François Vidocq

The Enchanting Tale Of The French Sherlock Holmes François Vidocq is one of the people with the most exciting life stories. He was an inspiration for more than Sherlock Holmes, with writers like Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe and Honoré de Balzac basing some of their characters on this criminal turned private detective.

This is his story.

He was born in France in 1775 in a region called Arras. The family had a total of six children wtih François falling in the middle. He had a raudy adolescence, during which he cemented himself as a great fencer. A skill which would come in handy later. His first arrest is an interesting story. At the age of 13 he stole some of his parents’ silverware to try and sell it and was later caught and detained by police.

After spending two weeks in prison, he was released but even before that, he suspected that his father was behind the arrest in an attempt to teach him a lesson.It turned out the young boy was right – his father did contact and work with the policemen. Just one year later, François ran away from home and tried reaching the Americas. The plan he made was unsuccessful and so he ended up joining a traveling circus to make ends meet.

After trying different jobs in the show and hearing that the circus is near his hometown, he came back to his parents, begging for forgiveness. He wound up staying in Arras until 1791, when he joined the French military force. One year later, the young man was promoted to corporal but during the ceremony, he challenged a superior officer to a duel.

The older man refused, so Vidocq hit him, an action so outside the law it could have gotten him the death penalty, which is exactly why he deserted and joined a different regimen. Soon after that, however, Vidocq went home and got married. He was 19 years old at the time and married because of a pregnancy scare.

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When he found out not only that he wouldn’t have a kid but that his wife was cheating on him, he left. The Frenchman spent some time in Brussels under the alias “Rousseau” where he met some interesting characters but decided the place wasn’t for him and moved to Paris. There, he fell in love with another woman, Francine, who left him soon after they started dating.

François beat both of them, for which the soldier sued him. This is how Vidocq was sentenced to three months in prison again. While inside, he was accused of assisting in the forgery of another inmate’s papers and had to stand a second trial. During this time, Vidocq broke out multiple times thanks to Francine but was always caught after a little while.

On one of his escapes, Francine caught him with another woman, and after he was brought back to prison, he was told she was found with multiple self-inflicted knife wounds but was still alive. Because of his behavior, the police moved him to a few different prisons, from all of which he tried to escape, and he succeeded in gaining his freedom in Brest.

François disguised himself as a sailor and was apprehended weeks later by policemen because of a lack of papers. He made up a fake name, and while they were checking his story, the police put him in a prison hospital. He escaped from there too, this time by stealing a nun’s clothes, and was found some months later and brought to a different prison.

After just a few months in this location, he escaped with the help of a prostitute. After some smaller adventures, Vidocq moved back to Arras in 1800. He spent some time being a merchant, but his past caught up to him. He was arrested, informed of his divorce, and sentenced to death.  François filed an appeal, and while waiting for a retrial he fled again and lived outside the law for four more years.

In 1809, when he was caught again by the police, he offered them a peculiar deal – to become their informant. It was hard to refuse such skills, so the French officers agreed. He was put in La Force prison as a spy and started giving information to the French chief of police –  Jean Henry – about everything. Unsolved crimes, fake identities – all sorts of information was passed through thanks to this new role.

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It was because of a job well done that the chief gave the recommendation for François to be released. In order for it not to look suspicious to the criminal underworld, the release was staged like an escape. Being obligated to Henry, Vidocq kept on working for the police. Using disguises as well as his notorious fame, he managed to get information about both crimes that were already committed and those that were only just planned.

He was so good at his job that in 1813 Napoleon signed a decree establishing an entire state police force of which François was the leader. A large part of the employees were ex-criminals like himself. Being like-minded to those who he was catching, Vidocq was a master at his new official job.

In just one year – 1817 – he was involved in 811 arrests. Although he was considered a wanted man for a long time after he started working for the police, this all changed when king Luis XVIII officially pardoned him that same year. Soon after, he remarried, but both his wife and mother died just four years later.

Because of political changes in France, Henry, who was still his immediate superior, retired. A new and very conservative chief was employed with whom François didn’t get along. In 1827, the 52-year-old criminal turned policeman resigned. After yet another marriage, a couple of years, a failed business, and a robbery, which he solved for the police, Divocq was again appointed chief of his police department.

However, there were many rumors that he was a part of the robbery he solved, and a lot of the people working in the force did not approve of his methods, namely that he worked with ex-criminals. After just two years, François resigned again, and the department was reestablished without agents with criminal records. In 1833 François opened the first detective agency, almost entirely staffed with ex-convicts.

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From 1837 he constantly quarreled with the police, and at some point, they even confiscated more than 3 500 files and imprisoned him. Because of unsound evidence, he was later released. He wrote several small autobiographies during this period, and after that, it was time for yet another change. After a few similar run-arounds, the political situation in France changed again, and François started working for the new authorities.

His job was the surveillance of Napoleon Bonaparte. Not long after though, the country’s laws and staff changed again, and François, already old, decided to retire. He went to jail one last time in 1849 for fraud, but the charges were dropped. His living situation took a turn for the worse, and he lost the majority of his fortune in bad investments and had to live in rented accommodations.

He got sick from cholera, and although he consistently beat it for the first three years, his condition deteriorated tragically in 1857. He died in his home in Paris at the age of 81. The location of his grave is still unknown. The tale of François Divocq is an example of a life that is fascinating and full of adventures.

He didn’t abide by the law, which got him in a lot of trouble, but it also built skills that were  extremely valuable for him later on in life. There is a lot that can be learned from people like him, both seen as cautionary tales and inspirational stories. Regardless of the point of view you choose, one thing is sure – his story is definitely interesting.