Eugène François Vidocq is widely believed to be the first private investigator. His story, detailed in his memoirs, is undoubtedly compelling. From seemingly hopeless criminal beginnings, trapped in the life of a fugitive, in just one pivotal year, Vidocq managed to escape the death sentence by inventing the industry of private investigation.
Vidocq’s legacy is enduring in the mind of fiction writers, inspiring the works of his contemporary Honoré de Balzac and later writers like Victor Hugo and Edgar Allan Poe. Along with Allan Pinkerton, he serves as one of the most important historical figures to private investigation. Not only was this man pivotal in the inception of the industry, but his life story is also both dramatic and brilliant.
Eugène François Vidocq was born in 1775, the son of an educated baker. Not much is known about his early life besides his criminal activity. By the time he was fourteen, Vidocq had already been arrested and jailed for petty theft and violence.
After a brief stint in the travelling circus, he enlisted in the French army, fighting for the French in the Revolutionary Wars. Although his superiors thought him a bothersome soldier, his participation in the Battle of Valmy and exceptional skill in fencing led to his promotion to the rank of corporal.
Unfortunately, this promotion would be Vidocq’s last positive achievement for over a decade. At his own promotion ceremony, his uncontrollable temper got the better of him. He got into a fight with another officer and, fearing the death penalty, deserted the regiment. Thus began Vidocq’s long career as a fugitive.
Escapes and Captures
After a few failed attempts at rejoining the army, Vidocq eventually gave up and began supporting himself with petty crime, operating under a handful of aliases and narrowly avoiding capture more than once. In 1795, Vidocq was imprisoned for three months for a violent attack on a romantic interest and her lover. While imprisoned, he helped a fellow inmate to escape through forgery and, as a result, his own release was delayed.
Pending trial for forgery, Vidocq escaped several times but was recaptured promptly in every instance. He was eventually sentenced to eight years for the forgery, after which his pattern of escape and recapture continued for five years.
After one successful escape attempt, he was apprehended and detained in a prison hospital, where he found a nun’s habit. Disguised as a nun, he escaped to The Netherlands, where he was forced to work as a pirate. Eventually, he was arrested yet again and taken back to France, but in 1800 escaped once more and spent two years moving around France under different aliases.
In 1802, after being captured yet again, he discovered that he’d been sentenced to death while in hiding. He appealed the decision, but in 1805, realising that the appeal was going nowhere, he escaped for the final time through an open window and subsequently spent four more years on the run.
The Start of the Private Investigation Industry
Vidocq was arrested as a fugitive for the final time in 1809. Imminently facing the death penalty, and in an act of desperation, he proposed a deal with the authorities: in exchange for his life, he would work in prison as an informer.
The authorities agreed, and he spent two years in jail, collecting information from his fellow inmates. Having impressed a local official, Vidocq secured his release from prison in 1811. Upon his release, he was required to work alongside the French police, aiding in criminal investigations. Vidocq’s work as an informant is widely thought to be the beginning of the private investigation industry.
By the end of 1811, Vidocq was in charge of an informal unit of investigators. His work was so valuable that it attracted the attention of one Napoleon Bonaparte, who granted his unit the powers of official law enforcement. From 1813, Vidocq and his men were officially known as the Brigade de la Sûreté (Security Brigade).
For sixteen years, Vidocq worked in this government department, which survives to this day as the National Police of France. Alongside this, he performed private investigation work for clients around Paris. He quit in 1827, citing disputes with his new superiors as his reason for resignation. He returned briefly in 1831 but resigned once more in 1832.
The First Private Detective Agency
Having left the police, Vidocq founded Le bureau des Renseignements (The Office of Investigations) in 1833. It is widely regarded as the first modern-style private investigation agency in the world.
For over 15 years, Vidocq worked as the head of this investigation agency. He began to make enemies in France, who eventually secured his arrest and sentencing for unlawfully imprisoning an alleged embezzler. He managed to have these charges waived on appeal, and he continued his operation for several more years.
The Final Years
The mid-19th century saw the collapse of French society and the establishment of the Second Republic. During the civil war, Vidoq worked as a spy for the new government. In the 1848 elections, Vidocq ran for a position in the government but received only one vote (presumably from himself.)
In 1849 Vidocq was arrested and imprisoned for the last time in his life. Although later dismissed, this case seemed to defeat him, and he spent the remaining eight years of his life investigating only small, low-profile cases. He died in 1857, surrounded by a doctor, his lawyer, and a priest. He was 81 years old.
What Can We Learn from Vidocq?
History is divided on the character of Eugène François Vidocq. Some people see him as an unrelenting criminal, while others see him as a persecuted free spirit. Like all things in history, Vidocq’s true character probably falls somewhere in between. Whatever you make of him, there is no doubt that his story is fascinating.
We don’t condone criminal activity, historical or otherwise, but all things considered, he plays a significant part in the history of private investigations. His legacy serves as a reminder to all of us that, while gathering evidence is important, equally important is to maintain high standards of ethics and professionalism.
We’ve come a long way since Eugène François Vidocq. Private Investigations UK offers safe, legal, and responsible investigation services to businesses and the public. Call 0800 002 0898 for a free consultation and friendly advice. Alternatively, please fill out a contact form, and one of our agents will get back to you today.