On July 23, 1775, Eugene-Francois Vidocq was born to a respectable French baker and his wife in Arras. He was a tough kid, getting into fights, and routinely stealing from his parents.
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After jimmying open the till one night and taking 2,000 francs, he ran away from home. In Ostend, Belgium, he met a stranger who brought him to a feast with some handsome and amiable women. Vidocq later woke up nearly naked and broke on the docks.
He then joined a traveling circus, working with a middle-aged puppeteer and his 16-year-old wife, Eliza, until Vidocq was caught making out with her. The prodigal son returned home, but in 1791, he joined the army and fought 15 duels over the next six months, killing two men.
Vidocq became a famous criminal, who made daring escapes from prison time and time again. Turning informant, he also became director of the Surete Nationale, the state police force, founded the first private detection agency and invented many sophisticated police techniques still in use, before dying in 1857.
I spoke with James Morton, author of “The First Detective,” on the following topics:
1. Born to Be Wild
2. Swordsman and Womanizer
3. Ex-Con Spies
4. Police Work
5. Private Eye
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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)