The founding of the Vidocq Society

In 1990, three forensic experts gathered for lunch and their discussion turned to the solving of cold cases.  

William L. Fleisher, a former Philadelphia Police Officer and FBI agent was then Philadelphia’s second-in-command U.S. Customs Special Agent.  Frank Bender was a well-known forensic sculptor from Philadelphia. Richard Walter was a prison psychologist from Michigan.

Founders of the Vidocq Society
Founders of the Vidocq Society

The trio wanted to establish a venue where like-minded persons, both in and outside the field of forensics, could gather to discuss and debate crimes and mysteries.    The Vidocq Society was born, named for Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857), the criminal-turned-detective who founded the French Sûreté and is considered to have been the first modern detective.  

The first meeting took place at the old Philadelphia Navy Yard.  Today, the Society meets monthly at The Union League of Philadelphia.

After the founding, federal, state and local law enforcers and forensic experts from all over the nation joined.  After a time, the Society narrowed its focus to work exclusively on unsolved cold case homicides.

The Society’s bylaws call for 82 Vidocq Society Members (V.S.M.s), one for each year of Vidocq’s life.  In addition, scores of additional men and women from diverse professional backgrounds have joined as Special members and also wear the distinctive red, white, and blue Vidocq Society rosette.

Vidocq Society members come from all walks of life and include experienced investigators from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies and the private sector; internationally renowned forensic experts in the fields of pathology, criminology, dactylography, forensic dentistry, psychology, polygraphy and anthropological facial reconstruction; and many former federal, state and local career prosecutors.  All share a dedication to the search for truth and justice that binds them together in the tradition of the great detectives past and present.

Sadly, Frank Bender passed away in 2011.  Richard Walter left the Society in 2016.  Bill Fleisher continues to serve the Society as its Commissioner Emeritus.

The Life of Monsieur Vidocq

Eugène François Vidocq was an 18th century French crook-turned-cop who was a confidant of at least two famous contemporary French writers and an inspiration for many others around the world.  Victor Hugo based not one but two characters in Les Misérables on Vidocq – both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Honoré Balzac’s character Vautran, in Père Goriot, was also modeled after him.

Portrait of Monsieur Vidocq
Portrait of Monsieur
Eugène François Vidocq

Vidocq’s legendary crime-solving reputation was also lauded in Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue and in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The fugitive in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations was also inspired by Vidocq’s real-life exploits.

Vidocq’s life story is fascinating.  As a fugitive from French justice, he first offered his services as a police spy and informer. Later, he became so successful at catching criminals that he was named the first chief of the Sûreté in 1811.  Vidocq eventually directed a force of 28 detectives, all of whom were, like him, former criminals.

Eugène François Vidocq is considered by historians and those in law enforcement to be the father of modern criminal investigation.  Monsieur Vidocq:

  • introduced record keeping (a card-index system), criminalistics, and the science of ballistics into police work;
  • was the first to make plaster-of-paris casts of foot/shoe impressions;
  • was a master of disguise and surveillance;
  • held patents on indelible ink and unalterable bond paper;
  • founded the first modern detective agency and credit bureau, Le Bureau des Renseignements.

After he resigned from the Sûreté, Vidocq published his Memoires, a book which became a best-seller in Europe and firmly established him as the world’s greatest detective.