At the age of 14 he apparently accidentally killed his fencing instructor and decided to skip town. He planned to sail to the Americas but lost his money to an unscrupulous actress. He ended up joining the Bourbon Regiment a year later.
He was hardly a model soldier. He later claimed that he fought 15 duels and received numerous reprimands. Even during the war against Austria he continued dueling, although he also rose to a rank of grenadier corporal. In 1792, when a sergeant major refused a duel with him, he hit him. Striking a superior officer could have lead to a death sentence so he deserted and moved back to Arras.
French Revolution was already in the full swing. Vidocq claimed that he saved two noblewomen from a guillotine in Arras but was captured and faced the same fate. His father got him out by asking the Chevalier family to help. Vidocq fell in love with their daughter Louise and married her when she falsely claimed she was pregnant. When he found out that Louise was having an affair with an officer, he left for Brussels. He acquired a false passport with the name of Rousseau. In Belgium he courted an older baroness and joined a band of raiders. He left later with a parting gift of 15,000 gold francs.
Vidocq moved to Paris where he ended up spending all his money on loose women. He became a bandit and was arrested many times but always managed to escape. Once he tried to forge a pardon to a cellmate who had been sentenced to death. He also dabbled in smuggling. When he gave himself up to clear the name of a guard, he was arrested and sentenced to eight years of hard labor. When he was transferred to Brest for the use in galleys, he escaped again, this time using a disguise.
In 1798 he moved to the Netherlands and for some time worked for privateer Fromentin who raided English shipping. In Ostend, however, he was arrested again and sent to Toulon prison under heavy guard. He managed to escape with the help of a friendly convict. He returned to Arras in hiding. Year was 1800.
In 1801 he became a lover to the daughter of a town warden while pretending to be an Austrian. When constabulary closed in, they moved to Rouen. They lived there for two years until constabulary found them again. He moved to Boulogne only to end up in another privateering vessel fighting English ships. One fellow sailor recognized Vidocq, however, and informed guards in Boulogne. He was sent to prison in Douai.
In Doaui, Procurator-General Ransom convinced Vidocq to appeal for a re-trial. He waited five months - during which time Louise Chevalier notified she was divorcing him - and escaped again. Vidocq tried to live as a merchant in Faubourg Sant-Denis but a year later he was again behind bars for some time. His attempt to become a school teacher failed when he was driven out of the village for having an inappropriate liaison with his elder female students.
In May, 1809 Vidocq offered his services as a police spy to Paris police in exchange for an amnesty. Inspector Henry challenged him to escape from his guards and come to him to prove his honesty. He did.
Vidocq began as an informer who listened to what prisoners talked among themselves in La Force Prison. Twenty months later police arranged his "escape" so he could work as an informant on the outside. Officially, he remained at large. When the underworld eventually begun to suspect him, he used disguises and assumed other identities to continue his work and delay suspicion. At one point he was recruited to kill himself.
Finally Vidocq suggested the formation of a plainclothes unit Brigade de Sureté (Brigade of Security) that later became Surete Nationale. He had up to 12 detectives, many of them ex-criminals like himself, working for him. In 1817 he had a hand in 811 arrests, including 15 assassins and 38 fences. His annual income was 5,000 francs but he also worked as a private investigator for a fee.
In 1814, in the beginning of the French Restoration, Vidocq and Surete tried to contain the situation in Paris. He also arrested those who tried to exploit the post-revolutionary situation by claiming to have been aristocrats.
Vidocq's mother died in 1820. Her requiem was kept in Notre Dame Cathedral. At the same year, Vidocq married Jeanne-Victoire Guerin who died only four years later. He married Fleuride Maniez sometime in the 1820s. Still he maintained a reputation as a ladies man.
In 1824 and following his coronation, Charles X of France turned the police force into his own political weapon against dissenters and would-be-rebels. Vidocq came under observation, suspected of Bonapartist sympathies due to his acquaintances. When a new superior Duplessis complained about an apparently trivial matter, he resigned. In 1830 Duplessis' replacement Henri-Joséphe Gisquet reinstalled him.
Also in 1830, Charles X's abdication and the rule of a new monarch Louis Phillipe caused more insecurity and therefore more work for the police. An additional problem was the 1832 cholera outbreak and a revolt that erupted on June 5. Vidocq's Surete arrested dozens of rioters.
Not all the police approved of his methods, however and bitter rivalry developed. In 1832 he was obliged to resign because of a charge that he instigated a crime through an intermediary for a sole purpose of getting credit for solving it. He set up a paper manufacturing and printing company in Saint Mande (again hiring ex-criminals to work for him).
The first books he intended to publish were his memoirs. In 1828-1829 Vidocq had procured services of L.F. L'Héritier de l'ain to ghostwrite his memoirs. However, many historians consider that L'Héritier took lots of liberties with the facts. Vidocq himself seemed to agree, for he authorized only the first two of the total of four volumes. The book was still a success worldwide.
In 1833 he founded the first known private detective agency, Le bureau des renseignments (Office of Intelligence) and, again, hired ex-conss. Official law enforcement tried many times to shut it down. In 1842 police arrested him in suspicion of unlawful imprisonment and taking money on false pretenses after he had solved an embezzling case. Vidocq later suspected that it had been a set-up. He was sentenced for five years with a 3,000-franc fine but the Court of Appeals released him.
In his last years he wrote novels based on his experiences of the underworld. Some historians believe that he got help in writing from his friend Honoré de Balzac. But when his wife Fleuride died in September, 1847, he retired and closed his agency. He still occasionally worked for Department for the Interior under Louis-Napoleon of France.
Vidocq is credited with having introduced record-keeping, criminology and ballistics to criminal investigation. He made the first plaster casts of shoe impressions. He created indelible ink and unalterable bond paper with his printing company. His form of anthropometrics is still partially used by French police. He is also credited for philanthropic pursuits - he claimed he never informed on anyone who had stolen for real need. The Vidocq Society claims to follow his example.