start for the young man. By the age of fifteen he was a member of the Bourbon Regiment, and by the time he left, after a mere six months, he was boasting of having fought in fifteen duels. He certainly wasn't anyone's idea of a model soldier, though... his military record seems to be a long string of reprimands, desertions and reenlistments.

There seems no doubt the guy was a rascal, anyway. He was in and out of jail constantly, it seems. He became a card shark, and was later thrown in the slammer for disturbing the peace and forging public documents. He also supposedly became a master of disguise, on at least one occasion traveling successfully as a nun. Somewhere along the line, he worked as a schoolteacher, though that ended when he was run out of town for dallying with some of his older female students. he was shanhaied in holland but escaped. He went to work as a pirate at one point, but was caught and sent to prison. He escaped, only to return, at the ripe old age of twenty-four, to a life of piracy.

Apparently bored by this point, he decided to court respectability, and offered up his services to the Paris police as a secret police spy, complete with a detailed account of his, er, colourful past. M. Henry, head of the criminal department of the gendarmerie, was of course more than a little suspicious. But they decided to take a chance, and Vidocq became so successful that by 1811 he had established a security department within the police department called la Sûreté, which is still the name used by the French police force.

By 1817, Vidocq has twelve men, many of them also ex-cons, working under him, each with a "colourful" past of his own. Yet, they were amazingly efficient. According to Vidocq's biographer, John Philip Stead, 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."

But by 1828, the ever-restless Vidocq had resigned his post, either out of boredom, or possibly due to harrassment from jealous rivals in the police department. So he set up a printing company, mostly run by ex-cons, and set to work publishing his memoirs.

His first book, Mémoires de Vidocq, chef de police de sûreté jusqu'en 1827, aujourd'hui proprietetaire et fabricant de papiers à Saint Mandé (literally "The Memoirs of Vidocq, Chief of Police of the Sûreté Until 1827, and Now Proprietor and Maker of Papers from Saint Mandé') was published in 1828, with an English translation hot on its heels.

Of course, having spent his formulative years shuffling between duels and prison, it's almost certain much of the book was ghost-written, but it's not Vidocq's actual life, so much as his account of it, that was a major influence on crime and detective fiction, inspiring everyone from Charles Dickens, Balzac, and Victor Hugo to Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle.

But Vidocq wasn't done yet. In 1833 he established the world's first 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!" And establishing another long-held tradition. Evidently, the official police were less than keen on Vidocq's agency. there were several attempts to close down the agency, and Vidocq found himself in jail several times, on such charges as obtaining money under false pretenses, corrupting public officials and "usurping police functions."

There was even a film based on Vidocq's memoirs, but amazingly enough, A Scandal in Paris (1946) wasn't some dark, exciting adventure full of action and derring do, but a period piece/bedroom farce played for laughs, starring George Sanders and Carole Landis. It's a decent enough flick, if you're into that kind of thing, but sheesh!!!





Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to T. Strickland for cleaning up my act.

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