The Dangerous Classes

Eugène Vidocq



Frontispiece from Memoirs de Vidocq

  • Escapee
In 1790, Vidocq was first sentenced to imprisonment for assaulting an officer. Soon afterwards, he was sentenced to eights years' hard labour for a forgery of which he was innocent. Vidocq escaped from prison in Brest, was captured, and escaped again. He was then imprisoned at Arras after being denounced by a former convict. He escaped and moved to Paris where he tried his hand at various odd jobs before he had the idea of offering his services to the police. M. Dubois, the General Commissioner of Police, was skeptical and imprisoned Vidocq, promising him that if he escaped and returned to give himself up at Police Headquarters, he would employ him in Paris. Vidocq escaped by knocking down two policemen who were taking him to prison and reported to M. Dubois. The inspector awarded him a pass to Paris. After another short stay in the prison of La Force, he was recruited by the Prefect of Police as an "informer". (Morain, 231)


Vidocq, poacher turned gamekeeper, making an arrest
  •  Unconventional Methods
Vidocq began his career by placing himself in prison cells to eavesdrop on the inmates. Then he was allowed outside and entrusted with the task of infiltrating criminal gangs. Vidocq organized the Sûreté which consisted of a dozen handpicked men who had served time in the galleys and knew the underworld well. Vidocq and his men always used the same methods. They would search the lowest depths of Paris and encourage confidences by treating aquaintances to a meal or drink and employ prostitutes.

Vidocq could imitate the appearance and language of the professionals of crime to perfection and these people considered him one of themselves. Sometimes he joined a gang in order to "help" plan a crime that would subsequently be interrupted by the informed police. Sometimes he would even arrange for his own arrest in order to throw other criminals off his tracks. Eventually, these people found out that he was working for the police, but he knew how to disguise himself so well that he would even deceive his fellow ex-convicts.

  • Hugo's Interpretation of Vidocq
Victor Hugo captured the essence of Vidocq in two of his characters in Les Misérables. Like Vidocq's early years spent on the run, Jean Valjean lived under the constant threat of exposure and was finally tracked down. Jean Valjean had achieved wealth and status by the time the police inspector, Javert, caught up with him. Javert was also drawn from the protean model Vidocq. Javert even disguised himself as a revolutionary in order to infiltrate the barricades, much like Vidocq would do in the slums of Paris.
  • Memoirs
In 1828, Vidocq retired to a Parisian suburb where he wrote his memoirs in three volumes. After touching up by ghostwriters hired by his publicist, the work became instantly popular. (Wright,1981,p.23) Vidocq's account of his life as bagnard-turned-policeman was very "embroidered". The account of the corrupting effect of the bagne focused attention on that particular survival and prompted an interest in prison conditions. Vidocq also exposed the consequences of the police surveillance system of ex-convicts; those who wanted to go straight were not given a chance to escape their flawed past, and were often forced back into crime through social ostracism (Morain, p. 232)