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Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume II/Chapter XXVI



I continue to frequent places of bad resort—The inspectors betray me—Discovery of a receiver of stolen goods—I arrest him—Stratagem employed to convict him—He is condemned.

The thieves, who had experienced a temporary panic at the many arrests which had successively fallen, with unexpected vengeance, on many of their party, were not long in re-appearing more numerous and more audacious than ever. Amongst their number were several fugitive galley-slaves, who, having perfected in the Bagnes a very dangerous sort of trade and ready invention, had come to exercise it in Paris, where they soon rendered themselves dreaded by all parties. The police, exasperated at their boldness, resolved upon putting an end to their career. I was accordingly commanded to seek them out; and further orders were given to me, to arrange a plan of action with the peace-officers, by which they might be at hand whenever I deemed it likely they could effect the capture of any of these ruffians. It may be easily guessed how difficult my task must be: however, I lost no time in visiting every place of ill fame, both in the metropolis and its environs. In a very few days I had gained the knowledge of all the dens of vice where I might be likely to meet with these wretches. The barrier de la Courtille, those of the Combat and de Menilmontant, were the places of most favourite resort; they were, in a manner, their head-quarters; and woe to the agent who had shown himself there, no matter for what reason; he would assuredly have had his brains beaten out. The gendarmes were equally in dread of this well-known and formidable association, and carefully abstained from approaching it. For my own part, I felt less timidity, and ventured without hesitation into the midst of this herd of miserable beings. I frequented their society; I became to outward semblance one of themselves; and soon gained the advantage of being treated with so much confidence as to be admitted to their nocturnal meetings, where they openly discussed the crimes they had committed, as well as those they meditated. I managed so skilfully, that I easily drew from them the particulars of their own abode, or that of the females with whom they cohabited. I may go still further, and assert, that so boundless was the confidence with which I inspired them, that had any one of their members dared to express the shadow of a suspicion respecting me, he would have been punished on the spot. In this manner I obtained every requisite information; so that, when I had once indicated any fit object for arrest, his conviction and condemnation became matters of course. My researches 'intra muros' were not less successful. I frequented every tennis-court in the environs of the Palais-Royal, the Hotel d'Angleterre, the boulevards of the Temple; the streets of la Vannerie, of la Mortellerie, of la Planche Mibray; the market St Jaques, Petite Chaise; the Rues de la Juiverie, la Calandre, le Châtelet; the Place Maubert, and in fact the whole city. Not a day passed in which I did not effect some important discovery. Nothing escaped me, either relating to crimes which had been committed, or were in contemplation. I was in all places; I knew all that was passing or projecting; and never were the police idly or unprofitably employed when set to work upon my suggestions.

M. Henry openly expressed his surprise as well as satisfaction at my zeal and success; it was not so with many of the peace-officers and sub-agents of police, for, little accustomed to the hard duty and constant watchfulness my plans induced, they openly murmured. Some of them, in their anxiety to be rid of the irksomeness of my direction, were cowardly enough to betray the secret of the disguise under favour of which I had so skilfully manœuvred. This imprudent act drew down upon them severe reprimands, without having the effect of making them more circumspect, or more devoted to the public good.

It will be readily understood, that, associating as I constantly did with the vilest and most abandoned, I must, as a matter of course, be repeatedly invited to join in their acts of criminal violence; this I never refused at the moment of asking, but always formed some plea for failing to attend the rendezvous for such purposes. These men of crimes were generally so absorbed in their villanous machinations, that the most flimsy excuse passed current with them: I may even say, that frequently it did not require the trouble of an excuse to deceive them. Once arrested, they never troubled themselves to find out by what means it had been effected; and had they even been more awake, my measures were laid too ably for them to have arrived at the chance of suspecting me as the author of it: indeed, I have often been accosted by some of the gang to communicate the sorrowful tidings of the apprehension of one of their number, as well as to beg my advice and assistance in endeavouring to procure his release.

Nothing is more easy, when once on good terms with the thief, than to obtain a knowledge of the persons to whom he disposes of his stolen property. I was enabled to discover several; and the directions with which I furnished the police were so unequivocal, that they never failed to join their worthy companions in the Bagnes. Perhaps the recital of the means I adopted to rid Paris of one of these dangerous characters, may not be uninteresting to the reader.

For many years the police had had its eye upon him, but as yet had not been able to detect him in any positive act of delinquency. His house had undergone repeated searches without any effect resulting from the most diligent enquiry; nothing of the most trifling nature could be found to rise in evidence against him. Nevertheless, he was known to traffic with the thieves; and many of them, who were far from suspecting my connexion with the police, pointed him out to me as a staunch friend, and a man on whom they could depend. These assertions respecting him were not sufficient to effect his conviction; it would be requisite to seize him with the stolen articles in his possession. M. Henry had tried every scheme to accomplish this; but whether from stupidity on the part of the agents employed by him, or the superior address of the receiver of stolen property, all his plans had failed. He was desirous of trying whether I should be more successful. I willingly undertook the office, and arranged my plans in the following manner. Posted near the house of the suspected dealer in stolen property, I watched for his going out, and following him when he had gone a few steps down the street, addressed him by a different name to his own. He assured me I was mistaken; I protested to the contrary: he insisted upon it I was deceived, and I affected to be equally satisfied of his identity, declaring my perfect recognition of his person as that of a man who for some time had been sought after by the police throughout Paris and its environs. "You are grossly mistaken," replied he warmly. "My name is so and so, and I live in such a street." "Come, come, friend," said I, "excuses are useless. I know you too well to part with you so easily."—"This is too much," cried he; "but at the next police station I shall possibly be able to meet with those who can convince you that I know my own name better than you seem to do." This was exactly the point at which I wished to arrive. "Agreed," said I; and we bent our steps towards the neighbouring guardhouse. We entered, and I requested he would show me his papers: he had none about him. I then insisted upon his being searched, and on his person were found three watches and twenty-five double Napoleons, which I caused to be laid aside till he should be examined before a magistrate. These things had been wrapped in a handkerchief, which I contrived to secure; and after having disguised myself as a messenger, I hastened to the house of this receiver of stolen goods, and demanded to speak with his wife. She, of course, had no idea of my business or knowledge of my person; and seeing several persons besides herself present, I signified to her that my business being of a private nature, it was important that I should speak to her alone; and in token of my claims to her confidence, produced the handkerchief, and enquired whether she recognised it? Although still ignorant of the cause of my visit, her countenance became troubled, and her whole person was much agitated as she begged me to let her hear my business. "I am concerned," replied I, "to be the bearer of unpleasant news; but the fact is, your husband has just been arrested, everything found on his person has been seized, and from some words which he happened to overhear, he suspects he has been betrayed; he therefore wishes you to remove out of the house certain things you are aware would be dangerous to his safety if found on the premises; if you please I will lend you a helping hand, but I must forewarn you that you have not one moment to lose."

The information was of the first importance; the sight of the handkerchief, and the description of the objects it had served to envelope, removed from her mind every doubt as to the truth of the message I had brought her, and she easily fell into the snare I had laid to entrap her. She thanked me for the trouble I had taken, and begged I would go and engage three hackney coaches, and return to her with as little delay as possible. I left the house to execute my commission; but on the road I stopped to give one of my people instructions to keep the coaches in sight, and to seize them, with their contents, directly I should give the signal. The vehicles drew up to the door, and upon re-entering the house, I found things in a high state of preparation for removing. The floor was strewed with articles of every description; time-pieces, candelabra, Etruscan vases, cloths, cachemires, linen, muslins, &c. All these things had been taken from a closet, the entrance to which was cleverly concealed by a large press, so skilfully contrived that the most practised eye could not have discovered the deception. I assisted in the removal, and when it was completed, the press having been carefully replaced, the woman begged of me to accompany her, which I did, and no sooner was she in one of the coaches, ready to start, than I suddenly pulled up the window, and at this previously concerted signal, we were immediately surrounded by the police. The husband and wife were tried at the assizes, and, as may be easily conceived, were overwhelmed beneath the weight of an accusation, in support of which there existed a formidable mass of convicting testimony.

Some persons may perhaps blame the expedient to which I had recourse, in order to free Paris from a receiver of stolen property, who had been for a long time a positive nuisance to the capital. Whether it be approved of or not, I have at least the consciousness of having done my duty; besides, when we wish to overreach scoundrels who are at open war with society, every stratagem is allowable by which to effect their conviction, except endeavouring to provoke the commission of crime.