- René Belbenoit
René Belbenoit (
April 4, 1899– February 26, 1959) was a French prisoner on Devil's Islandwho successfully escaped to the United States. He later wrote a book, " Dry Guillotine", about his exploits.
Belbenoit was born in
Parisand abandoned by his mother while still an infant. His father, (referred to in his book only as "Papa Belbenoit"), Chief Conductor of the Paris-Orleans Expressand seldom home, was unable to raise young René himself, so the boy was sent to live with his grandparents. When René was 12, his grandparents passed away suddenly and he, again in need of a parental figure, went to Pariswhere he lived with, and worked for, his uncle 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.
After the war in 1920, Belbenoit stole some pearls from his employer and was sentenced to eight years of hard labor in the
penal colonyof French Guiana, sometimes imprecisely referred to as Devil's Island. The fact that Belbenoit had had a veteran's pensionlet 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 Guianabut 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. He also met a writer Blair Nilesand sold her one of his manuscripts.
Next Christmas Belbenoit again attempted escape with nine others who had stolen a log
canoe. The canoe capsized on the Maroni Riveron the side of Dutch Guiana and they had to escape to the jungle. After three days they decided to return. During the trip, three of the men died violently. 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.
In 1931, when Belbenoit sent a copy of his writings about the prison conditions to a new governor Siadous, he was transferred to the prison archive. Before Siadous was transferred back to France, he gave Belbenoit a one year permit to leave the penal colony. Belbenoit spent most of this one year working in the Panama Canal Zone as a gardener. However, with the one year permit soon to expire he decided to go back to France in order to argue his case.
Upon entry into France at Le Harve, he was arrested and then sent back to the penal colony yet again. For the crime of returning to France, he was sent to the island of Royale and put into
solitary confinementfor almost one year.
November 3 1934Belbenoit was officially released - but that just meant he became a "libéré", a free prisoner who was still not allowed to return to France. He made a living by capturing and selling butterflies and making items out of natural rubber and selling them. During the years of his imprisonment he had lost all his teeth.
When a visiting moviemaker gave him $200, Belbenoit decided to try to escape once more. On
March 2 1935he 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. On the same day they reached Trinidad. British authorities decided not to give them back to the French. On June 10 they continued their trip.
Sixteen days later they ran aground on a beach in
Colombiaand local 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.
However, some of the local authorities separated Belbenoit from the others and, with the cooperation of local prison authorities, 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
Panamahe spent about two months with the Kunatribe and later sold a large collection of butterflies in Panama City. In La Libertad, El Salvador, he hid in a ship that took him to California. The year was 1937.
In 1938 his account, "
Dry Guillotine", was published in USA. Belbenoit had written it in French and had it translated. It went through 14 printings in less than a year.
The book attracted the attention of the US
immigrationauthorities and Belbenoit was arrested. He received a visitor's visabut in 1941 was told to leave the country. Belbenoit traveled to Mexico and a year later tried to slip back into the USA but was again arrested in Brownsville, Texas. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
After his release Belbenoit acquired a valid passport and went to California to work for
Warner Bros.as a technical advisor for a movie " Passage to Marseille".
In 1951 Belbenoit moved to
Lucerne Valley, Californiaand founded the "René's Ranch Store", where he also lived. Neighbors knew who he was. His new book, "Hell on Trial", again attracted the attention of immigration authorities, and in May 1951 he was summoned to Los Angeles. His former movie co-workers spoke in his behalf and he received US citizenship in 1956. Belbenoit married in 1956 and had a son in 1957.
René Belbenoit died of
cardiac arreston February 26 1959.
Books by René Belbenoit
* "Dry Guillotine" (1938)
* "Hell on Trial" (1951)
Others books on Devil's island:
* Albert Londres, Au bagne, Editions Le serpent à plumes
* Papillon - Henri Charrière, ISBN 0-06-093479-4 (560 pages; English; paperback; published by Harper Perennial; July 1, 2001)
* Marion F. Godfroy, Bagnards, Editions du Chêne, Paris, septembre 2002, 216 pages (coffee table book)
* [http://www.lexpress.fr/info/france/dossier/domtom/dossier.asp?ida=427523 C'était Le Bagne" - L'Express interview with French historian Marion Godfroy]
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