Eugène Vidocq: The Convict Who Became the Father of Modern Criminal Investigation

Updated on December 16, 2017
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FlourishAnyway welcomes the opportunity to travel both stateside and abroad and especially enjoys documenting her fun through photography.

Eugene Vidocq was a master detective who ultimately commanded a force of 28 detectives, all of whom were all ex-convicts like himself.
Eugene Vidocq was a master detective who ultimately commanded a force of 28 detectives, all of whom were all ex-convicts like himself. | Source

Who was Eugène François Vidocq?

Eugène François Vidocq was a self-reformed French criminal who turned a young life of fraud, theft, and womanizing into a crime-fighting legacy.

Vidocq's 18th century legacy still persists today. He was the inspiration for a variety of famous literary characters. Vidocq's expertise in French crime-fighting also served as the model for modern crime-fighting organizations such as the FBI and Scotland Yard.1

History, however, has seemed to snub the criminal-turned-detective. Rarely is he mentioned these days.

As my family and I walked the streets of Paris as American tourists, our tour group passed the French National Police building (pictured below). Our tour guide entertained us with tales of Vidocq—the first chief of the Sûreté (the detective bureau of the French police) and very possibly the world's first private eye.

I wondered why I hadn't heard of him before? Is Vidocq doomed to be an obscure footnote in history? Does he deserve more? You be the judge.

Early Life: Living On the Edge

Born in 1775 to a French baker and an adoring mother, Vidocq sought both risk and adventure. Even as a child, he always seemed to find trouble, as he much preferred excitement and intrigue to the more stable pursuits of education and learning his father's trade.

Vidocq - 18th Century Crook Turned Legendary French Detective

Eugene Francois Vidocq (1775-1857), the father of modern criminal investigation.
Eugene Francois Vidocq (1775-1857), the father of modern criminal investigation. | Source

Killing the Fencing Instructor

At age 14, Vidocq accidentally killed his fencing instructor. He ran away from home to escape legal consequences.

While on the run, he lost his savings when he became romantically entangled with a young actress. Vidocq then joined the 3rd Dragoon Regiment, a calvary unit in the French army. The army exposed him to battle-hardened soldiers whose exploits further encouraged his risk-taking nature.

In his first six months, Vidocq fought 15 duels and killed several of his opponents. He also distinguished himself on the battlefield. Unfortunately, his bravado soon got the best of him.

Deadly Encounters

Vidocq became an accomplished fencer, killing several opponents in duels.
Vidocq became an accomplished fencer, killing several opponents in duels. | Source

Deserting the Army for Home

Vidocq's military career came to an abrupt end when he was involved in a conflict with a superior officer. The officer refused to square off in a duel against Vidocq to settle their spat.

Vidocq subsequently struck the officer, an offense which carried a heavy consequence: hanging. To escape punishment, the 17-year-old deserted from the army to return home.

Vidocq Escaped the Noose

Vidocq was sentenced to hanging at age 17 but deserted the Army to escape his fate.
Vidocq was sentenced to hanging at age 17 but deserted the Army to escape his fate. | Source

Life On the Run: "Oops! I Did It Again"

By this time, 1792, the French Revolution had begun. It was a period of radical social and political upheaval marked by the collapse of the French monarchy that had ruled the country for centuries.

During this time, traditional notions of hierarchy regarding the monarchy, aristocracy, and the Catholic church were overthrown. Those ideas were replaced with the more democratic ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity ("Liberté, égalité, fraternité").

Late 18th Century France Represented Tumultuous Times

Vidocq lived during the French Revolution.  Citizens revolted against Louis XVI and the aristocracy, as represented by Versailles.
Vidocq lived during the French Revolution. Citizens revolted against Louis XVI and the aristocracy, as represented by Versailles. | Source

Both male and female aristocrats were routinely hauled off to jails to await their fates at the guillotine without the benefit of trial. Vidocq witnessed soldiers dragging off several such women prisoners to meet their deaths.

Bothered by the soldiers' aggressive handling of the doomed women, the young troublemaker slayed the soldiers, allowing the women to escape.

Vidocq soon found himself in the town jail awaiting the same fate as the women he had freed. His father, however, used personal connections to come to his son's rescue. Soon Vidocq found himself conned into marriage by a lover's fictitious pregnancy. When he later caught her being unfaithful, the teenager skipped town.

"Condamnes" refers to "sentenced" or "convicts" in French.
"Condamnes" refers to "sentenced" or "convicts" in French. | Source

"I Don't Find Trouble. It Finds Me."

Over the next several years, Vidocq was in and out of jail, arrested for brawls, various petty crimes, and forging the parole papers for a fellow prisoner. Thanks to his talent for disguising himself, he frequently escaped and blended back into society—that is, until trouble found him again.

When Vidocq learned that a guard was being falsely blamed for letting him go, the young man surrendered himself to save the jail keeper from punishment. For his honesty, Vidocq received a sentence of eight years of hard prison time, first in prison and then in the naval galleys.

However, only eight days after being transferred from the prison to the despicable conditions of the galleys—a brutal inferno of slave prison labor—Vidocq simply walked out. Having obtained a sailor's suit by bribing a guard, he walked directly past the warden, strolling confidently through the prison gates to freedom.

The Long Arm of The Law Catches Up With Vidocq

For Vidocq, jail was both easy to get into and out of.
For Vidocq, jail was both easy to get into and out of. | Source

Reader Poll

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Vidocq's freedom would not last long. In 1798, a wanted fugitive, he stepped off a privateering vessel and into the custody of French authorities.

Vidocq was sent to Toulon Prison, a wretched place reserved for the most hardened of criminals. Confined to his cell, beaten regularly, and surrounded by disease and squalor, Vidocq could only bide his time as he strategized his escape.

Escape, would be difficult, however, because the warden was well aware of Vidocq's use of disguises. He was therefore watched carefully. Vidocq tried another approach. He befriended a fellow inmate, a wealthy master thief, who bartered with guards for better conditions.

The friend obtained the key to Vidocq's shackles, and again he was a free man. Unlocking his own irons, Vidocq fled out of the prison window.

Vidocq's Life Takes A Turn: From Criminal To Criminologist

At age 34 and tired of being on the wrong side of justice, the criminal became a criminologist.
At age 34 and tired of being on the wrong side of justice, the criminal became a criminologist. | Source

Tired Of Running

Unfortunately, Vidocq became a victim of his own success. His notoriety had increased so much that living as a fugitive was becoming increasingly difficult. Frequently on the move, he spent time as a butler, privateer, and businessman. When he returned to jail, Vidocq again made a mockery of those who sought to detain him. He escaped once more.

In 1809, tired of being on the wrong side of the law, Vidocq contacted Jean Henry, Head of the Criminal Department in Paris. The 34-year old fugitive from justice proposed that in exchange for amnesty (he had not served all of his eight-year prison sentence), he would become a police informant.

Secret Agent

After being permitted to feign an escape, Vidocq became an undercover police agent who mingled with the Paris underworld. According to his memoirs, Vidocq saw his job description as follows: "To prevent crimes, discover malefactors, and to give them up for justice."

Vidocq's French Crime-Fighting Legacy

Vidocq was the first chief of the Sûreté, now known as the French National Police.  The FBI, Scotland Yard, and other worldwide crime fighting organizations were based on the Sûreté.
Vidocq was the first chief of the Sûreté, now known as the French National Police. The FBI, Scotland Yard, and other worldwide crime fighting organizations were based on the Sûreté. | Source

French National Police Headquarters on the Île de la Cité in Paris

Looking Like a Tourist Strolling the River Seine

My dad walks alongside the River Seine in Paris near the location of the French National Police on the  Ile de la Cite.
My dad walks alongside the River Seine in Paris near the location of the French National Police on the Ile de la Cite. | Source

A Cutting-Edge Solution

Vidocq soon suggested the creation of a new undercover detective unit that surreptitiously monitored all former convicts and known criminals as they moved into the city and made their homes there. The small unit assisted with arrests and crime prevention as well. Importantly, this plainclothes detective unit had free reign over the entire city. Such access was unprecedented.

Known as the Sûreté (French for "safety" or "security"), Vidocq's brigade began with four detectives, eventually expanding to a force of 28. He insisted on hiring only former criminals, as they had the required street-smarts and toughness for the job. By 1820, they reduced Paris crime rates by as much as 40%.2

Paris in the Early 1800's

The underworld of Paris in the early 1800s was filled with gaming halls, brothels, and saloons that were frequented by scoundrels—hugs, thieves, and murderers. Brawls and drunkenness abounded.

Crime rates were high, as law enforcement was understaffed.

Within the city, police did not generally share information about crimes across geographical borders. The result was that a criminal could commit an offense in one part of the city and evade capture by hopscotching across geographical lines.

Vidocq had plenty of work to occupy him. He also proposed solutions.

Thank Vidocq For Fingerprinting

Vidocq's lasting contributions included fingerprinting, ballistics, undercover police work, record keeping, indelible ink, crime scene security, and many other major contributions.
Vidocq's lasting contributions included fingerprinting, ballistics, undercover police work, record keeping, indelible ink, crime scene security, and many other major contributions. | Source

Contributions to Modern Criminal Investigation

Having rubbed elbows with the most hardened of criminals, Vidocq pioneered a number of techniques to track them down and bring them to justice.

Some of his lasting contributions included:

  • undercover police work
  • ballistics (the flight characteristics of bullets)
  • record keeping system
  • plaster of paris casting for shoe imprints
  • indelible ink and unalterable bond paper (he held patents on both)
  • crime scene security
  • fingerprinting
  • forensic anthropometrics (measurements of the human body in police work)

Vidocq made a number of lasting contributions to the study of criminal investigations, including ballastics, the investigation of the flight characteristics of bullets.
Vidocq made a number of lasting contributions to the study of criminal investigations, including ballastics, the investigation of the flight characteristics of bullets. | Source

Vidocq's Reputation Lives On In Literature

Vidocq's legendary detective skills influenced a variety of writers of his time to either reference him in their work or to base literary characters on his larger-than-life persona.3

For example:

  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in part based the fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes on Vidocq's crime-solving.
  • In his 1862 novel Les Misérables, Victor Hugo used Vidocq as the inspiration for two main characters: Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Jean Valjean is the novel's protagonist who struggles to return to a normal life after serving a prison sentence for stealing bread to feed his sister's hungry children. Inspector Javert is the chief antagonist in the novel, a police official who represents the justice system that seeks to punish Valjean.
  • In Charles Dickens' 1860 novel Great Expectations, the fugitive Abel Magwitch was inspired by Vidocq's experiences.
  • Herman Melville mentions Vidocq in Moby Dick.4
  • Edgar Allan Poe references Vidocq in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," his short story that is often credited as the first-ever detective fiction story
  • Agatha Cristie's fictional Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, is in part based on Vidocq's crime-fighting exploits.

Reader Opinion Poll:

Which modern mystery would you have Vidocq solve?

See results

Modern Who-Dunnits: The Vidocq Society

The Vidocq Society meets monthly at The Union League of Philadelphia to help law enforcement solve murders and cold cases.  The group has helped solve about 300 cases.
The Vidocq Society meets monthly at The Union League of Philadelphia to help law enforcement solve murders and cold cases. The group has helped solve about 300 cases. | Source

A Crime-Solving Organization Named For Vidocq

Once a month, 150 forensic experts and business people gather at The Union League of Philadelphia over lunch to solve cases that have stumped law enforcement.

These elite crime-solvers are members of the non-profit Vidocq Society, named for the father of modern criminal investigation. The organization was formed in 1990 by three like-minded people—a sculptor/forensic reconstructionist, a prison psychologist, and a former FBI agent. The founders sought to lend their talents to law enforcement in solving the most difficult of cases.

Reader Opinion Poll

How does Vidocq deserve to be remembered?

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During meetings, members carefully pore over evidence that is presented to them in order to help law enforcement reinvigorate unsolved cases. Members' expertise areas represent a wide range of investigatory, business, psychological, and legal specialties.5

Some of these areas of expertise include:

  • arson
  • bloodstain pattern reconstruction
  • document examination
  • litigation, computer crime
  • firearms
  • explosives
  • pathology
  • handwriting analysis
  • narcotics
  • psychological profiling and
  • labor racketeering.

The Society has helped solve approximately 300 cases and furthered the investigation of about 90% of the cases that it has heard.6

The Father of Modern Criminal Investigation would be proud.

Video: Behind The Yellow Line: The Real CSI

References

1Geringer, Joseph. "Vidocq: Convict Turned Detective Magnifique — Master Criminologist." Crime Library—Crime News and Stories. (No longer published)

2Wikipedia. "Sûreté." Last modified July 3, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surete.

3Hernandez, Rev. Anontio. "Master Detective." The International Writers Magazine. Accessed July 4, 2013. http://www.hackwriters.com/Vidocq.htm.

4Matthews, Charles. "Ten Pages (or More): 14. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 390-423." Ten Pages (or More). Last modified December 17, 2010. http://tenpagesormore.blogspot.com/2010/12/14-moby-dick-by-herman-melville-pp-390.html.

5Pilkington, Ed. "Vidocq Society—The Murder Club." The Guardian. Last modified March 3, 2011. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/mar/03/vidocq-society-cold-case-murders.

6Pilkington, Ed. "Vidocq Society—The Murder Club." The Guardian. Last modified March 3, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/03/vidocq-society-cold-case-murders.

Video: How Police Use Cell Phone Tracking in Solving Cases

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 FlourishAnyway

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      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR

        FlourishAnyway 

        3 years ago from USA

        JamaGenee - I'm so glad this was helpful to you. He was a colorful character, and I can certainly see your point about how easy it would be to flip sides. Thank you for voting and sharing!

      • JamaGenee profile image

        Joanna McKenna 

        3 years ago from Central Oklahoma

        Flourish, there should have been a third category in the "Have you ever heard of Vidocq, i.e. "Yes, I've heard of him, but know very little about him". That's the one I would've ticked. Vidocq's name pops up now and again in mystery novels and TV crime shows, but usually without further explanation. The assumption being that everyone knows who he is/was.

        Well, I didn't, so thank you for this well-written and informative hub about The Father of Modern Criminal Investigation.

        Vidocq is the proof that to catch criminals, one must've been one - like Neil Caffrey in "White Collar" - or be able to think like one. A childhood friend who became a U.S. Marshal once told me that knowing this was rather frightening because it'd be sooo easy to switch sides if one didn't have a strong moral compass.

        Vidocq's actions seem to be less those of a true criminal and more of the actions of a person bent on justice for the weak and down-trodden. We should ever be grateful that he chose to put his knowledge and experience to use on the side of justice!

        Upped and shared! ;D

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR

        FlourishAnyway 

        3 years ago from USA

        ajwrites57 - Thanks so much for commenting and sharing. On my visit to France, I was entranced by stories of his life and contributions. I had never heard of him previously. How unfortunate! Have a great week!

      • ajwrites57 profile image

        AJ 

        3 years ago from Pennsylvania

        FlourishAnyway amazing Hub! I vaguely remember reading about Vidocq before. Great summary of his life and contributions! Shared!

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR

        FlourishAnyway 

        4 years ago from USA

        DDE - Thanks for reading and commenting. Vidocq was a fascinating fellow indeed. Glad you enjoyed reading about him.

      • DDE profile image

        Devika Primić 

        4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

        Eugène François Vidocq: The Convict Who Became the Father of Modern Criminal Investigation is a well approached and an informative hub, excellently written about Eugène François Vidocq someone I did not know much of until now.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR

        FlourishAnyway 

        4 years ago from USA

        Crafty - Thanks for reading and commenting. Vidocq was an awesome sleuth.

      • CraftytotheCore profile image

        CraftytotheCore 

        4 years ago

        You write about the most interesting things! I love all of the pictures and facts you use in your Hubs!

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR

        FlourishAnyway 

        4 years ago from USA

        Ron - Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. When I learned about Vidocq I was immediately fascinated, but I can see why history has slighted his contributions.

      • RonElFran profile image

        Ronald E Franklin 

        4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

        A great story! Like you, I never heard of Vidocq before. I guess that celebrating a man with an early life like his was probably not considered appropriate. This was well written and interesting. Thanks!

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR

        FlourishAnyway 

        5 years ago from USA

        agusfanani - He was certainly a larger-than-life character and contributed substantially to how we conduct criminal investigations today. Thanks for reading, commenting and voting.

      • agusfanani profile image

        agusfanani 

        5 years ago from Indonesia

        Very interesting and informative hub. I didn't know there was a unique figure like Vidocq. The world needs more people with Vidocq expertise to fight against crimes. Vote up this awesome hub.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR

        FlourishAnyway 

        5 years ago from USA

        Deedaa - Thank you for reading my Hubpages article! I am certainly glad you liked it. Hope you enjoyed France as much as I did!

      • profile image

        dedaa 

        5 years ago

        Excellent!

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR

        FlourishAnyway 

        5 years ago from USA

        Elias - Thank you for stopping by. I was shocked to learn that nearly every modern detective in literary fiction is based upon his exploits and that he contributed so much to modern criminalistics. We've really snubbed him by forgetting him so.

      • Elias Zanetti profile image

        Elias Zanetti 

        5 years ago from Athens, Greece

        Wonderful hub, well written and researched. Haven't heard about Vidocq before so I was glad to read about his fascinating life and his legacy on modern world criminal investigation.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR

        FlourishAnyway 

        5 years ago from USA

        Thanks for the kudos, btrbell. Vidocq was so full of bravado and yet did a complete about-face, lending his talents to the legal system. I like to see bad guys gone good again. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • btrbell profile image

        Randi Benlulu 

        5 years ago from Mesa, AZ

        Very interesting! I appreciate all the research you have done to share this with us! It also reminds me of a modern TV series, White Collar, where the thief becomes a police consultant in exchange! Thank you!

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR

        FlourishAnyway 

        5 years ago from USA

        Thank you for reading and commenting, Mhatter99. He was an interesting character!

      • Mhatter99 profile image

        Martin Kloess 

        5 years ago from San Francisco

        Fascinating and well written. Thank you for this.

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