Paris: The Early Detectives (Updated)

Paris in the 19th and early 20th century was in creative ferment and in love with modernism—and the scandalous. In areas like Montmarte, “people went to abandon their inhibitions”; low-rent neighborhoods attracted people on the brittle edge of society; guillotinings were held at odd hours in the vain hope of reducing the crowds of spectators; crime stories were insanely popular; and real-life criminals and anarchists were hailed as heroes.

The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection, by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler describes this world and the ongoing war between the criminals and the Sureté detectives intent on stopping them. They anchor their story with the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa and loop backward from there to trace the increasingly scientific methods used to identify malefactors. One of the most successful was a system of measuring and classifying facial and other physical features created by Alphonse Bertillon. By 1900, detectives throughout Europe and the United States used “bertillonage” to identify criminals until the system was replaced by fingerprinting. A reference to Bertillon even appears in The Hound of the Baskervilles, as a rival to Sherlock Holmes.

History, in its tendency to repeat itself, is reviving Bertillon’s concept as biometrics; in today’s incarnation, computers much more accurately measure facial data points. The Mona Lisa was recovered in 1913, and the Hooblers present several plausible “who, how, and why” scenarios, but it’s clear that if the man who possessed it hadn’t turned it over to art experts in Florence, the skills of the detectives of a hundred years ago would never have found it!

Genealogical footnote: When the Mona Lisa went missing, the authorities stopped all ships leaving France and notified destination ports of ships recently departed. When the German liner Kaiser Wilhelm II steamed into New York harbor some days later, U.S. authorities searched the ship and passengers thoroughly. The Kaiser Wilhelm II was the boat on which my grandfather emigrated from Hungary in October 1906. Alfred Stieglitz’s famous photograph below, The Steerage, suggests what his voyage would have been like.


 June 2013 Update: a remarkable show of drawings and prints by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec appears this summer at the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley, and is one of the first museum’s outside Europe to host this large collection. The show includes some recently found print of famous works that have retained their color–looking as fresh now as they were when pulled from the presses 120 years ago!  Lautrec captured the world of Montmartre the Hooblers describe–the singers and dancers, the whores, the denizens of the bars and cafes–to a greater degree than most artists would, because he was as attentive to depicting members of the audience as the was a black-gloved chanteuse. If you can’t visit in person (exhibit available until September 1), you can read about it here.