Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857)
Eugène François Vidocq has thought about it and agreed with himself: the French criminal-turned-freelance sleuth was the world’s first private investigator. Or so says his ghostwritten Memoirs of Vidocq, which became a bestseller and inspired fictional characters like Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean from Les Misérables.
History pretty much concurs with Vidocq’s assessment, if only because nobody else stepped forward to claim the title.
Although it’s likely his autobiography was as much fiction as fact, it’s still a rollicking adventure tale: Village boy steals money from his family and runs away to join a traveling circus, becomes a soldier and a deserter, serves time for thievery, fighting, and dueling. Escapes from numerous prisons by disguising himself as, among other things, a nun. And then, the great transformation: Faced with a long prison term, the convict turns informant, sharing information about fellow inmates with authorities at La Force Prison. After his release, he goes undercover for French police, snitching on his former street-criminal comrades.
By changing sides, Vidocq had found his calling. And the Paris police had found the perfect operative: Vidocq’s street smarts, criminal network, and gifts of disguise proved a valuable crimefighting resource. Authorities agreed to his scheme of founding a plainclothes undercover unit, Brigade de la Sûreté, staffed by ex-cons like him who could blend into the gambling dens, taverns, and brothels of 19th-century Paris and bring back intel on the criminal underworld.
After feuding with police about his unconventional methods, Vidocq was accused of fraud and eventually resigned. His 1828 memoirs made him famous. And then, in the 1830s, he created Le Bureau des Renseignements (“Office of Information”), the first private detective agency in the world.
He papered the City of Light with flyers and newspaper ads, specialized in cases involving forgeries, burglaries, and financial fraud, and hired ex-swindlers to help solve them. He investigated infidelity and looked for missing people. And he pioneered several basic criminological techniques, including ballistics, eyewitness IDs, record-keeping, crime scene analysis, and undercover intelligence gathering.
“I have the consolation of having remained an honest man amid the darkness of perversion and the atmosphere of crime. I have fought for the defense of order, in the name of justice, as soldiers fight for the defense of their country, beneath the flag of their regiment. I had no epaulets, but I ran as many risks as they, and I exposed my life every day as they do.” — Eugène François Vidocq
Is all of this strictly true? Probably not. But as a self-made man of myth who conned his way into pioneering a new field, Vidocq joins the storied tradition of resourceful survivors and genius self promoters who’ve made their way in the world by virtue of wit and a flair for storytelling.
He may even be the world’s first private investigator. But he’s certainly the world’s first celebrity sleuth, and the inspiration for a beloved genre: the shady, colorful gumshoe who sometimes breaks the law in order to defend it.
It’s a stereotype, sure, (and one we do NOT advocate). But it paved the way for Sherlock and Marlowe, and Magnum and Rockford — characters who inspire legions of real-life PIs even today.
“‘The First Detective’: A devil extraordinaire,” by Michael Dirda (Washington Post, 2011)
“Vidocq and the Birth of the Fictional Detective,” by Nick Kolakowski (CrimeReads, 2020)