Thanks to James Morton for this guest blog post on Eugène-François Vidocq, the subject of his book (on sale today!) THE FIRST DETECTIVE: THE LIFE AND REVOLUTIONARY TIMES OF VICOCQ. Listen for him on NPR's All Things Considered this afternoon!
by James Morton
Not too many criminals turn their lives around completely. But the thief Eugène-François Vidocq who escaped from the galleys in the 1790s and later became head of the detective branch Paris Surété (as well as a friend of the writer Victor Hugo who wrote Les Misérables, partly based on Vidocq’s life), was one. When I was asked to write a biography of this swordsman, spy, womaniser, braggart and thief catcher I had not realised quite how much today’s detectives and detective fiction owe to him. What came out from the research in the French archives and the newspapers of the period makes him a fascinating man as the subject of a biography. He even stood as a Presidential candidate ; not something convicted felons can usually manage.
Vidocq was born in Arras in 1775 just before the French Revolution, the son of a baker. Unruly as a child he took to stealing from the bakery till and later his parents’ silverware. He ran away from home, joined the army, fought duels, stole, loved and lost a series of women, cheated and lied. Sent to the galleys he escaped and eventually, when he was being blackmailed by former colleagues who threatened to have him sent back to the galleys, in 1809 he went to the police and offered to become an informer. From then on his career was simply onwards and upwards. He was pardoned and with a mixture of ability and intrigue rose steadily through the ranks to the very top.
Vidocq was an innovator. Nearly a hundred years before the New York and London police even accepted women as officers he had organised a female detective branch in Paris. He himself was a master of disguise, passing himself off as a woman, a bishop, or a beggar as was needed and he taught junior officers the tricks of the trade. He went undercover to infiltrate a gang of robbers and murderers who were terrorising northern France; he devised an early system of identifying criminals from their physical attributes; he understood something of blood samples, of finger and footprints and had a knowledge of ballistics all of which he put to good use. At a time when convicts were banned from their home towns he set up a saw mill just outside Paris to provide work for newly released prisoners. When he was finally ousted from the Surété he set up the world’s first detective agency years before Allan Pinkerton even left Scotland. Any one of these in itself was a remarkable achievement. Put them altogether and Vidocq more than deserves his place in police history.
In later life he became the friend of writers and actors in Paris society, such as Hugo and Eugene Sue whose Mysteries of Paris Vidocq claimed was based on his recollections. He is both Jean Valjean and the detective Javert in Les Miserables. The criminal Vautrin in Balzac’s Old Goriot is based on him and he claimed he had written the Court of Miracles chapter in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A play based on his life was suppressed by the authorities after its first performance. He was not only influential in French detective literature. Edgar Alan Poe’s master detective Dupin is another character based on him. Vidocq was a real jack of all trades and, in his case, a master of them all.