It Takes a Thief: Eugène François Vidocq by Bradley Harper MD, FCAP

The Sûreté Nationale, or French National Police, was founded in 1812 by Eugene Francois Vidocq, who headed it until 1827. It was the inspiration for Scotland Yard, the FBI, and other departments of criminal investigation throughout the world, while its founder served as the inspiration for Victor Hugo’s character of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables and Edgar Allen Poe’s French Inspector C. Auguste Dupin. In later years he founded the world’s first private detective agency, and was the first law enforcement official to employ female agents.

At the time of its formation in 1812, Paris was approaching one million inhabitants, and its crime rate was the highest in Europe, forcing even middle-class citizens to hire guards when they ventured out at night. Vidocq’s small force primarily worked undercover and its early members consisted largely of reformed criminals. By 1820 – eight years after its formation- its 30-man team had reduced the crime rate in Paris by 40%.

Vidocq’s ability to recruit reformed criminals and to blend seamlessly into the criminal underworld was due in large fact to his former life as a convicted thief and forger.

Born into a comfortable middle-class family he was known as a youth for his fierceness as a fencer in local fighting halls, and earned the nickname Le Vautrin, or “Wild Boar.” He was also well-known to the local police, and at the age of thirteen was imprisoned at his father’s orders for fourteen days for stealing silver plates from his home.

The lesson his father intended for his wayward son was short-lived however, for at age fourteen he stole from the cash box of his father’s bakery and ran away. He traveled about France for a few months, joined a group of entertainers, and learned how to act. In 1791 at age sixteen, he enlisted in the Bourbon Regiment and within six months was involved in fifteen duels, killing two of his opponents. While in a military jail he helped another inmate escape by forging his release papers.

He did eventually stay out of trouble long enough to see combat, and fought so bravely he was to be promoted to Corporal but at the ceremony he challenged a Sergeant Major to a duel. When the man refused Vodocq hit him, which could have resulted in the death sentence so he fled, only to join another regiment a month later.

His military discipline was no better in his new regiment, and at the age of eighteen he was cashiered out and returned to Arras, his home town. Whether to escape a mob of jealous husbands or out of boredom, Vidcocq had one last fling as a soldier, with no better results, and fled to Brussels, where he fell in with assorted criminals, then on to Paris where he soon found himself in jail for beating a lover and the man he found her with.

His sentence was for three months, but lengthened after he successfully forged a release for a fellow inmate. He escaped several times with the help of another lover, but was better at escaping than hiding, and was finally held long enough to be sentenced to eight years of hard labor for the forgery.

Sent to Brest, he escaped while disguised as a sailor but was arrested as a possible naval deserter. He escaped a military hospital while dressed as a nun, and then hired on as a cattle drover and walked across France to Holland, where he was Shanghaied onto a crew of privateers. He served with them for a short while before being released, only to be arrested as an escaped convict by the French and sent to prison in Toulon, to escape once more.

He was on the run for eleven years after that, even becoming a successful businessman in Rouen, then again in Paris, but his past kept catching up with him, and he would be forced to flee. He was arrested in 1809 as an escaped convict, but now with a death sentence over him due to his frequent escapes. He had just turned thirty-four, and decided that it was time to turn over a new leaf. He offered his services as a police informant, and his life was never the same.

He was sent to a jail and was soon forwarding information on unsolved crimes to the Paris Chief of Police. Vidocq’s information became so useful that after almost two years in prison he was allowed to “escape” with the tacit assistance of the police, allowing him to continue his work within the criminal underground of Paris.

At the end of 1811, Vidocq informally organized a plainclothes unit, the Brigade de la Sûreté (“Security Brigade”). The police department quickly recognized its value, and in October 1812, the experiment was officially converted to a security police unit under the prefecture of Police, and Vidocq was appointed its leader. On 17 December, Napoleon signed a decree that made the brigade a state security police force. From that day on, it was called the Surete` Nationale.

In 1827 Vidcocq resigned his position and in 1833, founded Le bureau des renseignements (“Office of Information”), a company that was a mixture of a detective agency and a private police force. It is considered to be the first known detective agency.  Once again, he predominantly hired ex-convicts.

Forensics did not formally exist during Vidocq’s time but he usually had a small laboratory set up in his office building. In the archives of the Parisian police are reports of cases that he solved by applying forensic methods decades before they were recognized as such.

Among his successes was the development of tamper-proof paper, that would cause the ink to smear if a forger tried to alter an amount after the ink had dried, and indelible ink, that was adopted by the French government for the printing of bank notes. He also used plaster casts of footprints found at a crime scene and developed a filing card system of known criminals, listing their aliases, physical description, and modus operandi. If the criminal was a forger, a copy of their handwriting was included.

The legend of Vidocq lives on, not just in literature, but in the Vidocq Society. Founded in 1990 in Philadelphia, its members are all forensic experts. At their monthly meetings, they try to solve cold cases from around the world, free of charge and in accordance with their motto Veritas veritatum (“Truth generates truth”). The rolls of membership are closed and the number of members remains low enough to never exceed eighty-one, the number of years of Vidocq’s tumultuous life.

Bradley Harper is a retired US Army Colonel and pathologist who has performed over two-hundred autopsies and some twenty forensic death investigations. A life-long fan of Sherlock Holmes, he did intensive research for his debut novel, A Knife in the Fog, which involved a young Doctor Conan Doyle in the hunt for Jack the Ripper, including a trip to London’s East End with noted Jack the Ripper historian Richard Jones. Harper’s first novel was published in October 2018 and was a finalist for a 2019 Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America for Best First Novel by an American Author and is a Recommended Read by the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate.

Knife went on to win Killer Nashville’s 2019 Silver Falchion as Best Mystery. The audio book, narrated by former Royal Shakespearean actor Matthew Lloyd Davies, won Audiofile Magazine’s 2019 Earphone award for Best Mystery and Suspense. The book is also available in Japan via Hayakawa Publishing.

His second novel, Queen’s Gambit, involving a fictional assassination attempt on Queen Victoria, Won Killer Nashville’s 2020 Silver Falchion Award twice, once for Best Suspense, and again as Book of the Year.