Vidocq: Convict Turned Detective Magnifique
Domestic Life and Politics
"The great and glorious masterpiece of man is to know how to live to purpose."
Michel de Montaigne
In the 1820s, Vidocq's life faced many challenges, both in private and professional experiences. They constituted the ups and downs of a successful and brilliant man balancing several juggling balls at one time no matter how successful, no matter how brilliant, sometimes difficult.
His beloved mother, whom he had personally cared for since his father died twenty years earlier, now passed away in 1820. Paris turned out in respect for the requiem at Notre Dame. Her passing was treated as though she was royalty, she being the matron of the king of detectives.
That same year, Vidocq married Jeanne-Victoire Guerín. Little is known about her except that she was frail and often sickly. The marriage by all accounts seems to have been a happy one; they lived on the Rue de l'Hirondelle without domestic problems; but her constant illnesses overcame her and she died young, four years after the nuptial. Again, Paris grieved.
The demanding operation of the Sureté kept Vidocq from remorse and his spirits high. Earning five thousand francs a year in government service, he took on many private cases after hours. His reputation allowed him to seek top fee and, as he never left a client wanting, word of mouth served to be his best promotional. Prospective customers waited in line to see him, to find a missing daughter, recover a stolen artifact or, as many of his clients were businessmen, to discourage embezzlement or find an employee who absconded with cash or property.
Vidocq was soon able to build a small home in the country, in pastel-green Sainte-Mandé. The seclusion provided an airy respite away from the gagging dens and alleys where his undercover work led him. He even managed to mix a little pleasure with business by buying interest in a tavern on the Rue de l'Orme where, strangely, thieves met in abundance not knowing the real identity of the proprietor. Secrets of the underworld swept from table to table while his agents and sometimes Vidocq himself in wig and false beard sat amongst them.
Some time in the late 1820s records are unclear Vidocq remarried. His third wife was a woman eighteen years younger and purported to be his cousin, Fleuride Maniez. Scholars say she was the perfect woman for her husband, able to bear his ungodly long work hours, his sometimes erratic behavior and his penchant for other women.
Vidocq adored Fleuride, there is no doubt of that, and she knew it; he doted on her. Perhaps that is why she refused to let his various infidelities ruin an otherwise domestic tranquility. Women had always found the swashbuckling Vidocq attractive; by no means did he snub their advances. Through his penniless years on the road he had had dozens of busques who pampered him, protected him, funded him; fondled him, some one-night stands, others mistress like the one-time dark-tressed beauty Annette (who history has lost track of). They first adored his boyish charm, then his matured elegance that never vanished even in bad times to come.
Another reason his wife may have tolerated his straying was that she knew as many knew there was but one woman who Monsieur Vidocq truly worshipped, and no one, nothing, would ever compete. He idolized Lady Paris.
And when the Lady was in distress, Vidocq, the gallant knight, galloped forth to aid her.
The political structure of the city aye, the country continued to change. The kings were back in power, but the people remembered the glory days of the empire under Napoleon. Louis XVIII had been somewhat cognizant of the feeling and remained timid of imposition; he had put most of his effort in restructuring only the physical Paris (his reign, says Michelin's Paris in Your Pocket, saw the "addition of 21,000 apartment houses and many new streets"), but his successor, Charles X, though a kind man, emphasized the power of the monarchy. One of the strategies he deployed to maintain monarchial law and order was taking the Paris police force under his wing so that it would fly in his direction. He appointed an extreme loyalist, Guy Delaveau, as Prefect who, in turn, ousted Monsieur Henry from the chair of the Second Division and replaced him with one of his own, a fussy ill-humored Monsieur Duplessis. Both new officials were new hard-liners whose arching objective was to rid the city of political opposition to the throne.
With Henry's discharge, Vidocq found himself absent a valuable ally. So did the citizens of Paris. Under Prefect Delaveau, the police now antagonized the citoyens by labeling all Republicanism and Bonapartism, brothers to a cause, as criminal. They arrested men like the poet Béranger whose verses mocked the do-nothing crowns and dreamed vastly of zenith days.
Vidocq, whose heart lay with the Bonapartists, nevertheless strove, as he had always strove, to keep law and order in Paris, whatever direction the city took politically. But, because he was a man who rose so swiftly under the Bonapartist regime, along with his Bonapartist friends, he discovered that he was now being watched and viewed by the replacing authorities with as much mistrust as the corner-soap-box insurgents. They tried to jeopardize his career, clearly fishing for an opportunity to undermine the value of his position, and defame his character.
Monsieur Duplessis wrote him a viciously abrading letter over a trifle, which Vidocq shrugged off as intemperance of inexperience, but when another came attacking the conduct of the Sureté over another trivial matter, Vidocq snapped back, "For eighteen years I have served the police with distinction," he wrote. "I have never received a single approach from your predecessors: I must therefore think that I never deserved one. Since your nomination to the Second Division, this is the second time you have done me the honor to address one to me on complaining of the agents...To save you, Monsieur, the inconvenience of redressing me (again), I have the honor to ask you to be good enough to accept my resignation."
The officers de paix and commisaires who had long wanted to see Vidocq out celebrated. But, their joy was short-lived. Duplessis fumbled his assignment miserably and, simultaneously, Prefect Delaveau splashed egg on his own face with a series of nasty blunders. Several Prefects came and went over the next many months, unable to control rising crime and political dissention, until a gentleman of fine administrative bearing, Henri-Joséphe Gisquet, stepped into the difficult shoes. His first call was to reassign Vidocq to his former position as head of the Sureté.
The political air was humid, at best. Charles X had been overthrown in 1830 in a tri-day revolution known as Three Glorious Days, but the result of the rebels' arm rising turned out ingloriously. Louise-Phillipe, Duke d'Orleans, mounted the throne and, says the book, Vidocq, Picaroon of Crime, "The Republicans, who had done most of the fighting on the barricades, were far from delighted at finding they had shed their blood to create another monarchy."
Gisquet and Vidocq worked hand in hand over the next year to appease the situation the best they could, but finally they lost ground to something no human man could control, Plague! Cholera swept the city in 1832, speedily killing over 17,000 people. Citizen tempers having already been strained to the limit, they detonated when rumors spread faster than the disease that the monarchial-ruled police had poisoned the water to eliminate dissenters. Rioting broke asunder throughout Paris on the evening of June 5, citizen mobs once again raising boulevard barricades and shouting, Liberte! A full-scale revolution lay a gunshot away. Louis-Phillipe went into hiding with a brace of pistols at his side
Throughout the night the report of muskets could be heard as they held back the attacking army of the king. Around the Hotel de Ville, which housed the government's administrative offices, the streets were littered with bodies of both checkered citizens and the red-and-blue uniformed soldiery. Authorities reasoned that if the cavalry could break through in large numbers they could overtake the insurgents, but several of the larger barricades, strategically placed at important intersections, held tight. Vidocq drew up a plan: He told Gisquet that he believed a small band of men, his agents at the Sureté and some volunteers, could do what a large force of armed troops could not silently clean out, one by one, the street-side fortresses to permit the cavalry ingress.
As a crimson dawn bathed the façade of Notre Dame, Vidocq's group of 30 men drew near the first target. Dressed in the scarves of ordinary merchants, they were able to steal their way into the blockades and disarm the main rioters, forcibly ejecting them over the walls of mealy bags, kegs, wagon wheels and hay bales. At some of the nests, the rebels managed to get off a volley of shots before they were incapacitated. Vidocq heard the whine of their bullets pass his eardrum, but he plowed ahead undeterred. At 56 years old, the Sultan was still a powerhouse, grappling with the most violent of the malcontents, slapping them in iron cuffs, muffling them and tossing them aside to wiggle and sputter. In certain instances, the insurrectionists recognized the famous Vidocq and, as they had joined the fighting more for sport than politics, and not wishing to face the Sureté's dungeons, humbly threw down their firearms, chanting "Vidocq! Vidocq!" as if in exultation.
After thirty-six hours, the revolt was crushed. While the smell of gunpowder still burned the air over the Rue de Jerusalem outside his office window, Prefect Gisquet wrote to the Prime Minister of France: "Among the agents of my administration who displayed the greatest zeal, courage and devotion in suppressing the revolt on the two days of the 5th and 6th of June, I must distinguish the Sieur Vidocq, head of the brigade de sureté. This report, a copy of which I have the honor to address to your Excellency, will bear witness to the presence of mind and intrepidity shown by this agent at a critical time, and the dangers he ran in defense of public order and the law..."
Once again, Vidocq had grabbed the attention that the city constabulary thought should have been given them. The "coals of fire" that Solomon alludes to jealousy were about to be dumped again on Vidocq from on high.
The incident evolved from a simple robbery of a restaurant near Fountainebleu, committed by a band of thieves that had been under suspicion by Vidocq for some time. Prior to the break-in, one of Vidocq's Sureté agents, a man called Léger, had gone undercover to trail their movements. When the men were arrested, however, they told the Prefect de Police that Léger had done more than his duty as agent he had served as double agent, crossing up his superior Vidocq by actually using his authoritative powers to procure for them a key to the said restaurant to make their job easier
If this were true, the newspapers reminded the public, it was the first time that a member of the Sureté had failed in his responsibilities. More so, if it was true, it was the first time that Vidocq's implicit belief in his own squad had erred. In September, 1832, the Court of Assizes convened to try the case and, from the outset, it smelled of intrigue. "The whole trial was cloudy the themes of provocation, of political animosity and of prisoners' conspiracies were hopelessly tangled," author Philip John Stead reports. "As it was, (a) conspiracy probably existed."
In the end, the central defendants were handed down a twenty-year sentence, but Léger, whom the jury believed had served as accessory, received two years. It seemed a compromise to please both the protagonists and antagonists of Vidocq. But, the dutiful Gisquet, who had written so much praise of Vidocq after the peoples' rebellion, felt encumbered by the pressure of his office to ask for Vidocq's resignation.
Because Léger had been, like all of the Sureté agents, an ex-criminal, the issue of Vidocq's employing such men had again been raised. Vidocq may have fought to retain his job instead of surrendering it so easily had he not seen an inevitable uphill fight to retain the policy he adhered. Said he, "It was my belief that to keep the criminals down one had to use men who knew them and had lived among them...Deprived of such tools, I felt reduced to impotence." After he resigned, Gisquet reorganized the Sureté, hiring investigators straight from the muster of gendarmes, but the renovation did not reach the success it once had garnered.
With time on his hands, Vidocq busied himself in business. He invested in a paper manufacturing plant at Sainte-Maude, again hiring former convicts. (His faith that man was only as good as the support he received from his fellow man never wavered.) Unfortunately, he was unable to receive the necessary capital to keep the mill in operation, but in its short tenure the company introduced both forge-proof paper and indelible ink, concepts that would prove popular in decades ahead but for which Vidocq nor his company were ever credited.
He also had written his Memoirs. The first edition published in 1828 in France became a best seller and was translated into English within a year. Vidocq was not altogether pleased with the final product, for the initial publisher had hired a ghostwriter to lengthen Vidocq's original manuscript and the result was much fiction wrapped around fact. Nevertheless, Memoirs made Vidocq an international celebrity and his life story an inspiration for many classical works of literature to come.