In the Old Testament, Moses sends 12 people to search the land of Canaan to see whether it was a suitable place for the home of the Israelite people, who, after the exodus from Ancient Egypt, were living in the wilderness. Were these the first private investigators? Most likely, not. The need of people to find out the truth has persisted for thousands and thousands of years, whether they discovered it on their own or sent others to search for it.
However, we have written proof of this only from 1833, when Eugene Francois Vidocq set up the first agency of private investigators.
The Frenchman (July 24th, 1775 – May 11th, 1857) had a hectic life, in which thefts, duels, desertions from the army, escapes from prison and many love affairs intertwined quickly, from an early age. Specifically, at the age of 13, he is sent to prison for the first time, by his father, in an attempt to scare him and calm him down, after the boy stole from his parents. The plan did not work, and in the next 20 years, Eugene Francois Vidocq’s record constantly expands.
At 34, the Frenchman is arrested again, but this time he decides it’s time for a change. He volunteers as an informant for the Police and he moves from prison to prison, where he befriends with the inmates, finds information about unsolved crimes and helps the Police discover the truth. After almost 2 years, in which it is said that not even the doormen or the guards knew about his mission*, he is released from prison by a simulated escape and continues to work undercover, as Police informant.
In 1811, Vidocq sets up the Brigade de la Sûreté – a unit comprising of civilians, which, in October 1812, is officially acknowledged and becomes part of the Police, under the management of the former informant. Moreover, on December 17th, 1813, Napoleon Bonaparte signs a treaty turning the former civilian unit into a national security force, referred to as the Sûreté Nationale.
The Sûreté expanded from 8 to over 30 employees and partners, all former criminals, as its founder. The would gather information from other criminals, under disguise, worked undercover, made arrests, conducted surveillance parties, assisted the Police commissioners in home and premises searches or arrests, and even patrolled the streets to maintain order.
After Vidocq’s resignation of November 15th, 1832, the Sûreté was dissolved and, then, reinstated with agents whose records were completely clean.
In 1833, the Frenchman sets up Le Bureau des Renseignements (Intelligence Office), which is considered the first private investigator agency and which operated as a mix between investigation and private police. The 11 investigators were hired by business people or mere citizens, to investigate or prove fraud and swindling. The methods used were not always legal. This is why Vidocq constantly had problems with the Police.
In France, the importance of Eugene Francois Vidocq’s work was left unacknowledged for a long time as a result of his extremely vast crime past and his methods, sometimes illegal. Nowadays, however, the Frenchman is considered the father of modern Criminology.
Forensic evidence, Criminology and Ballistics in the area of criminal investigation are attributed to him. Gypsum moulds made from footprints or indelible ink are other tools that the Frenchman created and used in his investigations.
His approaches were new and unique at the time, and some of his methods, such as some aspects of Anthropometry – the study of the human body and its movement – are still used by private investigators and the French Police.
*Memoirs of Vidocq: Principal Agent of the French Police Until 1827. Carey, 1834