The Fascinating Story Of The World’s First Detective- A Criminal Turned Crime-Fighter

The child who was far from innocent

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For Eugène François Vidocq (pronounced vee-Dock) his first stint in a jail came when he was 13 years old. Born in 1775 in the French city of Arras, the young Vidocq was a ruffian who stole his father’s silver and indulged in many other activities that wouldn’t make a parent proud. For instance, when he was 14, he stole 2,000 francs (roughly $6,000 in today’s money) from the bakery that his parent’s ran, Vidocq used the money to run away from home. Only to be back again and when he was 15, he joined a circus group where he was part of a freak show and ate raw meat to entertain the audience.

It was when he was 16 that Vidocq joined the army as part of the French Revolution. Although he fought in two battles, he frequently challenged his fellow soldiers to duels and also assaulted his commander once. By the time he was 19, almost everyone who knew him, including himself was convinced that the life of a soldier wasn’t his calling.

A womaniser and a conman in his 20s

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After his troublesome childhood, Vidocq graduated in life to become an even more troublesome young man. Having married twice and never really taking to the domestic life , Vidocq frequently dabbled in criminal activities- including  impersonating an Austrian to get a widow’s money. The fact that he was an accomplished womaniser helped matters on that front. However, in 1809 he was nabbed by the police and sent to prison on a forgery charge. The Frenchman was 34 years old at the time, and the city’s police chief during the period was Jean Henry.

The turn around to crime-fighting

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It was when he was incarcerated in 1809 that Vidocq- who had an uncanny knack for gaining people’s confidence, used his skills to learn about the various criminal activities that other prisoners have planned. And then, he divulged these plans to the chief of police.

Faced with a long-term prison sentence and tired of his life as a fugitive, Vidocq was looking for a way out of the prison. Impressed by Vidocq’s methods by which he could squeeze the secrets out of the French criminal class, Jean Henry arranged it so that Vidocq could get out of prison and become an undercover spy. He would prowl the streets of Paris and report to Henry with information that would help put many a criminal-known and unknown, behind bars.

Vidocq as a spy was so effective that in 1811, he was able to convince Chief Henry that he should start a plainclothes police unit with Vidocq at the helm. The unit would be made up of ex-convicts like himself.

Within a single year , the unit was able to clean up the streets of Paris to a large extent, putting many a criminal behind bars and sending some of them to the guillotine. In the next year, seeing how successful Vidoq’s unit was, the emperor, Napolean Bonaparte signed a decree that put Vidocq in charge of the state security police force for all of France. The unit was called “Security Brigade.”

The bad blood and forced retirement

Though Vidocq’s team was impressive in bringing criminals to the law, the techniques they employed were not always legit. Entrapment, illegal searches and bribery were some of the methods that they used. And even though he was officially pardoned by Chief Henry in 1818 there were many in the force who still considered Vidocq as only a criminal.

Things came to a boil when Chief Henry retired in 1826. What with the bad blood existing between the cops in the force and the new chief making things super-hard for Vidocq, the once-criminal was forced to retire.

Writing a memoir and starting the world’s first private detective agency

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Once he was back being a civilian, Vidocq wrote his memoir entitled, ‘Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime.’ The book became a huge hit in France and Vodocq-now in his 50s, started a small paper mill outside Paris employing ex-convicts. However, it wasn’t the life of a businessman that Vidocq was fated for. In 1831, following a political upheaval and the appointment of a new Chief of Police, Vidocq found himself as the head of the Security Brigade once again. However, this time the stint didn’t last long as he found himself out of the force in another year.

But Vidocq, ever the man of schemes turned what could have been a lacklustre end to his career into an opportunity for a brand new beginning- by starting the world’s first detective agency.

The agency which was opened in 1833 in Paris was called Le Bureau des Renseignements (translated as “The Office of Information”). It provided information about cheating spouses, acted as enforcers who collected unpaid debts, helped pry out criminals and thieves and generally did spy-works for clients who came in for various purposes, all for a fee of course.

At its peak, the agency boasted over 40 agents and successfully solved high-profile criminal cases that made the whole of Europe sit up and take notice. However, the Paris police force was ever-vigilant of Vidocq’s activities and even raided the agency’s headquarters multiple times. Also, Vidocq as well as some of his agents were arrested more than once, both with or without enough reasons.

Eventually, by 1842 he was fed up with the whole scenario and the agency shut its operations.

Getting arrested at the age of 72

He may not have been in charge of the state police force anymore. And he may not have the detective agency which he once ran. But Vidocq didn’t consider such things as serious impediments for his crime-busting activities. For even at the age of 72 he took on cases on a freelance basis. And old habits seemed never to have gone away as even in a late stage in life, he continued being a womaniser and even got arrested once.

At the age of 82, on May 11, 1857 Eugène François Vidocq breathed his last in his Paris home.

Vidocq’s contribution to police procedures

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Though his name doesn’t crop up frequently in the list of  influential figures in shaping police procedures, his contributions to crime-detection are nonetheless significant:

  • He was the first to introduce the card-index record-keeping system. By this, the information-including physical description and arrest history of known criminals were kept on record.
  • He was also the first in the world to train his agents to be undercover cops- a procedure that’s common enough throughout the world these days.
  • Vidocq is credited with the invention of many forensic techniques- the use of handwriting analysis to identify a suspect, making casts of footprints found at crime scenes using plaster of Paris and firearm ballistics are some of them.
  • Vidocq also tried to devise a method by which a criminal’s fingerprints can be recorded though that attempt failed.
  • He was the first to recruit females as undercover agents.

Vidocq may not be alive today but it seems like many of his methods help keep crime at bay in many places across the globe.

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