It’s Possible Navy Training Aided in the Incredible Prison Break of Papillon

It’s Possible Navy Training Aided in the Incredible Prison Break of Papillon

Shannon Quinn - September 29, 2018

In 1931, a man named Henri Charrière was given a life sentence for killing a pimp named Roland Le Petit. He claimed that he was innocent, and that the police framed him for a crime he never committed. He was determined to escape prison at any cost. Everyone called Henri Charrière “Papillon”, because of the butterfly tattoo on his chest. Together with thousands of other prisoners, he was transported to the tropical islands of the French Guiana. The French prison guards claimed that escaping the island was impossible.

After years of going in and out of solitary confinement and escaping jail multiple times, he finally left a place known as Devil’s Island, which slowly broke down men and drove them insane. When he was free, he published a book called Papillon all about this experiences as a prisoner, and it exposed the cruelty of the prison system in French Guiana. Two movies have been made based on his autobiography- one in 1978, and a second in 2018.

It’s Possible Navy Training Aided in the Incredible Prison Break of Papillon
Papillon wore a very dapper outfit when he was on trial, and this actually made some people dislike him. Credit:

A Gangster, But Not a Killer

Henri Charrière became an orphan when he was 10 years old, and he was raised by his older sisters. There were very few options for him to have a good life growing up alone in Paris. When he was 17, he enlisted and served two years in the French navy. Like most navy men, he got a lot of tattoos when he was out at sea. He had a butterfly tattooed on his chest, because it symbolized freedom. When he came home, he got married, and he and his wife had a daughter together. Despite trying to live a good life, he found that he was still pulled into the Paris underworld.

In his memoirs, Papillon admitted that he was guilty of being a thief. He was very good at picking locks and breaking into safes. He went by the alias of “Papillon” or “The Butterfly”. He had connections in the underworld, and people knew of him, because he was always polite and dressed like a gentleman, when he was really a thief.

According to a reporter in Paris who did some digging, Henri Charrière was having an affair with a prostitute, and working undercover as a pimp while working as a police informant. He was living a double life of being a very rich man in the underworld, but still got to go home to see his wife and kids. However, this was never included in his autobiography. So there is no telling if this reporter is telling the truth or not.

Apparently, the police did not like him very much, and they were angry that they could not catch the allusive Papillon in a crime. They were jealous that he was handsome, and could afford to wear tailored suits and have the finer things in life. One day, in 1931, he was accused of killing a pimp named Roland Le Petit. When he asked for their proof, they claimed they had “confidential information” that proved he was guilty.

Later, the police got a testimony from a man who put the blame for Roland Le Petit’s death on Papillon, but there was no physical evidence whatsoever. On his day in court, he showed up in a full suit, bowtie, and hair slicked back. His lawyer was exasperated, saying that he should have dressed more modestly in order to win the sympathy of the jury. Even though the only evidence against him was hearsay, the jury gave Papillon a life sentence plus 10 years of hard labor.

Apparently, a life sentence was extremely harsh for killing a pimp in the 1930’s, because deaths of people who worked in the underworld were never treated the same as killing a regular person. In just about every way, Papillon’s incarceration was unfair and unjust. He had to send a telegram to his wife and sister letting them know that he was going to jail. They wrote back, but there was nothing they could do. At first, he spent some time in a prison in Caen, France, before being transferred to a prison on a tropical island in the French Guiana called St. Laurent du Maroni.

It’s Possible Navy Training Aided in the Incredible Prison Break of Papillon
The prison in St. Laurent is closed now, but people who go on tour can see where Papillon carved his name into his cell floor. Credit: Atlas Obscura

Prisoners were forced to do their hard labor out in the hot son, and many of them collapsed from heat exhaustion. Many men died also of tropical disease or malnutrition. The prison had a rule that even attempting to escape was punishable by 2 years in solitary confinement, where they were locked in a dark cell without any human interaction while only eating soup and bread and sleeping on a wooden plank. The second attempt was 5 years of solitary confinement in the same cell. After that, they would be sent to a place called Devil’s Island to find their own food and live out the rest of their lives in isolation. If a prisoner caused too much trouble in general, he would be sent to the guillotine for a public execution in front of the other guards.

While in prison, Papillon met a man named Louis Dega who was in prison serving a 15-year sentence for the white collar crime of fraud and counterfeiting. His first time counterfeiting, he created five fake savings bonds of 10,000 Francs each, and cashed it in for 50,000 francs. With inflation, this would have been worth roughly $700,000 by today’s standards. Soon enough, he ran a full-fledged printing operation, and hired a team of accomplices. Dega insulted the wife of one of his employees who had gotten arrested. This employee decided to turn Dega into the police as part of a plea deal.

Louis Dega managed to smuggle thousands of francs into prison with him. He planned to use this money to bribe the guards and live a more comfortable life. But it only made him a target in the eyes of the other prisoners. They wanted to kill him and take his money for themselves. Henri Charriere offered to protect Dega in exchange for the money he needed to escape.

Dega and Papillon became best friends. Even though Dega did not have a life sentence, and he could have just behaved himself and waited to return to France after 15 years, he decided that he wanted to escape the prison, too, and start a new life in South America.

It’s Possible Navy Training Aided in the Incredible Prison Break of Papillon
Only two people ever escaped from Devil’s Island. Credit:

The Escape

Perhaps the only way Papillon was actually able to pull off his escape is that he never gave up trying, no matter how many obstacles came in his way. He treated his escape like it was a fact that would definitely happen. There was no “maybe”. His only options were to escape, or die trying. In total, Papillon tried escaping prison 9 different times.

Three years into his sentence, he built a makeshift boat together with other prisoners, and managed to get to the nearby Pigeon Island, which was a leper colony. He then moved on to another island off the Gulf of Maracaibo where he lived with tribal people who collected pearls for several years. He had not just one- but two wives in the tribe, and they were sisters. They had children together, and lived a very happy and peaceful existence.

However, he eventually decided it was time to move on and rejoin civilization. He used the pearls he collected while living with the tribe. He was caught, and brought back to prison. The guards weren’t taking any chances, and put him in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island. The island had steep cliffs without any port where it would be possible to launch a boat. The waves were strong, and would carry anything crashing towards the cliffs. They were so confident that no one would ever escape Devil’s Island, there were not any guards living there to watch over the prisoners.

It’s Possible Navy Training Aided in the Incredible Prison Break of Papillon
Papillon demonstrating how he floating on top of a bag of coconuts to escape Devil’s Island. Credit:

Papillon stared at the ocean every single day, trying to figure out a way to escape. It’s very possible that his past Navy training is what helped him figure out a solution to the problem. He realized that every seventh wave was bigger than the rest, and was strong enough to carry him out to sea. Together with a fellow convict named Sylvain, they jumped off the cliff with their bags of coconuts, and floated to the mainland of Venezuela. Unfortunately, Sylvain tried to stand up as soon as the water was shallow enough for him to do so. He got stuck in mud that was thick like quicksand, and the waves came crashing over him. He drowned only a few hundred feet from the shore. After seeing this, Papillon stayed on his floatation device until he was safely on land. Even though he had so many friends who tried to escape with him over the years, he was the only one who managed to actually pull it off.


It’s Possible Navy Training Aided in the Incredible Prison Break of Papillon
Henri Charriere in 1969, only 4 years before he passed away. Credit:

Life After Prison

Papillon moved to Venezuela, where he tried to live as an honest man. At the time, Caracas, Venezuela was a popular city for European and American business people to stay in South America, so he had plenty of people to talk to, even while learning how to speak fluent Spanish. He got married, became a Venezuelan citizen, and wrote his book. He pumped gas, and also worked as a gold prospector. He eventually saved up enough money to open a nightclub.

He published his memoir in 1969, and it sold 700,000 copies in just the first few weeks. After the popularity of his biography, he wrote a second book called Banco: The Future Adventures of Papillon. In 1970, the French government pardoned him for his crimes, an he was finally able to go back and visit his home country without fear of being arrested.

It’s Possible Navy Training Aided in the Incredible Prison Break of Papillon
Color photo of Henri Charriere’s butterfly tattoo on his chest after he escaped prison. Credit:

Just a few years later, in 1973, Henri Charriere died at 66 years old. He only got to live a few years enjoying the wealth he earned from the success of his book, and the acknowledgement that he truly was innocent. That same year, they were filming a Hollywood movie about his life starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Sadly, he never got to see the film. In 2018, a second movie called Papillon was made to tell the story, starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Papillon. Henri Charrière. 1970.

Prison Breaks- Papillon The True Story Documentary. YouTube

Inside the Brutal French Guiana Prison That Inspired ‘Papillon’. Karin-Marijke Vis. Atlas Obscura. 2016.

Henri Charriere. William DeLong. AllThatIsInteresting. 2018.

Henri Charriere, Author of Papillon. Burton Lindheim. New York Times. 1973.

Banco: The Future Adventures of Papillon. Henri Charriere. 1991.