The age-old argument about incarceration centers around the reason for putting a criminal in jail. Is the primary purpose of imprisonment meant to be more punishment, or should it be more about rehabilitation? In the case of Eugene, it was both, really. He had been a career or life-long criminal. At almost the age of 40 and during a rare period he was not in jail, Eugene heard that a man with whom he had committed several crimes was executed by the state for murder. The news of his former partner’s death changed him.
So, Eugene decided to go straight. He still had some time inside that he owed to the state, but he told his captors as he went to prison that he wished to provide them with insider information in exchange for an early release. The chief of police of the national capital city agreed, and Eugene became a snitch. Except that no one really knew his identity because he gave his reports directly to the chief through codes sent through several channels. And Eugene’s information was amazing. His long history in crime had given him credibility in prison, and the other crooks trusted him and looked up to him. So, they told him all their plans, all their past misdeeds, and all their nefarious connections in the major cities of the country. And it all went to the ear of the chief of police through Eugene.
Having kept his part of the bargain (incredibly, so, given the amount and veracity of his information), and the chief kept his part, too. Eugene was released, but the authorities made it look like an escape so that his reputation both in and out of prison would remain intact in case his snitching skills were ever needed again. In fact, Eugene became an undercover police officer. He used his connections and reputation to gain entry to some of the most notorious criminal gangs in the nation. He would slide easily into and out of costumes, personalities, and personas to infiltrate into the core of gangs, cutthroats, drug rings, and illegal gambling operations. Crime decreased dramatically nationwide because of Eugene’s efforts as an undercover cop.
It was at this point that Eugene had a brainstorm. If he could be this effective as a plainclothes policeman, surely an entire division of the police department, all made up of former (now trusted and reformed) criminals could be super efficient at stopping crime. The police chief agreed, and he gave Eugene the authority to establish an undercover squad for this purpose. Eventually, 28 former criminals and former jailbirds made up Eugene’s secret, undercover police squad. They soon led the nation in major crimes arrests and convictions. The group uncovered assassination plots against politicians, they foiled bank robberies, and they broke up counterfeiting rings.
But there was one problem. Eugene was still on the books as a wanted, escaped criminal. His arrangement had been with the chief of police and not with the magistrates and the court system. A pardon was requested, and, because of his great service to the nation over the years through the work of the undercover squad, Eugene received his pardon. For the first time in his life, he was truly a free, unwanted man. But his collaborator, the chief of police, was replaced by a man who didn’t like the idea of a group of policemen in his department being made up of former criminals, and he began putting pressure on Eugene to get rid of the squad and replace them with “straight” policemen. Eugene saw the handwriting on the wall, and, after over a decade of solid and valuable police work, he tendered his resignation.
Eventually, Eugene put his years of work on both sides of the law to work as a private investigator. And, as he did when he worked for the police, he hired both male and female convicts as his agency’s operatives. The business thrived–perhaps too well. Soon, the police themselves began to complain that Eugene’s company was taking cases and solving them to the point that they had little work to do. His inventive and creative processes of documenting and analyzing such things as crime scenes and of identifying criminals have become standard stuff in not only private investigating firms but also in most police forces worldwide. If you’ve seen a line-up, a photo array of potential perpetrators, a systematic cataloging and documenting of a crime scene, plaster casts of shoeprints, bullet ballistics, and so on, then you’ve seen something pioneered by Eugene. When he died in 1857 in Paris in his 80s, he was lauded as a great pioneer of police work.
You don’t know his name–Eugene Vidocq–but you know the word that describes him: Detective. And, since Eugene, every private and police detective, both in real life and in fiction, are modeled after him and his methods.
Not bad for a career criminal, eh?