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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best dressed

Inmates at the Colorado State Penitentiary were employed in many activities.

image of Warden Best found here

“Carpentry, blacksmithing, shoe cobbling, clothing repair and general maintenance offered the principal activity and labor outlets for prisoners in the first decade or two of prison operation in Colorado. They were also employed in building walls, repairing prison buildings, and in farm and garden work. In the period of 1899 – 1900 about 2,200,000 pounds of farm produce was raised by prisoners.

On March 1909 Thomas J. Tynan was appointed to the office of warden. He made it possible for every man who was willing to work to have employment. Road camps were set up and unguarded prisoners worked away from prison walls for days at a time.

Prison boxing team found here

In 1925 the penitentiary purchased a canning factory and ninety acres of fruit trees, berry plants, vineyards and truck gardens The canning venture proved highly productive. Fruits and vegetables processed and canned included apples, apple butter, apricots, beets, green beans, catsup, cherries of all kinds, corn, peaches, Italian prunes, puree, pumpkin, plums, spinach tomatoes, and tomato juice.

In 1934 a sock-knitting machine was installed at a cost of $29,000, capable of producing one thousand pairs of socks per day at a cost of four cents per pair. Civilian clothing manufacture included suits, dress pants, dress socks, and white shirts. Soaps of all kinds, scouring powder, cold cream, vanishing cream, skin softener, lotion, shampoo, furniture polish, sweeping compound, bluing, ink, and flavorings were manufactured in quantities sufficient to supply all state institutions.

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Warden Thomas J. Tynan went on the assumption that putting men in stripes for ninety days, the usual practice on entering the prison, was the wrong psychology. Beginning early in 1911 he put all new arrivals in blue and made them “convicts of the first class.” If they made good and followed prison routines, they were never subjected to the wearing of striped clothing.

image of prisoners forced to work in drag found here

By law in 1940, a prisoner upon discharge was given $5.00, a suit of clothes, and a railroad ticket. In 1995, a prisoner upon discharge was given $100.00, a suit of clothes, and a bus ticket.

Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 7:07 am  Comments (45)  
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