Les Bourreaux, France’s ‘Executors of High Works.’


260px-Galigaï_1617I recently had a brief Twitter conversation with a fellow scribe at Crime Traveller and these gentlemen came up therein, so I thought their story might be interesting to look at in more detail. ‘The Executor of High Works’ was a grandiose title for so unrelentingly grim a profession, especially one traditionally inherited by people already considered social outcasts. Many might regard their informal title of ‘Bourreaux’ as being more appropriate.

Les Bouureaux enjoyed (or endured) two distinct phases before and after the French Revolution of 1792. The Revolution brought many changes, but one thing never altered. They were the most despised, reviled and feared men in all of France. Hardly surprising, given their occupation, but not entirely fair and gross hypocrisy as well.

In pre-Revolutionary France executioners were chosen on a regional basis. In keeping with their public image they were drawn from people already performing work regarded as distasteful, unpleasant and only for the lowest rung of France’s social ladder. Undertakers, tanners, gravediggers and saddlers often found themselves shoe-horned into a part-time job that nobody else would take, that of torturer and local executioner. If nobody else was prepared to do the job then condemned criminals were offered it, spared their own lives in return for taking those of their peers.

When ordered they hung, drew and quartered, beheaded, burnt, broke on the wheel and hanged condemned prisoners. They also cut the hands off thieves and dismembered the condemned for public display, if ordered. Before a decree in 1791 they also tortured the condemned before execution if that was the sentence.

Beheading was often reserved for members of the aristocracy who usually died by the sword as a mark of their social status. Anne Boleyn, executed wife of England’s Henry VIII, died on his native soil, her husband importing a French executioner and his sword for the occasion. The social status of ‘Les Bourreux’ wasn’t in any doubt, either. Universally feared and loathed, the executioner was also a breed apart and. While happy to watch his hand sever necks, tie nooses and light fires under heretics, most French people weren’t inclined to shake it.

As much as executions were a public spectacle, the bourreaux lived in isolation. Schools routinely refused to teach their children. Merchants wouldn’t sell them goods. Employers seldom employed them. Traditionally nicknamed for the towns where they lived and worked, executioners were frequently made to live outside them. ‘Monsieur de Rennes’ might dispense justice both in Rennes and most of Brittany, but living in Rennes itself was out of the question.

Bakers followed an old French superstition. Obliged by law to provide bourreaux with free bread they kept it on a separate shelf, turned upside-down as inverted bread apparently attracted the Devil. Executioners also had to wear some badge of office, usually an image of a gallows or sword. Marking them as pariahs, Jews, prostitutes and vagrants also suffered a similar indignity.

Socially ostracised by virtue of their profession, the Church added to their outcast status. Bourreaux were only allowed to marry into the families of other bourreaux so, by abolition in 1981, all French executioners for centuries could be traced through a handful of family trees.

The few perks of the job couldn’t have compensated for the bitter irony of crowds turning out to watch them work one day only to spit on them in the street the next. So isolated were the bourreau families that one, the legendary Sansons, supplied six consecutive generations of executioners while their extended family supplied even more.

There were perks, though, albeit largely to ensure they had the means of daily living. An executioner possessed by law the right to levy certain goods from local merchants, even those who refused to actually sell them anything. Bread, vegetables, meat, fish and others goods could be levied according to the bourreau’s ‘droit de havage,’ the appropriately named ‘right of cleaving’ or ‘right of chopping.’

An executioner could take, for free, as much of those goods as his two hands could hold. The Revolution would change much for the bourreaux, public hypocrisy didn’t. Until the execution of Eugen Weidmann in Paris in July, 1939 the French public enjoyed watching the bourreaux work while shunning them everywhere else.

From 1791 torture before execution was abolished and from then on there would be only one executioner for each French region or ‘departement.’ Assistant executioners (known as valets) were also abolished in the departements. Again Paris was the exception ‘Monsieur de Paris, required by law to reside in the city, retained several valets.

Different methods of execution were also abandoned. From then on, as both a humanitarian and social statement, every prisoner would be beheaded in the same way. Whether  prince or pauper, all would face a brand-new invention regardless of social distinction;

The guillotine.

Exécution_de_Marie_Antoinette_le_16_octobre_1793Known variously as the ‘People’s Avenger,’ ‘National Razor,’ ‘Timbers of Justice,’ ‘Madame la Guillotine’ and ‘The Widow’ it replaced the wheel, gallows, sword, axe and burning post. The executioner’s torture tools also became museum pieces. The bourreaux did not; They were never more well-known or less unpopular than when providing vengeance-by-proxy for their proletarian public. They were never as busy, either, sometimes killing a hundred or more aristocrats a day and over 3000 in a single month. First used on highway robber Nicolas Jacques Pelletier in Paris on April 25, 1792 it wasn’t an instant success.

With Pelletier public hypocrisy reached new heights. Far from promoting the bourreaux as no longer being svages and outcasts, the spectators complained that it was too quick and humane. They even came up with a then-popular song including the words ‘Give us back our wooden allows.’ The public might have regarded those who worked such instruments as the lowest of the low for doing so, but they hated even more the idea of being deprived of the entertainment factor from seeing prisoners strangle slowly at the end of a rope or be engulfed in flames. No, the bourreaux were still unholy brutes. It was just that were no longer brutal enough.

Until 1939 the heads still rolled, the crowds still turned out and the bourreaux were still objects of public hatred. By then use of the term ‘bourreaux’ had been officially outlawed (not that anyone stopped using it) while French officialdom too sought to distance itself from those who did their dirty work. The guillotine itself was officially the property of the chief executioner, not the Ministry of Justice. The chief executioner (now only ‘Monsieur de Paris actually dropped the blade)  and his remaining valets were also kept at arm’s length.

‘Monsieur de Paris’ didn’t draw a salary. He was given an annual appropriation of 180,000 Francs to cover repairs, maintenance, expenses and paying himself and his assistants. The Ministry of Justice could then keep them all at an official distance while still regularly despatching them around France, themselves to despatch the criminals thereof.

The pay was low and one chief was fired for having pawned the device to raise funds. When they found out he’d done so, shortly before a scheduled execution, the Ministry had to redeem the pawnbroker’s fee out of public funds so the execution could go ahead. In their eyes, however, nothing could redeem the bourreau who’d pawned it. He was immediately fired.

rd7YcIn France’s notorious penal colonies at French Guiana and New Caledonia the National Razor’s operators were equally hated, though for a different reason. The penal colonies used convict-executioners, men already serving sentences who were ready to kill their fellow criminals in return for protection and privileges. Hated by guards and inmates alike, they were the most reviled convicts in the system.

Neither guards or inmates had any time for men viewed as traitors to their criminal class. A couple were themselves executed. Isidore Hespel, known throughout Guiana’s Penal Administration as ‘The Jackal’ was himself executed for murder by the very assistant executioner he’d trained. The assistant wasn’t any more popular for having executed his hated boss.

Worse still was the grisly fate of a particularly brutal Guiana bourreau Henri Clasiot. A man of singularly vile personality, Clasiot routinely beat, cursed and insulted the convicts he executed, marching them to the guillotine with fists and invective. Abducted by some freed convicts, Clasiot found himself facing far worse than even he had inflicted. After a severe beating, his captors stripped him naked, smeared him liberally with honey and staked him out over an anthill.

The ants were carnivorous.

Eugene Weidmann Being Led to Guillotine
24 Jun 1939, Versailles, France — Shirt pulled down over his shoulders to prevent interference with the knife, Eugene Weidmann, convicted slayer of Jeanne De Koven, Brooklyn dancer, is shown being led into the courtyard of Saint Pierre Prison in Versailles to his execution on the guillotine. The basket which was to receive his dead body is shown (partially) at left. A few moments after his picture was made the great knife fell and Weidmann’s head was severed from his body. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

After Weidmann in 1939, itself watched by a young Englishman later to become Sir Christopher Lee, executions were hurriedly removed behind prison walls. Such had been the disgust at drunkenness and debauchery during Weidmann’s death, President Lebrun (an opponent of capital punishment) ordered public executions abolished. The bourreaux became increasingly obscure and secretive figures, perhaps grateful for the lowering of their public profile. The penal systems of Guiana and New Caledonia closed and, while ‘Monsieur de Paris’ and his valets still plied their grim trade, they did so increasingly rarely and entirely in private.

1949 saw France’s last female execution, that of Germaine Leloy-Godefroy. In 1953 the last prisoners returned from Guiana, the infamous colony having closed its doors in 1946 and its caps and orisons gradually shut down. A movement against capital punishment had always existed in France, but it gathered increasing momentum after World War II. Ironically considering their profession, now the bourreaux themselves were on borrowed time.

djandoubi-guillotine-570x5701977 saw France’s last execution, that of Hamida Djandoubi in Marseille’s notorious Baumettes prison. In 1981 the Natonal Assembly finally abolished the death penalty. Djandoubi was the last prisoner beheaded in both France and Western Europe. France was the last in Western Europe to abolish beheading as a method. The days of ‘les bourreaux’ were over.

Until abolition French judges still passed death sentences, but all were commuted. Seeing the way the political wind was blowing President Francois Mitterand (another death penalty opponent) reprieved every death sentence passed between his election and final abolition. No longer would the residents of what the French called ‘Death Alley’ count off the days they had left and wonder how many actually remained.

French condemned prisoners were never given their exact date and time of execution until it actually happened, when at the traditional time of dawn their cell doors opened and their final walk began. They knew when there was an execution scheduled for the next morning, but whose? They spent every dawn hoping the door that opened wouldn’t be theirs.

No longer would they hear guards talking in the evenings and tremble until after the dawn, having heard the dreaded words ‘Monsieur de Paris est ici…’

12899097244_e28e7fc978_z‘The Man from Paris is here…’

 

 

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On This Day in 1909, Vere Thomas ‘St. Leger’ Goold: A long way from Tipperary.


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A long, long way as it turned out.

When Vere Goold took his own life on this day in 1909 he was far from Tipperary (his ancestral home) and everything else he’d ever known. Once the son of a prominent Irish family, a talented boxer and Wimbledon tennis star, he died a convict, murderer and the property of the Penal Administration, French Guiana.

So, how exactly did this gentleman fall so far from grace? What left a potentially great tennis player and socialite to be rubbing shoulders with France’s lowest-ranking people in history’s worst convict prison? How on earth could a man of noble birth die so ignoble a death?

The answer, as is so often the case, was a woman. Two women, to be exact.

Goold had won the Irish tennis championship in 1879, also making the final at Wimbledon that year. A few months later he tried his hand the first open championship at Cheltenham. Again, he reached the final and, again, he tasted defeat. After that his form declined and he gave up tennis completely.

After that his life dissolved into drinking, drugs and general debauchery. A man of vanity and personal weakness, he was easy game for women of predatory natures. When he met Marie Giraudin in London, he was exactly what she was looking for. Twice married already, with expensive tastes, minimal funds and increasing debts, she saw him as a ripe pigeon to be plucked. In 1891 they were married. In 1907, having figured out what they thought was the perfect system for gambling and, posing ‘Lord and Lady Goold,’ there was only one place to go to make their fortunes, Monte Carlo.

Every year many casino towns greet many gamblers who bring many infallible systems. These infallible systems usually fail, the casinos  usually profit and the gamblers usually go home broke or seriously in debt. The Goolds were no exception apart from one thing:

They didn’t go home. Murder, prison and suicide were the results.

Having gone broke within a matter of weeks they borrowed money to try and recoup their losses. Among their creditors, to whom they owed the then-princely sum of £40, was a Swedish socialite Emma Levin. A wealthy widow, Ms  Levin was accompanied by a friend, Madame Castellazi. Soon Ms Levin had Marie Goold for company as well. Castellazi and Goold almost immediately hated each other.

A very public contretemps between them saw Levin, horribly embarrassed, decide to leave Monte Carlo. Before she left, however,  she made it clear she wanted back the £40 she’d lent the Goolds. The Goolds, however, seeing her obvious displays of wealth while in Monte Carlo, wanted rather more than a mere £40 loan from Ms Levin. They were prepared to kill to get it.

On the night of August 4, 1907 Ms Levin promptly vanished and so did ‘Lord and Lady Goold.’ They had, however, reckoned without Madame Castellazi who was waiting at Levin’s hotel to leave town with her. Knowing that Ms Levin had gone to collect the debt from Marie Goold (of whom Castellazi was by now deeply afraid) and Ms Levin not having returned despite it being after midnight, Castellazi informed the police. The police and Madame Castellazi immediately visited the Goolds.

The Goolds had already left for Marseilles, leaving behind Marie Goold’s young daughter Isabelle. They’d also left behind a bloodstained saw and axe and Ms Levin’s parasol, although they’d remembered to take a large steamer trunk. A large steamer trunk, by a macabre coincidence, that was big enough to hold a human being. Both Madame Castellazi and les gendarmes were by now deeply concerned.

They had every right to be. And so, as it happened, did ‘Lord and Lady Goold.’

Courtesy of a railway clerk named Pons local police had visited the luggage office at Marseilles railway station. At the luggage office they found a trunk belonging to the Goolds and dripping blood. Inside the trunk they found what was left of Ms Levin. She’d been murdered, dismembered and packed away like a box of unwanted baggage which, in a macabre sense, she was. The Goolds were immediately arrested.

It didn’t take long for Vere Thomas Goold, erstwhile socialite and sportsman, to confess to murder. Whether it was he or Marie Goold who planned the murder and struck the fatal blows will never be known for sure. Goold, clinging to whatever remained of his gentleman status, was prepared to take the fall. In France, of course, that fall could have been a guillotine’s blade, had the judge not seen it differently.

Seen as the prime mover in the murder Marie Goold was condemned to death. Her sentence was commuted despite this and she went to Montpelier Prison for life. She died there of typhoid in 1914. By then, of course, her husband was already dead.

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Abandon hope, all ye who enter here, Goold did.

Goold was shown mercy, in a sense. Instead of an appointment with the guillotine and its operator, known throughout France by his sinister nickname ‘Monsieur de Paris’ (‘the man from Paris’) he received a life sentence. Unfortunately for Goold life meant spending the rest of his in the infamous penal colony in French Guiana, the worst collection of hellholes any convict could hope to avoid. Goold couldn’t avoid Devil’s Island and on September 8, 1909, less than a year after arriving, he decided life there was more than he could bear. He was 55 years old.

On This Day in 1953 – France’s last inmates return from Devil’s Island.


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“The Bagne is a charnel house, a mass grave, running from syphilis to tuberculosis, with all the tropical diseases one can imagine (carrying malaria, ankylosis, amoebic dysentery, leprosy, etc.), all destined to work hand in hand with an Administration whose task it is to diminish the number of prisoners consigned to its care. The fiercest proponents of ‘elimination’ can rest satisfied. In Guyane, prisoners survive on the average five years – no more.” –

Doctor Louis Rouuseau, former chief prison doctor.

 

They called it ‘Le Bagne,’ simply ‘the jail.’ They called themselves ‘bagnards,’ simply ‘convicts.’ Inmates of probably the worst convict prison in history, some 70,000 made  their way to Guiana from France. Only around 5000 survived to finish their sentences. Only around 2000 ever made the return trip. Only one in four lasted five years before dying there. On August 22, 1953 the last survivors finally returned. Some of them, like Paul Roussenq, would come to wish they hadn’t.

As the steamer San Mateo docked in Bordeaux harbour it was a day of contrasts. On August 22, 1934 legendary gangster Al Capone had arrived at Alcatraz, fan island prison from which there was supposedly no escape. On the same day in 1953, 666 inmates were returning from Devil’s Island.

There wasn’t supposed to be any escape from the Penal Administration’s clutches, either. While France had adopted the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity there was little equality or fraternity for ‘Les Bagnards.’. As for liberty, former inmate Paul Roussenq summed up what liberty came to mean for many sent to Guiana. However uncertain the future for the returnees, one thing was at least certain.

The dreaded ‘Bagne,’ site of so much cruelty, horror and death, was no more.

Their return was a break with tradition in itself. Right up until the last transport left France in 1938 convicts were gathered at Saint Martin-de-re near La Rochelle before leaving for the Green Hell on the twice-yearly voyage. Searched, kitted out, their heads shaven, over 600 convicts at a time walked through the streets. Most of them were seeing their native land for the last time.

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Henri Charriere, AKA ‘Papillon.’

Henri Charriere, also known as ‘Papillon,’ described his own departure back in 1933:

“Neither prisoners, guards or public broke in on this poignant moment. Everyone understood that these men were leaving normal life behind forever.”

In 1953 Saint Martin-de-re was (and remains) an active prison. Fully occupied, those inmates aboard the San Mateo with unexpired time would be dispersed among prisons within France itself. There would be no early release for them. Even after surviving at least 15 years in history’s worst penal system France still demanded its pound of flesh. They still had time to serve and their debt to society to repay. Repay it they would.

After a century of horrors unrivalled almost anywhere the ‘Penal Administration, French Guiana’ was finally shut down. Opened in 1852 under Emperor Napoleon III, the penal colony had long been a stain on the name of France both at home and abroad. Exposed by journalist Albert Londres, the scandal of the Dreyfus Affair and memoirs from former inmates like Rene Belbenoit, the shame had finally become too much to ignore.

Captain Alfred DreyfusDreyfus, falsely convicted of treason and the victim of rampant anti-semitism, spent five years on Devil’s Island itself. Only international publicity, the campaigning of his wife and the support of luminaries like writer Emile Zola saved him from permanent incarceration. Zola’s legendary polemic ‘J’Accuse!’ still ranks among literature’s finest.

The ‘Ile Diable,’ though often used to describe the entire penal system, was reserved solely for political prisoners like Dreyfus. Ordinary criminals like Papillon (despite his claims to the contrary) were never sent there. Only fifty or so occupied it during the colony’s 100-year history, never more than a dozen at one time.

Isolated from all the other prisoners, Dreyfus could only ponder his past in almost total isolation while day-dreaming of exoneration, freedom and his honour being one day restored. His suffering was inflicted through permanent solitude and endless boredom, not physical brutality:

“My days, my hours, slip by monotonously in this agonising, enervating waiting for the discovery of truth…”

Albert Londres had visited the colony in 1923, ironically welcomed by staff thinking he would be supportive. Instead his series of articles caused increased embarrassment after the Dreyfus Affair. As Londres described life in the colony;

“During this month I have seen hundreds of spectacles from Hell, and now it is the bagnards who stare back at me… Each and every day, I dream of them staring at me, imploring me…”

Rene BelbenoitThe appalling conditions of the colony were no secret even to those who hadn’t yet seen them. Rene Belbenoit arrived in 1933, recalling in classic memoir ‘Dry Guillotine’ his peers seeing  it for the first time. As Belbenoit walked through the main gate it finally sank in:

‘”It’s the Bagne,” said the man behind me in a voice that was devoid of all hope. “So this is where I’ll live. Until I die…”‘

Officially closed by decree on July 17, 1938 the Penal Administration remained operational for another 15 years. On November 22, 1938 despite the closure being announced the last transport of convicts left France, most of them forever. When war broke out and France fell under Nazi occupation in 1940 it wasn’t until 1946 that the closing-down actually began.

From 1946 the Penal Administration was slowly wound down. The prisons, jails and dreaded jungle camps were closed one by one. By 1953 Saint-Laurent, for a century the Penal Administration’s nerve centre, was almost a ghost town. The jungle camps like Charvein, Godebert, Crique Rouge, Cascade and others, sites of unimaginable cruelty, misery and death, were no more.

Make-work on the jungle roads nicknamed ‘Route Zero’ (it never went anywhere) and ‘Kilometre 42’ (its total length without ever reaching a destination) was over. Route Zero and Kilo 42 weren’t even meant to go anywhere, they were simply hard labour for its own sake. Guiana’s ghosts, some of them anyway, could now haunt the roadsides undisturbed. Decades later they probably know more peace in death than in life.

No more would whips crack across inmates slowly dying from forced labour, disease, malnutrition and barely any medical care. No longer would escapers die in the jungle or on the sea. No more would a bell toll as convicts were buried at sea, only to be torn apart by sharks before they reached the bottom, the sharks themselves being caught and fed to the convicts. Never again would a convict-executioner, surrounded by fellow inmates forced to kneel and watch, raise a dripping head from the guillotine’s basket and hold it high, proclaiming:

“Justice has been done in the name of the people of France!”

In 1933 Salvation Army Captain Charles Pean was sent out to organise relief efforts for the ‘liberes.’ Liberes were freed convicts still struggling to survive outside prison walls. Often too sick and weak to find work (employers preferring to rent fit, healthy  convicts from the Penal Administration) they existed as best they could.

Few could afford a passage to France at their own expense. Many more were bound by penal policy. Under the hated policy of ‘doublage’ any inmate serving less than eight years had to stay in Guiana for a time equal to their original sentence. Any prisoner serving eight years or more had to stay in Guiana forever, never again allowed to set foot  on their native soil. Doublage had long been abolished for new arrivals, but for those sentenced before its abolition it still applied.

As efforts to close the penal colony had gathered steam the Salvation Army had joined the fight. Even many French administrators and officials wanted to see the Penal Administration closed down. It was too expensive to run, the costs vastly exceeded the returns and the international embarrassment had become too great. Gaston Monnerville, Guiana’s deputy in the French Parliament, was at the forefront of efforts to close the colony down. As one former penal administrator described it:

“Transportation is economically an absurdity, from the colonial point of view it is a scandal, and morally it is a crime.”

Rene Belbenoit was equally damning:

‘If the bagne I knew no longer exists, it most certainly exists elsewhere. The injustices and atrocities I saw are being duplicated at this moment in prisons everywhere. It is important to understand this because a prison is a prison, whether it is located in Saint Laurent or in Paris, on Devil’s Island or in anyplace else in the world.’

Some 300 convicts nicknamed the ‘Old Whites’ chose to stay in Guiana. Their time served, they could have boarded a repatriation ship but declined. There since 1938 at the very least, they didn’t see returning to a France they no longer recognised as going home. They’d been in Guiana so long that it had become their home.

Besides, the France they’d watched disappear over the horizon so many years before had vanished forever. Time and the war had seen to that. Rather than be strangers in their own land they opted to stick with what had become their norm, where life was familiar and made sense.

Doctor Roger Pradinaut was assigned to Guiana in 1965, 12 years after the penal colony finally closed its gates.  He knew many of those who stayed on, finding them a curious mix of personalities:

“The spirit of the old prisoners varied. There were some who were jokesters, others who were raconteurs telling stories about their lives. But others were much more discreet about themselves and didn’t speak much. I remember one man who was always staring into space and from time to time he cried, tears running down his face. And you could see that this was someone who had been deeply traumatised, someone who had suffered a lot, but didn’t talk about it.”

They were probably right. Many of those who did drifted into insanity, alcoholism, drug abuse and crime. France was alien to them in 1953 as Guiana had been in 1938 or before then. One of the most notorious, Paul Roussenq, whose defiance of the Penal Administration had earned him 11 years in solitary confinement and countless extra years on his original sentence, was one of them.

Paul RoussenqRoussenq, among the earliest returnees in 1946, survived only briefly. The ‘Jailbird of St. Gilles’ drowned himself in the Adour River in 1949 leaving a note for a friend;

‘My dear Elisee, I am at the end. At Bayonne there is a great and beautiful river and this evening I will go in search of the great remedy for all suffering: Death’

‘Les Bagnards,’ mostly sent out to die, were coming home.

On This Day in 1934; Alcatraz officially opens.


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“We are looking forward to great things from Alcatraz.” – Attorney-General Homer Cummings at the official opening in 1934.

“Alcatraz was never no good for nobody.” – Convict Frank Weatherman, Number AZ1576, the last convict admitted to The Rock, on its closure in 1963.

Alcatraz is 85 years old today. At least it’s 85 years to the day since ‘United States Penitentiary, Alcatraz’ officially opened its doors at 9:40am to the first 137 prisoners to fill its cramped, cold, often damp cells. Formerly a military prison, In its early years as a Federal prison Alcatraz became the new home for criminal legends like Al Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Capone’s nemesis George ‘Bugs’ Moran. John Paul Chase (sidekick of George ‘Baby Face’ Nelson), Alvin ‘Old Creepy’ Karpis (of Barker Gang infamy)  and famous escape artist and train robber Roy Gardner also joined the Rock’s less-than-merry guest list.

Despite their huge array of crimes, none of them had the dubious distinction of being the first inmate admitted to Alcatraz. That was Frank Bolt, number AZ1 and a holdover from the military inmates. His crime? Hardly befitting so notorious a prison designed to warehouse the worst of the worst. He was in for sodomy.

 Frank Bolt, Inmate Number AZ1. On Alcatraz for sodomy.

Alcatraz represented, according to its supporters anyway, a new concept in American penal policy. The concept was simple, the worst criminals would be drawn from other prisons less able to handle them. Escape artists, troublemakers, inmates with a reputation for inciting riots and strikes and high-profile criminals would find themselves headed for the ‘Bastille by the Bay.’

When Alcatraz opened America was in the grip of the legendary 1930’s Crime Wave. John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde were only recent casualties of the War on Crime. Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd were still roaming, robbing and killing at will. Down in Texas Bonnie and Clyde’s former partner Ray Hamilton had recently escaped from Death Row of all places. Hamilton’s brother Floyd would, ironically, serve decades on the Rock. Something had to be, and seen to be done. Alcatraz became a showpiece for law and order.

Once they were there, the idea was simple; Maximum security, minimum privileges. Regardless of their status on the outside inmates were deliberately kept as isolated from the rest of society as possible. If you went to ‘The Rock’ it became your world. As far as possible you’d be kept as clueless as possible about anything and anybody outside the island.

Alcatraz was a response to the ‘Crime Wave’ of the late 1920’s into the early 1930’s. Rackets guys’ like Capone and Moran built huge criminal organisations, some of which still exist today. They made their money through day-to-day rackets like bootlegging, protection, gambling, loansharking, pimping, drugs and union racketeering.

The ‘Yeggmen’ or ‘Yeggs’ were a different kind of gangster. Karpis, Kelly, Chase, Gardner and others made money through armed robbery of post offices, payrolls, trains and sometimes kidnapping for ransom. They might take an Indiana one morning, an Illinois bank in the afternoon and then disappear out of state. In places like Hot Springs, Arkansas or St. Paul, Minnesota fugitives paid off local politicians and cops to live virtually openly.

But, however they made their living, once on Alcatraz they were just names and numbers. Their reputations outside counted for nothing with prison staff. Capone had served time at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in relative luxury. He had meals ordered in from local restaurants, his favourite brand of cigars, a radio in his cell and served the easiest time bribery could buy. At Alcatraz he was Convict AZ85 and nothing more.

Whatever day of the week it was the routine remained the same. Unvarying, monotonous, repetitive and stupefying after a while, it also drove inmates mad. At 6am you woke up. At 6:20 you stood at the front of your cell for a head count. At 6:30 you went to the mess hall. At 6:50 if you had a job your work day started, although even performing prison labour was a privilege at Alcatraz you had to earn. At 11:20 it was lunchtime. At 4:30 you were locked up for the night. At 9:30 the lights went out.

And so on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Aside from lawyers visits, court appearances, exercise time, doctor’s appointments and meals, the routine never, ever varied.

You could only write letters to or receive letters from an approved list of people. You could only receive visitors on the same approved list. No letters could be sent to or received from anybody then serving or having served a jail sentence. No visitors could visit without a full FBI background check. Letters were always censored and checked for invisible ink or hidden codes within the text. Letters were even copied on a typewriter and a copy given the inmate in case the paper was saturated with drugs. There were no phone calls. Even when talking to visitors or writing letter an inmate was forbidden to discuss outside events, criminal cases or the prison itself.

The rules were rigid and unbending, extending even as far as mealtimes. You could have as much deliberately-monotonous food as you wanted, but risked punishment for not finishing every scrap. First offences cost you your next meal. A second meant ten days in solitary confinement and loss of privileges.

If you were thinking of causing a mass disturbance in the dining hall then other inmates would point to large globe-like objects on the walls and ceiling; tear gas bombs. Hence the inmates nicknamed their dining hall the ‘Gas Chamber.’ If the possibility of being gassed didn’t put you off then very obvious gun ports in the walls patrolled by guards with shotguns, rifles and tommy guns were more than enough.

There were no ‘trusty’ jobs. Many prisons operate a ‘trusty’ system where inmates deemed safe enough perform tasks like clerical work. Not on The Rock. There was no inmate council to consult with staff about inmate problems or issues. According to the game plan, inmates never had the slightest choice in anything at all on the island. They were never intended to, either’

Most prisons had an 8-1 ratio of convicts to officers. At Alcatraz there were only 3 inmates per officer. The officers were hand-picked, trained in unarmed combat, marksmanship and especially to out-think inmates planning escapes or riots. There were 12 regular head counts every day, plus another 30 or so special counts in workshops, the showers, the exercise yard etc.

Most hated of all the rules was the rule of silence. From 1934 until 1937 no inmate was permitted to speak at all unless absolutely necessary. Saying more than ‘Please pass the salt’ during meals earned solitary confinement. If you spoke in a workshop except to ask for tools or to use the bathroom you risked solitary. The silence was yet another aspect of a routine expressly designed to be as dull, isolating and monotonous as humanly possible. The only times an inmate could talk were during visits, medical appointments or in the exercise yard. Anywhere else idle chat was strictly forbidden and sternly punished.

Other security precautions made Alcatraz the most secure prison on Earth. Hidden microphones were sprinkled all over the prison. Metal detectors (known to inmates as ‘Snitch Boxes’) were positioned so no inmate could walk through less than eight detectors a day, no matter what they were doing or where they were going.

The nerve centre of the prison was the Armory, run by the Armoror in a system specially designed by the prison’s first Warden, James Johnston. The Armoror controlled every electrically-operated door on the island and could lock them all with the flick of a switch. Nobody could enter or leave the main cellblock without his approval. If trouble started the Armoror could simply lock himself in his post, lock down the entire prison, summon emergency support by radio and issue weapons to as many officers as needed them. His arsenal ranged from pistols and revolvers to tear gas launchers, rifles, shotguns and tommy guns.

Even outside the buildings the security was no more relaxed. Armed guards were sited at gun towers around the island, all linked by a catwalk system. Armed guards could patrol the cellblocks in gun galleries. The galleries were separated from the inmate areas by toolproof steel bars, but officers could still turn a cellblock into a shooting gallery if needed. During the Battle of Alcatraz in May, 1946 they did exactly that. The gun towers covered the island’s roads, boat dock, exercise yard and the surrounding water. Any inmate seen running for the water could be shot on sight. Several were.

The mainland itself was 1.5 miles away from the island. Stories spread by officials about specially-trained marksmen in the gun towers weren’t true. Nor were stories about San Francisco Bay being home to man-eating sharks. But while those tall tales were exactly that, other stories were all too true. Stories about the water being barely above freezing even in summer, of currents too strong to swim against sweeping inmates out through the Golden Gate into the Pacific, about underwater currents dragging would-be escapers to watery graves.

 And this is your new home. For the next 200 years...

And this is your new home. For the next 200 years…

 Discipline was harsh, too. Loss of privileges was a standard punishment for minor infractions (there were precious few privileges as it was). More serious breaches meant losing time off for good behaviour as well as your day-to-day privileges. More serious offences earned a visit to the dreaded D Block, home to the solitary confinement cells and the ‘Dark Hole.’ The normal solitary cells were standard open-front cells with inmates losing their standard privileges and eating only bread and water every day. Another little irritation was a ban on tobacco for solitary inmates, annoying if you were used to a pack a day and had no books to read or anything else to pass the time.

The ‘Dark Hole’ consisted of six cells without beds, furniture, bedding, toilet or sink (the toilet consisted of a hole in the concrete floor). They had one tap dispensing only cold water and a solid steel door allowing no light at all. The cell walls were painted black, ensure absolute darkness. The maximum amount of time in the ‘Dark Hole’ was mandated by Federal law as being no more than 19 consecutive days.

This didn’t mean a maximum sentence there was 19 days, though. If you were given more than 19 days then you’d spend the 20th day in an ordinary, open-front solitary cell before returning to the ‘Dark Hole for another 19 days and so on until the end of your solitary sentence. Some inmates spent years in the ‘Dark Hole’ with light and warmth only 1 day in every 20.

Many former inmates also allege that D Block was home to rampant abuse and brutality inflicted by officers on inmates. Officers manning D Block have been accused many, many times of delivering beatings with blackjacks, brass knuckles, truncheons, nightsticks, fists, boots and rubber hoses.

Problems were rife on The Rock. Inmate murders, escape attempts, suicides, attacks on staff, inmates were regularly taken off the island having been certified insane, self-harm (especially inmates using razor blades to sever their heel tendons) was so common as to arouse little comment. All were regular fare while Alcatraz was a Federal prison.

Not for nothing was a stretch on Alcatraz described as having the “Exquisite torture of routine”, a routine that never wavered for weeks, months, years and decades of an inmate’s sentence. The self-harm wasn’t only a cry for help, it was also a calculated act of protest against the staff denying inmates their constitutional rights, especially access to the courts.

Inmates in other prisons had the right to sue the prison administration over conditions, punishments and prison regulations. They also had that right at Alcatraz, but their writs didn’t always reach the courts for a judge’s consideration. Sometimes they never left the island. This didn’t go over well with inmates, and especially not with federal judges when they found out.

By the early 1960’s the Alcatraz concept and the prison itself were crumbling. Attitudes in penology had changed. The ‘Crime Wave’ of the late 1920’s into the early 1930’s was fast receding into memory. The buildings, long subjected to permanent damp, salty air and water with icy winds, were crumbling, increasingly unsafe and increasingly vulnerable to escape.

The final nail in Alcatraz’s coffin, was its running costs. Keeping inmates there cost three times more per year, per inmate than any other American prison.The concept was discredited, the buildings were falling apart and the cost was unsustainable. Alcatraz became increasingly regarded as a symbol of outdated ideas that should be confined to history along with Devil’s Island and Botany Bay. Alcatraz would have to be replaced.

 The end of The Rock. The last 27 inmates head for other prisons.

                  The end of The Rock. The last 27 inmates head for other prisons.

It was. After receiving 1576 inmates over 29 years the Rock was itself confined, to history.  36 inmates attempted escape of whom 5 were killed, 23 recaptured, 2 drowned and 5 are still listed as missing. After multiple murders, suicides, assaults and one enormous riot the Alcatraz experiment had ended in failure., Throughout 1962 inmates were gradually shipped out to other prisons in small numbers to avoid press speculation and public attention. When Alcatraz officially closed on March 21, 1963 only 27 inmates hid their faces from TV cameras as they were shipped to other institutions. The Rock, Hellcatraz, Isle of No Return, America’s Devil’s Island, call it what you will, had been consigned to penal history. It was replaced with a brand-new facility at Marion, Illinois (now widely regarded as one of the worst prisons in the country).

After its closure in 1962, the native American occupation in 1969-1970 and being handed over to the National National Park Service in 1972, the Rock sat idle for years. It’s now California’s most popular tourist attraction receiving over a million visitors a year.Ironic, when you consider how desperately its first visitors wanted to leave. Even more oddly, former officers and former inmates have frequently found themselves working together guiding tour parties around their former home.

I’ll leave you with one final thought. Long before the Spanish discovered the island, the Americans turned it into a fortress, military prison and finally a convict penitentiary, there were Native Americans. Unlike the Spanish and the Americans they tended to avoid the island, refusing to approach it for centuries. Why?

They thought it a dwelling place for evil spirits.

Executed executioners; the biters bit.


Executioners are seen as a strange breed. Usually tolerated, sometimes celebrated, frequently feared and often despised, the man (for it usually is) who drops the blade, swings the axe, pushes the lever or throws the switch remains a breed apart. With their particular profession you might think that, death being touted as a deterrent, they’d be most deterred by the thought of facing their own particular brand of punishment.

They haven’t, not by a long shot.

A surprising number, having dispensed the ultimate penalty, have later suffered it themselves. It’s said that it’s better to give than to receive but, despite their experienced eye for such matters, some of them didn’t get the memo.

We’ll start with Brazil, now a non-death penalty country. Brazilian executioners were often slaves. They were given no choice of whether they wielded the axe or rope. Three of them didn’t get to choose whether to receive the axe or rope, either. In 1828 Joao Pablo de Sousa faced his own form of justice, he wasn’t alone. Ten years later ‘Francisco’ met the same end. In 1850 it was the turn of ‘Ananias.’

The trend wasn’t confined to Brazil and neither started nor ended there. Sweden saw two executioners feel the kiss of their own axe. Jorg Volmar went to the block in 1541 while the appropriately-named ‘Styf’ became exactly that in 1854. Ireland’s Dick Bauf, a hangman of considerable experience, found himself ‘scragged’ for theft in Dublin in 1702.

Germany too lost at least one executioner, Frederick Stigler in 1590. Stigler, an assistant executioner himself, found himself facing his boss Franz Schmidt. This particular job saw Stigler, one of Schmidt’s more prominent assistants, taking far too prominent a role for his liking. One mighty swing of Schmidt’s sword solved the problem. Stigler became less prominent by about twelve inches.

The United States adopted hanging, shooting, lethal gas, electrocution and lethal injection, a veritable smorgasbord of slaughter. In 1905, Ohio State Penitentiary inmate, the appropriately-named Charles Justice, helped his captirs refine their new electric chair. Noticing that the leather straps originally used caused additional burning and that a prisoner’s skin often came away when the straps were removed, Justice proposed replacing them with metal clamps (think of the chair used in ‘The Green Mile’).

Ohio continued using the metal clamps until its last electrocution, that of Donald Reinbolt in 1963. Justice, however, wasn’t around to see his creations in action. Paroled for his assistance (other inmates might have killed him otherwise), he returned to prison in 1911 convicted of murder. His clamps worked as effectively on their inventor as on some 300 other inmates.

Montana’s Henry Plummer also came to the end of his own rope. Plummer, a lawman in the Montana town of Bannick, was also its principal criminal. While carrying a gun and wearing a badge, Plummer also ran the local villains. The ‘Innocents,’ a motley crew of killers and thieves terrorising the area, hid in plain sight behind his tin star. He even installed a town gallows, such was his outward devotion to upholding the laws he so conspicuously ignored.

Eventually, he ignored them a little too conspicuously and locals, finally fed up with his depredations, lynched him. Plummer was denied the dubious distinction of dying on his own gallows, his lynch mob preferring to simply put a rope round his neck and haul him off the ground until he died.

California’s Alfred Wells was an inmate at the notorious San Quentin in 1938 when he was assigned to help install California’s latest wrinkle in supposedly painless, humane execution. Ordered to help install the two-seater gas chamber known as the ‘little green room,’ ‘time machine,’ ‘Big Sleep’ and ‘coughing box,’ Wells finished his grim task. Once he’d finished he declared he hoped it was the closest he’d ever get.

It wasn’t. In 1942 Wells returned to San Quentin, this time to Death Row for a violent crime spree including a couple of murders. On December 3, 1942 he came closer to the gas chamber than he’d intended…

Returning from the gas chamber to the gallows, several of Britain’s executioners have faced the rope or the block. Whether top of the drops of top of the chops, at least six met their end on their own scaffolds. In 1538 the singularly unpleasant ‘Cratwell’ found himself wearing a hempen necktie. Amputee executioner ‘Stump Leg’ found himself entertaining the Tyburn crowd with a nifty ‘Paddington frisk’ in 1556. Scotland’s Alexander Cockburn faced his replacement, a man traditionally nicknamed the ‘Doomster’ by Scottish gallows fans, in 1681.

Perhaps England’s most notorious executioner was ‘Jack Ketch,’ so reviled for his barbaric incompetence that he was fired in 1585 and replaced by assistant Pascha Rose. At least he was until 1686 when Rose, convicted of sheep-stealing, became gallows fruit himself. In the absence of anyone else, the clumsy Ketch found himself back on one end of the rope while Rose danced merrily at the other.His name became synonymous with all British executioners and his infamy has long outlived him.

In 1718 John Price, once reprieved on condition he become a hangman, blotted his copybook with another capital crime and swung from the Triple Tree. In 1785 it was the turn of Thomas Woodham. His execution was the last time an English hangman performed the Tyburn jig.

From top of the drops to top of the chops, we’ll pay a brief visit to La Belle France by way of its dreaded Penal Administration in French Guiana. In 1418, executioner Capeluche was both a brute and a cleaver of heads. He was however, competent enough to have trained his own replacement. That same replacement graduated with honours when Capeluche’s own head had to roll.

A century later it was the turn of Florent Bazard. Having bungled one job too many, much to the disgust and fury of the crowd, they conveyed their displeasure by publicly lynching Bazard near his own scaffold. In 1625 Simon Grandjean met a similar fate, although he dangled beside his wife who was acting as his assistant. Last in France’s trail of terror came Jacques Joseph Durand. Remember the argument that capital punishment is a deterrent to potential murderers? it didn’t seem to deter Durand, guillotined in 1819 for murder.

The executioners in Guiana were volunteers. They were also convicts. Not surprisingly, they were the most hated men in the Penal Administration. Guards and inmates alike hated them for having turned on their fellow prisoners in return for extra privileges. Bad enough that they’d flouted society’s laws and rules, even worse that they then turned on their own kind as well. Being splashed repeatedly with the blood of fellow prisoners,however, doesn’t seem to have tempered their criminal instincts much.

Isidore Hespel (known as ‘the Jackal’) cared not for their scorn. He didn’t care much for the deterrent effect of his own guillotine, either. Sent to Guiana for murder and having killed twice there even before becoming ‘Monsieur de Guiane,’ Hespel’s assistant also graduated with honours when Hespel committed one extra-judicial killing too many in 1921.

Georges Bonfils didn’t fare any better. Having graduated to ‘Monsieur de Guiana’ in 1930 Bonfils too would be shaved by the ‘National Razor. He would be the last of Devil’s Island’s executioners to be executed, although at least two others were murdered by fellow prisoners.

Ironically Albert Pierrepoint, veteran of over 450 executions, was candid about what he called his ‘craft.’ Ending his 1974 memoir ‘Executioner; Pterrepoint’ with open opposition to capital punishment, Pierrepoint was explicit about its alleged deterrent effect:

‘All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that, in what I have done, I have not prevented a single murder.’

Papillon – The Butterfly Pinned..?


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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 received a sentence of life in the penal colonies of French Guiana with an extra ten-year sentence tacked on to it. We know that he actually went to Guiana aboard ‘La Martiniere’ and 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 he was married before his exile to Guiana and married again in Venezuela after his successful escape from the penal colonies. 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 as a safe-cracker. 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?

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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, this too can’t be confirmed. That he killed an informer after being transferred to Royale Island, odd 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, which is 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 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, his status as an ‘Inco’ being enough to persuade other ‘Incos’ to abandon their 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 of the time 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 through the Guiana jungle 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,’

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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, is the existence until 2007 of one Charles Brunier. Charles 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. He also wore a number of tattoos, one of which just happened to be of a large butterfly adorning his chest and the 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 being a fraud and producing much evidence to prove his case. Charriere, infuriated, didn’t try to debate de Villiers’s book, he simply tried to have it banned instead rather than disprove the allegations made. A distinct body of opinion began to coalesce around Charriere being a plagiarist and a fraud, not least the damning opinion of Truman Capote who openly derided him as a liar and a fake.

There’s no denying that Henri Charriere knew how to write, he knew how to tell a story and how to spin a few myths. But as other inmates accused him of stealing their experiences, the official records 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, it’s pretty hard to deny that he was also a professional liar as well.

That said, he was a pretty successful one. Certainly a better author and liar than he was a safe-cracker. And is anybody of reasonable intelligence really so surprised to read a criminal memoir and then find it’s been spun like a DJ’s record collection?

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:

http://www.historyisnowmagazine.com/blog/#.VEbKyPl4q3v