Private Investigating: A History

The history of private investigating is a colorful one. A profession most don’t realize was established by criminals, modern day criminology owes to the field such investigative practices as ballistics and record keeping.

The story of the first professional private investigator starts in the early 1800’s. Eugène François Vidocq, a French soldier turned criminal, revolutionized the world of investigation from behind prison walls in northern France. After years of evading police, escaping prison and breaking the law, he finally decided to start working with police. From behind prison walls, after leading a life of crime, he propositioned authorities to work with them as an informant.

Having first acted as an informant on fellow inmates behind bars, getting the scoop on everything from forgeries to larceny, Vidocq eventually started routing out criminals in the seedy Parisian underworld on the outside as a secret agent. Now working directly with the police, he used his reputation on the crime circuit to gain trust amongst his targets. But word spreads fast and Vidocq eventually had to branch out.

Perfecting disguises and recruiting new detectives, Vidocq began to build his practice. Eventually moving out from under the thumb of the Paris police force, by 1833, he officially founded the first known private detective agency. And based on their profound knowledge of the criminal underworld, who better to bring aboard than ex-convicts?

Not only did he revolutionize the entire concept of who a good investigator is, also how investigations are conducted. Vidocq was the first to actually start record keeping on suspects and criminals and practically introduced the concept of ballistics testing . Obviously police and forensic investigations still employ all these to this day.

Initially conceived as a tool to aid police investigations, private investigation is now employed to get to the root of all sorts of matters. These can include everything and anything from suspicions of infidelity, to private security detail, to uncovering knowledge in corporate mergers and takeovers.