When Eugène François Vidocq wasn’t pulling off badass heists, humping every woman in sight, killing people by planting his rapier in their chests in hardcore back-alley fencing duels instigated for the slightest offenses, and/or doing all three of these things at the same time, you could probably find him either locked up in the nearest penitentiary, fleeing from the law, or wading through the battlefields of the French Revolution knee-deep in dead Austrians with a fixed bayonet, a musket full of buckshot, and a murderous gaze in his eyes.
Not exactly the sort of man you’d expect to become the founder of the French National Police, the father of modern forensic science, the first true police detective, and the inspiration characters ranging from Sherlock Holmes to Inspector Javert to Batman.
You gotta ask yourself a question.
Do I feel lucky?
Well? Do ya, punk?
One of six kids growing up in a fairly wealthy household, Eugene Vidocq was a total bastard when he was younger. After being busted a couple times for stealing knick-knacks from his own family, Vidocq eventually ran away from home at the age of 14, joined a traveling carnival for a while, and eventually enlisted in the Bourbon Regiment so he could fight in the Wars of the French Revolution. He was on the front lines at the Battle of Valmy, when the French defeated the Austrians and Prussians, and when this guy wasn’t capping Teutonic freedom-hating Imperials in the eye socket with a musketball he spent most of his free time becoming the most hardcore swordfighter in all of France. An expert fencer who kicked ass with a ferocity and a nastiness that brutally overpowered his significantly-wimpier enemies, Vidocq eventually became known as Le Vautrin, meaning, “the wild boar,” and leave it to the friggin’ French to have a flowery-sounding word to describe a goddamned warthog. After serving with distinction in several battles, winning fifteen duels, killing three men in swordfights, and getting sweet scar across his face, Vidocq was promoted to Corporal of Grenadiers, but was court-martialed at his own promotion ceremony when he cold-cocked his Sergeant Major in his stupid face after that idiot offended his honor and refused to fight him in a duel.
Rather than be court-martialed and executed for insubordination, Vidocq went AWOL, changed his name, re-joined the Army with the 11th Chasseurs Regiemtn, and fought the Holy Roman Empire at the Battle of Jamappes.
This is what beating the shit out of someone looked like
in the late 18th century.
Eugene Vidocq left the army just around the time Napoleon Bonaparte was getting ready to show up, retiring in 1795 at the age of 20. For the next ten years he walked the land like Jules Winnfield, banged a bunch of chicks, got married, got separated, and settled in to a nice lucrative life of crime in Brussels. His robbery, forgery, and other dastardly deeds of deviousness landed Vidocq in jail a couple times, but every damn time they put him in the pen he came up with some brilliant plan to bust outta there – including one time he busted out while disguised as a nun and another time when he jumped out a third-story window into a river and swam across to the other shore. In the decade or so he was on the run from the law Vidocq spent time living in a gypsy camp, working as a sailor on a Dutch pirate ship, and studying under a master of the French martial art savate, but eventually the cops caught up with him and sentenced the hot-headed career thief to death for being such a total bastard all the time.
It was while he was appealing his death sentence that 34 year-old Eugene Francois Vidocq decided to turn his life around. Facing his own mortality, he decided that instead of being hanged or guillotined, he’d offer up his services to the police as a spy and an informant.
Police work would never be the same again.
Basically a day in the life of Inspector Vidocq.
At first, Vidocq just used his prison and underworld connections to gather intel and data on bad guys – both what they were planning to do in the future, and what crimes they’d already committed. Before long, however, the guys in charge realized the Vidocq had an incredible ability to gather a ridiculous amount of information on perpetrators, and before long they let him loose to crack down on crime across all of France. Using disguises, fake ID’s, surveillance of suspects, a photographic memory for faces and some good old-fashioned white-knuckle undercover intelligence gathering – none of which had ever been done in police work before – Vidocq was handing out warrants like parking tickets and busting more crooks than a Law & Order marathon being played on an old-ass TV at your grandma’s house where scrambled reruns of CSI: Miami pop in during the commercial breaks and your uncle is being handcuffed by the feds on your front lawn. His mind-bending success tracking down criminals in back alleys, busting up robbery rings, and face-punching scumbags unconscious while wearing an awesome-looking top hat was so impressive that the French government eventually gave him free run to do whatever he needed to do across all of France. In 1811 they put him in charge of his own task force, known as the Surete Nationale, which was basically the first national police force in any country in the world.
Today the Surete is known as the French National Police. It’s basically their FBI. Here’s a picture of them in action:
(Cue dramatic slow-mo shot and wailing guitar solo)
Commanding a force of 28 detectives, almost all of whom were former criminals like himself, Vidocq executed hundreds of arrests on gangsters, assassins, and con men across France. Tracking down punks on foot, getting into fistfights, chasing guys through crowded streets, and negotiating harrowing undercover deals, Vidocq and his men almost single-handedly reduced crime 40% in 8 years through a series of groundbreaking police techniques that are basically still standard operating procedure today.
Vidocq was the first guy to use forensic science to help him solve crimes. He took shoe impressions at crime scenes using plaster of paris. He invented the indelible ink they still use on paper money today, using it as a way to help him identify forgeries. He removed bullets from corpses and compared them to alleged murder weapons, which seems like basic common sense, but was completely revolutionary shit in fucking 1811 when most murder weapons were flintlock pistols that took forty-five seconds to load and only gave you one shot. To put this shit in perspective, Eugene Vidocq was checking bullets for caliber and striations sixty-five years before the first police officer ever dusted for a fingerprint.
As a one-time crook himself, Vidocq also understood the importance of understanding the criminal mind in order to beat him. He made notes on people he’d arrested, found new and exciting ways to get information out of them through interrogations, and began one of the first criminal databases when he began recording data from all of his arrests and indexing them on notecards. When bad shit went down, Vidocq was the only guy on the planet who had the ability to pull up an index card with the suspect’s name, aliases, physical description, and typical modus operandi, which meant he was about five thousand light years ahead of any other cop in the world when it came to solving a crime.
It’s no wonder that when Scotland Yard was founded 18 years after Surete, they sent their top brass to Paris to study detective shit first-hand from Eugene Francois Vidocq. Or that when the New York Police Department became one of the first permanent law enforcement organizations in the United States in 1845, their commanders spent two weeks living with Vidocq even though he was 70 years old and had been retired for two decades.
Detective Move #1: PUNCH FACE
THEN TAUNT HIS UNCONSCIOUS CORPSE IN GERMAN
After 20 years on the force, Detective Vidocq retired from his position at the age of 58 and founded a paper factory that gave hard-on-their-luck ex-cons a decent respectable place to work. Awesomely enough, Vidocq was still wanted as a fugitive, and had been the entire time he was working as a cop, but the French government eventually got that shit dismissed and cleared his name. Vidocq went back to the force and ran the Surete again for a few years, but eventually retired and founded the world’s first private detective agency, tracking down embezzlers, burglars, and other bastards the cops didn’t have time to bust.
A huge celebrity across France for his amazing deeds beating the shit out of crooks and dragging their bludgeoned asses to court to face justice, Vidocq hung out with writers like Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Honore Balzac (who I mention not because I know anything about him but because his name looks like “ballsack”), served as an inspiration for guys like Poe, Melville, Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle, and seriously continued having sex with basically every single woman in the greater Paris metropolitan area. He died in 1857 at the age of 82.
Modern police are still using his techniques 157 years later.
Panek, LeRoy. An Introduction to the Detective Story. Popular, 1987.
Steverson, Leonard A. Policing in America. ABC-CLIO, 2008.
Wilson, Colin. World’s Greatest True Crime. Barnes & Noble, 2004.