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

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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.

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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.

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