roasted chestnuts and bolting butterflies

Papillon was the supposed autobiography of Henri Charrière. Perhaps he based some of his story on this man’s adventures

image found here

René Belbenoit (April 4, 1899 – February 26, 1959) was a French prisoner on Devil’s Island who successfully escaped to the United States. He later wrote a book, Dry Guillotine, about his exploits.

Belbenoit was born in Paris and abandoned by his mother as an infant. His father was unable to raise young René himself, so the boy was sent to live with his grandparents. When René was 12, his grandparents died and he went to Paris where worked at a popular nightclub, the Café du Rat Mort (the Dead Rat) in the Place Pigalle. During World War I, Belbenoit served with distinction in the French Army from 1916 – 1917.

image found here

In 1920, Belbenoit, having stolen some pearls from his employer, the Countess d’Entremeuse, was sentenced to eight years of hard labor in the penal colony of French Guiana, referred to as Devil’s Island. The fact that Belbenoit had had a veteran’s pension let him avoid the harshest work.

Two weeks after his arrival, Belbenoit tried to escape for the first time with another man. They took a raft to Dutch Guiana but were captured and shipped back to the penal colony. During his incarceration, Belbenoit begun to write his memoirs. He kept them in a bundle of wax cloth. He earned some money by selling roasted chestnuts and capturing butterflies.

Spicebush Swallowtail found here

Next Christmas Belbenoit again attempted escape with nine others who had stolen a log canoe. The canoe capsized and they took to the jungle where three of the men were violently murdered. Eventually local Indians who sheltered them gave them to Dutch authorities who sent them back to the French. In the following years, Belbenoit tried to escape two more times and was transferred from island to island.

Chateau D’If prison found here

In 1931, Belbenoit sent a copy of his writings about the prison conditions to a new governor. Before the governor was transferred back to France, he gave Belbenoit a one year permit to leave the penal colony. Belbenoit spent most of the year working in the Panama Canal Zone as a gardener. However, with the permit soon to expire he decided to go back to France in order to argue his case. He was arrested and sent to the island of Royale where he was put into solitary confinement for almost a year.

Panama Canal found here

On November 3, 1934 Belbenoit was officially released – but that just meant he became a libéré, a free prisoner who was still not allowed to return to France. When a visiting moviemaker gave him $200, Belbenoit decided to try to escape once more. On March 2, 1935 he and five others took to the sea with a boat they had bought. When his companions after three days at sea began to argue, he had to pull a gun to force them to continue. When they reached Trinidad, British authorities decided not to give them back to the French. They continued on but sixteen days later ran aground on a beach in Colombia and natives stole their clothing. They reached Santa Maria, where a local general fed them, but also notified the French consul and took them to the local military prison.

Santa Maria found here

A sympathetic local newspaperman helped him to escape in exchange for writing about prison conditions. Belbenoit traveled slowly north and stole a number of native canoes to continue his journey. In Panama he spent about two months with the Kuna tribe and later sold a large collection of butterflies in Panama City. In 1937 in El Salvador he hid in a ship to Los Angeles

Kuna and Embera tribeswomen found here

In 1938 his account, Dry Guillotine, was published in United States. The book attracted the attention of the U.S. immigration authorities and Belbenoit was arrested. He received a visitor’s visa but in 1941 was told to leave the country. Belbenoit traveled to Mexico and a year later tried to slip back into the United States but was again arrested and sentenced to 15 months in prison. After his release, Belbenoit acquired a valid passport and went to Los Angeles to work for Warner Bros. as a technical advisor for the film Passage to Marseille.

image found here

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53 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Woo hoo…first. Now I’ll go back and read it.

    • Don’t feel obliged…. 😉

  2. What do prisoners do with Butterflies??

    • Admire them?

    • I believe they sell/trade them to the guards who sell them to others.

      • Thanks Binky

  3. I have the butterfly tattooed center of chest like the movie. Got it 1985.

    • Is there a photo or drawing on your blog?

  4. Thank God the man finally caught a break!

    • Yes. I felt a *phew* too

  5. I like the way he kept trying to escape. A man who never gave up. Very far from being a Dead Rat.

    • I would have given up after the second failed attempt

  6. Interesting – “Dry Guillotine is the English translation of a French phrase la guillotine sèche which was prisoner slang for the Devil’s Island Penal colony at French Guiana”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dry_Guillotine

    • Ah… that makes sense

  7. When I read “Papillon” I went to the library to learn more and found rather a lot on Belbenoit. What a rotten deal in life! But what tenacity!

    • I read and loved the Papillon book when I was quite young. nut I’d never heard of Belbenoit before

  8. Peter Lorre!
    Its the Casablanca crew, but the fillum is crap.

    Surviving Verdun – Belbenoit already had went through hell.

    • I don’t think I’ve seen the film

  9. All that for stealing some pearls!

    • Maybe it was because she was a Countess and they wanted to make an example of him

  10. He was fortunate to escape to the US, instead of being sent back to France. He was lucky to have survived the First World War, and would most likely have not survived the Second.
    And what a great irony – men have attempted to flee Devil’s Island when it was a prison, now the Europeans use it to flee the planet – sort of (it’s the Ariane’s launch site).

    • I did not know that

      • I keep trying to convince people that, much like you, I’m not just a pretty face. Unfortunately, in my case, nobody’s buying the “pretty face” part…..

  11. Wow, what a boring year it’s been for me. Time for me to go collect some butterflies and roll chestnuts for fun and profit!

    • Is it chestnut time where you live Thomas?

  12. Belbenoit – he just never gave up.

    Remember reading the book. Took me many weeks to finish.

    • Was that because you were busy or because it didn’t really hold your attention?

      • The font and spacing of that old book were not user- friendly. Too small font and too close spacing.

  13. proof that tenacity pays off… but you’ve really got to stick with it…

    • Yeah none of this half hearted tenacity stuff

  14. Some people are just born toulouse…

    Okay, sorry, couldn’t resist…

    • Don’t expect any Monet for that comment!

      • Stop it, you two! 🙂

      • Not even a oui bit?

      • Cheeky 🙂

  15. Not even a coin in a bucket?

    • I’ve never seen History of the World. Guess I’m not such a fan of Mel Brooks but I did like his wife

      • Mel Brooks was the master of showing how hypocrisy and racism go hand in hand. He’s a genius, and I agree his wife was very likeable.

      • Do you have a blog grigoryrasputin?

  16. Good heavens. I promise not to complain about the problems of my life for at least a month after reading this. Talk about persistence. How badly did he want those pearls, anyway?

  17. Bloody hell that was one hell of a life. Glad it worked out for him in the end

  18. I always find your stories fascinating. I have even recommended your blog to friend of mine. Hopefully she’ll as fascinated. I really enjoy your blog.

  19. You really have to admire his persistence…
    I’m sure I’d have given up long before Belbenoit even got to the canoe!
    (I love that old photo of ‘The Dead Rat’, by the way…)

    • Me too. Very evocative.

  20. He sure got his punishment for stealing a few lousy pearls.

  21. When someone shows so much persistence and ingenuity in escaping from prison so many times, there’s got to be a better way for society to benefit from his talents than to send him back to prison.

  22. When I saw the title of this post I thought, bloody hell Myra’s started a food blog …

    • Not bloody likely. though I do make a good cheesecake

  23. Reminds me quite a bit of your Phillip Morris post from a while back!

    • That post still gets hundreds of hits a week. Escape artists are pretty fascinating aren’t they?

  24. True story: I avoided reading this at first, because I thought the title was “roasted chestnuts and boiling butterflies”.

    What a harsh punishment for stealing a string of pearls. Here in California, people sometimes get really disproportionate sentences because of our “three strikes” law.

  25. Got to admire the man’s tenacity – what an interesting character

  26. Do you have a blog grigoryrasputin?

    It’s awfully nice of you to ask, Nurse Myra! I used tto hang my hat at Knockin’ on Hell’s Door. Lately, I have been infrequently guest blogging here:

    http://thepraiseoffolly.wordpress.com/

    I am working on a new blog, will keep you posted!


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