Vidocq: The Criminal Detective

Vidocq: The Criminal Detective

In the history of detectives, Eugène Vidocq is one of the most important and controversial figures of all (and one of my favourites!). A convicted criminal and legendary escape artist, he turned thief-taker and later established the first detective department in the world. Eugène François Vidocq was born in Arras on 24 July 1775, the son of a wealthy corn merchant. As a young man, he became renowned in the local area for his fencing skills, earning the nickname, Le Vautrin (wild boar). He also developed a skill for theft and, at the age of 13, spent his first short spell in prison after stealing his father’s silver.     His early adult life was one of adventure, including travelling with a band of entertainers – he played the role of a Caribbean cannibal – working as a pedlar and fighting for France against Austria. But trouble was never faraway and Vidocq committed a string of offences and misdemeanours: he had an affair with his employer’s wife, struck a fellow officer in the army and deserted from his regiment, and this was all before he’d reached the age of 18.     Vidocq spent much of the 1790s and 1800s in prison for assault, theft and forgery. He attempted to escape repeatedly, using disguises and subterfuge. When he was arrested once again in 1809, he brokered a deal with the authorities and agreed to act as a police spy. After he’d finally regained his freedom, he continued to work undercover as a secret agent, using his contacts in the criminal underworld.     In 1812, Eugène Vidocq founded the...
The Art of Measuring Criminals

The Art of Measuring Criminals

One of my crime history heroes is Alphonse Bertillon, the French criminologist who began as a humble clerk and ended up developing a worldwide system for identifying criminals. Alphonse Bertillon was born in Paris in 1853. Despite his father being an accomplished statistician (and later his younger brother Jacques), Alphonse’s educational achievements were patchy and he failed to complete medical school. Keen to find a post for his 26-year-old son, Monsieur Bertillon procured him a position in the Préfecture de Police, as a records clerk. Alphonse’s job was copying the details of known criminals onto index cards. But he soon realised he could do far better and, over the next two years, he developed his own recording system.     Using his knowledge that the structure of the adult body doesn’t change throughout its life span, and that no two individuals have the same combination of measurements, Bertillon devised his anthropometric system, later known as Bertillonage, which was based on 11 measurements of body parts, including the length of the left foot and the right ear. He presented his idea to the police department and it was formally adopted by the French police in 1883. During the first year, Bertillon used his new system to identify some 300 habitual offenders.     Once the suspect had been measured, the results were entered onto a card, with additional information such as personal history, past convictions and other physical features. At a time when offenders were adept at changing their appearance through the use of disguise, facial hair and tattoos, Bertillon sought to overcome this by developing further innovations, such as...
The French Ripper

The French Ripper

  Whilst languishing on the beach of a Greek Island, I read the gruesome yet fascinating history of Joseph Vacher, the French Ripper (as you do on holiday!): On the night of 18 June 1897, 13-year-old shepherd Pierre Laurent was returning home to his village near Lyon from the local fruit market, when he was murdered and sexually assaulted. His mutilated body was discovered by local residents the following day. This sickening case was investigated by local law enforcer Émile Fourquet who was about to uncover the heinous crimes of one of the most notorious serial killers in history, known as ‘L’Éventreur’, the French Ripper. Fourquet was an investigating magistrate, working in the market town of Belley, near Aix-les-Bains in the foothills of the Alps. When he read about the murder of the shepherd boy in the local press, it reminded him of the similar killing of Victor Portalier, aged 16, two years earlier in Bénonces, some 30 km away – the case had been closed unsolved. Fourquet immediately sent for the file and soon discovered some striking similarities: both shepherd boys had been stalked by their assailant, who might have been a vagabond. They were both killed by a deep cut to the throat and their bodies were defiled after death. He also found a letter from another magistrate suggesting a connection between the Portalier case and that of the murder of 17-year-old woodcutter’s daughter Augustine Mortureux, also in 1895. Despite the similarities, it was not thought that all these crimes could have been committed by a single hand. However, in Fourquet’s mind a pattern began to form....