He was sentenced to eight more years in solitary confinement.
Henri Charriere was born at Ardeche, France, on 16 November 1906. In 1923 he joined the French navy for his military service and served for two years. On demob he became a criminal and was nicknamed Papillon, because he had tattoos of butterflies on his chest.
On 26 October 1931 he was sentenced to hard labour for life in the penal colony of French Guiana for the murder of pimp Roland le Petit, a crime he denied committing. Charriere was sent to St Laurent-du-Maroni prison. Just over two years later, on 29 November 1933, he escaped from the hospital at St Laurent with two fellow cons, Clousiot and Maturette. As they escaped, the residents of a leper colony, a British family and several others helped them.
They made it to Colombia but poor weather stopped them leaving and they were caught and imprisoned again in French Guiana in 1934. The three men were sentenced to two years’ solitary confinement — nicknamed the “Devourer of Men” — as punishment. They were released on 26 June 1936 but Clousiot was broken by the ordeal and died a few days later.
Determined to escape again, Charriere plan was foiled and he murdered an inmate who informed on him. He was sentenced to eight more years in solitary confinement but was released after 19 months. Charriere next feigned madness and when he “recovered” he asked to be transferred to the seemingly inescapable Devil’s Island. Charriere decided to escape by throwing himself into the sea and using a bag of coconuts as a raft. He studied the waves and noted that the seventh wave was stronger and bigger than the rest and might be enough to push him away from Devil’s Island.
Charriere persuaded a prisoner called Sylvain to accompany him and they jumped off a cliff with their bags of coconuts. For four days and three nights they drifted until they spotted land. Sylvain let go off his bag and was pulled under by quicksand, just 300 m (300 yd) from shore. Charriere allowed the tide to take him to the shore.
Devil’s Island, French Guiana
Charriere travelled to Georgetown and then on to Venezuela, where he was jailed near El Dorado. Finally on 18 October 1945 he was granted his freedom. He stayed in the country and became a celebrity chef. He published his autobiography in 1969 and Steve McQueen took the lead role when it was filmed in 1973.
Henri Charriere’s book sold more than a million copies in France alone. He died of throat cancer in Madrid on 29 July 1973.