Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume II/Chapter XXX



The police-officers sent in pursuit of a celebrated robber—They are unable to discover him—Great anger of one of them—I promise another new-year's gift to the préfet—The yellow curtains and the hump-backed female—I am a good citizen—A messenger puts me on the right scent—The chest of the prefecture of police—I am a coal-man—The fright of a vintner and his wife—The little Norman in tears—The danger of giving Eau de Cologne—Carrying off of mademoiselle Tonneau—A search—The thief takes me for his mate—Thieves laugh at locksmiths—The jump from the window—The effects of a long slide, or broken stitches.

It has been seen how greatly I was thwarted by the infidelity of an agent, and I have long since learnt that there is no secret well kept but that which we tell to nobody; and sad experience more and more convinced me of the necessity of acting alone in all my operations, when I could do so; and I pursued this mode, as will be seen on a very important occasion.

After having undergone several sentences, two fugitives of the isles, named Goreau and Florentin, called Chatelain (governor), of whom I have already spoken, were detained at Bicêtre, as incorrigible robbers. Weary of confinement in these cells, where they were buried alive, they sent to M. Henry a letter, in which they offered to give such information as should lead to the apprehension of several of their comrades, who were daily perpetrating robberies in Paris. Fossard, sentenced for life, who had frequently escaped from the Bagnes, was the one marked out as the most dangerous. "He was," they wrote, "unequalled for intrepidity, and must be attacked with caution; for always armed to the teeth, he had resolved on blowing out the brains of that police-agent who should be hardy enough to attempt to apprehend him."

The heads of the police asked nothing better than to free the capital from such a daring thief, and their first idea was to employ me in discovering him; but the informers having suggested to M. Henry that I was too well known to Fossard and his concubine not to defeat an operation which must be most delicately effected, it was decided that the affair should be intrusted to the skill of some police-officers. To them therefore were given all the necessary instructions to regulate their searches; but, either they were not lucky, or they did not especially approbate a rencontre with Fossard, who was 'armed to the teeth,' for he continued his exploits, and the numerous complaints to which his activity gave rise, announced, that in spite of their apparent zeal, these gentlemen, as usual, made more noise than work.

The result was, that the préfet, who preferred doings to sayings, sent for them one day, and reprimanded them in a manner which must have been severe, to judge by the discontent which they could not help testifying.

They had just received this official proof of disapprobation, when I happened to meet, in the market of Saint-Jean, M. Yvrier, one of the officers in question, whom I saluted, and he thereupon accosted me, almost bursting with rage, saying, "Ah! there you are, Mr Do-so-much; you are the cause of our having been reprimanded about that Fossard, the fugitive galley-slave, who they say is in Paris. If we are to believe monsieur le préfet, there is no one but you who can do anything. If Vidocq, he said to us, had been ordered to this business, we should have had this fellow apprehended long ago. Well, then, let us see, M. Vidocq; set your wits to work to find him, you who are so very clever, and prove that you have all the talent that they say you have."

M. Yvrier was an old man, and it was respect for his age which checked my reply to his impertinence; and although I was wounded by the tone of his address, I did not care to show it, contenting myself with replying, that I had not then the leisure to occupy myself about Fossard, that he was a capture I should reserve till the first of January, that I might have a suitable new year's gift for M. le préfet, as the previous year I had brought the famous Delzève.

"Go on your own way," replied M. Yvrier, irritated at this boast; "the event will show what you are, a presumptuous fellow, who creates difficulties to show his skill in surmounting them;" and he left me, grumbling out from between his teeth some other epithets and qualities which I nether understood nor heeded.

After this scene, I went to M. Henry's private room, to whom I related it. "Ah! they wince—they are angry, are they?" said he, laughing; "so much the better; it proves that they defer to your ability. I see," added M. Henry, "that these gentlemen are like the eunuchs of a seraglio; they cannot do themselves, and would not allow others to be doing." He then gave me the following particulars:—

"Fossard lives in Paris, in a street leading from the market-place to a boulevard that is somewhere between the Rue Comtesse d'Artois and the Rue Poissonnière, passing by the Rue Montorgueil and the Petit-Carreau: on what story his apartments are is unknown; but the windows may be recognised by having yellow silk curtains and other curtains of embroidered muslin. In the same house resides a little hump-backed woman, a seamstress, and intimate with the female who lives with Fossard."

These particulars were, it may be seen, not sufficiently definite to lead at once to the spot we wished to discover.

A hump-backed woman and yellow curtains with others of embroidered muslin, were not certainly to be found readily in the extent of ground which was to be explored. Perhaps such a combination might be found more than once in the limits prescribed. How many humps, old as well as young, are there not to be found in Paris? And who could count all the yellow curtains? In fact, the data were excessively vague, and yet the problem was to be solved; and I determined to try, if by dint of all my acumen and research, my good genius would not direct my finger to the very spot I sought.

I was in doubt as to what steps I should first take; but as I had generally found that, in all my undertakings, it was principally from females that I gleaned my information, whether women or girls, I soon determined on the disguise which was best adapted for my purpose. It was apparent that I must assume the guise of a very respectable gentleman, and, consequently, by means of some false wrinkles, a pig-tail, snowy white ruffles, a large gold-headed cane, a three-cornered hat, buckles, breeches and coat to match,—I was metamorphosed into one of those good sexagenarian citizens, whom all old ladies admire. I had the precise appearance and air of one of those rich old boys of the Marais, whose rubicund and jolly countenance proves the ease of his circumstances, and the desire to bestow charity on those who need it, by way of a recompense to fortune. I was very sure that the hump-backed women would set their caps at me; and I had the appearance of so good a man, that it was impossible they would make any attempts at deceiving me.

Thus disguised, I went into the streets, gazing upwards to discover all the curtains of the prescribed colour. I was so much occupied with this investigation that I was entirely lost to all around me. Had I been a little less substantial looking I might have been taken for a metaphysician, or perhaps for a poet who was seeking a couplet in the region of the chimney-pots; twenty times I narrowly escaped the cabriolets; on all sides the cry of "Gâre! gâre!" (mind, mind) assailed me, and then, on turning round, I was under the wheel, or else close beside a horse; sometimes, whilst I was wiping the dirt from my sleeve, a lash of a whip came across my face, or, if the driver were less brutal, it was some such salutation as this:—"Out of the way, old dunny-head," or else, "Come, what are you at, old stupid?"

My work was not to be completed in a single day, even as far as the yellow curtains went, I marked down more than one hundred and fifty in my memorandum book, which gave choice enough in all conscience. Had I not, as the saying is, worked for the king of Prussia?—(i. e. unavailingly.) Might not the curtains, behind which Fossard was concealed, have been taken down and replaced by white, red, or green ones? However, if chance was against me, she might yet throw out some favourable hint for my guidance; and I took courage, although it is a somewhat painful task for a sexagenarian to ascend and descend a hundred and fifty staircases, consisting at least of seven hundred and fifty stories, to take more than thirty thousand steps, or twice the height of Chimborazo; but as I felt my breath good, and my legs strong, I undertook the task, sustained by the same hope as that which impelled the Argonauts to sail in quest of the golden fleece. It was my hump-backed lady that I sought; and in my ascents, in how many landing-places have I not stood centinel for hours together, in the persuasion that my lucky star would shine upon her. The heroic Don Quixote was not more ardent in the pursuit of his Dulcinea. I knocked at the doors of all the seamstresses; I examined them one after another, but no humps; they were all perfectly formed; or if by chance they had a projection, it was not a deviation of the spine, but one of those temporary exuberances which resolve themselves into maternity.

Thus passed several days without presenting to my longing eyes the object of my search, and I was heartily tired of my job, for every night my back ached past bearing, and yet the work was to be recommenced the next morning. I dared ask no questions; for although then some charitable soul might have put me on the right scent, yet I might get into danger; and at last, fatigued with this unsatisfactory mode of search, I determined to adopt another.

I have remarked, that hump-backed women are generally very inquisitive, and great chatterers; they are generally the news-distributors of the district, and if not, they are then the registers of petty slanders, and nothing passes with which they are not acquainted. Impressed with this idea, I concluded that, under pretext of getting her little requisites supplied, the unknown humpy lady, who had already cost me so much trouble, would not fail, any more than many others, to come and have her wonted gossip at the milkman's, the baker's, the fruiterer's, the mercer's, or the grocer's. I resolved therefore to station myself at the doors of several of these chattering shops, and as every humpy woman, anxious for a husband, makes a great parade of her abilities as a clever caterer, I was persuaded that mine would be on foot early in the morning, and that I ought, to see her, to station myself at an early hour at my post of observation, and accordingly I went there at daybreak.

I first employed myself in considering how best to take my measures. To what milk-woman would a hump-backed lady give the preference? Certainly, to her who had most gossip, and sold cheapest. There was one at the corner of the Rue Thevenot, who seemed to me to combine these two qualities; she had about her a great number of small cans, and from the midst of her circle did not cease to talk and serve, serve and talk. Her customers babbled away to their hearts' content, and she chattered as indefatigably as her customers; but this was not of any consequence to me; I had pitched upon an admirable and likely spot, and was determined not to lose sight of it.

On going to my second watch in the evening, I impatiently awaited the arrival of my female Esop, but there were only young girls, well made, slender, with good figures, easy appearance, neatly attired, and not one of them that was not as straight and upright as the letter I. I was beginning to despair, when at length my star beamed in the horizon; I saw the Venus, the prototype of all humped women! Ye gods! how handsome she appeared; and how splendid was the contour of that prominent feature for which I had so anxiously watched,—her adorable hump! I gave myself time to contemplate this protuberance, which naturalists should, I think, take into consideration, and enumerate an additional race in the human species. I thought I was gazing on one of those fairies of the middle age, in whom a deformity of this kind was 'a double charm.' This supernatural being, or rather extra-natural, approached the milk-woman, and having gossiped for some time, as I had anticipated, she took her cream; she then entered the grocer's; then paused a moment at the tripe-shop, where she procured some lights, probably for her cat; and then, her stores provided, she turned off in the Rue du Petit Carreau, down the gateway, to a house of which the ground-floor was occupied by a working turner. I cast my eyes instantly on the windows, but, alas! no yellow curtains met my longing lingering look. I however made the reflexion which had before suggested itself, that curtains, of whatever shade, have not the immobility of an original hump; and I resolved not to retire until I had some converse with the enchanting little lump of deformity, whose appearance had so truly enchanted me. I surmised, that in spite of my disappointment with regard to one of the main circumstances described for my guidance, yet that a conversation would elicit some useful information to lighten my path.

I determined to ascend the stair-case; and on getting up to the first landing-place, enquired for "a little lady rather deformed."—"Oh, it is the seamstress you want," was the reply, attended by a significant grin. "Yes, the seamstress I want; a person who has one shoulder somewhat higher than the other." Again I was laughed at, and her apartment pointed out as on the third story. Although her neighbours were very complaisant, I was rather nettled at their chuckling and laughing; it was exceedingly unpolite: but such was my tolerance, that I freely pardoned the expression of their mirth; and was not that commendable in me? It preserved the character I had assumed. The door was shown to me; I knocked, and it was opened by my darling little Humpa herself; and after fifty apologies for the visit, I begged her to give me a few moments' audience, adding, that I had personal business to discuss with her.

"Mademoiselle," said I, with a solemn tone, after she had seated me opposite to herself, "you are ignorant of the motive which has led me hither; but when you shall know it, perhaps the step I have taken will excite your interest."

The hump-backed damsel thought that I was going to make an open avowal; the colour rushed to her cheeks, and her look became animated, although she cast her eyes on the ground. I continued:

"Doubtless, you will be astonished that at my age one can be as deeply enamoured as at twenty years old."

"Ah, sir, you are still young," said the amiable Humpina, whose mistake I would not allow to be prolonged.

"Why, pretty well for that," I added, "but it is not of that I would speak. You know that in Paris it is not an uncommon thing for a man and woman to live together without the benediction of holy Mother Church."

"What do you take me for, sir, to make such a proposal to me?" cried the little Humpetta, without giving me time to finish my sentence. I smiled at her mistake, and continued: "I have no intention to make any such proposition; I only request that you will have the goodness to give me some information respecting a young lady, who, I am told, lives in this house with a gentleman who passes for her husband."—"I know nothing at all about it," answered my little lady, very snappishly.

I then gave her a tolerably accurate description of Fossard, and the demoiselle Tonneau, his lady.

"Ah, I know now," said she; "a man of your figure and size, about thirty or five-and-thirty years of age, a good-looking gentleman: the lady, a pretty brunette, beautiful eyes, lovely teeth, charming mouth, superb eyelashes, dark brows, nose a little turned up, with a most engaging and modest demeanour. They did live here, but they have removed." I entreated her to give me their new address; and on her reply, that she did not know it, I weepingly besought her to aid in the recovery of an ungrateful creature, whom I still fondly, dotingly loved, despite her perfidy.

The seamstress was touched. The tears I shed moved her tender heart; and feeling that I gained ground, I became more and more pathetic. "Ah! her infidelity will cause my death: pity, commiserate a wretched husband; I conjure you, do not conceal from me her retreat, and I shall owe you more than life."

Your hump-backed women are compassionate; moreover, a husband is, in their eyes, so inappreciable a treasure; and as they are not possessed of one, they cannot imagine how any one can be unfaithful; and thus my seamstress held adultery in utter abhorrence. She sincerely pitied me, and said she would do all in her power to serve me. "Unfortunately," she added, "their goods having been removed by porters not belonging to the district; I am completely ignorant of where they have gone, or what has become of them; but would you like to see the landlady?" As I had no doubt of her sincerity, I went to see the landlady, but all I learnt from her was, that they had paid for the term agreed on, and had not left any tidings of their new abode.

Except having discovered Fossard's old lodging, I was no forwarder than at first; but I would not abandon the quest without exhausting every chance and enquiry that could suggest itself. Usually, the porters of the various districts knew each other; and I interrogated those of the Rue du Petit Carreau, to whom I introduced myself as a wronged husband; and one of them pointed out to me a comrade who had aided in the removal of my rival's goods and chattels.

I saw this individual, and told him my concerted story; but he was a cunning chap, and intended to trick me. I pretended not to perceive it; and, as a recompense for promising that he would conduct me the next day to the place where Fossard had pitched his tent, I gave him two five-franc pieces, which were spent the same day at the Courtille, in company with the lady he 'protected.'

This interview was on the 27th of December, and we were to meet again the next day; and to fulfil my assertion of the 1st of January there was not much time to lose. I was punctual at the rendezvous; and the porter, whom I had caused to be watched by some agents, was also to the time and place. Some more five-franc pieces changed masters from my purse to his, and I paid for his breakfast. We then started, and we arrived at a very pretty house, at the corner of the Rue Duphot and that of Saint Honoré. "Now," said he, "we must ask the vintner just by if they are still here." He wanted me to regale him again. I did not refuse; and we entered the shop, where we emptied a bottle of good wine: I then left him, fully assured of the residence of my pretended wife and her seducer. I had no farther occasion for my guide, and dismissed him with a mark of my gratitude; but to be sure that he did not betray me, in the hope of being doubly paid, I ordered the agents to watch him closely, and to prevent his returning to the vintner's. As well as I remember, to preclude all possibility of his so doing, they put him in the guard-house: in such cases we are not over particular; and, to be sincere, it was I who put him in the stone doublet, which was but a just retaliation. "My friend," I said to him, "I have left with the police a note of five hundred francs, destined to reward the man who shall successfully aid me in recovering my wife. It is now yours; and I will give you a note which will enable you to secure it;" and I gave him a small note to M. Henry, who, on perusal, said to a police-officer, "Conduct this gentleman to the chest." The chest was, in this instance, the Sylvestre-Chamber (a place of confinement) where my friend, the porter, had a little leisure for salutary reflection.

I was not certain of Fossard's residence, but yet relied on the indications given to me, and I was provided with the necessary power for his apprehension. Then the "richard du Marais" (the rich old man of the Marais) was suddenly metamorphosed into a coal-man; and in this costume, under which neither the mother who bore me, nor any of the agents of the police who saw me daily, could have recognised me, I employed myself in studying the ground on which I should so shortly be compelled to manœuvre.

The friends of Fossard—that is, his denouncers—had advised that the agents employed in his apprehension should be warned that he was always provided with a dagger and pistols, one of which latter, with double barrels, was concealed in a cambric handkerchief which he always held in his hand. This information called for precaution; and, besides, from the known desperation of Fossard's character, it was certain that to avoid a confinement worse than death, he would not hesitate about a murder. I felt no anxiety to become his victim; and thought that it would sensibly diminish my chance of peril, if I came to a previous understanding with the vintner whose tenant Fossard was. The vintner was a good fellow enough,[1] but the police is always in such ill odour, that it is no easy matter to procure the assistance of honest men. I determined to bring him over to my side, by making it much to his interest to do so. I had visited his house several times in my double disguise, and had leisure to make myself acquainted with all the localities, and to become acquainted with the sort of visitors who came there. I then went in my usual dress, and accosting the man, told him I wished to speak with him in private. He took me into a small private room, when I thus addressed him:—

"I have to inform you, from the police, that a plan is formed to rob your house; the thief who has devised the means, and who probably intends perpetrating the robbery himself, lodges in your house; the female who lives with him comes sometimes behind your counter, sees your wife, and whilst conversing with her, has contrived to get the impression of the key which opens the door by which the proposed entry is to made. All is arranged; the alarum is to be cut with nippers whilst the door is a-jar; once inside, they will ascend quickly to your chamber; and if they have any suspicion that you are awake, as it is a perfect ruffian who concerts the project, there is no need for me to tell you what will ensue——." "They will cut our throats," said the alarmed vintner, and then called his wife to communicate the intelligence.—"Oh, my love, what a world we live in—trust nobody! That madame Hazard who seemed too good to have a sin to confess—would you believe it—actually contemplates the cutting of our throats! This very night they will come and settle the business."—"No, no, be quiet," I replied, "not this night; the till is not full enough, they wait until the fitting time; but if you are discreet and will second me, we will defeat them."

Madame Hazard was mademoiselle Tonneau, who had assumed the name by which Fossard was known in the house; and I desired the vintner and his wife, who were gladly led by me, to treat their lodgers as usual. It need not be asked how willingly they followed my instructions; and it was agreed between us that to see Fossard go out, and to be able to decide on the best time to seize on him, I should ensconce myself in a small closet under the stairs.

At an early hour on the 29th of December, I betook myself to my station; it was desperately cold, the watch was a protracted one, and the more painful as we had no fire; motionless, however, and my eye fixed against a small hole in the shutter, I kept my post. At last, about three o'clock, he went out; I followed, gladly, and recognized him; for up to that period I had my doubts. Certain now of his identity, I wished at that moment to put into execution the order for his apprehension; but the officer who was with me said he saw the terrible pistol. That I might authenticate the fact, I walked quickly and passed Fossard; and then returning, saw clearly that the agent was right. To attempt to arrest him would have been useless, and I resolved to defer it; and on recalling to mind that a fortnight before I had flattered myself with the prospect of apprehending Fossard on the 1st of January, I was not displeased at the delay; but till then my vigilance was not to be relaxed for a single instant.

On the 31st of December, at eleven o'clock, when all my batteries were charged and my plans perfect, Fossard returned, and without distrust ascended the staircase shaking with cold; and twenty minutes after, the disappearance of the light indicated that he was in bed. The moment had now arrived. The commissary and gendarmes, summoned by me, were waiting at the nearest guard-house until I should call them, and then enter quietly; we deliberated on the most effectual mode of seizing Fossard without running the risk of being killed or wounded; for they were persuaded that unless surprised, this robber would defend himself desperately.

My first thought was to do nothing till day-break, as I had been told that Fossard's companion went down very early to get the milk; we should then seize her, and after having taken the key from her, we should enter the room of her lover; but might it not happen, that contrary to his usual custom, he might go out first? This reflexion led me to adopt another expedient.

The vintner's wife, in whose favour, as I was told, M. Hazard was much prepossessed, had one of her nephews at her house, a lad about ten years of age, intelligent beyond his years, and the more desirous of getting money as he was a Norman. I promised him a reward on condition that, under pretence of his aunt's being taken suddenly ill, he should go and beg madame Hazard to give him some Eau de Cologne. I desired the little chap to assume the most piteous tone he could; and was so well satified with a specimen he gave me, that I began to distribute the parts to my performers. The dénouement was near at hand. I made all my party take off their shoes, doing the same myself, that we might not be heard whilst going up stairs. The little snivelling pilot was in his shirt; he rang the bell—no one answered; again he rang:—"Who's there," was heard.—"It is I, madame Hazard; it is Louis: my poor aunt is very bad, and begs you, will be so very obliging as to give her a little Eau de Cologne—Oh! she is dying!—I have got a light"

The door was opened; and scarcely had mademoiselle Tonneau presented herself, when two powerful gendarmes seized on her, and fastened a napkin over her mouth to prevent her crying out. At the same instant, with more rapidity than the lion's when darting on his prey, I threw myself upon Fossard; who, stupified by what was doing, and already fast bound and confined in his bed, was my prisoner before he could make a single movement, or utter a single word. So great was his amazement, that it was nearly an hour before he could articulate even a few words. When a light was brought, and he saw my black face and garb of a coalman, he experienced such an increase of terror, that I really believe he imagined himself in the devil's clutches. On coming to himself, he thought of his arms, his pistols and dagger, which were upon the table; and turning his eyes towards them, he made a struggle, but that was all; for, reduced to the impossibility of doing any mischief, he was passive, and contented himself with "chewing the cud of sweet and bitter fancy."

On searching the domicile of this formidable brigand, a great quantity of jewels were found; diamonds, and cash to the amount of eight or ten thousand francs. Fossard having recovered his spirits, told me, that under the marble of the chimney-piece were ten notes, of a thousand francs each. "Take them," said he; "we will divide, or you shall take as much as you please." I took the notes, and getting into a fiacre, we soon reached M. Henry's office, where we deposited the booty found in Fossard's apartment. On making out the inventory, when we came to the last item, the commissary who had accompanied me in the enterprize, said, "It now only remains to conclude the procès-verbal."—"Stay one moment," I cried, "here are ten thousand francs which the prisoner has handed over to me." I displayed this sum, to the great regret of Fossard, who gave me one of those looks which would say, "this is a turn I will never forgive."

Fossard entered early on a career of crime. Born of reputable parents, he had received a good education; his friends had done all in their power to divert him from his vicious courses, but, in spite of good advice, he had thrown himself headlong into the vortex of bad company. He began by stealing trifling articles; but soon after, having acquired a decided taste for such pursuits, and blushing, no doubt, at being confounded with ordinary robbers, "petty-larceny knaves," he adopted what the gentlemen style a "distinguished line." The famous Victor Desbois and Noel with the Spectacles, who now honour the Bagne at Brest with their distinguished presence, were his associates; and they committed together those robberies which led to their imprisonment for life. Noel, whose talents as a musician, and in his quality of teacher of the piano-forte, got access to all the rich houses, took impressions of the keys which Fossard then fabricated. It was an art in which he defied Georget and all the locksmiths in the world to surpass him; however complicated the lock, however ingenious and difficult the secret, nothing resisted the efforts of his skill.

It may be easily conceived what advantage he made of such a pernicious talent; being, moreover, a man who could insinuate himself into the company of honest persons, and then dupe them. Besides, he was a close and frigid character, to which he added courage and perseverance. His comrades regarded him as the prince of thieves; and, in fact, amongst the "tip-top cracksmen" (grinches de la haute pegre), that is, in the aristocracy of robbers, I never knew but Cognard, Pontis, Comte de St Hélène, and Jossas (mentioned in the first volume of these Memoirs), who were at all comparable with him.

After I had reinstated him at the Bagne, Fossard often attempted to escape. Some liberated prisoners who have lately seen him, have assured me that he only longs for liberty, that he may avenge himself on me. They say, he has threatened to kill me. If the accomplishment of this kind intention depended solely on him, I am sure he would keep his word, if it were only to give a proof of his intrepidity. Two circumstances that have been told me, will give some idea of the man.

One day Fossard was about to commit a robbery in an apartment on the second story: his comrades, who were watching without, were stupid enough to allow the proprietor to ascend the staircase; and he, on putting the key into the door, opened it, went through several rooms, and on getting to an inner closet, saw the thief at work; but Fossard, putting himself on the defensive, escaped. A window was open near him, and, darting out of it, he fell into the street without injury, and disappeared as swift as lightning.

Another time, whilst he was escaping, he was surprised on the tiles of Bicêtre, and fired at. Fossard, never disconcerted, continued to walk along without stopping or hastening his steps, and getting to that side which looks into the fields, he slid down. The fall was enough to have broken a hundred necks, but he received no hurt; only the slide was so rapid, that his clothes were rent in shreds.

  1. He now lives at Rue Neuve-de-Seine. It was at his door that "La belle Écaillère" was assassinated.