Rabbit Hole #4: Eugène-François Vidocq, the French Police Spy
On the night of 5 November 1831, thieves broke into the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and stole more than 2,000 pieces, most of which they considered to be little more than simple golden objects; in reality, they had absconded with the irreplaceable and priceless items taken, in 1653, from the burial site of the second king of the Merovingian Dynasty, King Childéric.
The loss of these items was nothing less than a national scandal; besides Childéric’s treasures, the thieves were also able to steal a couple of hundred thousand coins, a great number of cut gems and antiques, cameos, crystals, agate goblets, bronzes, ivories, sacrificial cups of massive gold, choice medallions, tankards, and so on. An immediate inspection made by the police showed how cleverly the thieves had gained admission to the cabinet containing the collection of medals. They gained access to a neighboring house, ascended to the roof and slid over the slates to a garret window in the library. They broke through this, reached the back stairs and slipped down into the principal salon. A solid oak door at the north end of the salon shut off the medal room, but the thieves sawed through it, and entered the inner room, which was lit by a large window opening on to the rue Richelieu. It was easy enough to break into the cases, sweep up a large number of the precious coins and lower them to their confederates in the street below.
With close examination of the premises the detectives were satisfied that only one of three famous burglars could have accomplished the theft. The work had been executed most cleverly, with the panel in the door having been cut out by a skilled hand. The saw, left behind, was a very perfect tool. The candle in the dark lantern, also abandoned, was of the finest wax, and the rope used was of the best quality. Only the most expert thief would have expended so much care and capital upon the enterprise. The three men indicated were one Fossard, a notorious convict, who should have been in the bagne of Brest, but had recently escaped and was at large; a friend of his, Drouillet by name, ex-convict at liberty, and Toupriant, believed to be then in England.
To catch these men, the French police would turn to one of the best who had ever worked for them, an inspector of peerless reputation – a term that was both positive and negative. You see, the man they brought out of retirement to track down Childéric’s treasure was none other than Eugène-François Vidocq.
Vidocq, a former criminal-turned-police-informant-turned-police-inspector, had left the police force in 1827. However, by 1832 – months after the robbery – Paris was in the midst of a crime wave and needed the help of someone who knew the criminal mind well enough to turn it against itself. They couldn’t have chosen better for this task. The city was roiling that summer in the wake of the June Rebellion that followed the death of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque, and if they hoped to find the culprits in this uncertain, dark, and criminal atmosphere, well, they would need someone who could think like a criminal, who had been a criminal, to crack the case.
And who would be better to head the investigation than a man that had been sentenced to hard labor, had escaped, been caught again, turned into an informant and finally came over fully to the side of the state? Who would be better than this man who knew people all the way from the lowest rungs of society all the way to the top of the ladder? Who would be better than a man whose exploits impressed even Victor Hugo himself, making him serve as the model for some of the great writer’s greatest characters? If there was any hope of getting Childéric’s treasure back, or any of the other pieces stolen on that November night in 1831, then there was only one person to call:
This is Thugs and Miracles. Rabbit Hole #4: Eugène-François Vidocq, the French Police Spy
Alright, welcome back! I’m Benjamin Bernier… and we’re supposed to be on break, right? Well, yes, we are, but I’ll be honest: this show is never far from my mind. While we’ve been on hiatus and had a short amount of time to catch our breath and pull ourselves away from the overall narrative, we’ve had the chance to talk over some of the things we’d like to do a bit more of, and episodes such as this are a big part of that. So far we’ve done three Bonus Episodes on T+M – a look at Saint Geneviève, a review of Procopius and how he viewed Brittia and Francia from his perch in Constantinople, and an interview with Marco Cappelli of the Storia d’Italia podcast. In each case, the episode had been about something amazingly interesting, yet just far enough removed from our main narrative that I felt they didn’t quite fit within a regular episode. They were all, for lack of a better phrase, a trip down a rabbit hole, a moment in time when I couldn’t keep my curiosity in check and instead, like Alice, ran after the rabbit “never once considering how in the world [I] was to get out again.”
Well, for better or worse, when researching a show that is as expansive as T+M, you’re simply bound to come across rabbit holes left and right. Some can be walked past, but others really deserve, either for academic reasons or just because they’re plain fun, to be examined in further detail. So, with that in mind, we here have decided to change from simply calling extra episodes “Bonus Episodes,” a nomenclature that’s about as exciting as dry toast, and instead call them what they really are: “Rabbit Holes.” The plan, in the future, is to keep these Rabbit Holes coming. They’ll all be tied back – loosely – to the show, and they’ll typically be shorter in length. They’re just a fun side trip, and something we think you’ll enjoy listening to as much as we enjoyed discovering it in the research. We already have another Rabbit Hole in mind, talking about Saint Eligius and the perils of mistranslation, but for now, we’re going to continue on with our look at Vidocq, a man who was at one time a criminal, and at another time a police spy; who is credited as having launched the first modern police investigative unit; and who had ties to authors such as Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, and the elder Alexandre Dumas; and who, for all the Broadway music lovers out there, is said to be the inspiration for the character of Javert in Les Miserables – and Jean Valjean too! But for us, more than anything, he’s the man who tracked down and recovered the stolen treasures of Childeric’s tomb!
So, what do we know about Monsieur Vidocq? Well, in a way, we kind of know everything and nothing about the man. What do I mean by that? Simply put, Vidocq was no stranger to the limelight, and from what we can tell, he was happy to tell anyone who would listen all about his exploits. His autobiography clocks in at 456 pages and is honestly so full of braggadocio and exploit after exploit that it makes for fairly dense and, honestly, tedious reading. Here’s an example of the highlights, as listed by the author, in Chapter One alone:
- My birth
- I become a journeyman baker
- First theft
- I enter a company of rope-dancers
- A scene of jealousy
- I enter the service of a quack doctor
- Return home
- Acquaintance with an actress
- Another chase
- I join a regiment
- I go over to the enemy
- A flogging
- Return to my old standard
- A domestic robbery
- Wounded in a duel
- I join the war
I’m winded just reading that section list, and he has 39 more chapters with sections just like that! Again, it’s overwhelming. Now, we could turn to some of the other sources who have written about Vidocq to get a better handle of the man, but they’re not really all that much more enlightening. Vidocq gets turned into an archetype by each of these authors, and his larger-than-life personality serves as the basis for not just Valjean and Javert (who, it should be noted, are diametrically opposed personalities), but also for Balzac’s criminal genius Vautrin in that writer’s novelistic series La comédie humaine (The Human Comedy, if you prefer English), and Edgar Allen Poe’s Sherlock Holmes-like detective, C. Auguste Dupin, in three of that writer’s stories. These depictions narrow Vidocq down to either a big-hearted and well-meaning person forced into a life of crime; a relentless bloodhound and lackey for the state; a criminal genius; or an insightful detective with a penchant for being a “good guesser.” The fact that these varied minds were all able to look at Vidocq and somehow walk away from him being able to form such disparate characters leaves us just as far from knowing the “true” Vidocq, and also wanting to get to go back in time and meet this guy!
Anyway, moving back to the crime at hand and our real reason for taking the time to meet the police inspector, everything said in the opening is recorded as fact in the 1910 book The History of Romance and Crime by Arthur Griffiths, and it’s from there that I’ll continue:
“Light was suddenly thrown upon the mystery of the theft by the arrest of the first of these men. Vidocq met him in the street, and remembered his face, as of one who had passed through his hands on a previous occasion… The fact that this man, Fossard, was in Paris strengthened the suspicion that he had been concerned in the robbery of the medals, and he was at once questioned, after the French manner, to extract some confession. It was all to no purpose. Fossard stoutly denied all knowledge of the theft. The police next tried to bribe him in hope of recovering at least a part of the stolen property, the intrinsic worth of which was nothing to its sentimental value, which was estimated at a million francs. Fossard persisted in his denials, and was at length committed to Bicêtre to take his place in the next chain departing for Brest…
“The effrontery of a woman who posed as the Vicomtesse de Nays paved the way to further discovery. This pretended great lady, who was really the associate of thieves and the wife of one of Fossard’s friends, was on the best of terms with the Prefecture, and quite an intimate friend of the Prefect. She passed as a charitable person with many protégés, whom she was eager to befriend by obtaining places for them and supplying them with funds when temporarily in distress. At one of her visits to the Prefecture she pressed the prefect to honor her with his company at dinner, and it was quite by accident that he discovered that his fellow guests included some of the most notorious criminals in the capital. Happily for his reputation he discovered [from these guests] that she was well acquainted with Fossard; and, yet more, that she had taken places for herself and maid in the diligence for Brest, where, no doubt, she was to carry him substantial aid. Other valuable news was forthcoming, namely; that a number of the stolen medals had been melted down into ingots, and that some of them were in the possession of the so-called Vicomtesse de Nays. Others were traced to the Drouillet above mentioned as a possible thief, and others to Fossard’s brother, a clockmaker of Paris. Arrests followed, and the clockmaker confessed that his brother and Drouillet had committed the robbery and had melted down a portion of the booty and thrown the rest into the Seine—where, as a matter of fact, it was subsequently fished out. More stolen property was unearthed in the clockmaker’s cellars.
“When the case came up for trial both the Fossards were sentenced, the elder Etienne, to travaux forcés [hard labor] for life, the younger to ten years. Drouillet was sentenced to twenty years. Madame de Nays was brought to Paris and her domicile searched, but no fresh proofs of her complicity in the robbery were forthcoming, and she was released; but it was clear that her kindness to the young men she patronised was repaid, both in the shape of information and assistance in the planning of robberies. A pretty incident is related of the recovery of these valuable treasures. A well-known savant who was called in by the Prefecture to identify them was so overcome by emotion when he saw them again that he burst into tears and kissed them repeatedly, especially the seal of Michael Angelo, the cup of the Ptolemies and the “Apotheosis of Augustus,” the largest cameo in the world.”
As a final note to all of this, the book claims that [Fossard] died at Brest, two or three years after his conviction of the robbery of the medals. This fact goes to show that prison conditions at this time could make a few years of hard labor a death sentence, and the guillotine, looked at from this perspective, could almost be seen as a mercy.
Beyond the prison sentences though, we have to ask: how much of Childéric’s treasure was actually retrieved? Well, weight-wise, almost all of it was returned. The suspects in the case eventually confessed and 77 of the 80 kilos of gold was found. This included the pieces that Fossard and his associates tied up in leather sacks and threw into the Seine in hopes of pulling it up for themselves one day in the future, as noted in the story just told. Vidocq and a scuba diver were able to find the bags right where the thieves said they would be at the end of July and beginning of August 1832, 188 years to the day before the release of this episode! Unfortunately, however, the gold was not in the same condition it had been in when it was stolen. To expedite the robbery and the follow-on sale of the ill-gotten gains, as well as to obfuscate where the gold had come from (since the actual coins and jewelry would be easily identifiable) the robbers had taken the precaution of melting many of the pieces down and turning them into ingots, otherwise known as gold bars.
It’s this last part that makes me want to cry. I mean, I understand why the robbers did what they did; there was no chance they were going to get away with the crime if they were trying to sell stolen goods that matched the exact descriptions of what was being put out by the police. At the same time, I can imagine these pieces, golden bees and coins that had survived centuries of internment alongside of the king they were intended to honor, being placed one at a time into a smelter and slowly becoming softer and softer, losing their markings, then melting altogether into a golden stew alongside of the other pieces. Like the story told us, the intrinsic value of the gold was nothing to its sentimental and historic value, and that, by and large, was now gone save for the drawings made by the treasure’s original excavator, Jean-Jacques Chifflet, in 1653. Chifflet took his time to catalogue all of the pieces in the horde, and ultimately published a folio of 367 pages, along with 27 plates of engravings, to give us a very good understanding and visual representation of what had been in the tomb. Without this, Childéric’s treasure would be gone from this world… forever.
CONCLUSION: Okay, thanks for taking the time today to go down the rabbit hole and look at how the history of the medieval past was able to rise to the surface all the way into the 19th century. More than that, we here at T+M find it absolutely fascinating that the Merovingian King Childéric, dead now for nearly 1,550 years, has links to the French Revolution, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Edgar Allen Poe, and even one of the most popular Broadway musicals ever produced, a show that’s still playing on stages to this very day! I’m often note that the history we’re looking at is the formation story of our modern times, but we rarely get to see such a direct connection. I hope that it was as entertaining for you to discover as it was for me!
OUTRO: Alright, as always, the music used for the show comes from Josh Woodward and includes his songs “Bully” and “Lafayette.” For a free download of these songs or hundreds of other great tracks, check out his site at joshwoodward.com. Notes on this episode, a list of sources, an updated monarchy/family tree, and also a list of other great history podcasts are all available online at thugsandmiracles.com. Be sure to sign up for the free e-mail list so I can keep you up to date with all things T+M and announcements on new shows. Speaking of email, you can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, you can hit me on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle (with no “s” on the end), or you can leave a comment on Facebook and Instagram at @ThugsAndMiracles. As always, we love reviews and well, basically any word of mouth, so if you think T+M is worth it, please leave five stars for us, write a review, send a Tweet, like an Instagram post, or simply recommend us to a friend. In particular this week, I’d like to say thanks to Stu Nims and Charles Goldberg for having left a review and for having gone ahead and signed up for the email list. We appreciate you and all of your support!
Okay, once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier, and I look forward to seeing you in just a few more weeks when we go down another Rabbit Hole, and then a few weeks after that when we get back into Season Two of Thugs and Miracles.