Meet Henri Charriere. Frenchman, Venezuelan, career criminal, transportee to Devil’s Island, denier of the murder that sent him there, happy to claim to have committed a murder while he was there and general storyteller and writer. Also known as ‘Papillon (due to a butterfly tattoo on his chest) and writer of the eponymous book turned into the 1973 movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman (on which he was also technical adviser).
We know that Charriere was convicted of the manslaughter of Roland LeGrand, a pimp of no particular note or repute. We know that Charriere drew a life sentence in the penal colonies of French Guiana with an extra ten years tacked on. We know that he actually went to Guiana aboard ‘La Martiniere,’ that he did indeed know Louis Dega and that Dega was indeed a forger and a very good one, apart from getting himself caught and sent to Guiana for the rest of his life.
We know that Charriere was married before his exile to Guiana and married again in Venezuela after his successful escape. We know his mother died when he was only ten years old and that he served two years in the French Navy before joining the Parisian underworld. Everything else that appears in ‘Papillon’ is open to question. Did it happen to Charriere personally? Did he steal other inmates’ stories, passing them off as his own personal experiences? How many of them were his experiences or even happened? Was Henri Charriere really ‘Papillon’ at all?
Charriere definitely arrived on the 1933 shipment from France to St.Laurent, capital of the colony and of the numerous prison camps that formed the ‘Penal Administration, French Guiana.’ He claimed that his first escape was made within weeks of arrival. Penal colony records state he was there for nearly a year before his first unauthorised absence.
That he made eight further escapes attempts remains confirmed. Charriere also claimed to have killed an informer after being transferred to Royale Island. It seems odd for him to admit that murder while denying the one that sent him to Guiana in the first place. He claimed to have spent several months with Guajira Indians while on the run through Colombia during one unsuccessful escape, also unconfirmed except by Charriere’s own account. Charriere also claimed to have saved a young girl’s life by fending off sharks during a swimming break when he was in solitary on St. Joseph Island for an escape attempt. A different account states that the incident did indeed happen, but that the inmate who actually made the save lost both his legs to a shark and died soon afterward.
While transferred to Royale Island (home to so-called ‘Incos’ or ‘Incorrigibles’, Charriere claimed to have been both a ringleader in a convict mutiny and also to have calmed the same mutiny down. According to Charriere (and seemingly nobody else) his status among other convicts was enough to persuade them to abandon their planned insurrection. Again, other inmates and penal colony records suggest strongly that Charriere was actually a peaceful inmate who caused very little trouble except for escaping. They also suggest he was largely content in his job on Royale Island cleaning out the latrines. According to Charriere he was a hardened felon and desperate escaper. According to seemingly everybody else, official or otherwise, he was happy to work most as a shit-shoveller for other convicts.
There’s also the small matter of his supposed escape from Devil’s Island itself by floating to the mainland aboard a sack of coconuts with another inmate named Sylvain. Sylvain drowned in mud while trying to reach land, according to Papillon, which leaves nobody to corroborate his story or to explain why a conventional criminal like Charriere would be confined to Devil’s Island when that island was only used to hold political prisoners. In fact, of the 70,000 or so inmates sent to Guiana, only around 50 were ever confined to Devil’s Island itself.
Neither Charriere nor his supporters can explain that or why, according to Penal Administration records, Charriere’s legendary successful escape was made from St. Laurent where he was assigned at the time. Nor is there any explanation as to why Charriere freely references events in his book such as a convict-turned-executioner’s sadistic murder or the so-called ‘Cannibals Break.’ During that particular escape a group of escapers became so desperate they cooked and ate one of their group to survive. One member of that group (who declined the free buffet) was fellow-inmate Rene Belbenoit, himself a successful escaper and author of the far more reliable ‘Dry Guillotine,’
The biggest problem of all for Charriere’s devotees, aside from the many inconsistencies and contradictions, is Charriere’s book, a book he passed off as a memoir and not as a work of fiction. The existence until 2007 of one Charles Brunier again calls Charriere’s word into question. Brunier was a First World War veteran, armed robber and murderer sent to Guiana before Charriere. According to Brunier, he was ‘Papillon’, not Charriere. Brunier openly acused Charriere of lying and stealing the experiences of other inmates while claiming them to be his own. Brunier was also an unwilling resident of the colonies until 1940 when he escaped and joined the Free French forces under Charles de Gaulle.
Brunier also wore a number of tattoos including a large butterfly adorning his chest and had a withered little finger, both identifying marks of the real ‘Papillon.’ In 1970, former Paris-Match reporter Gerard de Villiers wrote ‘Papillon Egpingle’ (‘Butterfly Pinned’), openly accusing Charriere of a fraud and producing a lot of evidence to prove it. Charriere, infuriated, didn’t try to debate de Villiers’s book, he simply tried to have it banned. A distinct body of opinion began building around Charriere being a plagiarist and fraud, not least that of Truman Capote who openly called Charriere a liar and a fake.
There’s no denying that Henri Charriere knew how to write, tell a story and spin a few myths. That said, other inmates accused him of stealing their experiences and Penal Administration records also show him to have lied on numerous occasions, French officialdom openly states that the truth of his book can be divided by ten to get to what he actually experienced, a reliable journalist has solidly disproved many of his claims and Truman Capote openly called him a fraud.
Whether Charriere was innocent of his original murder charge we will probably never know, but the case for his having been a professional liar seems very solid. That said, he was a pretty successful one. Certainly a better author and liar than a safe-cracker. And is any reasonably intelligent person surprised to read a criminal memoir and find it was less than truthful? Somehow, I doubt it.
Anybody looking for a longer account of the Guiana penal system can find one here, published by my colleagues at History Is Now Magazine: