Two Devils in the City of Angels
By Victoria DaileyMarch 9, 2014
The following article is from the new LARB Quarterly Journal: Winter 2014 issue. The Journal is now available in bookstores and at Amazon.com, Indiebound and B&N.com, and is also a premium via the LARB Membership Program.
“Ah, Gentlemen, you are come into a tomb!”
— J.P. Ramel, Narrative of the Deportation to Cayenne, 1799
“‘Like California?’ she laughed at the idea that anyone might not like it. ‘Why, it’s a paradise on earth!’”
— Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust, 1939
THE EXTREMES OF POSTMORTEM GEOGRAPHY were obviously on the minds of 18th-century colonists when they named one settlement for heaven and another for hell: Los Angeles and Devil’s Island.
El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles — The Village of the Queen of the Angels — was a tiny, remote outpost of the Spanish Empire founded in 1781 to supply various military forts in the vicinity with cattle and farm products. Felipe de Neve, the Spanish governor of the Californias, was responsible for the name — a big one, fanciful even, for an emerging adobe village of 44 men, women, and children who had trekked here from Sonora and Sinaloa.
Spanish for 40 years and Mexican for over two decades after 1821, the dusty pueblo on the banks of the Los Angeles River became American in 1848 — it was part of the territory of California that the United States acquired after the Mexican War. Its population had grown to around 2,000, and with its new allegiance to the United States and the American belief in progress, Los Angeles began an unprecedented period of growth. In its first six decades, the City of Angels went from being a frontier outpost at the northern, neglected edge of the crumbling Spanish Empire to an expanding city on the western edge of the thriving American one.
Eighteen years before Los Angeles was founded — in another distant corner of the New World — a different empire bestowed a similarly Christian-inspired name on one of its possessions: Île du Diable, Devil’s Island, so named in 1763. The tiny isle with the infernal name is located nine miles off the coast of French Guiana in South America — one of three coastal islets that were once known as the Triangle Islands. French colonial governor Jean-Baptiste Thibault de Chanvalon renamed them Îles du Salut (Salvation Islands), hoping these specks of land just off the coast were free of the tropical diseases that were decimating the mainland’s colonizers. They didn’t — a better name would have been the Damnation Islands. Chanvalon named the other two islands Île Royale, after the reigning King Louis XV, and St. Joseph, in honor of the saint under whose protection his expedition set out. In choosing the name Île du Diable, Chanvalon not only transcribed the local Kali’na Indians’ name for the rocky, barren islet — they believed it was the home of an evil spirit — but also took note of the hazardous, shark-infested currents and pounding waves that battered the island.
Although the name was apt, Chanvalon would have been astonished that within 35 years, it would prove prophetic — and within 100, it could not have seemed more literal. It would soon become one of the most reviled places on earth — yet for a place so infamous, Devil’s Island is small, just 36 acres. (St. Joseph is slightly larger at 50 acres, while Île Royale is 69 acres.)
It would seem that the City of Angels and the Island of the Devil have only an etymological link, a consequence of 18th century cognomination. But as a result of the French Revolution, a connection was forged that has been, until now, overlooked. Los Angeles became the home of the two most illustrious men to have ever escaped Devil’s Island — Charles De Rudio in the 19th century and René Belbenoit in the 20th —and their stories of war, imprisonment, torture, survival, and eventually, fame in books and film, are so extraordinary as to defy belief. They are the central players in a true adventure that binds these two places, creating a little known, but direct tandem between the idyllic pueblo in Southern California named after heaven, and the horrific French prison colony named after hell.
The Damnation Islands
Although many are familiar with the name “Devil’s Island,” few can locate it, and fewer still are aware of its abject history. It is one of those places that has crept into the popular imagination without having many facts attached to it, like Transylvania, Timbuktu, or Siberia.
Despite being little known, Guiana has a long history. A century after Columbus first visited it in 1498, Sir Walter Raleigh sailed in, convinced that the fabled city of El Dorado was somewhere in the Guianan jungle. Like all the other colonizers mad with dreams of gold, he never found it, but the account of his voyage, published in 1596, was influential. The region was settled, on and off, by various European powers in the 17th century. France won ultimate possession of the eastern section in 1667. The British got the western portion while the Dutch took the middle.
But French colonization of the New World did not go as well as other European overseas conquests, and by the mid-18th century, France, having lost its Canadian territories and part of Louisiana, was left with several Caribbean islands, including Guadeloupe and Martinique, and, a thousand miles to the southeast, Guiana. As a last ditch effort to create a successful mainland colony, the French government encouraged 12,000 of its citizens in 1763 to settle in French Guiana under the leadership of Chanvalon. Within two years, 10,000 of them had perished from yellow fever, dysentery, and other tropical diseases. Chanvalon’s venture has been called “the most abysmal failure, in terms of lives lost, in the annals of American colonization.” ( J. R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires, 2010.) The jungle was unforgiving. The equatorial climate, unvaryingly hot and humid, is accompanied by rainfall of 100 inches per year, making inland farming difficult, while the coastal soil, salty and sulfurous, could not be cultivated. Located between 2 and 6 degrees north latitude, French Guiana is in the Doldrums, a constant threat to ships, and hence, commerce; there were no natural harbors, on top of which the muddy beaches were clogged by mangroves; countless insects, spiders, and snakes made life miserable, if not deadly, for Europeans.
But then, as if Satan himself ordained it, the French Revolution changed French Guiana from a failed agrarian experiment into a laboratory for state-sponsored punishment and brutality. Devil’s Island, true to its name, would become Hell.
By 1792, France was in chaos. The revolutionary movement had become overwhelmed by competing ideologies and the task of crushing its enemies; capital punishment was written into the nation’s new set of laws. Being products of the Enlightenment, the members of the Assembly supported a recent invention to make death less painful and quicker than the traditional methods of drawing-and-quartering or the wheel: the guillotine. It was first tested on April 25, 1792, with a highway robber, and by the end of the revolution, up to 40,000 criminals and enemies of the state had lost their heads to the "national razor." (The guillotine proved efficient; it was in use until 1977.) But this was not the only form of punishment the revolution meted out. In 1793, facing the growing problem of Catholic priests who would not swear loyalty to the revolution, the Assembly passed a law providing for the deportation to French Guiana of those priests and lay brothers who would not swear an oath to maintain liberty and equality. (Their oath was to God.) This banishment to the tropics, which usually resulted in death, albeit a slow one, became known as the “dry guillotine,” and in 1795, the newly developing prison colony in the jungles of Guiana received its first inmates, both priests and enemies of the revolution.
At first, the political prisoners were granted some degree of liberty — they were allowed to live freely in Cayenne, the capital, as did Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois, an actor, publisher and revolutionary legislator who had saved the life of Madame Tussaud. (She had been imprisoned as a royalist for having made wax likenesses of Louis XVI and his family, and was sentenced to the guillotine in 1793. Through the efforts of Collot, who was a member of the ruling Committee of Public Safety, Madame Tussaud was released, able to continue her career as a wax artist.) The freedom to move about the capital was short-lived, and a primitive prison was soon set up along the Sinnamary River about 50 miles west of Cayenne. The settlement at Sinnamary was nothing more than a few huts, a deteriorating church that had been used as a prison for fugitive slaves, and a fort manned by 80 soldiers and guards.
General Jean-Pierre Ramel, despite being a revolutionary war hero, was suspected of royalist views and sentenced to deportation in 1797. He arrived at the Sinnamary prison, along with 14 other political prisoners, in November 1797 and recalled:
It now remains for me to portray the refinement of cruelty with which, even in this prison, our persecutors harassed the miserable remnant of our existence; the insatiable rage of our executioners; the patience and constancy of their victims; the agonies of those of our companions who died in our arms […] Our only food was an allowance of biscuit, a pound of salt meat, and a glass of rum, to correct the extreme bad quality of the water. Sometimes we had bread that we could not eat, because it was full of worms and ants.
The abuse of prisoners thus originated in the colony’s earliest period; it does not come as a surprise that for most of the 1790s, the governor of French Guiana was Nicholas Jeannet, the nephew of Georges Danton, one of the revolution’s seminal figures and a leader during the Reign of Terror. Ramel, in his memoir, theorizes that Jeannet wanted to appear as strong — and brutal — as possible in order to impress his uncle, whom he assumed would remain in power for years to come. He was wrong. Danton was guillotined in April 1794. (Madame Tussaud cast his head in wax.)
Under Jeannet’s regime, which set the precedent for the following ones, prisoners were fed rotten food, and very little of it. Insects and snakes shared their filthy cells that were furnished with nothing but hammocks. Ramel recalled: “No European, perhaps, had ever before been thrown into such a den, in such a climate, there to be given as prey to scorpions, millipedes, gnats, mosquitoes, and many other species of insects, equally numerous, dangerous, and disgusting! We were not even secure from the serpents that frequently crept into the fort.” His description of the surrounding country is equally hair-raising:
All I saw from the ramparts of our prison was a vast, and apparently impenetrable forest. The mournful howlings of tigers that came within musket shot of the fort, the shrill and piercing screams of monkeys, the discordant notes of parrots, and the croaking of venomous toads, of which the fosses and the muddy banks of the river were full, rendered this scene a wilderness of horror.
A “wilderness of horror” indeed. Apart from being nearly starved and forced to live under debilitating conditions, the prisoners also had their speech restricted. They were forbidden to discuss the subject of slavery, and should a prisoner show pity for the African slaves who worked at the prison, he was to be shot instantly. Like slaves, prisoners were often kept in irons, and although slavery had been officially outlawed by the revolution in 1794, the ban was easily ignored through double-talk and various legal maneuvers. Jeannet also confiscated all of the prisoners’ letters, both those they had written and those they received. Subjected to such treatment, prisoners dream only of one thing — escape — and Ramel has the distinction of being among the first to successfully escape from Devil’s Island.
By the spring of 1798, over half of Ramel’s fellow prisoners had died. He, along with a few of the survivors, determined to make a getaway, and with the help of an American sea captain, managed to elude their torturers and flee to neighboring Suriname and from there, to London. Ramel received permission to return to France where he again fought in the army with distinction, becoming a major general. After the defeat of Napoleon and with the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Ramel became a suspect; this time, he was thought to hold revolutionary sympathies and was assassinated by reactionaries in 1815. He had survived Guiana, but not the revolution. His memoir, published in 1799, is the first to document the horrors of the prison colony.
During the revolution, the political culmination of the Enlightenment, the French became so addicted to rationality they attempted to reorganize not just society, but time itself. Completely abandoning the past, the revolutionaries adopted a new calendar based on a decimal system. The new order began when 1792 became Year I. (In imitation of the Roman Republic, the years were written in Roman numerals.) The French jettisoned the past, and dispensing with the Gregorian calendar, arranged the year into a “rational” system based on multiples of 10. Each of the newly named months (Thermidor, Fructidor, Floréal, etc.) was made up of three 10-day weeks. Each day was divided into 10 hours made up of 100 minutes. Each minute had 100 seconds. The entire metric system in use today — meters, centimeters, millimeters, grams, kilograms, and liters — originated in the revolution. While this rational system of weights and measures succeeded, the calendar failed. Who wants to work nine days a week, and not many a man could last for a 100-minute hour, even if he was French. Napoleon ordered a return to the Gregorian system beginning on January 1, 1806, when practicality overcame reason.
French Guiana, where the rational rarely found a home — and where the jungle, like time, proved untamable — faded from the world’s view after its brief notoriety as a prison colony during the revolution. By 1832, the colony’s population was nearly 23,000 — of which 19,000 were slaves. Although the Revolution had abolished slavery during Year II (1794), Napoleon reinstated it in Year X (1802) when, again, the efficient defeated the rational. Napoleon recognized that the country’s sweet tooth could not be satisfied without more sugar, and that more sugar and huge profits were only possible with slave labor. It was only logical. (Slavery was legal in France until 1848.) Yet despite the attempts to successfully cultivate sugar in French Guiana, the colony only produced about 2 percent of France’s supply during the 19th century. It was a difficult place.
By mid-century, Napoleon III faced strong opposition from many sides after he assumed his emperorship; he needed a place to send political enemies and criminals since the prisons and convict hulks that were regularly used to house prisoners were overcrowded. France’s overseas sugar plantations were also suffering from the lack of labor caused by the recent abolition of slavery. The emperor hit upon an ominous solution: reopening and expanding the deteriorating prison settlements in French Guiana, where convicts could be forced to work on plantations, taking the place of slaves. He may have been influenced by the success of the British system of deporting criminals to Australia, which had begun in 1786, but there was one crucial difference: climate. A sentence of deportation to Australia did not usually end in death as it did in French Guiana. In addition, hundreds of thousands of immigrants willingly settled in Australia where they created a successful country. Very few people ever went to French Guiana voluntarily.
However he came up with the idea, Napoleon III took action. On May 11, 1852, the first shipload of 298 convicts reached the jungle colony. By 1870, nearly 20,000 would arrive at that fatal shore, and by the time it was closed in 1953, Devil’s Island had received about 80,000 convicts. Because of the high mortality rate, only a few thousand prisoners were ever detained there at any one time. Escape was virtually impossible. The jungle, with its multitude of problems, was a natural barrier: disease, insects, wild animals, uncrossable rivers, intense heat, and native populations who were paid to capture and return any escapees they might encounter, prevented its use as an escape route. The only other alternative, the Atlantic Ocean, also posed an obstacle — not only were its currents dangerous to the type of small boat or raft a prisoner might obtain, but patrol ships were on constant duty.
As a result, only a handful of men ever escaped from Devil’s Island once it reopened in 1852, and of those, two became illustrious, surviving experiences so extreme that they defy belief. (Papillon, the well-known account of Henri Charrière published in 1970, is now considered to be an amalgamation of stories the author heard while a prisoner on Devil’s Island, not an actual account of his own experiences. Alfred Dreyfus, the island’s other celebrated prisoner, spent the years 1895–1899 there in solitary confinement and was not an escapee.) But there are two men, Charles De Rudio in the 19th century and René Belbenoit in the 20th, who each made the figurative journey from hell to heaven — and the actual one from Devil’s Island to Los Angeles. Their epic stories could not be more metaphoric, not to mention the infinitesimal odds that the colony’s two most renowned escapees would each end up in Los Angeles — two “devils” in the City of Angels.
The First Devil: Charles De Rudio
“The real purpose of the state is to increase by a hundred all the means possible to corrupt its subjects.”
— Marquis de Sade, Juliette
Although the French had reverted back to monarchy, revolutionary movements were springing up all over Europe in the 19th century. In France, Napoleon III was especially loathed by Giuseppe Mazzini and the Italian freedom fighters — the Carbonari — who were seeking to overthrow their Austrian rulers, unite Italy, and overturn the power of the Pope. To appease French Catholics, the emperor had sent troops to Italy in support of the Pope, and enraged by this action, several Italian insurgents hatched a plot to assassinate the emperor. On January 14, 1858, they threw three bombs at the emperor’s carriage as he arrived at the opera in Paris. He escaped with a bloody nose, but eight bystanders were killed, as were several horses, and 142 people were wounded. Unbeknownst to the perpetrators, they had been under police surveillance and were quickly arrested. The would-be assassins included Carbonari members Felice Orsini, Giuseppe Pieri, Antonio Gomez, and lastly, Carlo De Rudio, an Italian nobleman and soldier whose life story is among the 19th century’s most astonishing in a field crowded with incredible biographies.
The life of Charles De Rudio is improbable and remarkable — as thrilling, and in many ways parallel, to the fictional life of Edmond Dantès, the hero of Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. De Rudio was born into an impoverished aristocratic family in the small northern Italian town of Belluno, 50 miles north of Venice and then part of the Austrian Empire.
Becoming a soldier was his only real career choice; he entered the Austrian army as a cadet in 1845. When Italian insurgents stormed the academy where he was in training during the upheavals of 1848, De Rudio refused to fight against his own countrymen and was imprisoned, the first of many incarcerations and the beginning of his decade-long life as a revolutionary.
Released after a short time, he joined the insurgents, was captured, and was again sent to prison — but this time he escaped, ultimately finding his way to Rome in 1849 where he joined Garibaldi’s forces fighting the French army. After numerous skirmishes, brushes with death and prison escapes, De Rudio arrived in Paris in November 1851 just as Louis-Napoleon was staging the coup d’état that resulted in his becoming Emperor Napoleon III. For four days De Rudio fought alongside the losing resistance forces, then escaped to Switzerland. Setting out in a snowstorm, he hiked alone across the Alps into Italy, managing to get to Turin where he had comrades in the ongoing insurgency against the Austrian government. Assigned the task of becoming a spy, he was issued a false passport so that he could travel to various towns in northern Italy to obtain information on troop movements.
In Genoa in early 1853, he was entrusted with carrying 4,000 gold lire to insurgents at Intra on the western shore of Lake Maggiore who were planning to attack Milan. Before the plan could unfold, police, alerted by informants, rushed inside the inn where De Rudio was staying. He jumped out a window, climbed over a garden wall and made it down to the lake, the police in hot pursuit. De Rudio jumped into a rowboat and, at gunpoint, ordered the astonished oarsmen to take him across the lake to Locarno, Switzerland, 20 miles away. Naturally, it was a dark and stormy night, and they had to make for shore before reaching their destination. De Rudio still paid the boatmen, then made his own way to Locarno on foot, where he rejoined the other conspirators. Forced to call off their upcoming attack, they sent De Rudio to Lugano to deliver the gold directly to Mazzini. He completed this task, but was again arrested by Swiss police, and facing a judge, was sentenced to deportation. He was given a choice of going to the United States or England. He chose England, a hotbed of the Carbonari.
De Rudio arrived in London in April 1853 but soon returned to Switzerland where he learned that the Carbonari were going to attack Belluno, his own home town. He then set out alone for Belluno on another arduous trek through the Alps, and upon reaching the town, found an old family friend, a local priest, who informed him that the police, again tipped off, were looking for him. He escaped back into the mountains, then made it to the nearby town of Bolzano, where he saw a printed poster advertising a reward of 6,000 lire for the capture of Carlo De Rudio, dead or alive.
De Rudio fled again, to Zurich and Paris, but ignoring the danger, soon returned to Switzerland to take part in another plot. Betrayed, De Rudio was arrested and spent several months in jail before being brought to court where, for a second time, he was sentenced to deportation. He went back to England and the versatile De Rudio was able to find work in London, both in the chorus of an Italian opera company and on the docks as a laborer. He lodged at the home of an Anglo-Italian couple and began giving Italian lessons to the couple’s niece, Eliza Booth, a teenage girl from Nottingham. De Rudio fell in love with the young girl, and they were married on December 9, 1855. He was just 23, his bride, 14.
After several other adventures, including surviving being stabbed, De Rudio and Eliza moved to Nottingham, where he found work as an Italian teacher and where the young couple celebrated the birth of their son Hercules in 1857. De Rudio soon moved back to London where Carbonari members were devising new plans. Led by Felice Orsini, the plotters decided to assassinate Napoleon III, and they spent the winter of 1857 making bombs and organizing the details of their plan, which they carried out on January 14, 1858. They failed, and all the conspirators were quickly arrested.
The two-day trial ended with a verdict on February 26: death by guillotine for Orsini, Pieri, and De Rudio. For cooperating with the prosecution, Gomez was sentenced to life in prison. News of the assassination attempt and the resulting trial spread around the world, and the name “De Rudio” became both reviled and celebrated, depending on one’s views of emperors.
Eliza De Rudio worked feverishly to gain support for her husband’s appeal. Queen Victoria became involved, as did Empress Eugénie, who had survived the assassination attempt along with her husband. The empress, also the mother of a young son, requested leniency for De Rudio, but appeals to her husband failed. Construction of the guillotine’s platform began on March 11 outside La Roquette prison in northern Paris where the conspirators were being held. The next day, Napoleon III met with his ministers to consider commuting the death sentences in order to appear merciful and boost his reputation with the public. His advisers argued against mercy. However, the Archbishop of Paris suggested a compromise: because he was the only one of the conspirators to ask for mercy, De Rudio could be spared while the other two would be executed. The final decision was up to the emperor.
On March 13, the preparations were complete. Soldiers guarded the area around the prison where thousands of spectators had come to witness the triple execution. As a heavy snow began to fall, Pieri was guillotined. De Rudio was next. As he was brought up to the platform, he made one last request: to smoke his pipe. The request was granted. As he smoked, a messenger suddenly rode up on horseback, dismounted and spoke quickly to the authorities. De Rudio was immediately led back to his cell. Orsini was then led to the guillotine and executed. The messenger had brought the news that Empress Eugénie, at the final hour, was able to convince her husband to spare De Rudio’s life. De Rudio’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison. Had he not requested his pipe, the messenger would have been too late. He spent the following months in prison until October 21, 1858, when he and his co-conspirator Gomez, along with 200 other convicts, boarded a ship bound for the “dry guillotine” of French Guiana: Devil’s Island. A wax likeness of Orsini went on display at Madame Tussaud’s.
Since 1852, when Napoleon III had ordered the resurrection of its Guianese penal colony, the French had built two new mainland prisons, one at Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, on the Maroni River in the western part of the colony; the other at Montagne d’Argent, on the Oyapock River, in the east. There was also a prison in Cayenne, the capital, and the Salvation Islands housed prisoners as well — Île Royale became a general prison and St. Joseph was used for solitary confinement. At first, Devil’s Island was rarely used since it was so inaccessible, but a system of ropes and pulleys was installed connecting it to St. Joseph, only 200 meters away, in order to convey supplies to the island. At the time, Devil’s Island was usually reserved for very sick prisoners where they could easily be isolated and left to die. Later, it became the place to which political prisoners were banished.
The living conditions in the penal colony were brutal. Prisoners were fed very little, and the food was often rotten. They were whipped, chained, and beaten, and were at times put into pits in the blistering sun. The few clothes they were given soon became nothing more than rags, at which point prisoners often worked without any clothing. As if this wasn’t enough, a scheme to inflict extra punishment was enacted into law in 1854. The French passed the law of doublage, which mandated that once, and if, a convict served out his sentence, he was required to remain in the colony for a period of time equal to his sentence, effectively doubling it. Because ex-convicts were not permitted to work once they were freed, they typically had to resort to crime just to stay alive, and, easy prey, they were caught and returned to prison. But if the sentence was eight years or more, the convict was required to remain in the colony for life. It was as if the French government had turned to sadism, enacting scenarios found in the fiction of the Marquis de Sade.
De Rudio and Gomez arrived into this abyss in December 1858 and were sent to the prison at Montagne d’Argent, a particularly swamp-like environment. They were assigned to hard labor felling trees, but in the fetid surroundings, this pursuit was more of a punishment than a purposeful task — very few roads were ever built once the trees were cleared. Of the infamous Route 1, the road connecting Cayenne to St. Laurent, it was said that one convict died for every yard completed — and by the mid-1930s, only 15 miles had been built. (The 220-mile road across the country was finally finished in 2004.)
Not one to stay in prison for long, De Rudio immediately devised an escape plan and got nine other men to join him. At night, they would sneak back into the jungle, where they hollowed out a tree trunk in order to make a large canoe that they planned to sail to Brazil and freedom. They were nearly ready to flee when some of the convicts came down with yellow fever, including all nine members of De Rudio’s crew. Of the 600 prisoners and guards at Montagne d’Argent, only 63 survived the outbreak. One was De Rudio, another was Gomez.
Gomez was then sent to another mainland prison; De Rudio never saw him again. De Rudio was imprisoned on Île Royale, where he learned from other prisoners that although there had been attempts, no one had ever successfully escaped from the islands. Even if a rudimentary boat could be obtained, the sea was too rough, the sharks too numerous, the nearby ships and gunboats too vigilant, not to mention the impossibility of packing food rations, especially considering the near-starvation diet the prisoners were subjected to. And no one had money to bribe the unscrupulous guards. Above all, a skilled navigator would be required. None of these problems phased De Rudio. He immediately set out to find what was needed, and had the luck to know another prisoner, a former vicar convicted of murder, who was hiding 20,000 francs in his bible. The vicar was willing to provide the money to buy food and supplies from corrupt guards in exchange for a spot in the escape boat. Another convict, a former mariner with navigation skills, agreed to join the plot, as did a former tailor, who was able to stitch together enough canvas to make a sail.
It was December 1859. De Rudio and his men were ready to go, but at the last minute, two had to be left behind: the sail maker was sick with a fever, and the vicar, whose bible full of money would have been more valuable to most of his cohorts than his life, couldn’t take the risk. The remaining men carried their provisions to the beach and hid while one of them signaled to some fisherman that he wanted to buy some fish. The convicts then rushed to the boat, overpowered the fishermen, and set off. They were spotted by guards in gunboats, but another conspirator had removed the oars from the boats and so a pursuit was impossible.
With Cousins, the experienced mariner at the helm, the boat headed out to the open sea where the escapees spent the next three days, managing to survive a storm, dense fog and the appearance of a Dutch ship, which ignored them. They hadn’t eaten, only to discover on the third day that their food had been ruined by seawater. Forced to alter their course, they headed for the nearest landfall where they hoped to find food, but upon landing, and before they could find anything to eat, they discovered from some local men that they were in Dutch Guiana. This was an extremely dangerous place to have landed as the Dutch had a policy of sending back escaped convicts to French Guiana, where they faced severe punishment. They jumped back into the boat, still starving but free, hoping to make it to British Guiana where they expected sympathetic treatment. For several more days they continued their voyage until the boat became trapped in a mud shoal during low tide. Cousins ordered the men to jump overboard and lift the boat out of the mud, which they did, holding it above the mud for hours under the scorching sun until the tide came in. They put out to sea once again.
For two days they sailed onwards, hoping to reach British Guiana, when suddenly a ship flying a British flag intercepted them. The ship’s captain inquired who they were and where they had come from — he was more than shocked to learn that this pitiful group of men had traveled nearly a thousand miles in a beat-up fishing dinghy without having eaten. But they were safe, near the port of New Amsterdam in British Guiana. The captain gave them food and water, and revived, the convicts headed into New Amsterdam, where they were met by the governor of the colony who thought they must be survivors of a shipwreck. They were given clean clothes and served a large meal.
Upon learning that the men were escaped convicts, the governor told them that Britain honored asylum seekers and that all they had to do was promise to work. When De Rudio announced who he was and that he was a soldier, the governor reacted in disbelief, stating that Count De Rudio had died of yellow fever while in prison. Newspapers around the world had reported on it, and De Rudio’s celebrity was such that even the Los Angeles Star carried a small, though inaccurate, notice about him in 1860, reporting, “Rudio, one of the accomplices of Orsini in the attempt on the life of Napoleon III, died lately in Brazil, to which country he had escaped from the penal colony of Cayenne.” Even Eliza thought her husband had perished after reading a similar account in an English newspaper.
De Rudio was offered lodging by the town physician who also happened to be a correspondent for the London Times, and on his first evening at the house, De Rudio was told that a French warship had arrived in the port in search of the escaped convicts. The French captain was demanding that the governor surrender De Rudio to him, but the governor refused, stating that the English did not grant extradition for political prisoners — De Rudio was safe for the moment. The other escapees, who all had criminal convictions, boarded a ship bound for Venezuela that same night.
Sympathetic to De Rudio’s plight, the governor and the doctor vowed to help him return to England. The doctor’s job as a correspondent proved extremely helpful — he sent in a false story to the Times reporting that the escapee De Rudio had been massacred by natives while searching for gold. This would deter potential pursuers. The governor then arranged for De Rudio’s passage on an English merchant ship bound for London, and on Christmas Eve, 1859, he embarked, reaching London on February 29, 1860. He went immediately to the London Times to report that he was indeed alive, and then, to the home of a friend, where, in another twist of fate, Eliza arrived within moments, thinking that their friend might have updated news of De Rudio. Instead, she was greeted by him.
De Rudio began giving lectures about his experiences, but they were not well attended and he was forced to take a job in a stone factory. The couple were barely managing, and things looked bleak until De Rudio met again with Mazzini, who urged the fearless young man to go to the United States and fight for the North in the Civil War. His experiences in combat would be an asset, and as he had no others, he left for America, arriving in New York on February 22, 1864.
Mazzini had provided De Rudio with letters of introduction, and so armed, De Rudio visited Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune. Americans generally supported the Risorgimento — the movement to create a unified, democratic Italy — and Greeley must have been impressed by this leading figure in the campaign. He sent letters to various officials to try to get De Rudio a commission in the army, but by this point, late in the war, commissions were difficult to obtain. Instead, De Rudio enlisted as a private in a volunteer infantry regiment, signing in on August 25th, 1864 as Charles De Rudio — he used this Anglicized version of his name for the rest of his life. He saw combat during the siege of Petersburg in Virginia, after which he was able to get a commission as a second lieutenant in the 2nd United States Colored Troops in the fall of 1864. (Commissions were easier to obtain in the newly created regiments of black soldiers.) He joined his regiment in Florida. Eliza and Hercules arrived shortly thereafter.
After the war, De Rudio worked as a civilian clerk, becoming a United States citizen in January 1866. The following year he received his coveted commission, as a second lieutenant in the army, but, as with many events in De Rudio’s life, he faced a setback. It came in the form of a medical examination. The examining doctor stated that De Rudio was disqualified from the army due to a “retraction of the right testicle.” It seems that after all he had been through, De Rudio didn’t have the balls to be an officer in the United States Army.
Perhaps it was a ruse to keep the former revolutionary out of the American military once the war was over. Someone in the military may have learned about De Rudio’s role as a bomb-thrower and wondered if he might try something similar again, especially so soon after Lincoln’s assassination. But De Rudio, whose determination had seen him through worse calamities, did not give up. He consulted his own doctor, who wrote that “there is not the slightest deviation either in the shape, size or direction of the right testicle, which would in the least interfere whether in marching on foot, or horseback, nor in any posture […] and there is not even the slightest probability that it will ever incommode him during the remainder of his life.” A second doctor agreed, and De Rudio requested a reexamination by the army. He passed. And as proof of the viability of his testicles, Eliza gave birth to their daughter Roma Elisabetta two weeks later.
Another daughter, Italia Luigia, was born in 1869. That same year De Rudio was assigned to the newly formed 7th Cavalry stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. The 7th Cavalry’s assignment was to patrol the prairies in order to subdue and, if necessary, fight against native tribes who were attempting to hold onto their ancestral lands. The thousands of settlers migrating west after the civil war, seeking fresh opportunities, claimed the open territory as their own, and they wanted army protection from the people fighting to remain on that land.
De Rudio, used to following orders, was known as a diligent, hardworking soldier. He didn’t drink or gamble and he was a family man. In 1872, Eliza gave birth to a third daughter, America Carlotta, and the following year, the 7th Cavalry was ordered to the Dakota Territory where the Lakota Sioux were attacking both the Northern Pacific Railroad and gold prospectors in the Black Hills.
At the end of 1875, De Rudio was promoted to first lieutenant; Custer assigned him to join a battalion commanded by Major Marcus Reno, one of four battalions under Custer’s command. Custer, who had taken a dislike to the Italian count, purposely kept him out of his own battalion. De Rudio was a popular, soft-spoken raconteur with European manners, and he must have irritated the aggressive and vain Custer whose nicknames included “Iron Butt” and “Hard Ass.” But with De Rudio’s usual luck, Custer’s dislike saved his life. Having escaped the guillotine by seconds and having survived the dry guillotine and the Civil War, De Rudio was about to participate in one of the most notorious battles in American history: The Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand.
In the spring of 1876, after several successful battles in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory, Lakota, Arapaho, and Northern Cheyenne tribes had gathered in eastern Montana near the Little Bighorn River under the leadership of Sitting Bull in order to plan their next move. They were prepared to continue their fight against the army’s attempt to drive them onto reservations and had assembled in large numbers — their encampment has been estimated at upwards of 7,000 men, women, and children.
Custer, planning a three-pronged attack on the encampment, divided the 7th Cavalry into three battalions led by Major Reno, Captain Frederick Benteen, and himself. The attack began during the afternoon of June 25, 1876. Custer had ignored reports about the size of the encampment, and ordered Major Reno, with 175 men, to attack the village from the south, promising support in case of trouble. The attack came as a surprise to the Indians, and many started to flee, but just as his soldiers got close to the camp, Reno ordered his troops to dismount and form a skirmish line. His reasons have never been understood, for had they continued on horseback, the soldiers would surely have been victorious. By dismounting, Reno’s men gave hundreds of Indian warriors time to mount their own horses and begin a vigorous defense — they forced Reno and his troops to retreat. Within an hour, 40 of his men were dead; 37 were missing. In disarray, Reno and the survivors were able to reach a ridge, later called Reno’s Hill, where Benteen and his men joined them. Custer, with his battalion of 215 men, was at vantage point several miles away, and although he had witnessed Reno’s retreat, he was unaware that warriors, many fresh from the battle with Reno, were gathering in a U-shaped line around his position. Surrounded, Custer and his men faced a force too large to combat. They were annihilated in less than an hour.
The other battalions, still at a distance of four miles from Custer, did not know what had happened to Custer and his men. Reno, Benteen and their troops spent the night on the hill where they came under sporadic fire. The next day they engaged in a full battle, gradually gaining the upper hand. Towards sundown, the soldiers observed the Indians moving away towards the mountains, setting fire to the grass behind them to prevent a pursuit. That night, several of the missing men, including De Rudio, made it to Reno’s Hill.
During Reno’s attack, De Rudio and a few men had become separated from their battalion. They were in a wooded area where they were soon discovered and attacked by a band of several hundred Sioux. Taking cover in a thicket, De Rudio came upon a small group of soldiers and two civilian aides, most of whose horses had either been shot or run away. De Rudio took command, ordering the soldiers to make their way back to Reno’s position. He stayed behind with Thomas O’Neill, an army private, and the two civilians. From their hiding place, they witnessed the Lakota women scalp Custer’s fallen soldiers, remove clothing from the corpses and set fire to the woods. They began to make their way back to Reno’s position during the night, only to discover that they had to cross the swollen Little Bighorn River; it was too swift and deep to make a safe crossing. Suddenly, they saw several mounted warriors approaching.
The two civilians, who were on horseback, galloped off while De Rudio and O’Neill ducked into the thick bush for cover where they spent the night. At dawn, they were relieved to see cavalry soldiers across the river and shouted out for help. A barrage of bullets was the response to their cries — the soldiers were actually warriors dressed in the uniforms taken from Custer’s men. They were able to crawl back into the brush, but within minutes, other warriors near their hiding spot approached, and when they were 10 yards away, De Rudio and O’Neill opened fire, killing two. The others withdrew, setting fire to the brush. De Rudio and O’Neill took refuge in a woodpile near the river where they spent another uneasy night. The next day, they were forced to remain hidden as hundreds of Indians marched by. That night, they were at last able to make their way to Reno’s camp. They had survived the Little Bighorn, and on June 29, De Rudio joined the troops who went to inspect Custer’s battlefield. Acting as secretary, De Rudio counted 212 corpses, including Custer’s. It was a week before the nation celebrated its centennial.
De Rudio remained on duty in the Dakota Territory and was promoted to captain in 1882. From 1884 –1886 he was stationed in New York and then served in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and the Arizona Territory until 1895. Suffering from rheumatism, the 64-year-old De Rudio retired from the army, moving to San Diego in 1896. Two years later, the former inmate of Devil’s Island settled in the paradise that was Los Angeles.
In 1898, Los Angeles was a city of nearly 103,000, known for its promising future, prosperous present and romantic past (even though most of the past had recently been invented by civic boosters). Capitalizing on the city’s Spanish and Mexican heritage, which had lasted all of 67 years, urban promoters began to create an exotic image for their City of Angels in the 1890s, inaugurating a flower festival with a Spanish name: the Fiesta de Los Angeles, rechristened La Fiesta de las Flores in 1901. Los Angeles was animated with dreams of caballeros, señoritas, ranchos, and padres. Into this mix an Italian count with his own improbably heroic history of revolutionary activities, prison escapes, and epic battles fit right in. Los Angeles loved Charles De Rudio. After surviving numerous hells, where else could he have gone?
Los Angeles was the dream city of America, unlike any other in the country. Aromatic with the fragrance of orange blossoms from the thousands of orange groves dotting the landscape, as well as from countless domestic gardens filled with roses, geraniums, heliotrope, jasmine, and tuberose, the city was also awash in fanciful attractions and amusements. There was an ostrich farm where ladies could buy the fashionable feathers that adorned their hats. On the shores of the Pacific, Abbot Kinney’s grandly planned and unlikely suburb of Venice attracted both settlers and tourists; it must have astonished De Rudio, who had not seen his homeland in half a century and who had grown up so close to Kinney’s inspiration. After his experiences on Devil’s Island, De Rudio must have looked out at Catalina, Los Angeles’ own offshore island used not as a prison but as a tourist resort, as if seeing a mirage.
Another of the most popular attractions of the time was Mount Lowe, a mountain resort above Pasadena in the San Gabriel Mountains where Thaddeus Lowe had built several hotels and restaurants, including the Alpine Tavern, which, at 5,000 feet, was the highest of the resort’s destinations. De Rudio, who had trekked twice through the Alps and had grown up in their shadow, could only have been amused by yet another Los Angeles version of his past. This irony was further underscored when Carlotta, De Rudio’s youngest daughter, was married in 1903 at the family home on South Figueroa. Her groom, Neal Vickrey, soon became the manager of the Alpine Tavern on Mt. Lowe. De Rudio’s connection to Los Angeles was sublime, and complete.
Below: De Rudio lived on New England Street near downtown Los Angeles in a house much like this one, which is across the street from his house (now demolished.).
Photo taken in September 2012 by Victoria Dailey.
De Rudio spent 12 years in Los Angeles, more time than any other place he had lived since his childhood. His 10 years as a revolutionary were spent throughout Europe; his incarceration in French Guiana lasted a year; and he spent 30 years in the army, moving frequently. In contrast to his experiences elsewhere, De Rudio, in Los Angeles, became a renowned citizen — and a prominent member of the local Italian community. In 1909, the Los Angeles Times published a long article about it:
Many Italian men who have achieved fame in various branches of the world’s work have made their homes in Southern California […] Probably the most notable of these is Maj. Charles C. De Rudio, one of Italy’s greatest patriots, whose name has already been enrolled on the pages of the world’s history.
De Rudio had been promoted to the rank of Major (Retired) in 1904, and his golden wedding anniversary in 1905 merited a long biographical article in the Los Angeles Times. In 1908 he was the guest of honor at a banquet celebrating his achievements, and as reported by the Los Angeles Herald:
The man for whom the banquet was given is one of the most interesting figures of modern times […] He was banished to Devil’s Island, from which be escaped, going to London, England. From there he and his faithful wife […] came to America.
The former “devil,” who had found refuge in a town of angels, died on November 1, 1910. A generation later, another “devil” would take his place.
The Second Devil: René Belbenoit
“The mechanism that directs government cannot be virtuous, because it is impossible to thwart every crime, to protect oneself from every criminal without being criminal too; […] crime is one of the vital mainsprings of government…”
— Marquis de Sade, Juliette
Charles De Rudio’s life could have been the plot for a Dumas novel; René Belbenoit’s life not only made it into several books, it was made into two films. To paraphrase Mallarmé, everything exists to end up in a movie.
Belbenoit’s plucky, gritty past in the Parisian underworld, his heroism during the First World War, and his maladroit theft resulting in his Devil’s Island prison sentence were perfect subjects for film — indeed, the first film based on his life was made while he was still in prison, six years before his successful escape. Starring Ronald Colman, Condemned was released in 1929 and was based on a novelized version of Belbenoit’s life by Blair Niles, an American travel writer and novelist. But because Belbenoit defied all odds and became the most celebrated escapee of Devil’s Island, his life had a second act, and a second movie: Passage to Marseille (1944), starring Humphrey Bogart — not only was it based on Belbenoit’s harrowing escape, but he was also a technical advisor on the film. Belbenoit made the improbable journey from Devil’s Island to Tinseltown, and the one from anonymity to fame: he also became a celebrated author when Dry Guillotine, his memoir of his 15-year struggle with the French penal system, was published in 1938. Not only did it become a bestseller, it also proved to be the catalyst for change that resulted in the closing of Devil’s Island.
René Belbenoit was born in 1899 in Paris. His father was a career conductor in the French railroad system, but his mother, perhaps feeling constrained by the monotony of railroad tracks, abandoned her husband and son just three months after René’s birth to become a tutor for the Russian imperial family. Since his father was usually away, Belbenoit was sent to live with his grandparents, who both died when he was 12. The young Belbenoit then moved in with an uncle who was the manager of a Parisian nightclub in Montmartre on the Place Pigalle, the Café du Rat Mort (the Dead Rat). The Rat Mort was notorious, a meeting place of the haut and demi monde, where artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec had gathered, and where later, The Prince of Wales would go to see Josephine Baker. It was also where petty criminals sought out unsuspecting patrons flush with cash and jewelry, and gamblers gathered to place substantial bets. Belbenoit spent his days earning large tips as a messenger delivering the love letters written by the club’s patrons and doing the various tasks they requested, including delivering large sums of money to the gamblers’ bookmakers.
On one such occasion, Belbenoit was entrusted with a larger than usual sum that was being bet on a dark horse—it was a 20-to-one long shot. Figuring that the gamblers would lose their money, Belbenoit kept the 2,200 francs (about $11,000). The horse won. Unsure of what to do, the young man came clean to his uncle, promising to use his own money to repay the debt over time. His uncle, enraged at this affront to his family’s honor, began to beat him, and Belbenoit fled. Luckily for Belbenoit, it was August 3, 1914, and Germany had just declared war on France. Paris was filled with anxiety and excitement, and the stolen money suddenly receded into the background as preparations for war became paramount. Belbenoit joined the thousands of young men who were enlisting in the army. His age was overlooked by eager recruiters, and he became a diligent soldier, rising to the rank of corporal. After the Armistice he served as a sergeant in Syria but became ill with a fever in 1920. Sent back to France along with 14 other sick soldiers, he was one of only five to survive the outbreak. Shades of De Rudio.
Belbenoit was recuperating in a hospital near Paris when he met a young nurse, serendipitously named Renée. They fell in love and planned to get married. Belbenoit was honorably discharged in 1921 and set about to find work so that he could support his future bride. Unable to find a job in Paris and completely broke, he headed southeast to Besançon where he heard a dishwashing job was available. He was hired, but after 11 days, he realized that his meager salary would barely support him, let alone a wife. Spying a wallet with 4,000 francs in the kitchen where he worked, Belbenoit lifted it and fled to Paris. Outfitted with smart new clothes that he thought would impress his fiancée and with cash in his pocket, he suddenly began to feel better about his future. But after three days, guilt plagued the young veteran. He wrote a note to Renée saying he had to leave town and boarded a train for Nantes, where he thought he would be less noticeable. His hunch was correct, and he immediately found work as a valet for a countess. (A few aristocratic families managed to avoid losing their heads during the Revolution, and subsequent laws permitted them to retain their titles.
After a month working in the countess’ chateau, Belbenoit noticed the red leather case containing the countess’ pearls along with a packet of cash on her dressing table. Not wishing to be a mere servant any longer, he stole those items and beat it back to Paris. He was arrested immediately. Convicted of theft, he was sentenced to eight years of hard labor on Devil’s Island. The law of doublage was still in effect, so even if he survived his eight-year sentence, he would be required to spend the rest of his life in French Guiana — a living death sentence.
Since the French penal system in French Guiana had no interest in rehabilitating its deportees, prisoners were prohibited from basic necessities — they were not allowed books, writing material, or access to clergy. It was all punishment, all the time. Violating the law was, in essence, a crime against reason, which came with vicious, state-sanctioned repercussions.
The punishment rarely fit the crime. The French took their laws seriously, and lawbreakers, at least those without connections or access to a good lawyer, were swiftly removed from society, often banished to an overseas hell where there was no chance of redemption. By removing their “undesirables” and exiling them to a virtual underworld, the French pursued a form of eugenics — they wanted to wipe out the criminal element. Any crime could condemn one to a lifetime of torture.
After a grueling transatlantic voyage during which he was locked in a cage (as were all convicts), Belbenoit arrived in French Guiana on June 23, 1923. He was assigned his prison identification number — 46,635 — meaning he was the forty-six thousandth, six hundred and thirty-fifth condamné to enter the penal colony since 1852.
Because he had served honorably in the war, Belbenoit was at first entitled to receive lighter work assignments than non-veterans — he was sent to a jungle timber camp where he made the straw hats that convicts wore. Most of the rest of the men in his barracks were assigned to clear timber, a miserable fate. Felling hardwood trees with only a hand axe was extremely physically demanding, especially since all prisoners had to exist on starvation rations: half a pint of coffee in the morning; at noon, 26 ounces of bread, a pint of broth (mostly water) and three ounces of beef (most of which was rotten); and in the evening, two ounces of rice. When there was no rice, dry beans or peas were substituted.
Belbenoit plaited straw all morning, after which he was free to wander through the surrounding jungle. During such excursions, he planned his first escape. (The jailers knew that escape via the jungle was virtually impossible and didn’t worry too much about it.) With another prisoner, Belbenoit secretly made a bamboo raft and during an August afternoon, they slid their raft into a tributary of the Maroni River. He wrote in Dry Guillotine, “The immensity of the jungle, the deep solitude, our uneasiness because we were running away, all these things melted together into one long nightmare and filled us with dread.” They were heading for Dutch Guiana, across the river, but the river was wide with strong currents, and they were inexperienced. After a frustrating night spent attempting to reach the Dutch shore, they finally succeeded. A group of Indians spotted the ragged men immediately and took the hapless escapees to a nearby settlement, where they were put in prison. The next day a launch ferried them back to the French side where they were imprisoned at Saint Laurent, the main prison of the colony. Their escape had lasted 39 hours.
Belbenoit discovered that the 40 other men in his blockhouse had made similar attempts at escaping. Locked in cramped quarters and with their legs in irons at night, prisoners had no chance of escaping this stone barracks. The only windows were small, heavily barred openings in the walls 12 feet above the floor. Fetid air, unsanitary conditions (a bucket served as a toilet), bloodthirsty mosquitoes, and brutal guards created hellish conditions for the prisoners as they awaited a “trial” for the crime of escaping. Once tried, the escapees were usually sentenced to solitary confinement on St. Joseph Island for periods ranging from six months to five years. After three attempts, prisoners were reclassified as “incorrigible” and hence, subject to worse treatment. First escape attempts were not punished as harshly as succeeding ones; after waiting for months in this cesspool, Belbenoit was sentenced to 60 days in the blockhouse after which he was sent back to the jungle work camp. He resolved to escape again — this time, by sea.
Back at the camp, Belbenoit soon became ill from the effects of chiggers, the mites that attach to one’s skin, causing intense irritation. If untreated, the rashes become infected, and because his feet were so badly infected, he could no longer stand up. He was sent to the infirmary. After recovering, he was reassigned to the jungle camp, where after just one day, he was bitten by thousands of black ants. Swollen and feverish, Belbenoit returned to the infirmary, where the doctor refused to treat him. He went back to the infirmary every morning for two weeks, and was refused each time. Prison officials were dubious of malingerers, and ultimately, he was punished for trying to evade work — 180 more days in the blockhouse. After completing just over half of this sentence, Belbenoit was pardoned for the remainder — it was Bastille Day and reductions in punishments were occasionally handed out as part of the national festival celebrating liberty, brotherhood, and equality. He also received a new, less harsh work assignment. He became an attendant at the infirmary.
This proved to be a lucky break, for among his tasks was fetching water from a well for the sick inmates. Walking by an orange tree on his way to get the water, Belbenoit filled his buckets not with water but with oranges, which he later sold to inmates for two sous each. Belbenoit, who never lost his street smarts, was able to earn enough money to buy new clothes — his own had turned to rags, and the prison rarely provided new clothes to inmates. Unluckily, a guard soon caught him by the orange tree and demanded the oranges. All kinds of little scams and graft were rampant throughout the colony, as would be expected in such a harsh system. The guard took over the orange business — but told Belbenoit he could gather chestnuts instead. Selling those delicacies, he began to make enough money to buy those things essential to prisoners: tobacco and rum. After a while, he had saved enough to think of another escape. Bribes would be necessary, as would illicitly obtained provisions. Only prisoners with money could hope to escape.
Belbenoit and a group of eight others planned to flee on Christmas Eve, when the guards would be drunk from their holiday rum. The prisoners had hidden a large canoe in the jungle, prepared a water barrel, and packed food rations. They made good on their plan and managed to sail down the Maroni River to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean. They put out to sea and headed west for Venezuela; that country did not always extradite convicts.
Huge waves began to overtake the canoe, the mast was ripped away, the canoe was taking on water, and the man who had claimed to be an experienced navigator had lied: he had no marine skills whatsoever. What was left of their food was ruined, and the men were forced to head for shore in circumstances that echoed those of De Rudio 65 years earlier. They would have to continue on foot. Because he had jeopardized the entire escape by lying, the false navigator was told to leave and fend for himself. He walked off into the jungle — but returned the next morning, whereupon the largest and strongest of the men killed him. His body was thrown into the ocean. Such was the punishment for one who had risked the lives of his comrades.
The men marched all day in flooded mangrove marshes, smearing mud on their bodies in an attempt to ward off the ravenous mosquitoes. After several days, exhausted, they realized they were lost and could not continue. They had very little food and no possibility of obtaining any. Knowing that they were still close to French Guiana, they decided to take their chances and return to more familiar ground, hoping to hide out along the Maroni River until a new escape could be planned.
During their march back, two of the men lagged behind, and later, only one caught up to the group, explaining that the other man had disappeared. The disappeared man’s body was soon found — he had been murdered by his starving companion for his can of condensed milk. The murderer was then punished for his crime: he was killed by another of the group. By this time, the remaining six men were famished. They agreed to roast and eat the dead man’s foot. Then, finding the foot edible, they butchered the rest of his body and ate that too. Belbenoit, alarmed by this turn to cannibalism, went along with the group’s decision rather than risk their anger and possible repercussions. He had only been a hapless thief, but the others were murderers and hardened criminals; Belbenoit had learned how to survive among them.
After two more days, they reached an Indian village on the banks of the Maroni River where they were given dried fish and bananas. They began to doze after filling their empty stomachs, but were soon awakened by the sounds of men approaching. It was the Dutch police, alerted by the Indians that convicts had arrived in their village. The escape had failed, and they were soon back in the blockhouse at Saint Laurent.
One of Belbenoit’s accomplices soon died of gangrene, a complication from the infections that developed in his feet during the escape attempt. The others remained in the fetid jail. Belbenoit became extremely ill and unable to eat. He was near death when he was finally allowed to go to the hospital. After recuperating, he had to face a trial for his second escape attempt. All prisoners who had broken any rules had to appear before the Tribunal Maritime Spécial, the presiding court for convicts. The trials were routine and the punishments regulated. For such crimes as stealing, fighting, injuring, verbal insults, and refusal to work, the punishment was one month to five extra years in prison. For more serious crimes such as murder or striking a guard, the punishment was six months to five years in solitary confinement — or the death penalty. (There was a guillotine on Île Royale in the prison courtyard.) For attempting to escape, the punishment was one to five years in solitary confinement for those with a life sentence, and from six months to three years in solitary for all others. Partly because of his poor health and his military service, Belbenoit received a sentence of six months in a labor camp along with the dreaded classification of “incorrigible.”
He had been in French Guiana for two years.
Belbenoit was sent to the very worst of the colony’s prison camps, Camp Charvein. Deep in the jungle, it was a malarial swamp. The convicts were forced to work all day long chopping down trees where they were allowed to wear only straw hats — they had no clothes — and this time Belbenoit was assigned to fell trees, not make hats. He filed a protest against his being deemed “incorrigible” — the rules stated that it took three escape attempts to be so classified, and since Belbenoit had only two, a new prison director accepted his petition. His request was granted within two months, and he was sent from the labor camp to the solitary confinement prison on St. Joseph Island. This might not seem like an improvement, but it was, for spending countless hours alone in a dank cell was better than having to work endless hours unclothed in the malarial jungle under a burning sun. St. Joseph would be Belbenoit’s first experience of the Salvation Islands. “Life on the Islands […] was entirely different from the routine of the mainland prisons and camps. On the Islands, there is no work: On them, there is only punishment and waiting, great suffering and great restlessness.”
Before Belbenoit could be sent into solitary confinement, he had to be treated at the hospital on Île Royale for his high fever and incessant vomiting. Belbenoit, at five feet, five inches tall and with a jockey’s build, was naturally slight, but his weight nevertheless dropped to a skeletal 80 pounds. He was near death when a newly arrived doctor was able to treat his symptoms and save his life. He remained in the hospital for nearly six months, the term of his sentence, and he was allowed to leave the hospital without going to St. Joseph. Instead, he entered the Crimson Barrack on Île Royale.
The Crimson Barrack (La Case Rouge), so named for its bloody reputation, was the most dangerous in the entire penal colony; only the most violent criminals were sent there. Between 40 and 60 men were locked in a barrack 40 yards long by 6 yards wide. They slept in hammocks. Gambling and sex, the only diversions, often resulted in fights, stabbings, and murders. With these looming threats, a prisoner kept his money, tobacco, and contraband in a “plan,” a metal suppository. Paid informers kept the commander of the prison up to date on any surreptitious schemes. No one could be trusted.
Belbenoit, tired of wearing rags, wrote to the head warden about his lack of clothing, and finally received a change of clothes. He also requested an office job to fight the monotony of island prison life. He was assigned a bookkeeping job keeping track of the prison’s food supply. This job afforded him unheard of liberties, like access to pen and paper, and the ability to walk freely from his barracks to his job. As long as he returned to his barracks by 9 p.m., he was left alone.
One day a guard offered him a job as a tutor to his 16-year-old daughter who was soon to leave for school in Cayenne, but before she left, her father wanted her to have extra lessons. Belbenoit, who had a flair for writing and drawing, accepted. He was 27. They began an affair, meeting after sunset. Late one night, after overhearing a couple whispering in the shadows near the barracks, the guard caught sight of his daughter running home, and discovered that Belbenoit was the last man to enter the barracks. The next day, Belbenoit was sent to St. Joseph. “The Island of St. Joseph! The loathsome, the cursed and detestable! It is a place of punishment and repression unparalleled on earth for inflicting pain and slow death. It is here that the convict suffers most.”
The three solitary confinement units on St. Joseph were built of cement, each with 48 cells. Along the roof ran an iron walkway where guards patrolled night and day. Each cell had an iron grill as a roof, making it possible for guards to watch down on everything going on inside the cell, and above that was a tin corrugated roof that blocked out the sunlight and some of the rain. Each cell, 12 by 9 feet, with 9-foot-high walls, was furnished with only a wooden bench and a bucket. Prisoners were allowed outside one hour a day. “The rest of the day he lives in a dim light; from dark to dawn — blackness and silence. His is alive in a tomb.”
There were no books, no writing material, and nothing to do. Many prisoners went insane. Belbenoit was sentenced to 90 days in solitary. He had some tobacco and matches in his “plan,” along with a few francs. He was able to bribe a guard to bring him some coffee and bananas. He spent his time pacing, repeating his steps over and over — prisoners racked up thousands of such miles. By standing on his bench, he could just reach the bars above the cell to do pull-ups. A guard caught him exercising, and he was sentenced to 45 extra days. He couldn’t take it, he needed to get out. With his last francs, he bribed a guard to bring him a small amount of sulphuric acid from the infirmary. By breathing the fumes, he became sick, coughing severely enough to be sent to the hospital on Île Royale.
Belbenoit was able to complete his sentence in the hospital, and in February 1927, he was sent back to Saint Laurent on the mainland where he began another job as a bookkeeper. He started planning his next escape. Belbenoit learned that an American couple was visiting the prison colony and that they were taking photographs. Figuring that they were from a newspaper, he wondered if they might be interested in some of his prison experiences; he had been able to write them down on the scraps of paper he had salvaged from his desk job.
The couple, Robert and Blair Niles, were travel writers; they paid Belbenoit 100 francs for his notes. This was an enormous sum for a convict, and the next day, Mrs. Niles gave him 100 more for answering her questions. Over several days, these visits continued, until the Nileses were set to leave. Belbenoit saw the chance for an escape. With his newly earned money, he bought fresh clothes and tried to meet up with Mrs. Niles on her way to the departing ship in the hopes that she would help him, but the plan failed when Belbenoit was spotted by policemen. He was sent back to the Crimson Barrack, but he was able, by paying off a guard, to send more of his accounts to Mrs. Niles in New York. Based on Belbenoit’s stories, she published her best-selling novel Condemned to Devil’s Island in 1928; the film based on it, simply titled Condemned, was an early “talkie” and it came out the following year, premiering in Hollywood at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on December 5, 1929. The film was immediately attacked for being inauthentic. No one could believe that such a brutal place existed.
Belbenoit was able to continue writing in secret, sending a manuscript detailing the horrors of prison to the governor of the colony. As a result, during an inspection tour of Île Royale, the governor asked to meet with Belbenoit, and promised that if Belbenoit could go three months without any infractions, he would lift his “incorrigible” classification and send him from the islands to the mainland.
Belbenoit complied, and in November 1927, he was transported to Cayenne, his first time in the capital. “To see Cayenne is to see the depths of human degeneration…Today, ruined, French Guiana is the camping ground of futility.” Nevertheless, all convicts hoped to be in the Cayenne prison as it was the least abusive in the colony, and convicts were permitted to work, albeit as slave labor, for local residents. They were also allowed to walk through the town on their way back to their barracks after completing their assignments.
A few months after he arrived in Cayenne, in February 1928, Belbenoit received a letter from Blair Niles advising him to serve out the remaining 18 months of his sentence without attempting to escape. But because of his eight-year sentence and the law of doublage, he would have to remain in the colony even if he was released, so he planned another escape, this time, via Brazil. With the money he had earned from Mrs. Niles, he bought new clothes, and importantly, a forged Brazilian passport along with papers proving he was not a convict, as well as a boat ticket to Saint Georges on the Brazilian border. Slipping away from his work gang, Belbenoit changed clothes and boarded the ship under his forged identity, Gabriel Ormières. (Ormières was the man who sold him the papers and himself an ex-convict.) Just as the boat was about to depart, a gendarme rushed up the gangplank, and Belbenoit, fearing trouble, walked off the ship and headed down the pier towards town, figuring he could slip back into the barracks. The gendarme caught up with him, demanding his papers. They appeared to be in order, except for one thing: the gendarme realized that the man in front of him could not be Gabriel Ormières — he had arrested him the night before. He ordered Belbenoit to accompany him to the police station to sort things out. It happened that Ormières, drunk from the rum he had purchased with his profits from the forged papers, had insulted the gendarme and was thrown in jail. Reading the passenger list, the gendarme saw Ormières’s name and thought he was attempting to leave the colony, which was prohibited. Had Ormières not insulted the guard, Belbenoit would have sailed off to Brazil. Instead, his best chance of escaping came to a quick end, and with it, the certainty of extreme punishment for the attempt.
In November 1928, Belbenoit came before the court to learn his sentence. He received six months of solitary on St. Joseph, a much lighter punishment than he was expecting. He vowed to behave in an exemplary manner. After a few weeks, the commandant asked to speak with Belbenoit in his office on Île Royale. He had heard about Belbenoit’s writing and wanted to read it. Having already sent it off to the governor, Belbenoit said he could re-write it, and the commandant ordered him to begin work at once. Paper and pen would be provided to him in his cell on St. Joseph. Belbenoit began to write, and in a short time, he was ordered to return to Cayenne where he was called into the governor’s office. The governor had taken an interest in Belbenoit’s work and was a more progressive official than had ever been in charge of the colony; he was interested in reform. Belbenoit had 10 months left of his sentence, and the governor offered him a deal: if Belbenoit promised not to try to escape, he could work on a boat that was mapping the coast. He agreed, and when several other convicts on the boat spotted a chance to escape, Belbenoit refused, honoring his promise.
For this, he was rewarded with a new and interesting job, that of cataloguing and organizing the colonial archives. They were in disarray as no one had ever bothered to put them in order— French Guiana once again defied Enlightenment rationality. The task of organizing and preserving France’s historical archives had been decreed by the Revolutionary government in the 1790s when the Archives Nationales was founded, but the sensibility of such a plan never made it to the chaos that was French Guiana. For Belbenoit, this was a plum job, a chance to read over the entire history of the colony and gather extensive information for his planned exposé.
Near the end of his sentence, Belbenoit was asked by the governor what he planned to do once he was released. He replied honestly, saying that he would try to escape. The governor surprised him by offering to issue Belbenoit a passport so that he could leave the colony for one year in order to earn enough money to set himself up as an ex-convict upon his return. No such thing had ever been done, and Belbenoit could not believe that at last, his nightmare might cease.
But suddenly, he was removed from his job in the archives and given a new task, as a bookkeeper at the barracks. Others in the penal administration feared that with his access to the colony’s records, Belbenoit would contact the writers he knew in the United States and that France’s reputation would suffer. Although he was angry about losing his job, the position as bookkeeper had its advantages, for he could see which guards were siphoning off money; as a result, they gave Belbenoit a great deal of latitude. He spent his last days as a convict in relative calm, and finally, the day of his liberation arrived.
On September 21, 1930, Belbenoit was released from prison, given 85 francs (about $4), and told he would have to remain in French Guiana for the rest of his life — and that for 10 years, he would not be permitted within the city limits of Cayenne. He went immediately to see the governor.
True to his word, the governor signed a decree permitting Belbenoit to leave the colony for one year. He would be free to work and save up some money, and upon the advice of Mrs. Niles, he decided to go to Panama. Within a week, he was off, the only liberated prisoner ever allowed to leave Devil’s Island.
“I walked down the gangplank at Cristobal Colon, at the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal, and hastened to the French quarter where I secured a cheap room. Then I went out job hunting.” For eight months, Belbenoit worked as a gardener at a hospital. His year of freedom was nearly over, and he wrote to the governor requesting that he be granted permanent freedom, only to learn that the governor had left the colony after his two-year term, replaced by another. Time was running out. He was due back on November 12, 1931.
Belbenoit decided to take a chance and appeal his case in France. He booked passage and arrived back in France on November 2. He had broken the law, and was immediately placed under arrest, spending two months in jail in Le Havre. He was then transferred to the prison at Île de Ré, the embarkation point for deported convicts, where he spent eight months in solitary confinement. He was then shipped back to French Guiana, arriving on October 7, 1932. It was as if he never left. He vowed that he would escape for good or die trying.
He was sentenced to solitary confinement on the islands, where he forced himself to endure the brutal treatment. “Day after day I fought there alone just to keep from rotting, rotting in mind and body.” Finally, on November 3, 1934, he was freed, allowed to return to the mainland where he would begin his life as a “free convict."
Since he was barred from working, there was very little for him to do; he would have to rely on his own ingenuity. There were only two legitimate ways for a libéré to survive: catching butterflies in the jungle and selling them to dealers, or making handcrafted articles for tourists that were sold in French colonial hotels. Butterflies and trinkets paid very little, and only a meager living could be made, at best.
Nevertheless, Belbenoit began catching butterflies and managed to eke out an existence for a time, but he needed cash to fund another escape, and he had very little of it. A bit of luck soon came his way. One day he spotted a tourist, easily distinguished by his fresh clothes and pith helmet. The man asked if Belbenoit spoke English, and thinking he could earn a tip, he said he did even though his English was rudimentary. The man offered $5 to be taken to a convict named Belbenoit, the one Blair Niles had written about. Astonished, Belbenoit took the money and announced, “I am Belbenoit!” The man was a movie producer doing research. He paid Belbenoit $200 for information and left the next day. It was enough money to plan his fifth escape.
He needed to find at least five other libérés in order to have enough men to sail a boat, and one had to have navigational skills. He had in mind a route that would take them to Trinidad, a British colony and hence, safe — and from there, to Miami and ultimately, New York. He found five ex-convicts, among them, two robbers, a pimp, and two murderers. One of them had been a sailor and knew enough about navigation to guide them across the Caribbean.
They were able to buy a cayuco, an Indian canoe, from a local Chinese merchant, but when they went to retrieve it, it was only half the size they had agreed upon, and the provisions they had ordered were similarly halved. Nevertheless, they set off from Saint Laurent during the night of May 2, 1935. “Men in their right senses would never have gone out on the merciless Caribbean Sea in such a craft — but we were driven by a quite insane desire to put Devil’s Island and the Penal Colony behind us—to seek freedom at any price.” They were far out at sea by the next day, and they began rationing their food. A storm arose, but they were able to sail through it. By the third night, cramped in the small canoe, the men began to suffer the effects of sun, salt, and irritation with each other. When their keg of fresh water was ruined by sea water, they began to worry. “The fourth night was increasingly cruel. The fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth nights were nightmares, we became like six beasts. Eight more days we lived — how I do not know.” Two of his companions began to doubt that they would ever reach Trinidad and argued that they should head back to the mainland. Belbenoit drew a small pistol, aiming it at them while insisting they stay their course. A fight broke out, and one of the “mutineers” was tied up so that his movements would not capsize the boat. At that moment, they spied land. They had reached Trinidad. The quarrelling stopped. Belbenoit threw his pistol into the sea.
It had taken 14 days to travel over 700 miles. The exhausted men landed on a beach where some fisherman gave them coconuts to quench their thirst and hunger, after which they reached a deserted hut where they found food and slept. Belbenoit advised the group that they should contact the authorities immediately, and after some resistance, the men followed his plan. They reached a small town and went immediately to the police station, where they were relieved to learn that not only would they not be deported, they would be fed and transported to Port of Spain, the capital. Upon reaching that city, they were taken to the headquarters of the Salvation Army, where they would stay until their future could be decided. One of the men obtained a forged Venezuelan passport and booked passage back to Europe; he had 4,000 francs in his “plan.” The others contacted friends who might send them money, but they waited in vain.
While waiting, news of their arrival had spread, and several reporters and photographers went to see them. Among them was William LaVarre, an American explorer and adventurer who had made a fortune by discovering diamonds in British Guiana. LaVarre took an interest in Belbenoit, offering to safeguard his manuscript, but Belbenoit refused. (LaVarre was able to take photographs of the men which ultimately appeared in an article about their escape in Life Magazine on April 4, 1938.) Finally, the authorities in Trinidad offered to give the men a boat and provisions so that they could continue their voyage to the United States.
They set out for Miami on June 10, 1935, knowing that at all costs, they had to avoid the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Hoping to reach Grenada, they became lost and spent six days sailing without knowing where they were. Six more days passed without sight of land. On the 13th day, they spotted a ship, and signaling to it, the ship approached them. It was German, and upon speaking to the captain, Belbenoit learned that they were 200 miles north of the Dutch colony of Curaçao, and that rather than sailing northwest, they had headed almost due west. There was very little chance of reaching Miami. The captain offered to take the men to Curaçao, but they refused, fearing that the Dutch would deport them back to French Guiana. Given supplies by the captain, they decided instead to head west to Panama, where, in the American zone, they would be safe. Sixteen days later they spotted land, and in attempting to land on the beach, their boat was smashed by the waves. Soggy but safe, they made their way onto land, where a group of Indians armed with spears met them. The Indians stole all their goods, including blankets, lamps, food, and clothing. The only thing Belbenoit was able to save was his manuscript — all his notes from Devil’s Island. He had secreted it in an oilcloth pack, and it was of no interest to the Indians. The only other thing they were able to salvage was a machete undetected by the Indians. They had landed not in Panama, but on the northernmost point of Colombia, Punta Gallinas.
Naked and hungry, they were able to catch and eat a few fish, lizards, and frogs. Finally, on the third day, they came to a hut where they found some women’s clothing. “Soon we all wore petticoats. With our bearded faces we were an astounding sight. But, clothed at last, we found that the insects didn’t bother us so much.”
Spending the night in an empty hut, the men were awakened by soldiers who burst out laughing upon seeing the rough-looking men in dresses. They were taken to the town of Barranquilla, given some old military uniforms, and told they would be turned over to the French Consul. Their tribulations had been in vain. They were put in jail, awaiting the next French vessel that would return them to Devil’s Island. It was due in a month.
News of the arrival of Devil’s Island convicts spread, and a newspaper editor came to visit Belbenoit. He wanted articles for his paper, and offered to pay Belbenoit for them. Not only that, he arranged for Belbenoit to escape. Bribing guards wasn’t difficult. That night, Belbenoit heard the lock on his cell door open, and he made a dash for freedom into the streets of Barranquilla. He knew he had to reach Panama as soon as possible, and was able to hitch a ride to Cartagena. He didn’t have enough money to pay someone to smuggle him on board a ship bound for Panama, so he decided to go on foot. But before he set out, he needed to obtain some cash, and he remembered that another escapee, Charlot Gautier, was living in the area, making a living catching and selling Blue Morpho butterflies, among the largest and most beautiful in the world. Gautier was more than surprised when Belbenoit knocked on his door, but he offered to help him, and after four months, Belbenoit had earned $100, enough to get him to Panama.
Before leaving, he read a newspaper account of his Barranquilla escape, learning that his comrades had all been deported back to Devil’s Island, including the one with the forged Venezuelan passport, who had tried to enter France, was arrested, and like the others, sent back to the dry guillotine. Belbenoit alone had escaped.
Now all he had to do was walk to the Canal Zone through the Darién Gap, one of the most impenetrable jungles in the world; it remains the only break in the 16,000-mile long Pan American Highway. Very few white people have ever successfully traversed its swamps, sinkholes, jungles, steep mountains, and rushing rivers. The first post-colonial expedition through its confounding density was sponsored by the Smithsonian in 1924-25, and several adventurers have made the journey on foot over the decades, but such treks are rare and of course, the participants had ample provisions.
Belbenoit crossed the jungle alone, and with nothing more than a few supplies hastily stuffed into a backpack.
He set out, and after five days, came upon some Indians. Able to communicate in Spanish, Belbenoit learned that he would not be permitted to continue. The jungle was closed to white men. He told them he was there to catch butterflies, and that he could pay two pesos for any Blue Morphos. The Indians became interested, having never encountered such a project, and invited Belbenoit to stay in their village for the night. But before dawn, Belbenoit crept out of the village, went down to the shore and stole one of the village canoes. He sailed all night, hiding during the day to avoid detection. After a few days, another group of Indians spotted him and took him to their village after he once again claimed to be a butterfly hunter — and again, he stole a canoe at night. He repeated this scenario for over 20 days before he finally reached his destination, the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal. He had traversed the Darién Gap. He swam ashore at Colon, taking with him only his manuscript.
He made his way to the French quarter of the city, where, mistaken for a local drunkard, he was given food, coffee, and fresh clothes. Sympathetic compatriots gave him money, and he was able to reach Panama City on the Pacific side. He had the address of a writer who he thought would be of help, but upon arriving, learned that the man was away. His servant let Belbenoit spend the night there, and advised him to retreat to his employer’s banana plantation in the jungle in order to rest and recuperate from his harrowing voyage.
He took the advice, arriving at the secluded banana grove in two days, but its rough laborers, who only seemed interested in drinking and fighting, reminded him of the prison colony he had fled. He noticed some Indians, and began speaking to them. Their soft voices and quiet intensity intrigued him, and when he learned that there were enormous butterflies in the jungle where they lived, he asked if he could live with them. They agreed. “Thus began for me a seven-month adventure of sheer tranquility, peace, and I suppose you could even call it happiness.”
Belbenoit began living among the Kuna Indians, following their customs and agreeing to their rules. He was not allowed to enter the jungle alone, he could not dig for gold, he could not bathe in the river at the same time as the villagers, and if he planned to stay for more than two months, he had to take a wife. (Single men were untrustworthy.) He accepted. The village chief chose a young woman who became Belbenoit’s wife, Rachi-ti, The Flower-that-Sleeps. Belbenoit was given the name Nikat-chipu — which he translated as both White Man and The Man Who Catches Butterflies. At first, he could only communicate in an improvised sign language, but eventually, Belbenoit learned to speak Rachi-ti’s language.
Months passed, and Belbenoit wondered if he would, or should, return to the outside world. During that time, the explorer LaVarre, whom he had met in Trinidad, was in the Panamanian jungle where he happened to come upon Belbenoit, who was on a butterfly hunt. Belbenoit took him to his jungle hut — which LaVarre photographed — and again, LaVarre offered to transport the escapee’s manuscript to safety. Belbenoit again refused, but promised that if he was caught and sent back to Devil’s Island, he would send it to LaVarre — and then kill himself. Soon after, when his desire for justice and his intent to report on the barbaric French penal system became paramount, Belbenoit did decide to leave his jungle sanctuary in order to find another in the United States.
After a four-day trek, he arrived back in Panama City. He sold his butterflies to Jungle Jim Price, who ran a curio shop, and headed northwest towards Costa Rica by truck. Near the border, he was arrested by guards who mistook him for a smuggler, but the official in charge let him go. He was able to stow away on a ship, making his way into Nicaragua, where he encountered bandits who stole all his money. He reached Managua where he was able to send an urgent telegram to Price, the butterfly dealer in Panama City, who sent him $50. He then entered Honduras by train, cleverly avoiding the police, and from there, he entered El Salvador, where he was warned not to try to cross into Guatemala — agents of its repressive dictatorship would certainly give him trouble. He had to find a way around Guatemala and enter Mexico, knowing that from there, he could travel safely into the U.S.
On June 4, he managed to reach La Libertad, one of El Salvador’s port cities, where he saw a Canadian-bound freighter loading cargo. He stowed away, hiding in a dark storage room. He had a few cans of sardines and little else. Twice he snuck on deck at night where he found the food of the ship’s dog, which he ate, along with the dog’s water, which he drank. After seven days, the ship made port. Belbenoit had carefully stowed his clothes so that they would remain clean, and he put them on. With a tiny razor, he shaved his beard. He went on deck. “Great rocky mountains of a yellowish color were piled up into magnificent shapes. . . I noticed that the guards only questioned the sailors and frisked them. They didn’t ask anyone for identifying papers.”
He thought he had docked at a Mexican port. In a way, he had. He had arrived at El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles.
It was June 11, 1937, 14 years after his arrival in French Guiana, but before he could settle down in Angeltown, Belbenoit had to complete his burning desire to tell the world about Devil’s Island.
Within a month, he took a bus to New York to meet William LaVarre, who helped Belbenoit arrange with E. P. Dutton the publication of the manuscript that Belbenoit had so zealously guarded. Dry Guillotine: Fifteen Years among the Living Dead appeared in February 1938. LaVarre wrote the introduction. It created a sensation, and within six months, it had gone through 15 printings. The book was instrumental in closing down France’s notorious prison colony, and it led to many reforms in the French penal system.
But Belbenoit was facing immigration problems, and without any papers, he was deported in 1940. He went back to Panama, then to Mexico. In 1941, he was arrested in Brownsville, Texas for having entered the country illegally — by swimming across the Rio Grande. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison. The best-selling author could not get a break from U.S. immigration authorities. He served yet another jail term, and once freed in 1942, Belbenoit returned to Los Angeles, where he attempted to enlist in the army. Because of his age, he was refused.
His story had appeared in numerous newspapers, and as he was known to many in the Hollywood community, he was hired as a technical advisor on Passage to Marseille (1944) when it was in production at Warner Bros. Considered as a follow-up to Casablanca, it featured many of the same cast members (Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre), and the two films shared the same director, Michael Curtiz. The film tells the story of five convicts who have escaped from Devil’s Island in order to return to France to fight the Nazis, a combination of Belbenoit’s own life mixed in with war propaganda.
Belbenoit had also met Lee Gumpert, the widow of a prominent Los Angeles physician; they fell in love and were married in 1945. Lee’s brother-in-law was Emil Gumpert, a prominent attorney who helped Belbenoit in his quest to become a U.S. citizen. He was determined to stay in Los Angeles. With help from Gumpert, other prominent attorneys, and some influential Hollywood producers, Belbenoit’s application for citizenship was granted a decade later, on January 18, 1956. He had achieved his goal.
By the time Belbenoit arrived in Los Angeles, it had morphed from the fancifully eccentric city of De Rudio’s time into the uncategorizable megalopolis of 1.5 million that was driving the world’s dreams through the movies. Hollywood had given the city even more glamour than it had enjoyed as a flowery paradise, and Los Angeles looked good on film. Not only was it home to the movies, Los Angeles in the 1940s and ’50s was the center of the expanding aviation and aerospace industries, and it was the city that spawned much of modern life: freeways, ranch houses, diet fads, self-improvement schemes, and always, real estate opportunities. The tourist attractions of old — Venice, Mt. Lowe, and the ostrich farm — had morphed into Disneyland. Los Angeles was still the place where untried and unheard of plans could succeed. It didn’t change its character over the years; the only things that changed were dreams: they got bigger. And above all, Los Angeles wasn’t snobby; it accepted all comers, even escaped convicts from the jungles of Devil’s Island. After all, one had already arrived over 40 years earlier.
During the late 1940s, Belbenoit discovered the beauties of Lucerne Valley and the high desert north of Los Angeles, attracted, no doubt, to a climate antithetical to that of French Guiana. The dry, desert air must have been soothing to the man who had endured years of jungle dampness. A promotional brochure on the area stated: “Every day you live in Lucerne Valley is a day more glorious, more enchanting, more happy, than any preceding days. You will shout joyously to the world that at last an earthly paradise has been discovered.” In 1951 Belbenoit moved to the earthly paradise of Lucerne Valley where he opened René’s Ranch Store. The prisoner who spent years without proper clothing became the purveyor of dude ranch and cowboy gear.
Belbenoit’s wife Lee and her son from her first marriage commuted between their apartment in West Hollywood and Belbenoit’s place in Lucerne Valley, usually visiting him on the weekends. He spent much of his time writing and was still the subject of various articles and interviews. In 1955, an episode of the popular television program This Is Your Life was devoted to him.
On February 26, 1959, Belbenoit died of a heart attack in his little store. A sheriff ’s deputy, who happened to drop by to say hello, found his body. According to a friend, veteran Los Angeles newspaper reporter Matt Weinstock, Belbenoit had been working on a new book, Anatomy of Justice. From his little bit of paradise in the desert, he continued to write about the hell that was Devil’s Island.
The City of Angels, for all its heavenly surface appeal, has hidden aspects; it retains its mysteries and secrets within a reservoir of shrouded, untapped memories. Bubbling below the surface like the city’s famous tar deposits are many tales of remarkable people who lived unusual lives — and so, Los Angeles has kept the secret of the two “devils,” until now. They have blended into the historical haze that has blanketed the city like the smoky fog that has clouded its reputation for years.
Los Angeles does not rely on the past, but on constant reinvention; the past is of little value. New visions bulldoze old ones at a rapid pace. Nothing lasts for long, nor is it supposed to. That is part of the city’s charm. Its acceptance of change is admirable in many ways: a certain open-mindedness and willingness to try new things have been the result. Hollywood has been proving that for a century, but the city was already a laboratory for invention and novelty before the ascendancy of the movies. “Why not?” should be the city’s motto. Even shortening its name to an abbreviation is emblematic of this spirit. Los Angeles is the vanguard of the new and the now. Not the city that time forgot, Los Angeles is the city that forgets time.
And because it celebrates novelty of all kinds, Los Angeles has always welcomed exotic strangers. Charles De Rudio, a larger-than-life romantic hero, was exactly the sort of person that Los Angeles worshipped at the dawn of the 20th century. His story fit right in with the city’s fictionalized version of itself. He was a man of his moment, the perfect combination of attributes for his time, and especially, his place. Similarly, René Belbenoit was precisely the man to exemplify his time, mid-20th century Los Angeles, a city where the dangers lurking in the darkness belied the tranquility of its sunny days — the city as seen in film noir.
Although accepted, Belbenoit found his first years in Los Angeles troublesome — the lingering effects of his past cast a shadow over his future — but once he overcame his difficult past, his life became an archetypal Los Angeles one, complete with cowboy boots and spurs.
For both men, the devils were gone, the past had ended — as only it could — in El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles. The City of Angels. Angeltown. L.A.
Victoria Dailey is a writer, curator and antiquarian bookseller. She lives in Los Angeles.
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