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 Brigade de la Sûreté (Security Bureau), a unit of secret agents within the Préfecture de Police in Paris. This is recognised as the first ever detective department, created 30 years before Scotland Yard. Considered the father of modern detectives, Vidocq developed the use of undercover officers, record keeping, ballistics and foot printing. He visited London several times to advise on prison discipline and crime investigation. Ever the showman, he even led a travelling exhibition of murderous weapons.
Vidocq published his memoirs in 1829, although they are considered to be completely unreliable. He died on 11 May 1857 and was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris (his tombstone has since disappeared). One of Vidocq’s most enduring legacies is perhaps that he inspired the first detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) by Edgar Allan Poe, whose main character, Monsieur C Auguste Dupin, was later cited as inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.