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Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume II/Chapter XXVIII



The agents of the police chosen from amongst liberated galley-slaves, thieves, bullies and prostitutes—Theft tolerated—Degeneracy of the inspectors—Coalition of informers—They denounce me—Destruction of three classes of thieves—Formation of a new species—The brothers Delzève—How discorered—Delzève the younger arrested—The perquisites of a préfet of police—I free myself from the yoke of the peace officers and inspectors—My life is in danger—A few anecdotes.

I was not the only secret agent of the police of safety: a Jew named Gaffré was my coadjutor; he had been employed before me by the police, but as our principles did not agree, we did not long go on with harmony together. I perceived that he was a bad fellow, and mentioned my opinion to the chief of the division, who, having ascertained the justice of my report, expelled him, and ordered him to quit Paris. Some individuals without any other qualification than a sort of low cunning acquired in prison, were likewise attached to the police of safety, but they had no fixed employment, and were only paid according to the captures they made. There were also thieves who constantly followed their profession, and whose presence was tolerated on condition of their giving up to justice the malefactors they might by chance fall in with; sometimes it happened that for lack of other objects, they would denounce their own comrades. After these tolerated thieves, came, in the third or fourth gradation, that swarm of abandoned profligates who lived with girls of infamous character. This ignoble caste occasionally supplied important directions for the taking of pickpockets and swindlers; generally, they came forward and offered the most useful information when they were anxious to procure the release of their mistresses who chanced to fall under the surveillance of the police. The women who lived with well-known and incorrigible offenders were useful auxiliaries, constantly furnishing accounts which enabled the police to send off from time to time numbers of these lost creatures upon their travels to Bicêtre: this last class was indeed the very refuse of society, and yet up to the present period it had been impossible to dispense with its aid; for lengthened experience had, unfortunately, but too well shewn how impossible it was to depend on the zeal or intelligence of the inspecting officers. The intention of the administration was not to employ in the pursuit of robbery, unpaid men, but yet it was easy to profit by the assistance of those who from some interested motive only lent themselves to the police, with a proviso that they should remain behind the curtain, and enjoy certain immunities. M. Henry had, for some time, felt how dangerous it was to make use of these double-edged weapons, and had long contemplated measures for getting rid of them; and this had induced him to have me enlisted in the service of the police, which he was anxious to clear of all men decidedly robbers by profession. There are cures only to be effected by the aid of poison, and perhaps the leprosy of society can only be extirpated by similar means, but in this case the poisonous dose administered was too powerful, and the proof is, that nearly all the secret agents at this period were caught in the very act of committing crime, and many of them are still at the Bagnes.

When I entered the police, all these secret agents of both sexes were naturally leagued against me; and foreseeing that their reign was nearly at an end, they did all in their power to extend its period. I passed for a man inflexible and impartial; I would not permit that they should plunder in all quarters with impunity, and consequently they were my sworn foes. They spared no efforts to crush me. Useless endeavours! I braved the tempest as the time-rooted oak which scarcely stoops its head, despite the pitiless pelting of the storm.

I was denounced daily, but the voices of my calumniators were powerless, ineffectual. M. Henry, who had the préfet's ear, answered for my actions; and it was resolved that all denunciations against me should be immediately communicated to me, and that I should be allowed to refute them in writing. This proof of confidence gave me pleasure, and without rendering me more sedulous or attentive to my duties, it proved to me, at least, that my superiors had rendered me justice, and nothing in the world could have made me deviate from the plan of conduct which I had laid down.

In everything, enthusiasm is necessary if we would succeed. I did not hope to render the calling of a secret agent honourable, but I flattered myself with the idea of fulfilling its duties with honour. I was anxious to be esteemed upright, incorruptible, intrepid, and indefatigable; I wished to appear on all occasions prompt, adequate, and intelligent; and my successes conspired to give me the reputation I sought. Soon M. Henry took no steps without consulting me: we passed nights together in chalking out plans and means of repressing crimes and abuses, which were so efficacious that, in a short time the complaints of robberies were considerably diminished, because the number of robbers of all sorts was greatly reduced. I may even say, that there was a period, when the robbers of plate from houses, those who steal the luggage from coaches and carts, as well as pickpockets, gave no tokens of being in existence. At a later period, a new generation has sprung up, but they can never equal in dexterity Bombance, Marquis, Boucault, Compère, Bouthey, Pranger, Dorlé, La Rose, Gavard, Martin, and other first-rate rogues whom I reduced to a state of inaction. It was no intention of mine to allow their successors the opportunity of acquiring so much skill.

For about six months, I acted alone, excepting only a few common females who had devoted themselves to the service, when an unforeseen occurrence emancipated me from all dependence on the peace officers, who had, up to this time, so managed as to take upon themselves all the merits of my discoveries. This circumstance proved greatly in my favour, as it completely exposed the weakness and inefficiency of the inspectors, who complained, with much vehemence, that I gave them too much to do. To come to the fact, I shall begin the narration from its earliest commencement.

In 1810, robberies of a new kind and inconceivable boldness suddenly awakened the police to the knowledge of the existence of a troop of malefactors of a novel description.

Nearly all the robberies had been committed by ladders and forcible entries; apartments on the first and even second floor had been broken into by these extraordinary thieves, who, till then, had confined themselves to rich houses; and it was evident that these robbers must have had a knowledge of the localities, by the method of their burglaries.

All my efforts to discover these adroit thieves were without success, when a burglary which seemed almost impracticable was committed in the Rue Saint-Claude, near the Rue Bourbon-Villeneuve, in an apartment in the second floor above the 'entresol,' in a house in which the commissary of police for the district actually resided. The cord of the lantern which hung at his house-door had served for a ladder.

A nosebag (a small bag in which corn is put for horses to feed from when on the coach-stand) had been left on the spot, which gave rise to a surmise that the perpetrators might be hackney-coachmen, or at least that hackney-coaches had been employed in the enterprize.

M. Henry directed me to make my observations amongst the coachmen, and I discovered that the nosebag had belonged to a man named Husson, who drove the fiacre, No. 712. I reported this: Husson was apprehended, and from him we obtained information concerning two brothers, named Delzève, the elder of whom was soon in the hands of the police, and on his interrogation by M. Henry, he made such important discoveries as led to the apprehension of one Métral, a room-cleaner (frotteur) in the palace of the empress Josephine. He was stated to be the receiver of the band, composed almost entirely of Savoyards, born in the department of Leman. The continuation of my search led to my securing the persons of the brothers Pissard, Grenier, Lebrun, Piessard, Mabou, called the apothecary, Serassé, Durand, &c. twenty-two in all, who were subsequently condemned to imprisonment.

These robbers were for the greater part messengers (commissionaires) room-cleaners, or coachmen; that is, they belonged to a class of individuals proverbial for honesty, and who from time immemorial had been celebrated for probity throughout Paris; in their district they were all considered as honest men, incapable of appropriating to themselves the property of another; and this opinion contributed to render them the more formidable, as the persons who employed them either in sawing wood or in any other kind of work, had no distrust of them, and gave them free ingress and egress everywhere, and at all times. When it was known that they were implicated in a criminal affair, they were not believed to be guilty; and I myself, for some time, hesitated in my opinion. However, evidence was adduced which was against them, and the ancient renown of the Savoyards, in a capital in which they had resided unsuspected for ages, was blasted never again to flourish.

During the year 1812 I had rendered to justice the principals of the band; but Delzève, the younger, had baffled all efforts to capture him, and bid defiance to the pursuits of justice, when, on the 31st of December, M. Henry said to me, "I think, if we manage well, we can get hold of Écrevisse (Delzève's cognomen): to-morrow will be new-year's day, and he will be sure to visit the washerwoman, who has so often given him an asylum, as well as his brother; I have a presentiment that he will be there this evening or during the night, or certainly early in the morning."

I was of the same opinion; and M. Henry ordered me to go, with three officers, and place ourselves on the watch, near the washerwoman's house, who lived in the Rue des Gressillon, Faubourg St Honoré in the Petite-Pologne.

I received this command with a satisfaction which is always, with me, a presage of good will. Attended by the three inspectors, I went, at seven o'clock in the evening, to the appointed spot. It was bitterly cold, the ground covered with snow, and never had winter been more severe.

We stationed ourselves in ambuscade; and, after many hours, the inspectors, nipped with cold and unable any longer to endure it, proposed that we should quit our station. I was half-frozen, having no covering but the light garment of a messenger. I made some remarks to them; and, although it would have been infinitely more agreeable to me to have retired, we determined to remain till midnight. Scarcely had the hour agreed on struck, than they claimed of me the fulfilment of my promise,, and we quitted our post, which we had been ordered to keep till day-break.

We went towards the Palais Royal; a coffee-house was open, which we entered to warm ourselves, and having taken a bowl of hot wine, we separated, each to go to his own home. As I went towards mine, I reflected on what I was doing.—"What!" said I to myself, "so soon forget instructions which have been given to me; thus to deceive the confidence of my superior; it is an unpardonable baseness! My conduct not only seems reprehensible, but I think that it even deserves the most severe punishment." I was in despair at having complied with the wishes of the inspectors; and resolute in repairing my fault, determined to return alone to the post assigned, and pass the night there, even if I died on the spot. I then returned to the Pologne, and ensconced myself in a corner, that I might not be seen by Delzève, in case he should come.

For an hour and a half I remained in this position, until my blood congealed, and I felt my courage weakening, when suddenly a luminous idea shone upon me.—At a short distance was a dunghill, whose smoke betrayed a state of fermentation: this depôt is called the "voirie" (lay-stall): I ran towards it; and having made a hole in one corner, sufficiently deep to admit me up to my waist, I jumped into it, and a comfortable warmth soon re-established the circulation of my blood. At five in the morning, I was still in my lurking-place, where I did very well, except from the fumes which invaded my nostrils. At length the door of the house, which was the one pointed out to me, opened to let out a woman, who did not shut it after her. Instantly, and without noise, I leaped from the dung-heap; and entering the court looked about me, but saw no light from any part.

I knew that Delzève's associates had a peculiar way of whistling for him; it was the coachman's whistle, and known to me; I imitated it; and, at the second attempt, I heard some one exclaim, "Who calls?"

"It is the 'chauffeur' (a coachman from whom Delzève had learnt to drive) who whistles for l'Écrevisse (the crab)."

"Is it you?" cried the same voice, which I knew to be Delzève's.

"Yes; the chauffeur wants you. Come down."

"I am coming—wait a minute."

"It is very cold," I replied; "I will wait for you at the public-house at the corner; make haste—do you hear?"

The public-house was already open; for, on new-year's day, they have custom betimes. But I was not tempted to drink; and that I might trap Delzève, I opened the side door, and then letting it shut with violence, without actually going out, I concealed myself under a flight of steps. Soon afterwards Delzève came down, and on perceiving him I jumped at him, seized his collar, and holding a pistol to his breast, told him he was my prisoner. "Follow me," I said, "and make the slightest signal at your peril; besides, I am not alone."

Dumb with surprise, Delzève made no answer, but followed me mechanically. I fastened his hands, and he was then incapacitated from either resisting or flying from me.

I hastened to convey him away, and the clock struck six as we entered the Rue du Rocher; a hackney-coach was passing, which I hailed, but the man seeing me covered with dirt, hesitated, until I offered him double hire; and led by that, he condescended to take us up, and we were soon rolling over the pavement of Paris. To make assurance doubly sure, I tightened his wrist-cuffs, lest, having come to himself, he might have rebelled; and although, in a personal conflict, I should have been sure of victory, yet, as I contemplated bringing him to confession, I was unwilling to have any quarrel; and blows, which would have been inevitably the result of rebellion, would decidedly have produced this result.

Delzève felt aware of the impossibility of escape, and I endeavoured to make him hear reason; that I might completely wheedle (amadouer) him, I offered him some refreshment, which he accepted; and the coachman having procured us some wine, we kept driving about and drinking, without any determined plan.

It was still early, and persuaded that it would be advantageous to prolong our tête-à-tête, I proposed to Delzève, that we should go and breakfast in a place where we could have a private room. He was then quieted; and appearing hopeless of escape, accepted my offer, and I took him to the Cadran Bleu; but, before we got there, he had already told me many pieces of important information as to the number of his accomplices still at large in Paris; and I felt convinced that, at table, he would make "a clean breast of it" (se deboutonnerait completement). I made him understand that the only way to propitiate the favour of justice, was to confess all he knew; and to fortify his resolution in this case, I used some arguments of a peculiar philosophy, which I have always employed with success in consoling criminals; and, at length, he was perfectly disposed to do all I wished, when the coach reached the cook's shop. I made him go up stairs first, and when I had ordered the breakfast, I told him that, being desirous of eating my meal at my ease, I must confine him as I wished. I agreed that he should be left sufficiently unshackled to exercise his arms at the game of knife and fork; and, at table, no one could desire greater freedom. He was not at all offended at the proposition, and I thus contrived it:—with two napkins I tied each leg to the foot of his chair, three or four inches from the bar, which prevented him from attempting to rise without the risk of breaking his head by a fall.

He breakfasted with much appetite, and promised to repeat before M. Henry all that he had confessed to me. At noon we left the café, Delzève being well primed with wine, and getting into a coach, quite friends and on good terms with each other, we reached the prefecture ten minutes afterwards. M. Henry was then surrounded by his police-officers, who were paying him the compliments of the new-year's day. I entered and addressed this salutation to him:—"I have the honour to wish you a happy and prosperous year, and to present to you the redoubtable Delzève."

"This is, indeed, a new year's gift," said M. Henry to me, when he perceived the prisoner, and then turning to the officers of peace and security: "It would be a desirable thing, gentlemen, that each of you should have a similar present to offer to your préfet." Immediately afterwards he gave me the order for conducting Delzève to the depôt, saying, with much kindness: "Vidocq, go and take some repose; I am much satisfied with your conduct."

The apprehension of Delzève was productive of the highest testimonials of satisfaction to me, but at the same time it only augmented the hatred which the peace-officers and their agents cherished towards me; only one of them, M. Thibaut, rendered me the fullest justice.

Joining chorus with the thieves and malefactors, all the agents who were not successful as police-officers, assailed me with the utmost virulence. According to them, it was scandalous, abominable, to exercise my zeal in purging society of the evil-doers which troubled its repose. I had been a famous robber; there was no species of crime that I had not perpetrated: such were the reports which were widely spread, and generally accredited. Some perhaps believed them partly true; the thieves, at least, were persuaded that I had followed the vocation in which they worked; and in saying so they believed what they asserted. Before they were caught in my traps, it was necessary that they should think me one of themselves; and once taken, they considered me as a false comrade, but still not the less an "out-and-outer," (un grinche de la haute pégre) only that I plundered with impunity because I was necessary to the police: this was, at all events, the current tale in the prisons. The peace-officers and their satellites were not slow in giving all confirmation to such reports; and then perhaps, in becoming the echoes of the wretches who had cause to complain of me, they did not think that they lied so much as they really did; for, taking no pains to learn what had been the course of my early life, they were to a certain point excusable in thinking that I must have been a thief, since, from time immemorial, all the secret agents had followed that reputable means of getting a livelihood. They knew that such was the commencement of the lives of Goupil, Compère, Florentin, Levesque, Coco-Lacour, Bourdarie, Cadet Herriez, Henri Lain, Cesar Vioque, Bouthey, Gaffre, Manigant; and, in fact, all who had preceded or were coadjutors with me. Nearly all the agents had returned to their old way of life, and as I appeared much more crafty, much more active, much more enterprizing than they, the conclusion was drawn, that being the most adroit of spies, was the result of having been the most expert of robbers. This error in reasoning I forgive; but the assertion that I continued daily to plunder, is an intentional calumny.

M. Henry, struck with the absurdity of such an imputation, replied to it by this unanswerable objection. He said, "If it be true that Vidocq commits daily robberies, it is an additional charge against your vigilance; he is alone, you are numerous; you say that he plunders, then how is it that you do not catch him in the fact? Unaided, he has contrived to secure many of your colleagues whilst in the commission of offences, and yet you, all of you, are unable to do so with him!"

The officers were somewhat puzzled how to reply, and thereupon kept silence; but as it was but too evident that the enmity they bore me would always lead them to cross my plans, the préfet of police determined on making me totally independent of them. From that moment I was free to act as I thought fittest for the public welfare. I now only received orders from M. Henry personally, and was amenable for my conduct to him only.

I would have redoubled my zeal had it been possible; and M. Henry did not fear that my exertions would fall off; but as he had already learnt that some persons had threatened my life, he appointed an auxiliary, who was charged with following me at a distance, and watching over me, to ward off any blows which might be aimed at me secretly. The isolated situation in which I was placed greatly favoured my success, and I apprehended a multitude of robbers, who would long have escaped search had I not been emancipated from all interference from the police agents and inspectors. But being so much in action, I became more known. The robbers swore they would get rid of me, and frequently I narrowly escaped their blows; my physical strength, and I may add, my courage, freed me victoriously from all ambuscades, however craftily planned. Many attempts, in which my assailants always came off second best, taught them that I was fully resolved to sell my life most dearly.