Check out your TV listings these days, and there’s no shortage of TV shows about crime, whether it’s chasing down the criminals, investigating the crime scenes for clues, analyzing evidence, or prosecuting the bad guys. It’s hard to believe we didn’t always have today’s technologically advanced methods at our disposal for solving crimes; yet there have been criminals and crimes as long as humans have been around. How did they figure things out back in the day, before DNA evidence, computers and the FBI? Who came up with great ideas like mug shots and fingerprinting? Crime scene photography? Criminal profiling? Who had the great idea of sending people undercover, and having plainclothes policemen? Who was the first to put policemen in cars? Believe it or not, most of those methods originated in France!
The Crimes of Paris, a wonderful and engrossing book, begins by describing the incredible: the theft of the world-famous Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911, right in broad daylight during museum hours. The Louvre at the turn of the century was not renowned for its watchful eye over its paintings. Signs on the wall encouraged patrons to wake up guards if they were sleeping, and it was reported that some of the galleries had no guards at all. With some careful timing and planning, if a crook was in the right place at the right time, he could walk in and walk out virtually unseen with some of the art world’s greatest treasures. And that is exactly what happened on August 21, 1911, when the Mona Lisa disappeared. It was later discovered that one of the hapless museum guards had unknowingly helped the thief escape by opening a locked door for him. Crazier still, no one at the museum even gave the empty space on the wall a second thought until the day after the crime had been committed.
At one time, even the famous Pablo Picasso was suspected as being part of the Mona Lisa heist, especially when it became known that he was involved in the earlier theft of two Phoenician statuettes from the Louvre which were taken in much the same way as the Mona Lisa. However, the Mona Lisa was eventually receovered and returned to the Louvre three years later, after an Italian former Louvre worker named Vincenzo Perugia tried to sell it to some Italian art dealers. It was never clearly ascertained whether Perugia worked alone, or was told to take the painting as part of an art swindle that involved several American millionaires, each of whom thought they had bought the real Mona Lisa but were unknowingly sold fakes, and so were told not to tell anyone they had it.
Paris of the early 1900’s was fascinated by crimes, sleuthing, and sometimes the criminals themselves. Books and plays about violent crime were extremely popular, and seats for real life sensational courthouse proceedings were highly coveted. Coverage of trials would fill an entire newspaper issue. Crowds swarmed to the guillotine to watch executions like they were big-time entertainment. Like any big city, Paris was a hotbed of crime, and it wasn’t until the turn of the century that the methods used for catching and tracking criminals began to develop. Francois-Eugene Vidocq was the first to utilize former criminals to go undercover to solve crimes, feeling that they understood the criminal mentality. He was also the first to open his own private detective agency (take THAT, Moonlighting!!) Alphonse Bertillon was the first to organize a list of known criminals and categorize them by certain body measurements that would never change, such as the distance between the eyes and the size of the ears. His methodology, called bertillonage, was the forerunner of today’s biometrics, where criminals are identified by computer based on facial characteristics. He also was the first to use formalized photographs of the criminals to be kept on file (mug shots), and also systematized photography of crime scenes, which is still the standard for today. Fingerprinting, which was first used for crime solving by Juan Vucetich, a chief police officer in Argentina, was later added to bertillonage to further assist in identifying criminals. Another Frenchman, Jean Lacassagne, was the first to be able to match a bullet that had been fired from a particular gun (ballistics). And Mathieu Orfila was the first to use forensic evidence from a corpse to determine whether or not the victim’s wife had poisoned him, based on how arsenic acts in the human body. Thanks to the Bonnot Gang, a group of French anarchists who regularly stole from and sometimes murdered wealthy countrymen, the concept of the ‘getaway car’ was invented when they stole a car and used it to evade police, who at that time were either on foot, bicycle, or horse. This led directly to putting police behind the wheel themselves in order to better keep up with the criminals.
I enjoyed this book because there was so much to learn. What other book out there includes Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period, fishing human legs out of wells, and women shooting men in cold blood for smearing their husband’s reputation (and being acquitted for it) in the same 320 pages? It was fascinating to me to see how crime solving methods evolved and how they were used. I enjoyed reading about the different trials where this new scientific evidence was brought to bear and how it changed the outcome of the verdict. I also learned about Picasso, who is really just a side note in the story but interesting nonetheless, and it inspired me to take a look at his work. His Blue Period paintings are really beautiful, if you haven’t seen any of them.
If you love a good crime drama, or just want to see how CSI or NCIS came to be what they are today, check out this book.