Forensic Science versus Quelques Caresses

Forensic Science versus Quelques Caresses

Tue 13 Mar

On a sultry summer night in 1822 the tall, red-headed Comtesse Isabelle d’Arcy, twenty-five years younger than her husband, on whom she was cheating with the handsome but impecunious Italian, Deloro, was found shot dead in bed at her Paris home. On the sound principle that where a wife is killed the investigation should start with her husband, the police arrested the Count. The head of the detective force in Paris at the time was Eugène-François Vidocq. On questioning the Count, he took the view that the “old gentleman” did not have the personality of a murderer and set about exculpating him.

First, he examined the Count’s duelling pistols and found that either they had not been fired or had been cleaned since the killing. Then he persuaded a doctor to remove the bullet from the Countess’s head. A simple comparison showed that the bullet was too big to have come from the guns of the Count. Vidocq then recruited a red-haired actress to seduce Deloro. She accomplished her task with ease, and one afternoon while Deloro was dining out with friends, the actress let Vidocq into the apartment. A search produced not only jewels which the Count identified as those of his wife, but also a large pistol which the bullet fitted. Vidocq then traced the receiver to whom Deloro had already sold a diamond ring. Confronted with the evidence, he confessed to shooting the Countess and was guillotined. The Count was released and became a lifelong supporter of Vidocq.

Three years later in 1825 Vidocq was involved in the case of a millionaire, Matthieu, killed in a robbery at his home which left stains on the hardwood floor of his study. As an example of Vidocq’s understanding of the need to preserve evidence, he scraped off what appeared to be blood. Later, in disguise, he picked a fight with a man, Richard, who resembled descriptions of the robber, and cut him over the eye. He then cleaned the cut with a handkerchief. Testing it with chemicals, he matched the colour of the blood on the handkerchief with the blood he had scraped from the floor. When Vidocq told Richard of the match he also promptly confessed and was executed.

And there in two short stories are the beginnings of the forensic sciences of ballistics and blood analysis with which Vidocq is often credited. Unfortunately, however, the stories are almost certainly ben trovato. Neither case appears in the French National Archives nor in the daily paper Gazette des Tribunaux which reported criminal cases. Nor are the executions themselves noted in the memoirs of the executioner Charles Henri Sansom who provides a meticulous list of his clients. Even more telling is that neither story appears in Vidocq’s own memoirs, something they certainly would have done had they been true. In fact until 1850 it was not possible to tell whether stains were bloodstains, let alone whether they were human. The stories may in fact owe their existence to Alexandre Dumas Senior who wrote of Vidocq’s fame some fifteen years later.

Born in 1775 in Arras, Eugene-François Vidocq, the thief, ponce, braggart, army deserter and escapee from a convict ship in 1809, had surrendered to the police and had agreed to become an informer to save his skin and a return to the bagnes. By 1821 he had worked his way to the top of La Sûreté.

In Vidocq the Parisian police had an innovator. For a start he regularly used women as detectives when neither New York nor London had a police force let alone women officers. He was thorough in his preparation for police work as well. He ensured that his detectives went to the prisons, as he had done, to see the new intake of convicts so they could recognise them in the future. It was a practice later adopted and still maintained in England until the late 1980s when detectives would go to court in particular cases to see who was in the public gallery and could therefore be linked as an associate of the suspect. Vidocq also recognised the need for a parade from which a witness could choose, instead of mere confrontation, as a more reliable way of making an identification of suspects.

If the story of Deloro is in any way correct, Vidocq was a decade and a half early for the development of ballistics. Not until 1835 did Henry Goddard of the Bow Street Runners, take a bullet with a curious ridge from the body of a householder. In those days bullets were often homemade and at the home of the suspect Goddard found a bullet mould with a slight gouge and a ridge on the bullet which matched the mould.

It is likely Vidocq understood the possibilities of blood-typing. What he definitely had was a rudimentary understanding of fingerprinting. But he faced two problems. The ink he developed for taking prints dried too quickly to take the print and remained too long on the suspect’s hands. There was also the problem of classifying the results. He had similar difficulties with footprints. He understood that impressions could be made in clay but it was impossible to store, let alone index, clay impressions. As a result Vidocq began a card system for recording the physical characteristics of criminals. It expanded over the decades until it was completely unwieldly.

Certainly Vidocq’s method of interviewing suspects survived him. In the years when the New York police were giving beatings, using sweat boxes and locking suspects up with the bodies of their alleged victims, and the German police were putting rats in the cells of female suspects, Vidocq’s successors continued to obtain confessions with rather more grace. Not that the occasional slap could be ruled out. The writer Eugène Roch describes Vidocq’s treatment of a convict whom he was investigating for theft, as “quelques caresses”. Overall, however, he seems to have subscribed to the view that if the criminal will not confess after the shock of the first blow and the resulting feeling of helplessness, then he will not confess at all in the face of further brutality. It was easier to feed them and ply them with drink to obtain a confession, which could itself be rewarded by a visit from a prostitute.

Vidocq naturally had his enemies and one reason for his downfall in the 1830s was that he could not account for his wealth in relation to his salary. On his subsequent retirement he opened the world’s first detective agency. The police of Paris under Vidocq may have been as corrupt as any other force in any major city but in terms of dealing with criminals they were light years ahead of London and New York.

James Morton is the author of The First Detective: The Life and Revolutionary Times of Vidocq published by Ebury Press. London: 2012

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