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EUGENE-FRANCOIS VIDOCQ: THE WORLD’S FIRST DETECTIVE[1]
By Jim fisher

Criminal investigation, as a specialized function within the field of law enforcement, has only been practiced since the first or second decade of the twentieth century, and then by only a handful of practitioners.  Modern law enforcement didn’t exist until the turn of the twentieth century.  Up until then, civil order was maintained by the military, private security, citizen groups, members of crime victims’ families, and vigilante organizations. 

Beginning in 1285, the English employed a method of policing referred to as the watch and ward, a system comprised of unpaid constables and night watchmen.  The watch and ward systems in England and colonial America were ineffective against rising crime rates.   Homicide, rape, and other crimes of violence were dealt with, if dealt with at all, outside the government.  Victims of theft, if they wanted their property returned, had to offer rewards to watchmen, or ransom it back from the thieves.   Eventually the system collapsed under the weight of staggering crime and untrained constables and watchmen.

The first remotely modern police agency in England, the metropolitan police of London (Scotland Yard), was established in 1829. The New York City Police Department, America’s first “professional” law enforcement agency, was established in 1844 as governmentally independent of the judiciary.  According to today’s standards, however, the New York City Police Department was a decentralized, undisciplined and relatively ineffective operation.  The police in different parts of the city wore different uniforms, laws were not evenly enforced throughout the boroughs, and corruption was rampant.  It would be decades before criminal records would be properly maintained, investigative procedures established, and qualified patrolmen and detectives hired, trained and supervised. 

In America, the first detective bureau was created in 1857 by the New York City Police Department, but it would be thirty years before the department would employ their first celebrated detective, Thomas J. Byrnes.  Born in Ireland in 1842, Byrnes came to New York City as a child.  He fought in the Civil War and in 1863 joined the New York City Police Department as a patrolman.  In 1878, as a detective, he solved a three million dollar bank burglary in Manhattan.  Two years later he was named chief of the forty-man detective bureau.  At this time New York City, one-third the size of London, had three times the crime, including some 30,000 professional thieves and 2,000 gambling houses.  Having taught his detectives to identify criminals according to the way they committed their crimes, a particularly useful lead in burglary investigation, Byrnes became the American father of the M.O. technique in criminal investigation.  He was also one of the first in America to routinely use informants, and because he had a reputation of beating confessions out of suspects, is considered the father of the third degree.  That the acquisition of confessions through physical force was considered progress in the field says a lot about this period in the history of criminal investigation.[2] 

Allan Pinkerton was perhaps the most celebrated and innovative criminal investigator of the mid to late nineteenth century in America.  Born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1819, he moved to the United States in 1842 where he took up the trade of barrel maker.  He joined the Cook County Sheriff’s office shortly thereafter and in 1849 was appointed the Chicago Police Department’s first detective.  He resigned in frustration a year later to form his own private investigative agency.  By 1869, with offices across the country, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, forty years before the creation of the FBI, was the country’s first national investigative force.  Its motto, “We Never Sleep,” and its logo of the unblinking eye, became part of American culture and the symbol of professional crime fighting.

Pinkerton was one of the first in America to understand the value of criminal record keeping, and as such began collecting and recording information of individual criminals in the era before Alphonse Bertillon’s body measurements and the science of fingerprinting.  Whenever a Pinkerton man took an offender into custody, he made note of scars, tattoos, moles and other notable physical characteristics that distinguished this person from everyone else.  Pinkerton also amassed the nation’s largest rogues gallery.  The photographs were initially daguerreotypes, then tintypes, and when the wet-plate process was developed after the Civil War, the agency mounted their prints on paper.  The reverse sides of these paper mounted photographs bore detailed physical descriptions of subjects, including notes regarding the offenders’ criminal specialty.[3] 

Because there were only a handful of dedicated criminal investigators in America during this era, Thomas Byrnes and Allan Pinkerton were aberrations.  The first American text on general criminal investigation wasn’t published until 1930.[4]  The word “detective” didn’t find its way into the Oxford Dictionary until 1843.  Charles Dickens, in his 1853 novel Bleak House, featuring Inspector Bucket, a character inspired by Dicken’s friend Inspector Field of Scotland Yard, was the first writer to use the word “detective.”  

Prior to the mid-1800s when pioneers like Thomas Byrnes and Allan Pinkerton were laying the groundwork for modern criminal investigation, before the era of scientific criminal identification, it was virtually impossible to identify and appropriately deal with habitual offenders.  Unless a police officer, jailor, or victim remembered a criminal’s face, the offender could use an alias to avoid being arrested on an outstanding warrant, or as an escapee, avoid being returned to prison.  Few defendants of this era were ever convicted as repeat offenders.  The problems in trying to identify criminals during this period is described in a 1935 text, published in America, called Modern Criminal Investigation:

They (the criminals) were planless, unmethodical, and gave rise to serious mistakes.  Contemporary accounts from the beginning of the nineteenth century of the “identification parades” in London give a good picture of the conditions which existed in olden times.  Owing to the heavy penalties dealt to second offenders, criminals made every possible effort to appear as first offenders. In order to check up on these persons, certain days of the week were designated for a parade of the newly arrested criminals.  They were lined up in the prison yard, and experienced policemen from the different districts of the city scrutinized them carefully to discover whether criminals were posing under assumed names.[5]

The attempt to identify and keep track of criminals, in more barbaric times, led to the practice of branding.  In France criminals were branded with red-hot irons as were criminals in Holland, Russia, and China which didn’t abandon the practice until 1905.  In England and colonial America it wasn’t uncommon for offenders to have their ears cropped or their nostrils split.  In ancient India, adulterers had their noses amputated.

It was during this period, before the time of Thomas Byrnes and Allan Pinkerton, that a thirty-four-year old Frenchman and ex-convict named Eugene-Francois Vidocq, began working as an undercover operative for Monsieur Henry, the Paris Prefect of Police.  Vidocq wasn’t a professional criminal, his problems with the law had to do with his  killing a man in a duel, a man he had caught in bed with is wife.  His habit of escaping from prison had lengthened his sentences for minor offenses, creating a certain notoriety and begrudging respect among the police.  His experience as a convict also made him familiar with the world of the criminal, knowledge he put to good use in solving crimes.  He was so successful, Monsieur Henry, in 1811, put Vidocq in charge of France’s first investigative bureau, a unit within the Paris Police Department called the Surete.  In time the Surete would become so effective, its services would be made available to all of France.

Shortly after he was made head of the Surete, Vidocq hired, as investigators, eight ex-convicts.  Operating on the theory that it takes a crook to catch a crook, Vidocq concocted sham arrests of his men in order to get them into prison where they developed intelligence on the criminal world.  He got them out of prison by arranging fake escapes.  During his first year as head of the Surete, Vidocq and his men arrested 812 major offenders, all of whom were convicted and sent to prison.

Throughout his twenty-three year career as head of the Surete, the colorful and flamboyant investigator, using disguises and ruses, would frequent the jails, taverns, and back streets of Paris, mingling with the city’s most notorious killers, robbers, and thieves.  Whenever he caught a criminal red-handed, Vidocq would offer the subject two options: he could either go to prison, or work as an informant.  Using this technique, Vidocq recruited a small army of snitches who kept him informed of underworld activities.

The use of undercover operatives and informants weren’t Vidocq’s only investigative innovations. He was the first to collect criminal intelligence and maintain records on individual offenders.  He kept files of index cards containing names, alias, physical descriptions, and arrest histories for every arrestee.  An arrest card would also include a description of the offender’s criminal specialty and his method of operation.  For example, if a burglar was known as a second-story house-thief who only operated at night when the occupants were asleep, this would be noted on the card.  By 1833, Vidocq’s offender files filled an entire room and kept four record clerks working full time.

In Vidocq’s day, there was no such thing as forensic science.  In fact, there was very little science.  Nevertheless, Vidocq utilized, along with his other tricks of the trade, a primitive form of forensic science that in a number of cases brought criminals to justice.  In this he was a true pioneer, a man of great ambition, imagination and talent.  He is perhaps one of the few geniuses to practice the art and science of criminal investigation.  What follows are examples how he brought science and scientific methodology to the investigation of crime:[6]

Sometime during the 1820’s, Vidocq investigated a case involving a man named Lambert who had used a letter he had forged to swindle a widow out of her estate.  At Lambert’s trial, the defendant claimed that the victim had mistaken him for someone else, a case of misidentification.  In support of this defense, Lambert’s attorney planned to present his client as a respectable, law-abiding citizen who had never been in trouble with the law.

Vidocq took the stand on behalf of the prosecution, and anticipating the defense, brought with him an index card from his criminal files--at that time made up of 60,000 of them--that contained Lambert’s name, physical description, criminal record, and method of operation as a con man and swindler.   Having never been exposed like this, Lambert was stunned.  Vidocq, in addressing the issue of the forged letter, informed the court that he had consulted four professors at the University of Paris who had assured him that a person’s handwriting was unique.  He then showed the jury the questioned letter and samples of the defendant’s handwriting.  All of this was to much for the defendant who rose from the defense table, confessed his crime, and begged for mercy.

Vidocq, by comparing questioned writing with the defendant’s known handwriting to identify him as the writer of a forged document, was fifty years ahead of his time.  He was using expertise and standard forensic methodology before forensic science existed.  Through this case, he became the world’s first forensic document examiner. 

In 1822, Isabelle d’Arcy, the young wife of a Paris businessman, was shot to death in a an apartment she shared with her husband.   Her killer had fired a bullet into her forehead.  Because she was much younger than her wealthy husband, and had a lover, the police suspected that the husband had shot her with one of his dueling pistols.  Vidocq examined the dueling pistols and found that the interior of the barrels were free of gunshot residue, making it doubtful that either gun was the murder weapon.  He also determined that the victim’s jewelry was missing which caused him to suspect theft as the motive, thus eliminating the husband as the prime suspect.

To learn more about the general nature of the murder weapon, Vidocq asked the undertaker to take the slug out of the victim’s head, which was in effect a crude autopsy.  At the time, postmortem examinations were being performed in England, America and in several European countries, but in France cutting into a dead body was considered desecration of a corpse.[7]  The undertaker removed the bullet, but did so secretly to avoid a public uproar.  Once Vidocq had the bullet, he was able to determine that it was too large to have been fired by the husband’s dueling pistols.

Suspecting the victim’s boyfriend, Vidocq searched his apartment and found a pistol and the victim’s jewelry.  The fatal bullet fit nicely into the chamber of the suspect’s firearm.  When confronted with the evidence, the boyfriend confessed that he had murdered his lover for her jewelry.  Vidocq had applied, a hundred years before it became a court-accepted discipline, the science of  forensic firearms identification.

In 1825 a self-made millionaire named Mattieu was found beaten to death in his Paris mansion where he lived alone.  In searching the crime scene, Vidocq found bloodstains on the hardwood floor in the second-story study, stains on the marble staircase leading to the first floor, and dried blood on the front door latch.  Vidocq figured that Mattieu had caught and struggled with an intruder who had killed him.  The blood on the staircase and on the door latch, according to Vidocq’s thinking, had come from the burglar.  Without a suspect in mind, Vidocq visited taverns in Paris frequented by thieves and came upon a known burglar who looked like he had recently been in an altercation.  In order to get samples of the suspect’s blood, Vidocq picked a fight with this man.  When the dust settled, Vidocq wiped the suspect’s face with his handkerchief.  At the police station, Vidocq treated his blood-soaked handkerchief with a chemical that turned the drying bloodstains into a bright red color.  He applied the same chemical to the crime scene blood left by the intruder, and when those stains turned bright red as well, concluded that he had connected his suspect, through his blood, to the murder site.  Confronted with Vidocq’s findings, the suspect confessed, and a month later was executed by guillotine.

Vidocq’s blood identification technique made headlines all over Europe, earning him the reputation of being the world’s first scientific investigator.   Vidocq must have realized that in 1825 there was no way to scientifically identify blood, let alone individualize it.  The ability to identify human blood, and group it into three categories—A, B, and AB—wouldn’t come until two German scientists developed the technology in 1900.  The technique of individualizing blood wouldn’t exist until the mid-1980’s when scientists discovered DNA fingerprinting.

Vidocq’s exploitation of incriminating evidence, including  phony scientific proof, to coax confessions out of suspects, in an era when it was customary, and legal, simply to beat admissions out of people, put him far ahead of his time.  In America, confessions acquired through physical abuse, if found to be trustworthy evidence by the court, were  admissible up until 1936 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Mississippi prohibited the use of all confessions acquired through violence.  In America, well into the twentieth century, the idea of tricking confessions out of suspects instead of beating them out, was not standard operating procedure.  The first American book on the techniques of  nonviolent criminal interrogation, of using persuasion and psychology to get suspects to confess, wasn’t published until 1942.[8]   Vidocq’s methods of criminal interrogation and his interest in physical, crime scene evidence--for example he was the first to make plaster-of-paris casts of footwear impressions--would lay dormant for decades.  He was too far ahead of his time to have an impact on the future of criminal investigation within his own lifespan.

As early as 1820, Vidocq’s efforts to keep track of and identify habitual offenders got him thinking about fingerprints as a method of physically individualizing arrestees.  While Vidocq wasn’t the first to think about the ridges on the skin of the fingers, hands and feet—in 1684 an Englishman named Nehemiah Grew described this aspect of human anatomy in a book; and a contemporary of Vidocq’s, another Englishman, J.E. Purkinje, published a thesis in Latin describing finger and palm ridges—Vidocq was the first to consider the law enforcement and investigative potential of fingerprints.  In 1880, sixty years after Vidocq’s interest in the subject, a Scottish physician named Henry Faulds wrote a letter to the English journal Nature entitled, “On The Skin Furrows of the Hand,” in which he contemplated the use of finger marks as valuable crime scene evidence.[9] In America, Mark Twain, in his books, Life on the Mississippi (1883) and Pudd’nhead Wilson, a detective novel published in 1894, mentioned fingerprints. 

In the 1820’s,Vidocq tried to take inked impressions of some of his arrestees, but the ink dried on their fingers before he could transfer the impression onto paper.  He didn’t realize that slow-drying printer’s ink was perfect the job.  Even if he had found a way to fingerprint offenders, these impressions would simply be an addition to his index card system.  Until 1901 when the Englishman Edward Richard Henry found a way to group and classify fingerprint patterns, there was no way to use fingerprints as a method of filing and retrieving criminal histories.[10]   Vidocq continued to experiment with fingerprints up until the day he left the Surete, at one point preserving fingerprint impressions in clay.  When he died a wealthy and famous man in 1857 at the age of 82, no one was thinking of fingerprinting as a way to scientifically identify criminals.  Vodocq, not unlike many forward-thinking pioneers, died without the satisfaction of knowing  how accurately he had foreseen the future of criminal investigation and forensic science. 


[1] This profile of Vidocq is based upon the following sources: Edwards, Samuel, The Vidocq Dossier: The Story of the World’s First Detective. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1977; Stead, Philip, John, Vidocq: Picaroon of Crime. NY: Roy Publishers, 1945; Gribble, Leonard R., Famous Feats of Detection & Deduction. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Doran & Company, Inc., 1934 (Chapter III “Vidocq and the Fontain Case,” pp. 61-89); Wren, Lassiter, Masterstrokes of Crime Detection. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doren & Company, Inc., 1929 (“The Incomparable Vidocq: First Great Detective,” pp. 146-74);  Cobb, Belton, The First Detectives. London: Faber and Faber, 1957;  and Dilnot, George, Triumphs of Detection. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1929.

[2] For biographical information of Thomas Byrnes, see: Byrnes, Thomas, Professional Criminals of America. NY: Chelsea House Publishers, 1969.

[3] Two principal biographies of Allan Pinkerton are: Horan, James D., The Pinkertons: The Detective Dynasty That Made History. NY: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1967; and Rowan, Richard Wilmer, The Pinkertons: A Detective Dynasty. Boston: Little Brown, and Company, 193l.

[4] Fricke, Charles W., Criminal Investigation. Los Angeles: O.W. Smith Law Books, 1930.  In 1928 Frank Dalton O’Sullivan self-published a book called, Crime Detection, but that book was intended more for entertainment than instruction.

[5] Soderman, Harry, and John J. O’Connell, Modern Criminal Investigation. NY: Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1935, p. 41.

[6] These cases are from the following source: Edwards, Samuel, The Vidocq Dossier: The Story of the World’s First Detective. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1977.

[7] The first autopsy in America was performed in Massachusetts in 1647.  In a Chinese book called HsiYuan Lu, published in 1250, there are descriptions of postmortem examinations, including various wounds left by different types of weapons.

[8] Inbau, Fred E., Lie Detection and Criminal Interrogation. Baltimore: The Williams & Wilkins Company, 1942.

[9] Faulds, Henry, “On The Skin Furrows of the Hand,” Nature (Vol. 23, October 28, 1880)

[10] Henry, Edward Richard, Classification and Uses of Fingerprints. London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1901. For a discussion of the history of fingerprints prior to 1858, see: Polson, John Cyril, “Finger Prints and Finger Printing: An Historical Study,” Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science, 41 (November-December, 1950) and 41 (January-February, 1951); and Cummins, Harold, “Ancient Finger Prints in Clay,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 32:4 (November, 1941).


This page was last updated on: Monday, January 7, 2008

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com

								

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