Eugène François Vidocq: Criminal Mastermind to Private Detective and Forensics Genius
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons, Portrait by Achille Devéria
Eugène François Vidocq, (July 1775-May 1857) a french criminal mastermind, is regarded as the first private detective in the world and the father of modern criminology. After decades of a life of crime, Eugene turned and became an informant for the police, eventually founding his own private detective agency, and discovered and patented forensic techniques still used to this day.
First Private Detective in the World: From Convict to Private Eye
Even as a child, Vidocq could not resist the excitement of finding trouble. Throughout his teenage years, he found himself in and out of military, fleeing after killing two officers in a duel, joining another regiment, only to run again to avoid the noose after striking a superior officer in the head. As a young adult, he spent years committing fraud, forgery, assault on some soldiers, privateering, and accused of murder. (which was dropped once the victim admitted her stab wounds were self inflicted) He was imprisoned multiple times, yet always found ways to escape: Whether it was through the help of fellow inmates or through various disguises to escape apprehension. (Including dressing as a sailor under the name Auguste Duval, stealing a nun’s habit to escape a prison hospital, and working as a cattle driver.)
After a life on the run and numerous escapes, his past transgressions finally caught up with him in 1809 and was arrested. Vidocq had been running for four years after the last escape, and despite his best efforts to try to live a normal life, he kept being recognized by people from the past. Turning a new leaf, Vidocq offered his services as an informant to the Parisian police, which they approved. He worked within the prisons, gathering intel from inmates on forged identities and unsolved crimes, which he forwarded the information to the police chief of Paris. The inmates were unaware that he was a spy: They were blinded by their infatuation with his infamy as a master criminal, which Vidocq used to his advantage. After his release from prison, Vidocq continued to work for the police chief, Jean Henry. He blended into the criminal underbelly to gather intelligence, changing identities and disguises to thwart their suspicions.
Vidocq’s work did not only include his insight into the criminal mind, but his discoveries in the forensic science field. Eugene’s contributions include fingerprinting, ballistics, (which one of the first cases to use his technology was in identifying the person who murdered Abraham Lincoln) plaster of Paris for imprints, holds patents on indelible ink and unalterable bond paper, and forensic anthropometrics.
In 1833, Vidocq founded the first known detective agency, Le bureau des renseignments, (Office of Information) which was a mixture of a detective agency and private police force. Similar to his plain-clothes Brigade de la Sûreté, (Security Brigade) he hired ex-convicts for his force. After several lawsuits and an unsuccessful attempt to expel him from the city, he transitioned into a private life, taking on occasional cases through his later life. Vidocq died in 1857 in his home in Paris from illness.
Eugène François Vidocq’s legacy has been depicted in literature, theater, film, and even video games. Modern police and detective work methods and techniques are indebted to Vidocq’s contributions and legacy. He, rightfully so, is considered to be the father of modern criminology, the first private detective, and the leader in forensic science.