Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857) was a French criminal who became the founder and first director of the crime-detection Sûreté Nationale as well as the head of the first known private detective agency. He is regarded as the father of modern criminology and the French police department. He is also considered to be the first private detective. Vidocq's successes as an investigator inspired many Victorian authors who borrowed his brilliance to embody their fictional heroes. The character of Sherlock Holmes is based on Vidocq; so are both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. Dickens mentions Vidocq in Great Expectations; Melville cites him in Moby Dick, and Poe refers to Vidocq's methods in The Murders in the Rue Morgue. As a player in France's criminal underworld, Vidocq was a master of disguises and an accomplished thief, eventually turning his unlawful talents toward catching criminals as the first chief of secret police. Playing both sides of the law, Vidocq's life highlights the blurry line between law enforcement and the criminals they pursue. He has a knack for finding trouble throughout his topsy-turvy life, getting into one hot situation after another, often finding himself behind bars, only to escape the first chance he gets. His book takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of France in the chaotic aftermath of the Revolution. In December 1828, Vidocq published his Memoirs, with the help of some ghostwriters. The work became a bestseller and sold over 50,000 copies in the first year. Out of print for many years, this new translation of the Memoirs from The Parisian Press reconstructs the text of Vidocq's lengthy book and presents his autobiography in modern English, complete and unabridged, with annotations and illustrations.
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The Memoirs of Detective Vidocq
Eugène François Vidocq
Published by The Parisian Press, 2018.
© Copyright 2018 by The Parisian Press.
This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal. All rights reserved.
Published by The Parisian Press, Los Angeles.
First printing 2018.
Further Reading: Journal of a Trapper: Nine Years in the Rocky Mountains, 1834-1843
I WAS BORN AT ARRAS[in Northern France] on July 23, 1715, in a house adjoining that in which Robespierre was born, sixteen years previously. It was night; the rain fell, lightning flashed, the thunder rolled; and a relation, who was both midwife and clairvoyant, foretold that my life would be a stormy one.
However that may be, we will presume that the sky was not troubled on my account; and although there is always something attractive in the sublime, I am far from thinking that the turbulence of the elements had much to do with my birth.
I had a most robust constitution, and there was a lot of me, so much so that people took me for a child of two years; and I gave signs of that athletic figure, that colossal form, which has since struck terror into the most hardened criminals. My father’s house being situated in the Place d’Armes, the haunt of local rogues, I had my muscles tested early in scuffles with local boys, whose parents were always complaining of me to my father and mother.
At home, nothing was talked of but torn-ears, black-eyes, and ripped garments. At eight years old, I was the terror of all the dogs, cats, and children of the neighborhood; at thirteen, I handled a [fencing] foil with no little skill. My father, seeing that I associated chiefly with the military of the garrison, was concerned, and instructed me to prepare myself for receiving Holy Communion, and that he had employed two devotees to prepare me for this solemn duty. At the same time, I was to learn the trade of a baker, which was my father’s business, in which he intended that I should succeed him, although I had an elder brother.
My job primarily consisted in carrying bread through the city. During my rounds, I made frequent visits to the fencing rooms, of which my parents were not long in ignorance; but the cooks all gave such testimony of my politeness and punctuality, that they winked at this trifling prank. This went on until they discovered a deficiency in the till, of which they never took away the key. My brother, who visited it in the same manner as myself, was detected in the very act, and sent off in a hurry to a baker at Lille [33 miles away on the border with Belgium.]
The day after this event, which had not been explained to me, I was about to explore, as had become habit, the convenient drawer, when I perceived that it was carefully closed. The same day, my father instructed me to use more alacrity in my rounds, and to return at a certain hour. It was evident that from that day forward I should be equally deprived of liberty and money. I bewailed this twofold calamity, and hastened to impart it to a comrade named Poyant, who was older than myself.
As a hole was cut in the counter to drop the money through, he first advised me to try using a feather dipped in glue; but this clever idea only yielded small coins, and it became necessary for me to procure a fake key, which was made for me by a blacksmith’s son. It worked and we spent together the fruits of this pilfering at a public-house, where we had established our headquarters.
Here there congregated, attracted by the master of the house, a great many well-known rogues, and some unfortunate young fellows, who, to replenish their pockets, used the same expedient as me. I soon joined the society of the these abandoned vagabonds, and they initiated me into all their villainies. Such was the honorable society in the bosom of which I spent my leisure hours, until one day my father surprised me, as he had done my brother, took away my key, heartily thrashed me, and took such precautions as totally cut off all my hopes of ever again getting a dividend from the receipts therein deposited.
My only recourse now was to draw a wage directly from the baked goods.
Occasionally, I pilfered a loaf or two; but as in disposing of them I was compelled to sell them very cheaply. I scarcely by their sale obtained sufficient funds to keep myself in tarts and honey. Necessity makes us active. I had an eye for everything; all was agreeable to me; wine, sugar, coffee and liquor. My mother had never known her provisions to disappear so quickly, and perhaps would not have discovered so soon, but two chickens which I had resolved on disposing of to my own peculiar profit, raised their voices to accuse me.
Hid in my breeches pocket, and concealed by my baker’s apron, they thrust out their heads and crowed; and my mother, thus informed of their intended fate, came out to prevent it. She gave me several cuffs on the head, and sent me to bed without supper. I did not sleep a wink, and it was, I think, the evil spirit that kept me tossing; all I know is, that I rose with the determination to lay hands on all the silver. One thing alone gave me uneasiness. On each piece the name of Vidocq was engraved in large letters.
Poyant, to whom I broached the matter, overruled all difficulties; and the same day, at dinner time, I swept off ten forks and as many coffee spoons. Twenty minutes afterwards the whole was pawned, and the next day I had not a farthing left of the hundred and fifty francs which I had borrowed on them.
I didn’t come home for three days, and on the third evening I was arrested by two police officers who conveyed me to the Baudets, a place which housed the insane, together with those awaiting trial, and incorrigible villains of the district. I was thrown into a dungeon for ten days, without being told the cause of my arrest, and then the jailer told me that I had been imprisoned at the desire of my father. The information comforted me. It was a paternal correction that was inflicted on me, and I accordingly judged that its continuance would not be rigorous.
My mother came to see me the next day, and I was pardoned. Four days later, I was set free, and I returned to work with a determination to conduct myself irreproachably from now on. Oh, vain resolve!
I soon resumed my old habits, except extravagance; and I had excellent reasons for no more playing the prodigal son; for my father, who had before been rather lax with me, his youngest son, now exercised a vigilance that would have done credit to the commandant of a cadet training camp. If he left the post at the counter, my mother relieved guard. It was impossible for me to approach it, although I was constantly on the lookout. This put me in despair.
At last, one of my drinking companions took pity on me; it was Poyant again; that thorough rogue, of whose abilities in this way the citizens of Arras no doubt still remember. I confided my sorrows to his friendly ear.
“What a precious fool you are,” he said. “What business has a lad of your age to be short of a farthing? Ah! Were I in your place, I know what I would do.”
“Your parents are rich, and a thousand crowns, more or less, would not hurt them. The old misers! They are fair game, and we must carry it off.”
“I understand, we must grasp at once what we cannot get piece by piece.”
“Exactly; and then we will be off, neither seen nor known.”
“Yes, but the police.”
“Hold your tongue! Are you not their son? And your mother is too soft for you.”
This consideration of my mother’s love, united to the remembrance of her kindness after my recent transgressions, was powerfully persuasive. I blindly adopted a project which smiled on my audacity. It only remained to put the plan in motion, and I didn’t have to wait long
One evening, whilst my mother was at home alone, a confidant of Poyant came kindly to tell her that, engaged in a debauch with some girls, I was fighting everybody, and breaking and destroying everything in the house; and that, if I were not stopped, there would be at least a hundred francs to pay for the damage done.
At this moment, my mother was seated in her chair knitting; the stocking dropped from her hand, she arose with haste, and ran with great alarm to the place of the pretended affray, which had been fixed on at the extremity of the city.
Her absence could not be of long continuance, and we hastened to profit by it. A key which I had stolen from the old lady procured us admittance into the shop. The till was closed. I was almost glad to meet with this obstacle; I recalled the memory of my mother’s love for me, not as an inducement to commit the act with impunity, but as exciting feelings of coming remorse. I was going to retire. Poyant held me; his infernal eloquence made me blush for what he called my weakness; and when he presented me with a crowbar, with which he had the foresight to bring along, I seized it almost with enthusiasm. The chest was forced. It contained nearly 2000 francs, which we shared, and half an hour afterward I was alone on the road to Lille.
Knowing the trouble which this affair must have thrown me into, I walked at first very quickly, so that when I reached Lens I was much fatigued. A return chaise passed, into which I got, and in less than three hours arrived at the capital of French Flanders, whence I immediately started for Dunkirk, being excessively anxious to place myself beyond the reach of pursuit.
I had resolved on visiting the new world. My fate forbade this project. The port of Dunkirk was empty, I reached Calais, intending to embark immediately, but they asked me more than the whole sum in my possession. I was induced to hope that at Ostend the fare would be less; and on going there found the captains not more reasonable than at Calais. Thus disappointed I fell into that adventurous disposition, which induces us to throw ourselves voluntarily into the arms of the first enterprise that offers. Whilst I was walking, I was accosted by a person whose benevolent appearance gave me rather a favorable impression of him. The first words he addressed to me were questions. He had learnt that I was a stranger; he told me that he was a shipbroker; and when he learnt the cause of my coming to Ostend, he offered his services.
“Your countenance pleases me,” said he. “I like an open face; there is in your features the air of frankness and joviality, which I like, and I will prove it to you by procuring for you a passage for almost nothing.”
I spoke of my gratitude. “No thanks, my friend; that will be soon enough when your business is completed, which I hope will be soon; but surely you will be tired of waiting about in this manner?” I said that certainly I was not very much amused. “If you will accompany me to Blakemberg, we will sup there together, with some jolly fellows, who are very fond of Frenchmen.”
The broker was so polite, and asked me so cordially, that I thought it would be ungentlemanly to refuse, and therefore accepted his invitation. He conducted me to a house where some very agreeable young ladies welcomed us with all that ancient hospitality which did not confine itself only to feasting.
At midnight, probably—I say, probably, for we took no account of hours—my head became heavy, and my legs would no longer support me; there was around me a complete chaos, and things whirled in such a manner, that without perceiving that they had undressed me, I thought I was stripped to my shirt in the same bed with one of the Blakembergian nymphs; it might be true, but all that I know is, that I soon fell soundly asleep. On waking, I found myself cold; instead of the large green curtains, which had appeared to me in my sleep, my heavy eyes only gazed on a forest of masts, and I heard the watchful cry which only echoes in the seaports. I endeavored to rise, and my hand touched a heap of cordage, against which I was leaning.
Did I dream then, or had I dreamt the previous evening? I felt about, I got up, and when on my feet I found that I did not dream, and what was worse, that I was not one of the small numbers of those personages whom fortune favors while sleeping. I was half-naked, and except two crowns and six livres, which I found in one of my breeches pockets, I was penniless. It was then but too clear to me, as the broker had said, “my business had soon been done.” I was greatly enraged, but what did that avail me?
I was even unable to point out the spot where I had been thus plundered. I made up my mind and returned to the inn, where I had some clothes which remedied the deficiencies of my attire. I had no occasion to tell my misfortune to the landlord.
“Ah, ah!” said he to me, as far off as he could see me, “here comes another. Do you know, young man, that you have got off well? You are with all your limbs, which is lucky when one gets into such a hornet’s nest; you now know what a land shark is; they were certainly beautiful sirens! All pirates are not on the sea, you observe, nor all the sharks within it; I will wager that they have not left you a farthing.” I drew my two crowns from my pocket to show them the innkeeper. “That will be,” said he, “just enough to pay your bill,” which he then presented. I paid it and took leave of him, without however quitting the city.
The sea was open to me as a profession, and I resolved to betroth myself to it, at the risk of breaking my neck thirty times a day, by climbing, for eleven francs a month, up the rigging of a ship. I was ready to enter like a novice, when the sound of a trumpet suddenly arrested my attention; it was not that of a regiment, but of Paillasse (a clown) and his master, who, in front of a show bedecked with the emblem of an itinerant menagerie, were awaiting the mob which never hisses the vulgar exhibitions.
I saw the beginning; and whilst a large crowd was testifying its gratification by loud shouts of laughter, it occurred to me that the master of Paillasse might give me employment. Paillasse appeared to be a good fellow, and I was desirous of securing his protection; and as I knew that one good turn deserves another, when he got down from his platform, on saying “follow the crowd,” thinking that he might be thirsty, I devoted my last shilling in offering him half a pint of gin. Paillasse, sensible of this politeness, promised instantly to speak for me, and as soon as our half-pint was finished, he presented me to the director. He was the famous Cotte-Comus: he called himself the first physician of the world, and in traversing the country, had united his talents to those of the naturalist Garnier, the learned preceptor of General Jacquet, whom all Paris saw in the square of the Fountains before and after the Revolution. These gentlemen had with them a troop of rope-dancers.
Comus, as soon as I appeared before him, asked me what I could do.
“Nothing,” said I.
“In that case,” said he, “they will teach you; there are greater fools than you, and then besides, you have not a clumsy appearance. We shall see if you have a taste for the stage; then I will engage you for two years; the first six months you shall be well fed, and clothed; at the end of that time you shall have a sixteenth of the profits; and the year following, if you are bright, I will give you a share like the others; in the meantime, my friend, I will find occupation for you.”
Thus was I introduced, and then went to partake of the flock-bed of the obliging merry-andrew clown. At the break of day, we were awakened by the sonorous voice of our master. Leading me to a kind of small room, whilst showing me the lamps and wooden chandeliers, he said, “There is your job; you must clean these and put everything in proper order; do you understand? And afterward you must clean out the cages of the animals, and sweep the floors.”
I went about my job which did not greatly please me; the tallow disgusted me, and I was not quite at my ease with the monkeys, who, enraged to see a fool to whom they were not accustomed, made inconceivable efforts to tear my eyes out. But I yielded to iron necessity. My duty performed, I appeared before the director, who said that I was an apt pupil, and that if I was assiduous he would do something for me. I rose early, and was very hungry; it was ten o’clock, but no signs of breakfast were visible, and yet it was agreed that I should have bed and board. I was sinking from want, when they gave me a piece of brown bread, so hard, that being unable to get through with it, although gifted with sharp teeth, and a famous appetite, I threw the greater portion amongst the animals. I was obliged to light up in the evening, and as, from want of practice, I did not evince in my occupation all possible dispatch, the director, who was a brute, administered to me a slight correction, which he renewed the next and following days.
A month had not elapsed, before I was in a wretched condition; my clothes, spotted with grease and torn by the monkeys, were in rags; I was devoured by vermin; hard diet had made me so thin, that no one would have recognized me; and then it was that there arose in all imaginable bitterness the regrets for my paternal home, where good food, soft bed, and excellent clothing were mine, and where I had no monkeys to make clean and feed.
I was in this mood, when one morning Comus told me, that after due consideration he was convinced that I should make an admirable tumbler. He then placed me under the tuition of Sieur Balmate, called the “little devil,” with orders to train me. My master just escaped breaking my loins at the first bend which he compelled me to make. I took two or three lessons daily. In less than three weeks, I was able to execute with much skill the monkey’s leap, the drunkard’s leap, the coward’s leap, etc.
My teacher, delighted at my progress, took pains to forward me; a hundred times I thought that in developing my powers he would dislocate my limbs. At length we reached the difficulties of the art, which became more and more complicated. At my first attempt at the grand fling, I nearly split myself in two; and in the chair-leap, I broke my nose. Bruised, maimed, and tired of so perilous a business, I determined on telling Comus that I had no desire to become a vaulter. “Oh, you do not like it,” said he; and without objecting to my refusal gave me a sound thumping. I then left Balmate and returned to my lamps.
Comus had given me up, and it was now for Garnier to give me a turn. One day, after having beaten me more than usual, (for he shared this pleasing office with Comus), Garnier, measuring me from head to foot, and viewing with a marked delight the dilapidation of my doublet, through which my flesh was visible, said to me, “I like you; you have reached the point that pleases me. Now, if you are obedient it remains with yourself to be happy; from today you must let your nails grow; your hair is already of a sufficient length; you are nearly naked, and a decoction of walnut tree leaves will do the rest.”
I did not understand what Garnier meant, when he called my friend Paillasse and desired him to bring the tiger-skin and club. Paillasse obeyed.
“Now,” said Garnier, “we will go through the performance. You are a young savage from the South Seas, and moreover a cannibal; you eat raw flesh, the sight of blood puts you in a fury, and when you are thirsty, you introduce into your mouth flints which you crack; you utter only broken and shrill sounds, you open your eyes widely, your motions are violent; you only move with leaps and bounds; finally, take for your model the orangutan who is in cage number one.”
During this lesson, a jar full of small stones quite round was placed at my feet, and near it a cock which was tired with having its legs tied together; Garnier took it, and offered it to me, saying, “Gnaw away at this.” I would not bite it; he threatened me. I rebelled, and demanded to be released; to which he replied by a dozen cuffs of the ear. But he did not get off scot-free; irritated at this usage, I seized a stake, and should assuredly have knocked the naturalist on the head, if the whole troop had not fallen on me, and thrust me out at the door with a shower of blows from the fists and kicks of the feet.
Some days afterward, I was at the same public-house, with a showman and his wife, who exhibited puppets in the open street. We made acquaintance, and I found that I had inspired them with some feelings of interest. The husband pitied me for having been condemned to what he termed ‘the society of beasts.’ He compared me with Daniel in the lions’ den. We may see that he was learned, and intended for something better than to play “Punch.” At a later period he superintended a provincial theatrical company, and perhaps superintends it still. I shall conceal his name.
The little manager was very witty, though his wife did not perceive it; he was very ugly, which she plainly perceived. She was one of those smart brunettes with long eyelashes, whose hearts are of the most inflammable material, which deserves a better destiny than to light a fire of straw. I was young, and so was the lady: she was only sixteen, her husband thirty-five. As soon as I found myself out of place, I went to see this couple; it struck me that they would advise me correctly. They gave me some dinner, and congratulated me on having dared to free myself from the despotic yoke of Garnier.
“Since you are your own master,” said the husband to me, “you had better accompany us: you will assist us; at least, when we are three in number, we shall have no lost time between the acts; you will move the actors, whilst Eliza goes around with the hat; thus the public will be attracted and not go off, and the profits will be more abundant. What say you, Eliza?”
Eliza answered, that she would do in this respect all he might desire, and besides, she entirely agreed with him; and at the same time gave me a look which bespoke that she was not displeased, and that we should soon understand each other. I accepted the new employment with gratitude, and at the next representation I was installed in my office. The situation was infinitely superior to Garnier’s. Eliza, who, despite my leanness, had discovered that I was not so badly made as I was clothed, made a thousand secret advances, to which I was not backward in reply. At the end of three days she said she loved me. I was not ungrateful; we were happy, and constantly together.
At home, we only laughed, played, and joked. Eliza’s husband took all that for child’s sport; when at work we were side by side under a narrow cabin, formed of four cloth rags, dignified by the splendid title of ‘Theatre of Amusing Varieties.’ Eliza was on the right of her husband, and I on her right hand, and filled her place when she was not there to superintend the entrances. One Sunday the play was in full representation, and there was a crowded audience around the stage. Punch had beaten everybody, and our master having nothing more to do with one of his personages (the Serjeant of the Watch) wished it to be removed, and called for his assistant. We heard him not. “Assistant, assistant,” he repeated with impatience, and at the third time turning round he saw us enfolding each other in a close embrace. Eliza, surprised, sought for an excuse, but the husband, without listening, cried out again, “Assistant,” and thrust against his eye the hook which served to suspend the serjeant. At the same moment the blood flowed, the representation was interrupted, and a battle ensued between the two married people; the show was overturned, and we were exposed in the midst of a numerous crowd of spectators, from whom this scene drew a lengthened peal of applause and laughter.
This disaster again threw me on the wide world, without a home to shelter my head. If I had had a decent appearance, I might have procured a situation in a respectable family, but my appearance was so wretched that no one would have anything to say to me. In my situation I had but one resource, that of returning to Arras: but then how to exist on the road? I was a prey to these perplexities, when a person passed near me whom I took by his appearance to be a peddler. I entered into conversation with him, and he told me he was going to Lille; that he sold powders, opiates, and elixirs, cut corns, relieved bunions, and sometimes extracted teeth. “It is a good trade,” added he, “but I am getting old, and want somebody to carry my pack; it is a stiff-backed fellow like you that I need, with a firm foot, and steady eye; so if you like we will tramp it together.”
“Willingly,” was my reply, and without any further stipulation, we went on our way together. After an eight hours’ walk, night drew on, and we could scarcely see our way, when we halted before a wretched village inn. “Here it is,” said the itinerant doctor, knocking at the door.
“Who is there?” cried a hoarse voice.
“Father Godard with his pack,” answered my guide; and, the door immediately opening, we found ourselves in the midst of a crowd of peddlers, tinkers, quack-doctors, umbrella-venders and showmen who hailed my new master, and ordered a plate to be brought for him. I thought they would do me equal honor, and I was about to seat myself at table, when the host, striking me familiarly on the shoulder, asked me if I was not mountebank of father Godard.
“Who do you call a mountebank?” said I with astonishment.
“A clown, then.”
I confess that, despite the recent reminiscences of the menagerie, and the Theatre of Amusing Varieties, I felt mortified at such an appellation. But I had a devil of an appetite, and as I thought that supper would follow the interrogation, and that, after all, my situation with father Godard had not been accurately defined, I consented to pass for his mountebank.
On my answering, the host led me at once to a neighboring spot, a sort of barn, where a dozen fellows were smoking, drinking, and playing at cards. He said that they would send me in something to eat. Soon afterward a stout wench brought me in a mess in a wooden bowl, on which I fed with the utmost avidity. A loin of mutton was swimming in a sea of pot-liquor with stringy turnips: I cleared the whole up in a twinkling. This done, I laid myself down with the other packmen’s valets on some piles of straw, which we shared with a camel, two muzzled bears, and a crowd of learned dogs. The vicinity of such bedfellows was not the most pleasing; but it was necessary to put up with it. I did not close my eyes, whilst all the others snored away most gloriously.
Father Godard paid for all, and however bad were the beds and the fare, as we drew near Arras, it was necessary that I should not quit him. At length we reached Lille, which we entered on a market day. By way of losing no time, father Godard went straight to the principal square, and desired me to arrange his table, his chest, his vials, and packets, and then proposed that I should go and announce his arrival round the place. I had made a good breakfast, and the proposition disgusted me; I could put up with sleeping with a dromedary, and carrying his baggage from Ostend to Lille, but to go round in parade, at ten leagues from Arras—No!
I bade adieu to father Godard, and then set out toward my native city, of which the clock soon became visible. Having reached the foot of the ramparts, before the closing of the gates, I trembled at the idea of the reception I should meet with: one moment I was tempted to beat a retreat, but fatigue and hunger could not allow that: rest and food were vital. I wavered no longer, and ran toward my paternal roof. My mother was alone in the shop: I entered, and throwing myself at her feet, wept, whilst I entreated her forgiveness. The poor old woman, who hardly recognized me, so greatly was I altered, was softened. She had no power to repulse me, and even appeared to have forgotten all. She reinstated me in my old chamber, after having supplied all my wants. But it was necessary to tell my father of my return. She did not have the courage to face his first bursts of anger: a priest of her acquaintance, the almoner of the regiment of Anjou, garrisoned at Arras, undertook to be the bearer of the words of peace; and my father, after having vowed fire and flames, consented to pardon me. I trembled lest he should prove inexorable, and when I learnt that he had yielded, I jumped for joy. The almoner brought the news to me, and followed it up with a moral application, which was no doubt very touching, but I do not remember a word of it; I only recollect that he quoted the parable of the Prodigal Son, which was in truth a history similar to my own.
My adventures had made some noise in the city; everybody was anxious to hear them from my own lips. But no one, except one actress of the Arras company, took more interest in them than two milliners of the Rue de Trois Visages: I paid them frequent visits. However, the actress soon obtained the exclusive privilege of my attention, and an intrigue followed, in which, disguised as a young girl, I renewed at her house some scenes from the romance of Faublas. A sudden journey to Lille with my conquest, her husband, and a very pretty little maidservant, who passed me off for her sister, proved to my father that I had soon forgotten the troubles of my first campaign. My absence was not of long continuance: three weeks had scarcely elapsed, when, from want of money, the actress refused any longer to allow me to form part of the baggage. I returned quietly to Arras, and my father was confounded at the straightforward way with which I asked his consent to enter the army. The best he could do was to comply, which he did; and the next day I was clad in the uniform of the Bourbon regiment.
My height, good figure, and skill in arms, procured for me an appointment in a company of chasseurs. Some old veterans took offense at it, and I sent two to the hospital in consequence, where I soon joined them myself, on being wounded by one of their comrades. This commencement gave me notoriety, and they took a malicious pleasure in reviewing my past adventures; so that at the end of six months, ‘Reckless’—for they bestowed that name upon me—had killed two men and fought fifteen duels. In other respects, I enjoyed all the pleasure of a garrison life. I mounted guard at the cost of some good shopkeepers, whose daughters took on themselves the charge of making me as comfortable as possible. My mother added to these liberalities, and my father made me an allowance; and besides, I found means to run into debt: thus I really cut a figure, and scarcely felt anything of the troubles of discipline.
Once only I was sentenced to a fortnight’s imprisonment, because I had not answered to three summonses. I underwent my punishment in a dungeon beneath one of the bastions, where one of my comrades was confined with me, a soldier in the same regiment. He was accused of various robberies, which he had confessed. Scarcely were we alone when he told me the grounds of his detention fully. Doubtless the regiment would give him up, and this idea, joined to the dread of dishonoring his family, threw him into despair. I pitied him, and seeing no remedy for so deplorable a case, I counseled him to evade punishment either by escape or suicide. He determined to try the former ere he resolved on the latter; and, aided by a young friend who came to visit me, I prepared all for his flight.
At midnight, two bars of iron were broken, and we conducted the prisoner to the ramparts, and then I said to him, “Go: you must either jump or hang.”
He calculated the height, and hesitating, determined rather to run the chance of his sentence than to break his legs. He was preparing to return to his dungeon: at a moment when he least expected it, we gave him a push over: he shrieked out whilst I bid him be silent.
I then returned to my cell; when on my straw, I tasted the repose which the consciousness of a good deed always brings. The next day, on the flight of my companion being discovered, I was questioned, and dismissed on saying that I knew nothing of the affair. Some years afterward, I met this unfortunate fellow, who looked on me as his liberator. Since his fall he had been lame, but had become an honest man.
I could not remain eternally at Arras. War had been declared against Austria, and I set out with the regiment, and soon after was present at the rout of Marquain, which ended at Lille by the massacre of the brave and unfortunate general Dillon. After this, we were ordered against the camp at Maulde, and then in that of de la Lune, when, with the infernal army under the command of Kellerman, I was engaged in the battle against the Prussians of the 30th of October.
The next day I was made corporal of grenadiers: thereupon it became necessary to baptize my worsted lace, and I acquitted myself with much credit at the drinking booth, when, I know, not how or why, I quarreled with the sergeant-major of the regiment which I had just left. An honorable meeting, which I proposed, was agreed upon, but when on the ground, my adversary pretended that the difference in rank would not allow of his measuring weapons with me. I sought to compel him by violence, he went to make complaint of me, and the same evening I was, together with my second, placed under arrest.
Two days afterward, we were informed that we were to be tried by court-martial, and I thereupon determined to desert. My comrade in his waistcoat only, with a cap on his head, like a soldier about to undergo punishment, walked before me, who had on a hairy cap, my knapsack and musket, at the end of which was a large packet sealed with red wax, and inscribed, “To the citizen commandant of the quarters at Vitry-le-Francais.” This was our passport, and we reached Vitry in safety, and procured citizens’ habits from a Jew. At this period the walls of every city were covered with placards, in which all Frenchmen were invited to fly to the defense of their country. At such a juncture, the first comers were enrolled. A quartermaster of the 11th Chasseurs received us, gave us our route, and we immediately started for the depot at Philippeville.
My companion and I had but little cash, when fortunately a lucky windfall was awaiting us at Chalons. In the same inn with us was a soldier of Beaujolais, who invited us to drink. He was an open-hearted countryman of Picardy, and as I conversed with him in the provincial dialect of his country, whilst the glass was circulating, we grew such great friends, that he showed us a portfolio filled with assignats, which he said he had found near Chateau-l’Abbaye. “Comrades,” said he, “I cannot read; but if you will tell me what these papers are worth, I will give you a share.” The man could not have asked anyone better able to inform him, and in bulk he had much the greater quantity; but he had no suspicions that we had retained in value nine-tenths of the sum. This little supply was not useless during the remainder of car journey, which we finished with much glee.
Arrived at our place of destination, we had still enough left to keep the pot boiling. A short time afterward we were sufficiently skilled in horsemanship to be appointed to one of the squadrons on service, and we reached the army two days before the battle of Jemappes. It was not the first time that I had smelled powder, and I was no coward; indeed, I had reason to know that I had found favor in the eyes of my officers, when my captain informed me that, having been discovered to be a deserter, I should be most certainly arrested. The danger was imminent, and that same evening I saddled my horse, intending to go over to the Austrians. I soon reached their outposts, and on asking to be admitted, was incorporated at once with the cuirassiers of Kinski. What I most feared was lest I should be compelled next day to cross swords with the French, and I hastened to avoid any such necessity. A pretended illness enabled me to be left at Louvain, where after passing some days in the hospital, I offered to give the officers in the garrison lessons in fencing. They were delighted with the proposal, and supplied me with masks, gloves and foils; and an assault, in which I disarmed two or three pretended German masters, was enough to give them the highest opinion of my skill. I soon had many pupils, and reaped a good harvest of florins.
I was too much elated with my success, when at the end of it brisk attack on a brigadier, I was condemned to undergo twenty stripes of the cat, which, according to custom, were given to me on parade. This transported me with rage, and I refused to give another lesson. I was ordered to continue, with a choice of giving lessons or a fresh flogging. I decided on the former; but the cat annoyed me, and I resolved to dare try to escape from it. Being informed that a lieutenant was about to join the army under General Schroeder, I begged to accompany him as his servant, to which he agreed, under the idea that I should make a St. George of him; but he was mistaken; for as we approached Quesnoy I took French leave, and directed my journey toward Landrecies, where I passed for a Belgian who had left the Austrian banner. They wished me to enter a cavalry regiment, but the fear of being recognized and shot, if ever I should be brigaded with my old regiment, made me give the preference to the 14th Light Regiment (the old Chasseurs of the Barriers.)
The army of the Sambre and Meuse was then marching toward Aix-la-Chapelle; the company to which I belonged received orders to follow it. We set out, and on entering Rocroi, I saw the chasseurs of the 11th. Myself up for lost, when my old captain, with whom I could not avoid an interview, gave me courage. This worthy man, who had taken an interest in me ever since he had seen me cut a way amongst the hussars of Saxe-Teschen, told me that as an amnesty would henceforward place me out of the reach of all pursuit, he should have much pleasure in again having me under his orders. I told him how glad it would make me; and he, undertaking to arrange the affair, I was once more reinstated in the 11th. My old comrades received me with pleasure, and I was not less pleased to find myself once again amongst them; and nothing was wanting to complete my happiness, when love, who is always busy, determined on playing one of his tricks. It will not be thought surprising that at seventeen I captivated the housekeeper of an old gentleman.
Manon, for that was her name, was near twice my age, but then she loved me very tenderly, and proved it by making every sacrifice to me unhesitatingly. I was, to her taste—the handsomest of chasseurs because I was hers, and she wished that I should also be the most dashing. She had already given me a watch, and I was proudly adorned with various jewels, proofs of the love with which I inspired her, when I learned that Manon was accused by her master of robbery. Manon confessed the fact, but at the same time, to assure herself that after her sentence I should not pass into another’s arms, she pointed me out as her accomplice, and even asserted that I had proposed the theft to her. It had the appearance of probability, and I was consequently implicated, and should have extricated myself with difficulty if chance had not brought to light some letters of hers which established my innocence. Manon, conscience-stricken, retracted. I had been shut up in the house of confinement at Stenay, whence I was set at liberty, and sent back as white as snow.
My captain, who had never thought me guilty, was delighted at seeing me again; but the chasseurs could not forgive my being even suspected; and in consequence of various allusions and comments, I had no less than six duels in as many days. In the last I was badly wounded, and was conveyed to the hospital, where I remained for a month before I recovered. On going out, my officer, convinced that these quarrels would be renewed if I did not go away for a time, gave me a furlough for six weeks. I went to Arras, where I was much astonished to find my father in a public employment. As an old baker, he had been appointed to watch over the supplies of the commissariat. He opposed the distribution of bread at a time of scarcity; and this discharge of his duty, although he performed it gratis, was so offensive, that he would assuredly have been conducted to the guillotine had he not been protected by citizen (now lieutenant-general) Souham, commandant of the 2nd Battalion of Correze, into which I was temporarily drafted.
My furlough being out, I rejoined my regiment at Givet, whence we marched for the county of Namur. We were quartered in the villages on the banks of the Meuse; and as the Austrians were in sight, not a day passed without some firing on both sides. At the termination of an engagement more serious than usual, we were driven back almost under the cannon of arrest; and in the retreat I received a ball in my leg, which compelled me to go again to the hospital, and afterward to remain at the depot; and I was there when the Germanic legion passed, principally composed of a party of deserters, fencing-masters, etc. One of the chief officers proposed that I should enter this corps, offering the rank of quartermaster.
“Once admitted,” said he, “I will answer for you; you shall be safe from all pursuit.” The certainty of not being asked for, joined to the remembrance of the disagreeables of my intimacy with Manon, decided me. I accepted the offer, and the next day was with the legion on the road to Flanders. No doubt, in continuing to serve in this corps, where promotion was very rapid, I should have been made an officer, but my wound opened afresh, with such bad symptoms, that I determined to ask for leave again, which on obtaining, I was six days afterward once more at the gates of Arras.
1 - Revolutionary Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (1758-1794) was dubbed ‘The Incorruptible’ by the newly-liberated citizens of Paris. For a year (1793-4), he was the most dominant and popular figure of the Revolution. But his extreme reprisals cost him his life. Under Robespierre’s notorious ‘Reign of Terror,’ Madame La Guillotine dispatched the heads of 2,639 aristocrats and other offenders. Robespierre’s head met the same fate when he was overthrown by the Convention of July 27, 1794 and sentenced to death by the blade.
2 – Vidocq has travelled north over eighty miles, from Lille to Dunkirk.
ON ENTERING THE CITY, I was struck with the air of consternation which every countenance wore; some persons whom I questioned looked at me with contempt, and left me without making any reply. What extraordinary business was being transacted?
Penetrating the crowd, which was thronging in the dark and winding streets, I soon reached the fish market. Then the first object which struck my sight was the guillotine, raising its blood-red boards above the silent multitude. An old man, whom they had just tied to the fatal plank, was the victim; suddenly I heard the sound of trumpets. On a high place which overlooked the orchestra, was seated a man, still young, clad in a Carmagnole [short skirted coat] of black and blue stripes. This person, whose appearance announced monastic rather than military habits, was leaning carelessly on a cavalry sabre, the large hilt of which represented the Cap of Liberty; a row of pistols ornamented his girdle, and his hat, turned up in the Spanish fashion, was surmounted by a large tricolored cockade: I recognized Joseph Lebon.
At this moment, his mean countenance was animated with a horrid smile; he paused from beating time with his left foot; the trumpets stopped; he made a signal, and the old man was placed under the blade. A sort of clerk, half drunk, then appeared at the side of the ‘Avenger of the People,’ and read with a hoarse voice a bulletin of the army of the Rhine and Moselle. At each paragraph the orchestra sounded a chord; and when the reading was concluded, the head of the wretched old man was stricken off amidst shouts of “Vive la Republique!” repeated by the satellites of the ferocious Lebon. I shall never forget, nor can I adequately depict the impression of this horrible sight.
I reached my father’s house almost as lifeless as the miserable being whose agony had been so cruelly prolonged; and then I learnt that he was M. de Mongon, the old commandant of the citadel, condemned as an aristocrat. A few days before, they had executed at the same place, M. de Vieux-Pont, whose only crime was that of having a parrot, in whose chatterings there were some sounds like the cry of “Vive le Roi!”
The parrot had escaped the fate of his master; and it was said that it had been pardoned at the entreaty of the citizeness Lebon, who had undertaken to convert it. The citizeness Lebon had been a nun of the abbey of Vivier: with this qualification added to many others, she was the fitting consort of the ex-curate of Neuville, and exercised a powerful influence over the members of the commission at Arras, in which were seated, as judges or jurymen, her brother-in-law and three uncles. The ex-nun was no less greedy of gold than blood. One evening at the theatre, she ventured to make this address to the crowded auditory:
“Ah, Sans Culottes, they say it is not for you that the guillotine is at work? What the devil, must we not denounce the enemies of the country? Do you know any noble, any rich person, any aristocratical shopkeeper? Denounce him and you shall have his money bags.”
The atrocity of this monster was only equaled by that of her husband, who abandoned himself to the greatest excesses. Frequently after his orgies he was seen running through the city making bestial propositions to one young person, brandishing a sabre over another’s head, and firing pistols in the ears of women and children.
An old woman, with a red cap and sleeves tucked up to the shoulders, carrying a long stick of hazel-wood, usually attended him in his walks, and they were frequently met arm-in-arm together. This woman, called mother Duchesne, in allusion to the famous father Duchesne [Père Duchesne was a fictional character intended to represent ‘the common man’ by the writers of the radical revolutionary pamphlet Le Père Duchesne. See following image.], figured as the Goddess of Liberty in several democratic solemnities. She regularly assisted at the sittings of the commissions, for which she prepared the arrests by her speeches and denunciations. She thus brought to the guillotine all the inhabitants of one street, which was left entirely desolate.
Image: Cover of issue no. 25 of Hébert's Le Père Duchesne.
I HAVE OFTEN ASKED myself how, in the midst of such deplorable scenes, the taste for pleasure and amusement lost none of its relish. The fact is, that Arras continued to offer to me the same dissipations as ever; the ladies were as accessible; and I was easily convinced of that, as in a very few days I rose gradually in my amours from the young and pretty Constance, only child of corporal Latulipe, canteen-keeper of the citadel, to the four daughters of the notary, who had an office at the corner of the Rue des Capucines.
Lucky should I have been had I confined myself to that, but I began to pay my homage to a beauty of the Rue de la Justice; and one day I met my rival in my walks. He, who was the old musician of the regiment, was one of those men who, without boasting of the success which they have obtained, hint in plain terms that they have experienced refusals. I charged him with boasting in this way, and he became enraged; I provoked him the more, and the more angry he grew: I had forgotten my own cause of anger with him, when I remembered that I had good grounds of offense. I demanded an explanation, which was useless; and he only consented to meet me after I had inflicted on him the most degrading humiliation. The rendezvous was fixed for the next morning. I was punctual; but scarcely had I arrived when I was surrounded by a troop of gendarmes and police officers, who demanded my sword and ordered me to follow them. I obeyed, and was soon enclosed within the walls of the Baudets, whose use had been changed since the terrorists had put the population of Arras in a state of periodical decapitation.
The jailer, Beaupre, covered with an enormous red cap, and followed by two large black dogs, who never quitted him, conducted me to a vast garret, where he held in his keeping the principal inhabitants of the country.
There, deprived of all communications from without, they scarcely received nourishment, and not even that until it had literally been overhauled by Beaupre, who carried his precaution so far as to plunge his filthy dirty hands in the broth, to assure himself that there were no arms or keys. If anybody complained, he said to him, “Umph! you are very difficult to please for the time you have left to live. How do you know that it will not be your turn tomorrow? Oh, by the way, what is your name?”
“So and so.”
“Ah! By my faith it is your turn tomorrow!” And the predictions of Beaupre were the less likely to fail as he himself pointed out the individuals to Joseph Lebon, who, after his dinner, consulted him, saying, “Whom shall we bathe tomorrow?”
Amongst the gentry shut up with us, was the Count de Bethune. One morning they sent for him to the tribunal. Before leading him out to the forecourt, Beaupre said to him abruptly, “Citizen Bethune, since you are going down there, am not I to have all you leave behind you?”
“Certainly, M. Beaupre,” answered the old man tranquilly.
“There are no ministers now,” said the grinning wretch of a jailer, “we are all citizens;” and at the gate he again cried out to him, “Adieu, citizen Bethune!”
M. de Bethune was however acquitted. He was brought back to prison as a suspected person. His return rejoiced us all; we thought him saved, but the next day he was again called up. Joseph Lebon, during whose absence the sentence of acquittal had been passed, arrived from the country: furious at being deprived of the blood of so worthy a man, he had ordered the members of the commission to assemble immediately, and M. de Bethune, condemned at the next sitting, was executed by torchlight.
This event, which Beaupre announced to us with ferocious joy, gave me serious uneasiness; every day they condemned to death men who were ignorant even of the cause of their arrest, and whose fortune or situation in society never intended them for political commotion; and on the other hand I knew that Beaupre, very scrupulous as to the number, thought not of the quality; and that frequently, not seeing immediately the number of individuals pointed out, sent the first who came to hand, that the service of the state might suffer nothing from delay. Every moment then might place me in the clutch of Beaupre, and you may believe that this idea was not the most satisfactory in the world.
I had been already detained sixteen days, when a visit from Joseph Lebon was announced; his wife accompanied him, and he had in his train the principal terrorists of the country, amongst whom, I recognized my father’s old barber, and an emptier of wells, called Delmotte, or Lantilette. I asked them to say a word for me to the representative, which they promised; and I augured the better of it as they were both in good estimation.
However, Joseph Lebon went through the rooms, questioning the prisoners in a brutal manner, and pretending to address them with frightful harshness. When he came to me, he stared at me, and said in a tone half severe and half jesting, “Ah ha! Is it you, Francois? What, you an aristocrat? You who speak ill of the sans culottes and regret your old Bourbon regiment? Take care, for I can send you to be cooked (guillotined). But send your mother to me.”
I told him, that being so strictly immured (au secret) I could not see her. “Beaupre,” said he to the jailer, “let Vidocq’s mother come in;” and went away, leaving me full of hope, as he had evidently treated me with marked amenity. Two hours afterward I saw my mother, who told me, what I knew not before, that the musician whom I had challenged had denounced me. The denunciation was in the hands of a furious Jacobin, the terrorist Chevalier, who out of friendship to my rival, would certainly have been much against me, if his sister, at the persuasion of my mother, had not prevailed on him to exert himself to procure my discharge. Having left prison, I was conducted with great state to the patriotic society, where they made me take the oath of fidelity to the republic and hatred to tyrants. I swore all they desired. What sacrifices will not a man make to procure his freedom!
These formalities concluded, I was replaced in the depot, where my comrades testified much pleasure at seeing me again. After what had passed, I should have been deficient in gratitude had I not looked on Chevalier as my deliverer; I went to thank him, and expressed to his sister how much I was touched at the interest which she had so kindly testified to a poor prisoner. This lady, who was the most amorous of brunettes, but whose large black eyes did not compensate for their ugliness, thought that I was in love because I was polite; she construed literally some compliments which I paid her and from the first interview she so greatly misinterpreted my sentiments as to cast her regards upon me. Our union was talked of, and my parents were questioned on the point, who answered that eighteen was too young for marriage, and so the matter went on.
Meanwhile, battalions were formed at Arras, and being known as an excellent driller, I was summoned, with seven other subaltern officers, to instruct the 2nd Battalion of Pas-de-Calais, to which belonged a corporal of grenadiers of the regiment of Languedoc, named Caesar, now garde champetre  at Colombre or Pateux, near Paris. Afterward, I was promoted to the rank of sub-lieutenant on arriving at St. Sylvestre-Capelle, near Bailleul, where we quartered. Caesar had been fencing-master in his own regiment, and my prowess with the advanced guard of Kinski’s cuirassiers was well known. We resolved to teach the practice as well as the theory of fencing to the officers of the battalion, who were much pleased at such an arrangement.
Our lessons produced us some money, but not enough for our wants, or if you please, the desire of men of our abilities. It was particularly in good living that we were found wanting. What increased our regrets and appetites was, that the mayor with whom we lodged, kept an excellent table. We sought in vain the means of increasing our supplies; an old domineering servant, named Sixca, always defeated our intentions, and disturbed our gastronomic plans. We were disheartened and starving.
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