The Escape Artist - The Magnificent Rebel

Some thoughts on the writings of Henri Charriere, a/k/a, "Papillon."

Beware! The following contains content that is not suited for children, it is violent and explicit in other ways as well.

Thank you, Brother

First of all, I really have to thank my Brother, Ken Cook, for suggesting Henri Charriere's two books "Papillon" and "Banco." Ken knows I love to read and he advised me to purchase these two books. He also knows my interests and he was 100% correct, these two books are golden literary works, in my opinion.

If you enjoy really good storytelling without the stilted and cold prose that so many books contain, you will love these two books.

Now, your opinion might vary, so be it. Perhaps you have already read one or both books and you did not like them or you don't quite find them as interesting and informative (as well as entertaining) as I do. That's fine. Different strokes for different folks, or, perhaps you need to revisit both books and read them again in a different light.

Anyway, I wanted to thank Ken for casting some light into a dark corner by suggesting these two books. A few years ago Ken and I were discussing various survival books, primarily military fare, Former British SAS Gents (Wiseman and Davies) who have written manuals as well as the ever-controversial Tom Brown. Then Ken told me about these two books…

After I read them I discussed the possibility of writing an article on the books for my website, dedicating them to the Memory of Henri, as there is precious little on the Internet about him. It seems rather sad, actually, that this is the case.

The Concept of Justice

I guess what I have to say next is just as important and I need to get it out of the way right now.

I am a big believer in Justice. Justice with a capital "J." Part of Justice is making sure innocent men are not sent to prison. It seems impossible to do just that when you use either paid informants or you arrest one person and then they roll over and rat some other person out so they, in turn, receive a lesser sentence.

Think about that for a moment. I know there would be fewer convictions if this "system" was not used, but what exactly is gained by allowing a real-deal thief, rapist or homicidal maniac back out on the streets just because he was a better liar or a faster one?

O.K, so, on paper, you put a bad guy or two, maybe three away, but the really bad one? He is back out, so in reality, it's only "progress" on paper and it's really an illusion. We're not safer and in some cases, we're demonstrably less safe from this system. The better liar, or the faster liar, sometimes the really evil one, he gets away. But, hey, what does that matter when it's all about career advancement and numbers on a piece of paper, ever attractive numbers to bean counters, right?

I know there are "safeguards" in place and I know that stories get checked, there is a method to the madness. I also know that no matter what type of safeguard you put in place, innocent people can still get placed in the jackpot for something they did not do, or, for something they had a lesser role in while the main players get off with nothing or get off lightly. I don't care what you say or what excuse you give, that's not "Justice," it's not "public safety," I don't know what to call it. I guess it's best just to refer to it as, "the way it is" and the way it is going to be for the rest of our lives.

While some might consider this a "necessary evil" to get the job of Justice done, it should never be confused with real Justice. While I don't have an answer as to how to fix the ills of the system, I think this sort of thing should be done away with in the future as the potential for destruction far outweighs, in my personal opinion, any real societal benefit. Letting the best liar off with a lighter sentence (or none at all) and hoping like hell you did not let the more violent of the two offenders off is pretty sad.

All of my friends know that I believe in the proper (Just) application of Capital Punishment, the use of the death penalty, for certain vicious crimes like first degree murder. With the power to take Life, there comes a great responsibility to make sure that no innocent people are executed for crimes they did not commit. I think with the advances in technology (DNA testing, etc.) we are now at a point in our development as a society that we can execute the guilty and not the innocent in the vast majority of cases.

We can also go back and release innocent people through DNA evidence and this has been done as well. And the terrifying thing about that is, there was a great amount of obstructionist activity going on. Early on, "The powers that be" were against releasing people cleared by DNA evidence even though the same system was proclaiming that they could now incarcerate and execute criminals without the nagging questions of guilt or innocence because the DNA evidence is so good. They wanted it both ways, they wanted the powerful new tool to "fight crime" but they didn't want to release people that were cleared of their crimes and this points to a rotten system. I think much of that obstructionist activity is over with now, at least I hope so.

I am writing all of this so that you know I don't believe in coddling criminals. I think it is the absolute worst thing that we, as a society (in the United States), have ever done to our own society. We have, in a very real way, soiled our own nest because we voted for certain people in the past and they, in turn, "reformed" the criminal justice system and the prison system.

By coddling criminals we have emboldened them. By selling the false promise of safety through utopian dreams like gun control, banning pocketknives that have springs in them and the so-called "rehabilitation" of violent criminals to the masses - we have made some of our streets a very dangerous place to be when the sun sets. Sometimes in broad daylight.

So, my friends who know my beliefs might find it quite surprising that I would be such a fan of Henri Charriere's "Papillon" and "Banco." Henri was, after all, a murderer, right? Why would I be a fan of a murderer? Read on…

The Story of Charriere

Henri stated in both of his books that he did not murder the pimp that he was accused of murdering. He claimed he was caught up in a situation where he was a criminal, a Safecracker, and someone else sold him down the river, so to speak. There is no doubt that this could be the truth. I certainly don't know… although Henri knows…but he is dead now.

I also take into consideration "underworld" criminals killing other "underworld" criminals. No matter what you say, it's not the same as one of them killing a totally innocent person anyway. It's like "murder" in prison is oftentimes not so clearly defined or easily compartmentalized as "murder." In the "underworld" of Paris, France, Henri had to live a certain way as all "underworld" figures have to do and that is a very different life than that of a regular Citizen.

Likewise, the person in prison has to survive in a different world with different rules and regulations imposed both by Prison Officials and criminals alike. The Bagne of French Guiana was so utterly corrupt and violent that it would make our worst prisons appear to be after-school detention.

So, I am trying to carefully navigate the murky waters of a very dark sea. I believe in Justice and I think Justice should be fair.

Another thing, idea, that I want to get across is, I don't think prison should be like playtime for Kindergartners. But it should also not be like the French prisoners had to suffer through in the Penal Colony at French Guiana. While some would say, "To hell with them, they are animals anyway…" Well, I can understand the passion behind that as well. I just don't believe in State-sanctioned torture. And when you treat even the most vile criminals like this, it is torture. We're above that. I am in favor of the proper use of Capital Punishment, but I believe prisoners should be treated fairly and they should be treated well and not tortured. They should not be sent to a slow death, Capital Punishment under the guise of "hard labor." Or, as the penal colony of French Guiana came to be known, "La guillotine seche," or "The Dry Guillotine."

I could not blame any human being for wanting to escape a place like the now defunct Penal Colony of French Guiana. In fact, it is hard to blame human beings for wanting to escape some of the prisons we have now, even though they are "country clubs" compared to the French Bagne.

So, in reading Henri's adventures, I place myself solidly in his shoes and I make the assumption that Henri is innocent. The greatest intellectual freedom and escapism can then envelope the reader.

On another level, so what if a Safecracker killed a pimp? Who brings more misery to society, a Safecracker or a pimp? Pimps are involved in the buying and selling of women and children. So, to be perfectly blunt and honest, I really don't care if Henri had a dispute with a pimp and killed the pimp. A Safecracker is a Saint compared to a pimp in my book.

So what is all of this about?

Getting back to Ken's suggestion that I read "Papillon" and "Banco," Ken said something very interesting and it put the hook in me. He said something like, "They are survival manuals, but they are not written like survival manuals."

I found that quite interesting and had to investigate further. I was lucky enough to find a paperback copy of each book in a used bookstore locally. They were dirt-cheap at about a $1.25 each. Both printed in the 1970s, old enough to have cigarette ads placed in the middle area of the book. Now, if you have read enough of my writing on this website, you will know that I am quite a fan of old stuff like this. This was a really pleasant surprise at the bookstore.

Now, Ken was absolutely and wonderfully correct when he said that Henri had written a survival manual without even trying. This applies more to Henri's first book, "Papillon," than his second, "Banco."

"Papillon" is a smorgasbord of survival information. Survival in prison as well, even though the French Bagne is much different from our prisons today. This carries over into both wilderness survival as well as "urban" or "street" survival. French Guiana was a real wilderness back then and I assume not much has changed when you step into the jungle even to this day.

The book "Papillon" has tons of information about various survival topics, including the use of the knife in prison. Ooohhh, not the dark side!

Why on Earth would anyone want to learn anything from the violent culture of prison, especially how to knife someone? That is elementary. Although many will scoff, especially the more genteel among us…we have a horribly high recidivist rate in this country, the convicts walk among us. That being the reality of life in this country, as well as other countries, you have to know how it's done in order to, in my opinion, successfully defend against it.

Some now say that Henri Charriere did not actually escape from Devil's Island, even though they concede that he was a prisoner and did escape from some other prison in French Guiana. No matter. I am certainly not trying to create any more "mystique" around Henri, certainly no more than He and his Agents and/or Publicists created around himself.

I have asked Fred Perrin about Henri Charriere and Fred said that the stories in both "Papillon" and "Banco" were actually the combined stories and adventures of a few men, say three or four, and not just Henri Charriere. He also stated that Henri was a very tough man to have survived the Bagne…

I am not even concerned so much that Henri told the "truth" about everything, I don't care. Let me clarify that, I don't care if Henri Charriere's exploits were actually that of a few men, himself and others, it does not matter to me really. What really matters to me is the rest of the content.

I have found something interesting (intellectually stimulating, if you will) and it has some value to me personally. I am writing about it because I write about things I find interesting and…hey, you might feel the same way. If you do, great! If you don't, hey-hey! See the little X in the small box in the upper right hand corner of your browser? If you don't like it, you can choose another article or just click that little X and all of your worries will go away…

A Tactical Tidbit from the Bagne

Here is one little nugget of information that you can find in "Papillon." This is not merely "prison survival information," it is universal in principle. It is a lesson from a fatal mistake and it applies today as much as it did in the 1930s when it happened in French Guiana. It shows certain interesting things, like (folding) pocketknives being used as serious offensive and defensive weapons of the street and prison, etc.

"Yesterday my friend Matthieu Carbonieri was stabbed to death. His murder set off a whole series of other murders. He had been in the washhouse, naked, and his face was covered with soap when he was hit. When we showered, we were in the habit of opening our knives and hiding them under our clothes so we could reach for them quickly if a suspected enemy appeared. Carbonieri forgot to do this and it cost him his life."

Papillon, Page 348

You will notice that Henri is referring to a folding knife. It is common today to claim that fighting with folding knives is something "new" and that fights with knives years ago was always a fixed blade affair. Interesting, isn't it?

The "Newspaper Sheath" for a folding knife is a trick that has been around for a long, long time. It was in the movie "Papillon," but most people probably missed it or thought it was nonsense.

Using a tightly rolled newspaper as an impact weapon is another old streetfighting trick, especially well-known in Baltimore City. Pete Kautz has also addressed this in an article and Pete always has some of the most interesting stuff to read. I suggest you devour his Website, it is one of the greatest around.

Here is a link to that article, please click here.

Getting back to folding fighting knives...

Do you think those folding knives back in the 1930s had a new, wiz-bang locking system?

Here is Henri's friend describing a double-killing in retaliation for the murder of Carbonieri up above:

"I wanted to have it done before you [Henri] got back so you wouldn't be involved. With your record, if things didn't work out right, you'd get the maximum. Jean put out the light at one end of the room, Gravon at the other. It was almost dark, the only light coming from the gas lamp in the middle. I had a big flashlight that Dega had given me. Jean moved forward with me following. When he reached the two men, he aimed the light right in their eyes. The Armenian was blinded and raised his arm to protect his eyes - it gave me just enough time to plunge my knife into his throat. We did the same thing to Sans-Souci. He pulled out his knife but couldn't see to aim it. I gave it to him so hard the knife came out the other side. Paulo threw himself on the floor and rolled under the hammocks. Jean had turned off the flashlight, so I couldn't see Paulo. That's what saved him."

Henri then asks:

"Who pulled them into the can?"

And the answer:

"I don't know. I suspect it was the men in their gourbi who wanted to get their plans out of their gut."

Papillon, Pages 348-353

(A "gourbi" is prison slang and the word is Arabic for "primitive shelter." It was your personal area in a prison barrack in French Guiana. You will understand the "Plan" in the "gut" in just a little bit.)

Continuing on about the use of the flashlight and knife, the concept emerges. Remember, tools can change, concepts do not, clearly shown in the next excerpt:

"The idea of using the flashlight came to me when I was preparing my knife…

…And I have nothing to be sorry about. They killed our friend while his eyes were blinded by soap; I killed them when their eyes were blinded by light."

Papillon, Page 353

Don't focus on the "why" of all of this or if it was "murder" or simply self-defense in the incredibly violent environment of a prison, look at the principle(s).

Identify the principle(s), examine the principle(s), and apply the principle(s).

"The Zodiac Killer" is another example of the criminal world utilizing something we consider "state of the art" when it comes to gear. Having murdered one victim on the run, in the dark while he, the killer, was running as well. He had taped a small penlight to the barrel of a semiautomatic .22 caliber handgun. This was in the late 1960s. The police could not understand how he could hit someone running away from him in the dark. The murderer explained it to them in a letter some time later. This serial killer taunted the police with letters he would send to newspapers.

More on knives in French Guiana

"I sought out Francois la Passe and asked, 'Is your brother still an orderly?'

'Yes, he's a relegue.'

'Go see him as soon as you can and ask him to give you a lancet. If he wants money, tell me how much and I'll pay him.'

Two hours later I was the owner of a lancet with a very strong steel handle. Its only drawback was that it was a little too long, but it was a fearsome weapon."

Papillon, Pages 32 & 33

Henri then describes how he transferred his lancet from his cap to up his sleeve with the handle of the lancet in the palm of his hand. In the next excerpt, he explains how he hid it during a stripsearch that wasn't very thorough:

"We all undressed. I assumed we were going to be searched. I put my lancet under my bare right foot and bore my weight on my left. The steel cut into me, but the weapon was well hidden...

...The search turned up three knives, two sharpened nails, a corkscrew and a gold plan."

Papillon, Page 39

That plan, made out of gold, contained three hundred English pounds, two hundred dollars and two five-carat diamonds.

Plan d'evasion

This is sure to get some stomachs churning in disgust. It was apparently common to retrieve your victim's "Plan" from his "gut" after you or someone else killed him.

That is because the "Plan" was a small, smooth, metal cylinder that either had a screw-on lid or screwed/unscrewed in the middle and this is where you kept your money and other valuables.

"I got my plan. It was a highly polished aluminum tube, that unscrewed right in the middle. It had a male half and a female half. It contained 5600 francs in new bills. When I got it, I kissed it. Yes, I kissed that little tube, two and a half inches long and as thick as your thumb, before shoving it into my anus. I took a deep breath so that it would lodge in the colon. It was my strongbox. They could make me take off all my clothes, spread my legs apart, make me cough or bend over double, for all the good it would do them. The plan was high up in the large intestine. It was a part of me. Inside me I carried my life, my freedom..."

Papillon, Page 7

If a man (or men) thought you had a "Plan" in your "gut," it might mean your Death Warrant because they would assassinate you at first opportunity and then gut you like a deer to get your "Plan."

Nice huh?

So, you never wanted to let on that you had a "Plan" because you could get killed for it. Many did.

Rene Belbenoit writes in his excellent book, "Dry Guillotine:"

"Hespel's story was discussed and repeated in the blockhouse. I heard it time and again before the day arrived on which he was scheduled to die. He had been the executioner at Saint Laurent for several years. In 1923 he, a libere, had escaped into the bush with the intention of making good his escape and it was then he had gained for himself a dreaded nickname: 'The Vampire of The Maroni!'

For, at this time, he owned a dugout, and he made a business of taking escaping convicts over to the Dutch side of the [Maroni] river for 25 francs. But many of these e'vade's had been found dead by the edge of the river: they had been murdered and, in every case, their abdomens had been cut open. These crimes had all been pinned on Hespel, who was suspected of having killed them, and then cut them open to grope in their bowels for their suppositories which, without doubt, contained money."

Dry Guillotine, Page 106

In the movie "Papillon," Steve McQueen played Henri Charriere. Sitting on a hammock and speaking with another prisoner on the (ship) voyage on the way to French Guiana, he sums it up succinctly:

"We're really something, aren't we? The only animals in the world that will shove things up their ass for survival."

The picture below is McQueen stuffing the (movie prop) Plan with money.

Henri carried two Plans at one time, one belonging to another man who was terrified of being killed for it, here is an exchange between this man and Charriere:

"'I can't carry my plan anymore. I've got dysentery. I don't know who to trust and I'm scared someone will steal it or the guards will find it. Please, Papillon, carry it for me for a few days.' And he showed me a plan much bigger than mine. I was afraid it was a trap, that he was asking me this to find out if I had one. If I told him I wasn't sure I could carry two, he'd know. So I asked him coldly, 'How much is in it?'

'Twenty-five thousand francs.'

Without another word I took his plan. Very clean it was, too, and right there in front of him I pushed it up my anus, wondering if it was possible for a man to carry two. I had no idea. I stood up, put my pants back was all right. It didn't bother me.

'My name is Ignace Galgani,' he said before leaving. 'Thanks, Papillon.'"

Papillon, Page 29

In the movie "Papillon," Henri's friend, Louis Dega, being handicapped without prescription eyeglasses, found a pair small enough to be disassembled and placed in his own Plan.

The character in the movie "Papillon" who asks Henri for his knife so he can cut his own leg and then fakes a hard fall so he can get to the hospital actually had his own small folding pocketknife in his own Plan in the book "Papillon."

"[Julot] He also had a very small, very sharp knife, really a penknife, in his plan. As we docked, he planned to cut his knee open. Then, as he was leaving the boat, he would fall off the ladder in front of everybody. He hoped he'd be carried from the wharf directly to the hospital. And he was."

Papillon, Page 42-43

Rene Belbenoit, survivor and escapee from French Guiana and author of "Dry Guillotine," wrote extensively about the Plan and Plan d'evasion.

The Movie Starring Steve McQueen, Papillon

On the DVD for "Papillon," in the special features area, there is a Featurette, a short documentary, about "The Making of Papillon."

In this short Featurette, separately titled, "The Magnificent Rebel," Henri Charriere says something interesting through an interpreter, you may find it interesting as well:

"Society does not want free men. They talk freedom, democracy, anything they want. But they don't want free men. Society wants conditioned men…men who march in step."

In this short movie, a behind the scenes look at the making of the movie "Papillon," you actually get to see Henri Charriere, just a couple of years before his death. Hamming it up a couple of years before cancer would end his life with a man that had less than a decade to go before cancer would end his life as well - Steve McQueen.

I think I was lucky. I was able to read "Papillon" and "Banco" before I ever saw the movie "Papillon" or the "Making Of" short movie.

The book is so much better than the movie. Dalton Trumbo (Of "Johnny Got His Gun" fame - Metallica fans will know this movie as the basis for the video for the song, "One" on the "…And Justice for All" album.) had to compress and smash this wonderful book into a fast-paced movie. He did OK. He could have done a lot better.

Steve McQueen definitely saved the movie with his presence. As a related sidenote, I always thought that McQueen did his best acting in the movie "Tom Horn." That is until I watched "Papillon."

McQueen's acting in "Papillon" far surpasses anything he ever did, in my opinion - including "Tom Horn." (Another man, Tom Horn, I should write an article about one day, perhaps.)

The "Thousand Yard Stare" that McQueen musters for the camera in one of the scenes where Henri was in solitary confinement…is haunting.

The look on his face after biting into half of a coconut is amazing. You would think that he really had to eat nasty, watery broth with a chunk of fat (if you were lucky you received a nasty piece of fat-meat…) in order to get him to like a piece of coconut that much.

The fear on his face when he pulls a tooth out of his head, knowing he is dying from malnutrition, you can feel.

Steve McQueen was a talented man indeed. No one acts like that anymore.

Argosy, March 1970

Argosy was a rather strange magazine for men. Adventurous men. Daring men. So, Henri's story was right up Argosy's alley, so to speak.

When I found a copy of the March 1970 issue, I was talking about it with Ken and he said, "Yeah, they ran stories about sharks all of the time."

Lo and behold, on the front cover of the March 1970 issue there was a Diver about ready to deliver the bang stick to a shark. The story, "The Sharkbusters."

Being attacked by a shark is more adventure than I care to be involved with. I've caught a couple of small sharks years ago. I like to eat them actually. Mako and Black Tip are my favorites, I just tell me Son, "think of it as revenge for them eating us humans."

Shark is the steak of the sea.


Without copying a bunch of text, the pictures in this article on Henri and Devil's Island are really surreal. Argosy Magazine took Henri back to French Guiana about 26 years after he escaped. One can only imagine what was going on in his head when he went back there.

I have to apologize as my scanner does not work with this computer. The pictures that follow were taken with a Sony Mavica. Pictures taken of the pictures in the magazine. I'm amazed they turned out this good.

In the picture below, you see some of the broken down doors of the prison.

Henri in one of the prison buildings. (below)

In his isolation cell in Reclusion. (below)

The next two pictures are Henri throwing a bag of coconuts and then floating on a bag of coconuts, this is how he made his final escape from Devil's Island. A reenactment for Argosy Magazine.


Papillon is a story about rehabilitation. Self-rehabilitation. You cannot "correct" a criminal and you cannot rehabilitate them as the word has come to be known.

The French Penal Colonies were not designed to rehabilitate, they were actually designed to break men down and to kill them. That's why Rene Belbenoit referred to French Guiana as "The Dry Guillotine."

It is also a story about survival in an environment that is so harsh that it defies reality. It's all wrapped up in an adventure and you will enjoy it immensely if you read it.

If I wrote anything else about it, you wouldn't go out and buy the book, would you? That's why I'm going to bring this to a close now.

There will be more to read about French Guiana very soon, an article about Rene Belbenoit, for example.

Text Excluding Excerpts Copyright Don Rearic 2006

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