Private Investigation – A Brief History

The Early Years in France

Eugene Francois Vidocq is credited with the creation of the world first ever private detective agency. Vidocq was a former soldier and known criminal, whose life story has inspired work from numerous esteemed authors, from Victor Hugo to Edgar Allan Poe.

Vidocq performed a complete u-turn when he abandoned his criminal ways and created the catchily titled Les Bureau des Renseignements Universels Pour Le Commerce El L’industrie or The Office of Universal Information For Commerce and Industry and is now credited with being the founder of what is now known as Criminology in modern world. He was actually forced to shut down the agency in 1842 when he arrested on suspicion of embezzlement and falsely imprisoning people he investigated. Vidocq suspected it was a set up, but in the meantime he had introduced a number of practices that later become commonplace in criminal investigation including record keeping, ballistics, anthropometrics and the user of plaster casts to make shoe impressions.

Vidocq’s Agency paved the way for an industry of sorts to develop. Initially, Private Investigators were usually employed by people to perform a level of investigation that the Police were either incapable of doing, or unwilling to participate in. However, agencies soon developed other purposes, and would provide assistance to companies during labour disputes or even act as private security. These developments all cast a long shadow, and their ramifications ushered in new practices that still remain today.

The Industry Spreads to Other Countries

Over time, the industry began to gain a foothold in countries outside of France. Charles Frederick Field is acknowledged as the first man to set up a Private Investigation firm in the United Kingdom. Field had a slightly more conventional background than Vidocq – having worked for the Metropolitan Police throughout his life. Upon retirement, he set up an enquiry office in 1852 and offered his investigative skills to the public. He employed numerous investigators, one of whom – the Hungarian Ignatius Pollaky – later set up a rival agency. Pollaky achieved notoriety at the time and is mentioned in a number of publications of the 1870s.

Agencies were created throughout the rest of Europe and Private Investigation became an increasingly recognized industry; one which police forces were happy to use for their own devices. Detectives were usually available the hire, but they came at a price, and it would be some years before their services were genuinely accessibly to normal people.

The Private Eye – Early Successes in the States

In the United States, Allan Pinkerton, a detective and spy from Chicago, established the Pinkeron National Detective Agency in 1850. The organization was to secure a famous accomplishment in 1860, when Pinkerton and his team successfully uncovered and foiled a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln before he had been elected President. This represents one of the earliest examples of the significant role Private Investigation Agencies have taken in shaping history over the years.

Pinkerton’s extensive network of agents were also involved in a number of other cases involving western outlaws. They tracked Jesse James, the Reno Brothers and members of the Wild Bunch including the infamous Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Pinkerton’s agency grew into a powerful organization, and it was their logo, featuring a picture of an eye with the words ‘We Never Sleep’, which inspired the phrase ‘Private Eye’.

20th Century Developments – Mass Access and Social Changes

At the turn of the century, the redistribution of wealth meant that the Private Investigation industry became much more accessible to the masses, particularly in the United States. People could hire agencies to investigate personal matters relating to family members, spouses or business associates, and the industry changed as a result, developing a number of difference facets.

Social matters like infidelity have become commonly investigated matters, with the average Joe able to investigate the behavioural patterns a spouse by hiring an agent. The industry has been responsive to social, economic and perhaps most noticeably technological changes. The advent on the internet has opened up a new branch of private investigation, with new agents often skilled in mining information from online sources, and employers often asking agencies to perform complete background checks on prospective employees, with social media sites providing a key source of information.