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.

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IDENTIFIED: ‘An unidentified man is strapped into Sing Sing’s electric chair.’


For my 100th post, I’m going to offer you something special, something a little different from the usual fare. The story of this ‘unidentified man’ at the moment of his death.

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True crime buffs and historians will have seen this particular image many, many times. Taken by photographer William van der Weyde, it’s invariably captioned as ‘An unidentified man is strapped into Sing Sing Prison’s electric chair, circa 1900.’

It was taken at Sing Sing, but it wasn’t taken in 1900. That ‘unidentified man’ can now be given a name and a story. So here it is.

The photo was part of a series published the Royal Magazine in 1898. The article describes the original Sing Sing death house, not the one readers might be more familiar with today. That wasn’t opened until 1922 and the second death house didn’t open until 1915. This is the set-up as it was in the beginning.

Sing’s Sing’s first was a quadruple on July 7, 1891. That day Harris Smiler, James Slocum, Joseph Wood and Shibaya Jugiro paid for their crimes. The last was Eddie Lee Mays on August 15, 1963. Between them, the three death houses would claim 614 of New York’s 695 electrocutions.

The ‘unidentified man’ is actually murderer Arthur Mayhew, who walked his last mile on March 12, 1897. Mayhew, convicted of murder-robbery on the testimony of accomplice John Wayne, was the 20th inmate electrocuted at Sing Sing. His crime was unremarkable as murders go, clubbing 68-year old shopkeeper William Powell on Fulton Street. His execution would also have been unexceptional, saving that he hasn’t been properly identified in over a century. Wayne, who received a 15-year sentence and so avoided execution, later retracted his testimony before reverting to blaming Mayhew.

Convicted and condemned, Mayhew found himself awaiting execution for a year. In that time Carl Feigenbaum, Louis Hermann and Charles Pustalka were taken from their cells and executed. Given the original layout of Sing Sing’s pre-death house era, Mayhew would have heard every single detail of their deaths.

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As you can see, the death cells were separated from the death chamber itself by only a single door. The condemned wouldn’t actually see anything, white sheets being draped in front of their cells just before an execution, but they could hear absolutely everything.

They could hear another prisoner being led away, hear the door open and close, hear their last words (if they had any), the clunk of the switch being thrown and the hum of flowing electricity. As a final torture, they could hear the autopsy being performed, New York State law mandating an autopsy immediately after an execution. The autopsy room at Sing Sing was next door to the death chamber for convenience.

The convenience of prison staff, of course, not prison inmates. They didn’t find the clunk of the switch, the dull hum of electricity and the shrill whine of a bone saw the slightest bit convenient. In fact, it had a nasty (though unsurprising) tendency to drive them insane. When Sing Sing set its record on August 7, 1912 by electrocuting seven inmates one after another, those awaiting death created havoc. So did those whose dates were still approaching.

They were spared quite as much suffering when it was Arthur Mayhew’s turn. Mayhew, originally one of two executions scheduled that day, would have heard the other prisoner being told his sentence had been commuted and he was to be reassigned into Sing’s Sing’s general population.

With this last, most uplifting thought in his mind, Arthur Mayhew would die alone and, until now, unidentified.

His executioner, the world’s very first ‘State Electrician’ remained as close to anonymous as possible, though by his own choice. Edwin Davis was man fearful of being identified. The public knew his name and only a rough idea of what he looked like. He would journey to Sing Sing discreetly, having arranged with a railroad company  for its train to pick him up and drop him off at a spot between stations before and after an execution. He permitted no photographs and once lambasted assistant Robert Elliott (later New York’s third State Electrician) for once using his name while ordering dinner.

The layout of Sing Sing’s first death chamber was designed so official witnesses and reporters wouldn’t even see him do his deadly work. As you can see from the image below, the man in the background on the left (sometimes incorrectly identified as Davis) was actually puling a cord, not the switch. The cord was connected to Davis’s hand as he stood in the closed-off booth directly behind the chair. One pull told him to throw the switch, a second pull told him to cut the power so doctors could make their checks. If the prisoner was still alive, the cord was pulled again to order as many shocks as were needed.

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Mayhew needed only the standard two jolts before dying, one to kill him and another to make absolutely sure. He was certified dead little over a minute after the cord was pulled and Davis threw the switch. As he was led into the chamber he clutched a crucifix, a fact confirmed by press reports published on March 13, the day after he died.

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As he was being strapped down he uttered his final words;

“Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”

His end, at least, was mercifully brief. Though not so brief there wasn’t time for another picture:

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As Mayhew is listed by most sources as ‘unidentified,’ the first photograph of an electrocution in progress is commonly held to be that of Ruth Snyder, executed at Sing Sing in 1928. The image is widely considered one of the most important and distinctive in the history of journalism and is still used in some journalism courses for teaching purposes. It made journalistic history at the time.

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Snyder was illicitly photographed by reporter Tom Howard just after the current was turned on, using a hidden camera concealed in his trouser leg. Given that Mayhew is specifically named in the archived article in the Royal Magazine (published in 1898) and that Sing Sing records and contemporary news reports list Mayhew as having been executed on March 12, 1897, it reasonable to say that these images are of Mayhew and that the world’s first electrocution photographs were in fact taken some thirty years earlier than commonly thought.

The image also has its place in popular culture. It’s easily found online and provided the inspiration for the James Cagney film ‘Picture Snatcher.’ Curiously, while Cagney played a newspaper photographer who illicitly photographed a woman in the electric chair, probably the most famous scene of his entire career is at the end of classic ‘Angels with Dirty faces’ in which Cagney (playing gangster ‘Rocky Sullivan’) has to be dragged kicking and screaming into Sing Sing’s chair. Cagney himself never clarified whether his character was actually panicking or was feigning fear to benefit the ‘Dead End Kids,’ preferring the audience to decide for themselves.

I somehow doubt Arthur Mayhew, who always protested his innocence, would have appreciated his singular place in the chronicles of crime. Or his place as a small-time pop culture icon, either.