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

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Professor Ross Marvin – Murder At The North Pole..?


 Ross Marvin, one of history's more unusual murder victims..?

Ross Marvin, one of history’s more unusual murder victims..?

 Well, we’ll problably never know and that’s what makes this case so interesting. A distinguished Professor, two Inuit helpers, the first successful expedition to the North Pole and Admiral Robert Peary, one of America’s most famous explorers. Throw in the frozen wasteland of the Arctic Circle and that the murder (if it was a murder) occurred in an area not within any legal jurisdiction and you end up with more questions than answers. What really happened? Did Marvin go insane under the strains of Polar exploration? Did his Inuit helpers have to kill him to save themselves? Was it a murder or simply self-defence?

Our tale begins in 1908, when Admiral Peary led his eighth attempt to reach the North Pole. In late-1908 the party left for Greenland with Peary in command and Marvin acting as his personal secretary and in charge of training the team in basic survival techniques such as sledge maintenance and repair and how best to build shelters. Marvin was a resolute, determined and brave soul, physically fit and highly educated with degrees in physics and meteorology as well as being a qualified civil engineer. He was the type who actively sought out challenging, hazardous environments. Peary,himself no shrinking violet, took a liking to Marvin immediately and also saw his valuable skills. 

 Admiral Peary, leader of the 1908 Polar expedition.

Admiral Peary, leader of the 1908 Polar expedition.

 Peary broke his team up into seven small parties. In total there would be 28 sledges pulled by 148 huskies and the party would be accompanied by 19 Inuit helpers. Two of these would find themselves taking a very rare place in criminal history.  Six groups were to support Peary’s team in their attempt to reach the North Pole. They would travel by different routes, each dropping off supply caches as they went for Peary’s team to collect as they moved towards their destination. Between September, 1908 and February, 1909 they trained hard for the mission and departed as soon as conditions made an attempt feasible. Marvin and two Inuits, Kudlooktoo and Inukitsoq, made up the sixth of the seven groups which departed. Inukitsoq and Kudlooktoo would return. Marvin would never be seen or heard of again.

But what exactly happened? Peary’s team reached the North Pole on April 6, 1090 and sent a message on their return from the Pole dated September 6, 1909:

‘Stars and Stripes nailed to the North Pole – Peary.’

Initially, the two Inuit helpers arrived at the rendezvous site where Peary’s men were celebrating their success. Peary’s sense of achievement and glory was thoroughly ruined by their report that Marvin had fallen through a patch of thin ice and, unable to rescue him, they had to leave him where he was and return to the rendezvous without him. As Peary put it:

“It killed all joy I had felt. It was indeed a bitter blow to our success.” 

The expedition erected a memorial to their fallen member, reading:

‘In memory of Ross Marvin of Cornell University. Aged 34. Drowned April 10, 1909, fifty-five miles off Cape Columbia, returning from 86 degrees 38 minutes northern latitude.’

It would be seventeen years before the truth (or a well-concocted lie) would come out. Danish missionary Jens Olsen was preaching at Karnah in 1926 and his prayer meetings were well-attended. One of them saw Inuksutoq and Kudlooktoo attend and, when Olsen asked if anybody in the crowd wanted to confess their sins, Kudlooktoo stunned all concerned by standing up and saying:

“Ross Marvin did not die because he drowned, but because I shot him.” 

According to the two Inuits, Marvin’s personality had become progressively more irrational and disturbed as the expedition wore on. He became increasingly foul-tempered, aggressive, verbally abusive and his behaviour deteriorated to the point where he emptied Inukutsoq’s possessions from the sled and attempted to leave him out on the Arctic tundra with no way to get back to the start point which would have meant certain death. One of them stated:

“It was not at all our good Marvin. He was a different man from the one we had come to know.” 

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Having tried to ditch one of his helpers, Marvin proceeded on with Kudlooktoo in tow and they were caught up by Inukutsoq and they stopped to rest. Marvin also refused to allow Kudlooktoo to share his igloo, which would almost certainly have been fatal., before telling him that he would also not have any food. During questioning by Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, Kudlooktoo said he’d asked for his rifle to shoot a seal and instead shot his employer before turning the gun on his fellow Inuit and threatening him with summary execution if he informed anybody of what Kudlooktoo had done. Both men, fearing ‘white man’s justice’, had managed to keep silent for seventeen years before one of them felt a need to unburden himself.

What actually happened is unclear. We only have the word of the two survivors as to why Marvin was killed. On the other hand, it isn’t unknown for explorers to lose their minds when confronted with extreme hardship and discomfort for extended periods. What confused things even more was that, at the time, the area wasn’t part of any legal jurisdiction. In the absence of any nationality, the area was effectively exempt from the rule of law until it was finally claimed by Denmark in 1921, some years after the killing happened. With no legal system in place at the time, there could be no trial which left the Inuits, regardless of whether they committed a cold-blooded murder or acted in self-defence, free to continue their lives without any further action being taken.

A Professor, a distinguished explorer and Admiral, two Inuits, the North Pole and a killing, certainly one of the most curious (and frustratingly odd) events in criminal history.

The Strange Case Of Leroy Henry


 Leroy Henry was condemned only days before the Normandy landings began. His case was a headache Eisenhower didn't need.

Leroy Henry was condemned only days before the Normandy landings began. His case was a headache Eisenhower didn’t need.

The strange case of Leroy Henry attracts me for two reasons. One is that I like to look at the unusual. Even if posting on a widely-known and common story then I prefer one with a twist. It helps keep things interesting. Leroy Henry’s case was very interesting. Private Henry was one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who flooded the UK in preparation for Operation Overlord, the liberation of Europe. He arrived in 1943 and was assigned to the 3914 Quartermaster Gas Supply Company delivering fuel to various US Army units. He was also black and so had to endure both the racial segregation in the Army at the time and no small amount of racial prejudice, particularly from his fellow Americans. He was based in Somerset, near Bristol and it was at Somerset’s Shepton Mallet Prison that he nearly, but not quite, kept an unjustified date with the hangman.

The summer of 1944 was, for obvious reasons, a rather busy time for Americans and their British hosts. Few people knew when or where the forthcoming invasion would happen, but it was no secret that sooner or later it would. Private Henry, like most young soldiers abroad, liked to spend his time off relaxing. A few drinks, a dance or a movie and maybe some time with a woman. There’s nothing unusual about that, or about the fact that he was apparently paying for her time. But Leroy Henry was a black man in a segregated US Army from a country with a long-established history of keeping people like him in what many whites thought was their place. In the South lynchings still occurred, a black defendant stood a far higher chance of conviction (especially if the injured party was white) and, if convicted of a capital crime, was much more likely to face execution. Leroy Henry was black, came from Missouri (not the most racist state in the Union, but no sinecure, either) and was on trial for the alleged rape of a 33-year old British woman. A white 33-year old British woman. Rape in the US Army was (and still is) a capital crime under Section 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and defendants at the time would be tried for their lives under the US Army Articles of War of June 4, 1920. A black defendant, an institutionally racist Army and a white alleged victim didn’t look promising for the defence. And it wasn’t.

Henry was court-martialled at a US Army camp near the town of Warminster. Under the Visiting Forces Act, Parliament had agreed that the US Army could handle its own criminal cases unless the Army waived that right and handed the case over to the British police and legal system. They didn’t. The court-martial was presided over by a Colonel, prosecuted by a Captain Cullison and Henry was defended by a Major Drew. The jury consisted eight officers, seven white and one black. 

Henry’s alleged victim (who shall remain nameless) alleged that he had appeared at her home in the village of Combe Down late one night lost, asking for directions to the city of Bristol. She also claimed her husband was present and that he had no objections when she offered to go out with Henry and personally direct him to the road for Bristol. Having left the house, she alleged that Henry had assaulted her, threatened her with a knife, thrown her over a wall and then raped her at knife-point. There were, however, some serious doubts about her having made a genuine allegation. Inquiries revealed that she had been, at least, a part-time prostitute, offering sexual favours to soldiers in return for money, food and goods often entirely unavailable to civilians due to strict wartime rationing. That in itself isn’t proof of perjury, not in the slightest, but more doubts were to follow. Chief among them being that, while medical examination did reveal evidence of sexual activity, it didn’t reveal any trace whatsoever of physical injury, signs of a struggle or indeed any evidence of physical mistreatment whatsoever. Inquiries also revealed that Leroy Henry and his alleged victim were known to each other and had been for some time.

Leroy Henry, not surprisingly gave a different version of events. He admitted sleeping with the alleged victim, but claimed he had agreed to pay her for doing so. According to Henry he had been prepared to pay her £1 (worth far more then that today) but that she had demanded twice that. According to Henry, he told her he didn’t have £2 and was prepared to pay half that, at which point she flew into a rage and threatened to report him to the Army for raping her.

So, the jury had two different stories. One came from a black defendant without any supporting eyewitnesses who may or may not have been lying to save himself. The other came from a white woman whose character would have been considered dubious by the standards of the time and who claimed to have been victim of a violent attack while having suffered no physical injuries. The jury chose to believe the alleged victim. Private Leroy Henry was found guilty and condemned to death by hanging, sentence to be carried out at Shepton Mallet Prison, using a standard British gallows operated by British executioners. Henry was shipped to Shepton Mallet, a British civilian prison loaned to the US Army by the British authorities for the duration of the war, with an armed escort and under sentence of death. 

147 US servicemen were executed for crimes committed during the Second World War, 70 of whom died in Europe. All were convicted of rape and/or murder. All were either hanged or shot, shooting being the preferred choice for purely military offences such as desertion or mutiny, with the exception of the US Army’s sole execution for desertion during World War II, the widely-known case of Private Eddie Slovik.. Having been convicted of a capital crime involving a civilian, Leroy Henry would hang unless a Board of Review rejected the sentence or a General signed a commutation. Under the circumstances, neither a sympathetic Board of Review or equally sympathetic General were especially likely prospects. 

 The then-new gallows chamber at Shepton Mallet Prison. Leroy Henry was lucky to avoid his date with the hangman.

The then-new gallows chamber at Shepton Mallet Prison. Leroy Henry was lucky to avoid his date with the hangman.

Shepton Mallet had become the US Army’s princpal military prison for the ‘European Theater of Operations’ (ETO). It wasn’t the only place in Europe where American soldiers were condemned and executed, but it was one of the more regular spots for eithet a firing squad or a hanging. At Shepton Mallet firing squads were conducted at 8am. There were two prisoners shot at dawn. Sixteen were hanged in the newly-constructed gallows room, built to British specifications and operated by British hangmen. Hangings were usually performed at 1am. Sixteen men were hanged at Shepton Mallet while two more were shot. Of those hanged, nine had been convicted of murder, six of rape and three of both. Six of them were executed standing side-by-side in three double hangings, a British gallows being designed to hang two inmates at once if needed. The average age of those executed was twenty-one years old. No officers were executed, they comprised seventeen Privates and one Corporal. The principal executioner was Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by his son Albert, Herbert Morris, Steve Wade and Alexander Riley. Albert did perform three himself, but Thomas pulled the lever most often. 

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Lodged in the specially-built ‘Condemned Cell’ at Shepton Mallet, things looked very bleak indeed for Leroy Henry. At least they did until the intervention of a local tradesman, a local dignitary and 33,000 local people. Jack Allen was the local baker who started the petition. Appalled by the quality of incriminating evidence (more the rather striking lack thereof) he began to collect signatures. This wasn’t unusual in cases involving British condemned inmates and was seldom successful. In Leroy Henry’s case it was, especially when in the nearby spa town of Bath Alderman and local Magistrate Sam Day added his voice and signature to the chorus of disapproval. What resembled a case of ‘Jim Crow Justice’ now became a political and diplomatic football.

Campaigning proceeded quickly and snowballed equally fast. Faced with a petition of 33,000 names, wide local outcry, highly-connected locals like Sam Day and finally the attention of the national press, General (and future President) Dwight D Eisenhower swiftly brought matters to a head. Not only did he refuse to confirm the death sentence, he also threw out the entire case. Private Leroy Henry was now free to return to his unit without a stain on his record. It’s unusual that so high-ranking a figure as ‘Ike’ would personally involve himself in a routine court-martial, or that he would take such decisive and far-reaching action. It’s especially indicative of the pressure placed on him behind the scenes as Henry was condemned only a few days before June 6, 1944 when, for obvious reasons, this was an extra headache on top of the D Day landings that he really didn’t need.

So, justice was served after all, albeit in highly convoluted fashion.with an unexpected guest appearance from General Eisenhower… 

Ronnie Biggs – Master Criminal..?


Ronald Biggs

Today we’ve got an unusual double anniversary involving a well-known, but curious, character, Ronnie Biggs. Biggs helped carry out the Great Train Robbery on August 8, 1963, 38 years ago today. August 8, 1963 was also his 34th birthday.. A lot of people also persist in thinking that he was some sort of master criminal who set up and led the whole thing. He wasn’t, by a very long shot. He was a very minor figure in the ‘Crime of the Century’ and not in any way a criminal big-shot.

Bruce Reynolds, the real mastermind behind the 'Crime of the Century.'
Bruce Reynolds, the real mastermind behind the ‘Crime of the Century.’

It was actually Bruce Reynolds who planned and masterminded the robbery. It was Reynolds who agreed to let Biggs, a small-time thief and robber of no particular notoriety, join the gang because Biggs said he could recruit a retired train driver. He could, it was just that the retired train driver couldn’t actually drive that type of train which meant that Jack Mills (who’d already been coshed with a steel bar) had to be dragged into the driver’s cab and forced to move the train instead.

 Bridego Bridge just after the robbery.

Bridego Bridge just after the robbery.

As far as the robbery itself goes, the rest is history. The gang stole 120 mailbags containing nearly three million pounds (worth around forty-six million in today’s currency) and split the loot at their hideout, Leatherslade Farm. Biggs himself took a share of £147,000 (worth around 1.6 million pounds today). If the accomplice assigned to burn the farm to the ground and destroy any incriminating evidence had actually done so, then the gang would have had a far better chance of not being caught. He didn’t, and they were. Along with many other members including Bruce Reynolds, Biggs received thirty years. He was sent to Wandsworth to disappear into obscurity as just a mugshot and a convict number, but didn’t quite follow the rules. After fifteen months at Wandsworth (known to British inmates as the ‘Hate Factory’) Biggs escaped.

 Not what you'd call hiding from the forces of law and order.

Not what you’d call hiding from the forces of law and order.

 

Between 1965 and 2001 Biggs was a fugitive. First in Australia (reporters found him before the police) and then Brazil by way of Panama (reporters found him in Brazil as well, also before the British police). Once he’d fathered a child in Brazil and as Brazil had no formal extradition treaty with the UK, Biggs was effectively free to taunt the British authorities from afar and taunt them he did. The robbery had made him a little famous, his escape made him very and his repeatedly flaunting himself in the media made him internationally-known, not just to the police. He collaborated on a popular jazz album in 1977. He was barred from working and lived under a curfew under Brazilian law as a known felon, so started entertaining tourist parties with accounts of the robbery at his home. Around that time he also started marketing merchandise, T shirts, coffee mugs, cups and so on, all over his adopted home of Rio de Janeiro. 1978 would see even more outrageous excesses.

In 1978 he collaborated with notorious punk rockers the Sex Pistols, appearing in their film ‘The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle’ and providing vocals on two song, one being ‘No-one is Innocent’ which had the delightful alternate title of ‘Cosh the Driver’ a crude reference to Jack Mills. He also provided vocals on the equally-delightful ‘Belsen Was A Gas’ and managed to be photographed for the album cover as well. Scotland Yard were unlikely to forget him and he seems determined to ensure that they couldn’t even if they’d wanted to. Especially when ‘No-One is Innocent’ reached Number Seven in the UK Singles Chart in July, 1978. For a man on the run he seems to have spent a lot of it standing out very visibly while flicking two fingers at the British authorities and saying ‘Catch me if you can.’ In 1978 a group of British ex-soldiers did. They kidnapped him to try and claim the reward.

They didn’t return him to the UK and they didn’t get their reward, either. Suffering mechanical problems their boat was forced into Barbados. Barbados didn’t have an extradition treaty with the UK and they don’t aid and abet kidnappers either. Biggs was simply returned to Brazil and took full advantage of his latest escape from the law. He gave Independent Television News exclusive acces to him and to cover his return to Brazil (in exchange for a very large fee) and made sure the British authorities knew they hadn’t got their man. It was another two-fingered salute to the system..

In 2001, he’d finally had enough. He wanted to come home to die. He was arrested as soon as he arrived and wasn’t released until 2009 on compassionate grounds (he was dying). He finally died in December 2013 and, on January 3, 2014, he was cremated. But he couldn’t resist one last dig at the authorities he’d confounded and infuriated for so long. His coffin had two flags on it, one British and the other Brazilian. The Brazilian flag largely hid the British one from view, a final dig at British justice for pursuing him so relentlessly and for so long. His coffin had a guard of honour, composed of Hell’s Angels. And, in the rear window of the hearse where it couldn’t be seen by anyone looking on, one last message for British officialdom.

A floral wreath showing two raised fingers.

Biggs was a small-time villain who lucked into a big-time robbery. He didn’t even perform his role in the robbery very well, having recruited an engine driver who couldn’t actually drive the engine.. But one thing he was extraordinarily good at was playing the celebrity villain. He managed to parlay a walk-on part in a major robbery into lasting fame simply by escaping from prison and evading extradition for nearly 40 years. He was, in reality, a small-timer when he was an active criminal, but as a celebrity villain he was immensely successful.