History’s Criminal Investigator – the Original Sherlock Holmes
Friday, May 6th, 2011
Ever since I discovered it last year, I’ve been a huge fan of the American humour website Cracked.com. It’s one of the most consistently funny sites currently on the internet and – and opposed to one trick pony humour sites like lolcats – it’s actually pretty intelligent when it comes to its articles.
For a history nerd like me who likes to hear unusual and bizarre facts from the ages, the best part of the site has to be its archive of historical articles – each of which are testaments to the hilarious scenarios found throughout world history. Articles like Six World War I Fighter Pilots Whose Balls Deserve Their Own Monument, Famous Figures You Only Know By Their Insulting Nicknames and Abraham Lincoln: Portrait of a Crazy Badass are the kind of things I like to while away ten minutes of free time reading.
Perhaps the most satisfying thing about these kind of trivia lists is that they throw up facts and information that you wouldn’t previously have come across before. And, occasionally, they are even able to highlight an obscure historical character that becomes your new personal hero.
The most recent article I skimmed through was about convoluted movie plots that actually turned out to be true, and amid the portaits of the guy who was the inspiration for Rocky and the real-life homeless guy that Tom Hanks portayed in The Terminal was a snippet about a lesser known figure called Eugène François Vidocq. Who just happens to be one of the most awesome geniuses to have ever lived.
If you’ve ever watched a Sherlock Holmes film and thought “well that’s OK for fiction, but there’s no way that he could have done that in real life back then”, you’d be totally wrong. Not only did Vidocq do all of the cool sleuth stuff that Holmes perfected, he also surpassed it in spades.
A former French criminal, Vidocq became the founder and first director of the crime-fighting Sûreté Nationale as well as the head of the first known private detective agency. Before forensic science even existed, he had his own laboratory where he invented chemicals to detect forged documents. He’s credited with the technique of making plaster casts of footprints and it’s also claimed that he was studying musket balls to match them to a murder weapon more than a decade before the science we now know as ballistics was even being considered, let alone invented. The guy was like Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Taggart, Prime Suspect and CSI combined – effectively a one-man crime fighting badass.
Evidently he’s a pretty big deal in France where he’s rightfully lauded as an important historical figure – as you imagine the founder of modern forensics should be. But either I’ve completely missed all of the plaudits and respect he gets in Britain or, more likely, he’s shockingly omitted from our public consciousness. Probably because he’s a Frenchie and unless they’re a megalomaniacal midget like Napoleon, we don’t care about them.
But this needs to change. I say this dude needs to be praised from the rafters, so please read his wikipedia page and just revel in how brilliant and influential he was.