Friday, November 26, 2010

Vidocq: The most interesting guy you'll read about all day

So for the last year or so I've been reading some of the works by Honore Balzac, one of my favorite writers from the 19th Century, also one of the fathers of European realism. Basically almost everything we know about the 19th century comes from the mosaic painted by his 95+ works titled the Human Comedy.

But this is not about BALZAC (which I really like going to the book store and asking the nice old lady if she has Balzac.... lol... i'm sorry that is still funny)

The man in question is named Eugene Francois Vidocq. I stumbled upon this dude on accident actually... I was reading Balzac's book Lost Illusions and after finishing it I wanted to know more about one of the characters in the book named Vautrin. He was one of those devil with a silver tongue guys that could wax poetic on something and polish a truth that may be hard to deny. Basically he was one smooth m@#$#@.
Anyhow I was doing the whole wikipedia thing and then I ran across a wikipedia entry saying that Vautrin was in fact based on a real dude that Balzac knew in meatspace (real life to all you non internet nerds).  Apparently he based the Vautrin character (who is recurring in the Human Comedy novel set) which I can believe because as I read the dialog, it seemed too smooth too knowing to not come from someone he knew in real life. Anyhow then I stumbled upon a real treasure...  This dude was flat out bad ass.

The best of Bad Boy Swordsman/Master of Disguise/Detective/Crime Scene Investigator/Prison Houdini and all around smooth criminal.....  I guess you could say he was sort of a Bad Guy Savior back then... 

Vidocq's wikipedia entry above has a story that is just all over the place.

Vidocq's teens were turbulent. He is described as being fearless, rowdy and cunning, very talented, but also very lazy. He spent much time in the armories (fighting halls) of Arras and acquired a reputation as a formidable fencer and the nickname "le Vautrin" (wild boar[N 2]) By stealing, he provided himself with some level of comfort.
On 10 March 1791 he enrolled in the Bourbon Regiment, where his reputation as a terrific fencer was confirmed. According to Vidocq, within six months he had challenged fifteen people to a duel and killed two men. Despite not being a model soldier and causing difficulties, he spent only a total of fourteen days in jail. During those two weeks Vidocq helped a fellow inmate successfully escape.
On 1 November 1792 he was appointed to corporal of the grenadiers. But during his promotion ceremony he challenged a fellow non-commissioned officer to a duel. This sergeant major refused the duel, so Vidocq hit him. Striking a superior officer could have led to a death sentence (although a sergeant-major is not an officer), so he deserted from his regiment and enlisted in the 11th chasseurs, of course concealing his history. On 6 November 1792 he fought under General Dumouriez in the Battle of Jemappes.
In April 1793, Vidocq was identified as a deserter. He had followed a general, who was fleeing after a failed martial coup, into the enemy camp. After a few weeks, Vidocq returned to the French camp. A chasseur-captain friend interceded for him, so he was allowed to return safely to the chasseurs. Finally, he resigned from the army because he was no longer welcome.
He was eighteen years old when he returned to Arras. He soon gained a reputation as a womanizer. Since his seductions often ended in duels, he was imprisoned in Baudets on 9 January 1794, where he was incarcerated until 21 January 1795.

OH YEAH.... so after that portion of his life, wikipedia titles the next section the ADVENTURE years.... (implying that the previous crazyness was totally not adventurous, but as you read on about his life you can see why this isn't anything at all) add in more duels (due to womanizing), being the criminal godfather due to his exploits, changing sides and deciding to work for the Paris police force, coming up with all types of Sherlock holmes/CSI type stuff as seen below

On 1 July 1809, only a few days before his 34th birthday, Vidcoq was arrested again. He decided to stop living on the fringes of society and offered his service as an informant to the police. His offer was accepted and on 20 July he was jailed in Bicêtre where he started his work as a spy. On 28 October he continued his work in La Force Prison. He sounded out his inmates and forwarded his information about forged identities and unsolved crimes through Annette to the police chief of Paris Jean Henry.
I believe I might have become a perpetual spy, so far was every one from supposing that any connivance existed between the agents of the public authority and myself. Even the porters and keepers were in ignorance of my mission with which I was entrusted. Adored by the thieves, esteemed by the most determined bandits (for even these hardened wretches have a sentiment which they call esteem), I could always rely on their devotion to me.
—Eugène François Vidocq, Memoirs of Vidocq, p. 190 [5]
After 21 months of spying Vidocq was released from jail on the recommendation of Henry. So as not to raise suspicions among the other inmates, the release (which took place on 25 March 1811) was arranged to look like an escape. Still, Vidocq was not really free, because now he was obliged to Henry. Therefore, he continued to work as a secret agent for the Paris police. He used his contacts and his reputation in the criminal underworld to gain trust. He disguised himself as an escaped convict and immersed himself in the criminal scene to learn about planned and committed crimes. He even took part in felonies in order to suddenly turn on his partners and arrest them. When criminals eventually began to suspect him, he used disguises and assumed other identities to continue his work and throw off suspicion.

The Sûreté initially had eight, then twelve, and in 1823 had twenty employees. One year later it increased again to 28 secret agents. In addition, there were eight persons who secretly worked for the Sûreté but instead of a salary they received licences for gambling halls. A major part of Vidocq's subordinates were ex-criminals like himself. He even hired them fresh from the prisons, e.g. Coco Lacour, who would later be Vidocq's successor at the Sûreté. Vidocq described his work from this period:
It was with a troop so small as this that I had to watch over more than twelve hundred pardoned convicts, freed, some from public prisons, others from solitary confinement: to put in execution, annually, from four to five hundred warrants, as well from the préfet as the judicial authorities; to procure information, to undertake searches, and to obtain particulars of every description; to make nightly rounds, so perpetual and arduous during the winter season; to assist the commissaries of police in their searches, or in the execution of search-warrants; to explore the various rendezvous in every part; to go to the theatres, the boulevards, the barriers, and all other public places, the haunts of thieves and pickpockets.
—Eugène François Vidocq, Memoirs of Vidocq, p. 233 [5]
Vidocq personally trained his agents, for example in selecting the correct disguise depending on the kind of job. He himself still went out hunting for criminals too. His memoirs are full with stories about how he outsmarted criminals by pretending to be a beggar or an old cuckold. At one point he even simulated his own death.

He even started a paper mill and gave jobs to ex-cons.... (keep in mind people were ex-cons for stealing food and stuff as well)

Eventually he went on to start the First Ever Private Detective Agency. He was also the father of modern criminology (basically he's the grandfather of that CSI show you like) and he is the indirect basis for Sherlock Holmes... he also was called in to consult when they formed Scotland Yard.

In fact there is a real life society named after Vidocq, which is a bunch of CSI'esque experts who solve super hard to tough crimes on their lunch break... check out out here on NPR The Vidocq Society: Solving Murders like CSI and stuff

If you have a few I would HIGHLY recommend checking out his wikipedia page, it's full of awesome.

Balzac Books

Movie on Vidocq

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