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Henri-Antoine CHARRIÈRE






A.K.A.: "Papillon"
Classification: Homicide
Characteristics: Escape
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: March 26, 1930
Date of arrest: April 7, 1930
Date of birth: November 16, 1906
Victim profile: A pimp, Roland le Petit
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Paris, France
Status: Sentenced to hard labour for life on October 26, 1931. Released on October 18, 1945. Died in Madrid (Spain) on July 29, 1973

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Henri Charrière (November 16, 1906 - July 29, 1973) was a convicted felon chiefly known as the author of Papillon, a memoir of his incarceration in a penal colony on French Guiana.

Early life and conviction

Charrière was born in Ardèche, France. He had two older sisters. His mother died in 1917, when Henri was nearly 11 years old, fourteen years before his conviction. In 1923, at the age of seventeen, he enlisted in the French Navy, and served for two years. After leaving the Navy, Charrière became a member of the Paris underworld, and got married to a French woman and had a daughter.

He was convicted of the murder of a pimp, Roland le Petit, a charge which he strenuously claimed was false. He was sentenced to hard labour for life on October 26, 1931. He had to leave behind his family, his pregnant wife and his daughter.

After a brief imprisonment at the transit prison of Beaulieu in Caen, France, he was transported to the prison of St-Laurent-du-Maroni on the Maroni river, in the penal settlement of mainland French Guiana.

First escape

On 29 November 1933, Charrière successfully escaped from the infirmary at Saint Laurent with two companions, Clousiot and Maturette, sailing along the coast via Trinidad and Curaçao to Riohacha, Colombia. They received help along the way from a group of lepers (also convicts) on Pigeon Island, a compassionate British family and many others. During this time, three additional escapees joined the trio on their journey to Colombia.

Poor weather prevented them from leaving the Colombian coast and they were all recaptured and imprisoned. Charrière managed to escape with the aid of a fellow prisoner and, after several days and nights of putting distance between themselves and the prison, they went their separate ways; Charrière would soon come upon the region of Guajira. Here he spent several months living in a native village of pearl divers. He had a relationship with a young woman and her sister and they later became his wives and the mothers of his children. It was here that he spent several rapturous months of "the purest form of love and beauty." Yet he was driven to correct the injustice he experienced so he eventually left and headed westward.

Once again, Charrière was captured and imprisoned at Santa Marta, and later transferred to Barranquilla, where he was unexpectedly reunited with Clousiot and Maturette. In spite of numerous escape attempts (one of which resulted in him breaking the arches of his feet; he was to be flat-footed ever after), Charrière was unable to free himself from these prisons and was extradited back to French Guiana in 1934 along with his two comrades.

Charrière and his fellow escapees were sentenced to two years in solitary confinement, nicknamed the "Devourer of Men" by the island convicts, on St. Joseph (one of the Îles du Salut (Islands of Salvation), which comprise Royale, St. Joseph, and Devil's Island) as punishment for this escape. He and his fellow escapees were released on 26 June 1936 with Clousiot dying 'a few days later'. Subsequent to his release, Charrière was interned on the island of Royale.

Unsuccessful attempts

Charrière was sentenced to another eight years in solitary confinement for another escape attempt and the subsequent murder of a fellow convict who had foiled his plan by acting as an informer. However, he was released after only nineteen months, after risking his life in an attempt to save a drowning little girl named Lissette, in shark infested waters. He was released for "medical reasons," which he attributed to this rescue attempt.

Next, Charrière feigned madness (having determined typical symptoms showed by those diagnosed with such madness) in an attempt to escape from the island's mental hospital, which was leniently guarded. It was an ideal time to make an escape from the mental hospital because after the start of World War II punishment for escape attempts was now elevated to death on the charges of treason. The rationale was that anyone attempting escape was trying to defect to the enemy. A mad person was viewed as someone who was not in control of his own actions, thereby making it impossible to punish him for anything — including escaping.

This escape attempt failed, and Charrière's companion drowned.

Escape from Devil's Island

After "regaining his sanity," Charrière requested to be transferred to Devil's Island. Authorities were happy to oblige because Devil's Island was said to be inescapable. During his sentence on Devil's Island he decided that all of his past escape attempts were too complex. His new simplified plan would be to fling himself into the ocean from a cliff using a bag of coconuts as his raft.

In preliminary preparation for his escape, Charrière observed that the waves rolled in a particular succession. Every seventh wave appeared much larger and stronger than the others, and the seventh wave might be enough to push him far away from the island and into the deep ocean. After several experiments with weighted down sacks of coconuts, he named the seventh wave Lisette after the little girl he risked his life to save.

Charrière convinced Sylvain, a fellow convict, to accompany him on his escape. He and Sylvain spent four days and three nights adrift in the sea, floating on coconut-filled bags and surviving on grated coconut pulp. Sylvain prematurely left his raft and sank into the mud-flat's quicksands, disappearing as the waves washed over his softening trap; he was a mere three hundred yards from the mainland. Charrière waited until the waves pushed his raft to solid shoreline.

Having reached the mainland, Charrière came in contact with an elder Chinese known as Cuic Cuic, made known to him before he escaped Devil's Island by Cuic Cuic's brother, Chang. Charrière joined Cuic Cuic in his refuge, and together (also in the company of a one-armed friend) they escaped by boat to Georgetown.

Even though he could have lived there as a free man, he and five others later continued by sea to Venezuela, where they were captured and imprisoned in El Dorado Prison (a small gold mining town that was named after the mythical gold city of El Dorado), where he was shocked to see the way prisoners were treated, as he felt, in a manner similar to the way the French treated convicts in the galleys of the 18th and 19th centuries. Charrière was finally freed on October 18, 1945.

Subsequent career

Charrière settled in Venezuela, becoming officially domiciled there from July 3, 1944. He was a resident there from 1945.

In 1952, he married a Venezuelan woman named Rita. He had children with her and opened a restaurant in Caracas.

He finally returned to France when he visited Paris in conjunction with the publication of his account of his experiences, Papillon, in 1969. The book sold over 1,000,000 copies in France. Prompting a French minister to attribute "the moral decline of France" to mini-skirts and Papillon.

Papillon was first published in the United Kingdom in 1970, in a translation by the novelist Patrick O'Brian.

Charrière played the part of a jewel thief in a 1970 film called The Butterfly Affair.

He also wrote a sequel to Papillon, Banco, in which he describes his life subsequent to his release from prison.

In 1973, his book Papillon was made into a film Papillon directed by Franklin Schaffner, in which the actor Steve McQueen takes the role of 'Papillon'. Dalton Trumbo was the screenwriter, and Charrière himself acted as consultant on location. An interview with Henri Charrière is included in the documentary, Magnificent Rebel, which describes the making of the film.

He died in Madrid, Spain, from throat cancer.


His 1970 best-selling book, Papillon, details his alleged numerous escapes, attempted escapes, adventures and recaptures from his imprisonment in 1932 up to his final escape to Venezuela.The book's title is Charrière's nickname, derived from a butterfly tattoo on his chest (papillon being French for butterfly). The veracity of his account has been questioned, but he always maintained that, excepting minor lapses in memory, it was true.

Modern researchers, however, believe that Charrière got much of his story material from other inmates, and see the work as more fictionalized than a true autobiography. In 2005, a then 104-year-old man in Paris, Charles Brunier, claimed to be the real Papillon.

Modern critics tend to agree that Charrière's depictions included events that happened to others, and that Brunier was at the prison at the same time.



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