In 1833, a Frenchman named Eugène François Vidocq founded an organisation that was, in effect, the world’s first freelance detective agency. Presumably acting on the principle of “set a thief to catch a thief,” Vidocq’s “Bureau of Universal Information” (Le Bureau des Renseignements Universels pour le Commerce et l’Industrie) was staffed almost entirely by ex-convicts. The Bureau had excellent results, especially in apprehending fraudsters and con-men, but its success did not impress the police force — not least because the Bureau had a habit of not always following the letter of the law itself. The police were determined to put an end to Vidocq’s Bureau.
After ten years of successful operation, they finally believed that they had succeeded when Vidocq himself was arrested and charged with taking money on false pretenses and unlawful imprisonment. Although he was initially sentenced to five years in prison, Vidocq appealed and won. The appeal court presumably believed his story that the police were unfairly trying to suppress a rival who had embarrassed them with superior investigative skills.
Though perhaps the police had good reasons to distrust Vidocq. In his youth, he joined the French army and promptly deserted after striking a superior. He rejoined (under a pseudonym) and, again in trouble, deserted again. After a spate of petty crimes which lead to a series of spells in prison, he was convicted for forgery and spent time working on the galleys in Brest and later Toulon. (Fans of Les Miserables will be interested to know that Victor Hugo certainly knew about Vidocq and likely used him as the model not only for Jean Valjean but Inspector Javert, too — two sides of the same complex character. Honoré de Balzac’s master-criminal character Vautrin was also inspired by Vidocq’s exploits.)
After a meandering career, part legal, part illegal, that ended in yet another spell in prison, Vidocq volunteered to become a police informer. At last he had found his true vocation, as he discovered a natural talent for gaining the trust of a fellow convict and getting him to reveal all manner of information that the felon would prefer to remain secret — information that subsequently became very useful to the police. Finally, when his fellow inmates began to grow suspicious, Vidocq staged a spectacular “escape” (with more than a helping hand from the authorities). Although he now gained his freedom (and a pardon for his earlier misdemeanors) he was still obliged to work for the police. However, his extraordinary success in unmasking criminals eventually came to the attention of the French Revolutionary government, and in 1813, Napoleon signed a decree to create a completely new branch of the police force — the Sûreté Nationale — specifically with the task of investigating crime. Eugène Vidocq was appointed the Sûreté’s first chief, initially with a staff of just eight agents, all of whom, like himself, were ex-convicts with considerable inside knowledge of the criminal underworld.
Vidocq single-handedly invented the concept of undercover policing. In disguise, he would infiltrate a criminal gang, gain their trust, and then reveal his true identity at the crucial moment (often in dramatic ways, if his Memoirs are to be believed) in order to arrest the whole gang red-handed. He was the first person to employ systematic record keeping and scientific methods in his investigations, thereby establishing the science of criminology. He took plaster casts of shoe prints and was probably the first investigator to ask for a bullet to be removed from a body in order to identify the weapon that fired it. One of his favoured strategies was to take a suspect out to dinner, where — over good food and fine wine — the suspect would reveal far more information that could have been obtained in the course of the conventional (and rather less civilised) interrogation techniques of the day.
Even as Head of the Sûreté, Vidocq — forever the loose cannon — often quarrelled with his superiors, usually over his tendency to use “unorthodox” (if not downright illegal) techniques. Eventually the quarrel came to a head: the Sûreté was abolished and immediately re-established with a completely new team of agents. A new head was appointed and Vidocq, in protest, founded the Bureau of Universal Information, a freelance outfit operating in direct competition to the new Sûreté. His enemies in the police (of which there were many) were determined that he should be stopped.
By now, Vidocq’s fame as an investigator had spread overseas. An American publication called Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine published some anonymous short stories under the series title “Unpublished passages in the Life of Monsieur Vidocq, the French Minister of Police”. The editor of Burton’s Magazine was a young, ambitious writer named Edgar Allan Poe, who shortly afterwards published a novel called The Murders in the Rue Morgue. In this novel, a French gentleman named C. Auguste Dupin uses his superior logic and analytical skills to determine who (or rather, what) has been responsible for the violent deaths of a woman and her daughter. The Murders in the Rue Morgue is rightly considered the first modern detective novel.
Although the two men have contrasting personalities, there can be no doubt that the fictional Dupin was inspired by the real-life Vidocq. However, Dupin is not a professional detective. Indeed, his motivation for investigating the crime is not financial reward, but for the pleasure of solving the puzzle. Dupin may be the prototype of every literary detective since, but without Vidocq, we may never have had Dupin.
Even though Vidocq was exonerated after his final arrest, it had destroyed his reputation and he had no choice but to close the Bureau. As a freelance investigator, he accepted a few minor cases, but troubled by an old injury sustained during one of his prison stints, he gradually slipped into retirement.
Although his techniques were gradually adopted by police forces worldwide, Vidocq never received more than cursory recognition for his contribution to crime investigation. Until recently, even the Sûreté did not recognise him as their founder. He died in 1857 at the age of 82.
Nobody knows where he is buried.