In the first half of the nineteenth century, French police detective Eugène-François Vidocq turned crime fighting into a scientific endeavor by using record-keeping, ballistic science, and shoe impressions to apprehend criminals. Vidocq's dramatic success in reducing the French crime rate helped to popularize forensic science methods. He served as the model for many fictional detectives, including Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.
Vidocq was born in Arras, France, the first child of a baker and his wife. Notoriously weak for the ladies from an early age, Vidocq killed a man in a duel over a woman in 1790. The teenager escaped imprisonment only because the judge in the case permitted him to join the army. He subsequently served with distinction before returning home on leave in 1795 and discovering his unfaithful wife with another man.
Vidocq then deserted from the army and joined a band of card sharks. Arrested and jailed, he forged a pardon for a prisoner with a family and was caught. Vidocq escaped and joined a band of smugglers, but again was arrested because he lacked identity papers. In 1798 Vidocq was sentenced to serve eight years in the galleys, special prisons for hardened criminals who were required to wear leg and arm chains at all times and to don leaded boots whenever they left their cells. Vidocq escaped and, upon being caught, was sent to the brutal prison of La Force.
Facing a likely slow death, Vidocq offered his services as a police spy in 1809. He won the confidence of the authorities under circumstances never explained, and went to work for the Criminal Division of the Paris Prefecture of Police. In October 1812, Vidocq founded and became the first chief of the Brigade de la Sûreté or security police.
With the Sûreté, Vidocq established a plain-clothes bureau that would concentrate exclusively on the investigation and detection of non-political crimes. Its membership would be composed of men familiar with the methods and techniques of criminals. To aid his investigators, Vidocq established more than 60,000 files that identified the aliases, appearances, all previous convictions, and methods of operation of every robber, thief, forger, and confidence artist. He may have been the first police official to realize that criminals often gave themselves away by the repeated use of identifiable techniques.
In order to gather information, Vidocq used informants. Often, he donned a disguise to infiltrate criminal gathering places and acquire information, usually portraying "Jean-Louis," a sixty-year-old criminal merchant from the province of Brittany, complete with a distinctive accent, gray hair, drooping mustache, and old-fashioned pre-Revolutionary clothes.
Vidocq reasoned that most criminals were careless and succeeded only because the authorities' methods were even more undisciplined. He argued that the detective who won convictions did so because he saw and listened, then utilized anything he learned that was out of the ordinary. Accordingly, Vidocq would visit the scene of a crime to look for indicators about the perpetrator and to join in the initial search for evidence . He matched boots to footprints, physically taking the boots from a suspect and placing them in the soil indentation (the technology did not exist then to make impressions). He later became the first to make plaster-of-paris casts of foot and shoe impressions. Vidocq took bullets and physically placed them in the barrel of a pistol to make a primitive ballistics examination in 1822.
To halt forgers, Vidocq used his own money to hire chemists to develop indelible ink and unalterable bond paper. He also utilized the new technique of handwriting analysis . Although Vidocq recognized the value of fingerprints, he never found an ink suitable for fingerprinting and, as a result, never pursued this method of identification .
Vidocq's success in solving the crimes that befuddled the uniformed police did not endear him to police authorities. Pugnacious and passionate, he left the government in 1827 because of a political dispute. His memoirs, published in 1829 and highly embellished, gave Vidocq an international reputation as the world's greatest detective.
Vidocq returned to office from 1830 to 1833, before resigning because of his advanced age and his third wife's failing health. In 1834, he founded the first of the modern detective agencies, Les Bureau des Renseignements, aimed at professional and business people who did not trust the competency of the police to solve crimes. He died of a stroke in Paris, having spent much of his money on efforts to rehabilitate criminals and charm women.
see also Crime scene investigation; Handwriting analysis.