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Vidocq and the Revolving Door

Can a person reasonably transition from a career criminal to a career cop? One of the most interesting figures in early crime writing is Eugene Vidocq, who occupies a unique place in the history of the medium. Born in Arras, France in 1775, he got started in crime very early; at thirteen he stole silver belonging to his parents, got caught and spent two weeks in jail. Later he came to believe that his father had set him up to teach him a lesson!  If so, it didn’t take, for shortly thereafter young Eugene stole a quantity of cash from the parental bakery and fled for Ostend, in western Belgium. From there he tried to make his way to North America, but that didn’t work and eventually he went back to Arras, where he was welcomed back by his family. After a stormy career in the military he embarked on an even stormier journey as a womanizer; at only nineteen he married after a lady friend feigned a pregnancy. That marriage was as happy as one might expect! Drifting back to Belgium, he led a life of small-time crime and landed right back in prison for beating a lover, Francine.

Sentenced to three months, he remained behind the walls afterwards, having been implicated in a scheme to forge a pardon for another prisoner, a charge that he vehemently denied.  Vidocq escaped several times while awaiting trial, usually with the aid of Francine, but after one such attempt, she was found unconscious with several knife wounds upon her person.  With a charge of attempted murder added to forgery and flight, he was in a heap of trouble, but finally Francine admitted that her wounds were self-inflicted, that charge was dropped, and she herself drew six months for aiding and abetting the escapes.  Finally Vidocq’s forgery trial began and he was found guilty and sentenced to eight years of hard labor.  He was sent to Brest to toil there, but escaped after donning a sailor’s suit and passing himself off as a navy man. Caught, he dressed as a nun and escaped from a prison hospital (Authorities must have confiscated his sailor suit!). Working on a cattle drive, of all things, he was shanghaied by the Dutch and spent some time at sea. Identified as escaped con Vidocq, he was again imprisoned and again escaped.  He returned to Arras and hid in his mother’s house for months before he was recognized.  Learning that he’d been sentenced to death in absentia, he filed an appeal and waited in jail for a disposition. Despairing of the process, Vidocq leapt out a window into the river Scarpe and was on the run for the next four years.  During this time any efforts to ‘go straight’ were continually thwarted by Vidocq's blackmailing ex-wife, for one, and various past criminal associations for another.  In 1809, arrested yet again, he was truly tired of the criminal life and offered his services to the police as an informer.  Possessing a certain credibility among his fellow crooks, he passed information regarding unsolved crimes and uncaught criminals to the chief of police, Jean Henry.  After nearly two years of informing, Henry sponsored him for release, which was made to look like an escape to protect his status as an undercover man.  Trouble was, now Vidocq was beholden to Monsieur Henry. So he continued to work undercover as a secret agent for the Paris police force, and then in 1811 he organized and headed up a plainclothes squad called the Brigade de la Surete; two years later, Napoleon decreed it a state police force. In a way, Vidocq was perfect for the job; instructing his charges, for example, on selecting a proper disguise based on the specific job and the people one was likely to meet. Vidocq himself claimed to have outsmarted would-be lawbreakers by pretending to be a beggar or some such alternate identity, and is said to have faked his own death at least once.  But despite his nearly respectable status in the police force, he was still a wanted criminal until King Louis XVIII finally pardoned him in 1817.  By the mid-1820s, Vidocq’s champion at the police department,  Jean Henry, had retired, and the reformed crook had a much more adversarial relationship with Henry’s successors, to the point where he resigned in 1827 at the age of 52. He then started a factory to manufacture paper, but that venture didn't last long, partly because potential customers looked askance at his policy of hiring ex-cons, and partly because they felt they should be charged less for the product due to allegedly lower labor costs. Meanwhile things had changed in Paris, with Charles X being forced to abdicate in 1830 and then, after Vidocq had helped the police solve a robbery, he was asked back to head the Surete. But this time the situation was more fraught. Caught between post-revolutionary insecurities and the 1832 cholera epidemic, Vidocq’s forces were said to have cracked down on rioters with undue force and even some of the police deplored his methods. Some believed that he instigated crimes to ‘solve’ them and prove his indispensability and some found his associates to be less than savory. So he was forced to resign again, at which point the Surete was dissolved and reformed, criminal records no longer being allowed of its personnel. Next Vidocq founded the Office of Information, which served as a combination private investigation agency and private police force. Despite its benign name it employed numerous criminals and did not always follow the spirit or the letter of the law, leading to numerous clashes with the Parisian authorities.  In 1837 he was arrested again on various charges regarding the undermining of legally constituted authority but was acquitted on all counts.  By this time Vidocq was quite well known and no less a literary personage than Honore de Balzac included characters based on the crook-turned-cop in his stories and plays, and it is said that Hugo used elements of Vidocq’s life and career as models for both Javert and Valjean! But while his agency was thriving, Vidocq had made some powerful enemies, and in 1842 he was arrested yet again on a charge involving an illegal arrest and extortion attempt. Convicted at the first trial, he appealed and won acquittal, but only after spending eleven months in jail.  Broke and with a badly damaged reputation, Vidocq turned to writing books as a way to refute some of the wilder stories circulating about him, some of which he'd certainly encouraged if not actually created!

After his passing in 1857, many considered Eugene Vidocq to be the father of modern criminology. Given his criminal background, he was a good candidate to reform and improve police methods since he had an extensive knowledge of how crimes were committed. He was also a pioneer of forensic investigations, including pioneering studies of ballistics, crime scene investigation, the creation of invisible ink, and plainclothes and undercover activities.

His ghosted, semi-fictionalized memoirs were published in a multi-volume edition in 1829. Few if any figures in the history of law enforcement and crime have such a wealth of experience in both disciplines; truly a door revolving back and forth for Eugene Vidocq!  

While Vidocq’s case is a unique one, moving from a prison cell to life on the run to the head of the security service, if nothing else it proves the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction!  There are many true crime adventures currently in stock here at Mysterious that will make topnotch summer reads:


One of the prosecution lawyers looks at the infamous Manson case which held the Southern California artistic community in fearful thrall for months in 1969:


Long before serial killings were commonplace, author Capote merged factual crimes with novelistic techniques to produce this classic of true crime, about the wanton murder of a family of four in 1959 Kansas:

One of the most popular comedians of the silent film era, Fatty Arbuckle is remembered today as an accused murderer and a man who brought the wrath of reformers down on Hollywood, eventually leading to the imposition of the Production Code; i.e. a self-censorship board.  But many observers, then and now, are convinced that Arbuckle got a raw deal.  Author Merritt examines the evidence without the sensationalism to give a more balanced look at the fat funnyman:


Before he was a noted author, Dashiell Hammett worked as a Pinkerton operative:

Questions/Comments/Suspended Sentence?



Written by Ian Kern — June 06, 2016

Specializing in Mystery Fiction and all its subgenres, including Detective, Crime, Hardboiled, Thrillers, Espionage, and Suspense.

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