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Fifteen Years among the 
Living Dead 

Prisoner No. 46633 


The text in this volume is based on the 
original translation from the French by 





Map showing the route ta\en by Reni Belbenoit on his final escape 

from the Penal Settlement of French Guiana (Devil's Island) 

Facing Page 34 

At St. Martin — the search before embarkation on the convict ship 

Facing Page 35 

In the Barracks — leg irons hold one in place at night 
Facing Page 66 

A bet over j bottles of wine caused a man's death 
Facing Page 6y 

Burial to the shares 
Facing Page 98 

In the Charvein camp cutting mahogany 
Facing Page 99 

A Jungle Camp 
Facing Page 130 

La Guillotine: "nextl" 
Facing Page 131 

Solitary Confinement 
Facing Page 258 

Ubere going into the jungle 
Facing Page 259 

Attempt to escape by sea 
Facing Page 290 

What every prisoner things of 
Facing Page 291 

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To THE island of Trinidad, washed up on the tail end of a Carib* 
bean hurricane, had come a slender water-logged Indian canoe. 
In it, the Trinidad Guardian said, were six starved and almost 
drowned Frenchmen — fugitives whp had, after seventeen days 
on the tossing sea, successfully escaped from Devil's Island and 
the penal colony of French Guiana. 

Out of curiosity several British colonists and I went down 
to the military barracks to see the fugitives. They were not 
under arrest; there is something of the sportsman in every real 
Englishman no matter how far away he is from home, and the 
Officer-of-the-Port voiced the thoughts of everyone (but the 
French Consul) when he said: "I am not going to turn these 
poor men over to the French Consul. Let him tear his hair all 
he wants! French Guiana is a plague on the face of civilization. 
We will feed the fugitives, give them a place to rest, give them 
a better boat and give them a chance to continue their escape! " 

In a large comfortable room six men greeted us with an ea- 
gerness to smile that was pathetic. Five of them were big, tre- 
mendously powerful men — they might have been prize 
fighters, Canadian lumber-jacks, soldiers of the Foreign Legion. 
They were men of brute strength, brute living, and brute men- 
tality. The sixth man, in contrast, was astoundingly little, less 
than five feet, very thin, and weighing under ninety pounds. 
But he had fire in his eyes, fire fanned, as I was to learn, by 
fifteen years of living death, by four previous attempts to escape, 
and now by an almost fanatical decision to either make jgood 
his fifth attempt or die. 

He had with him only one possession, an oil cloth covered 
package which contained over thirty pounds of closely written 
manuscript — the detailed record of fifteen years of prison 


colony life; the most amazing document of biography, of crime 
and of punishment which I had ever seen. :H 

After I had read many chapters I began taking with him. 
I'wanted to learn something of his earlier history. Born in Paris 
on April 4, 1899, Rene Belbenoit was at twenty-one years of 
age en route to a lifelong exile in the most notorious prison 
colony the civilized world has ever known. But I was impressed 
by the fact that he didn't fit any picture I could sum up in my 
mind of what a criminal, a Devil's Island convict would, or 
should, be like. Step by step I traced his history, his boyhood, 
looking for the place where die downward path into his personal 
hell had begun. 

Some children grow up into successful men, some into fail- 
ures. Why? Papa Belbenoit, who married quite late in life, was 
a good man 1 — a very good man, Rene Belbenoit told me, who 
took great pride in his position, won after many years, of Chief 
Conductor of the Paris-Orleans Express. Three months after 
baby Rene was born the young wife deserted husband and child 
and went to Russia as a tutor to the children of the Czar's 
family. She thought Rene's father very unambitious because he 
refused to accept a promotion which would have taken him 
from the train which he loved, and the adventure of moving it 
like clockwork back and forth over the rails. Papa Belbenoit did 
not want any further promotion, did not want to sit in a super- 
intendent's office, and the mother, young, ambitious and dog- 
matic, left home — for the Russian Court. 

Papa Belbenoit was on his train four days each week and 
young Rene was entrusted to his grandparents who owned a 
small restaurant near the railroad station. Until he was twelve 
years old Rene was just another good little French boy. He went 
to school, studied hard and stood at the head of many of his 
classes. But when he was twelve years old his grandfather and 
grandmother died. His grandmother died one day, and five 



days later his grandfather died. Everyone said thai: the old man 
loved his wife so much that life oozed quickly out of him as 
soon as she was not with him any longer. 

Four days out of each week the growing boy from 1 then on 
had no guardian to regiment his life, until an uncle moved to 
Paris and became manager of a night club, the Cafe du Rat 
Mort (the Dead Rat) in the Place Pigalle which was to become 
very famous. The Uncle took Rene to live with him in his apart- 
ment over the restaurant. During the late afternoons and eve- 
nings young Belbenoit worked as messenger and errand boy. 
He was only thirteen years old but he must have been very 
resourceful. The Rat Mort was patronized by women of the 
theatre and of the demimonde* women clad in expensive clothes, 
and displaying large amounts of jewelry. Montmartre was the 
great center of Parisian merry-making. The most notorious play- 
boys of Europe were among his uncle's customers as well as the 
most desired and highly prized women. The beautiful Otero, 
"Queen of Paris/* visited the night club every night. Prince 
Murat gave Belbenoit a i oo franc note as a tip — merely for 
delivering a love message to her and getting an answer. Mis- 
tinguette, Baron Maurice de Rothschild, the Prince of Wales 
and many other colorful men and women gathered at the Rat 
Mort, spent money lavishly, and before long Rene Belbenoit 
was receiving more money in tips during a week than his father 
made in salary in three months. 

"I had never seen so much money!" Belbenoit told me. "So 
much careless spending! All the people I had known, all the 
people my father, grandfather and grandmother had known, 
worked very hard for money, spent it frugally. Money was 
something which they struggled to obtain, and went without 
many nice things in order to save. At thirteen years of age I 
looked thus into another and different vtorld — an amazing 
society in which people did no work, had all the money they 



waited, denied themselves nothing, spent money furiously* 
lived in a realm of champagne, silks, perfumes, jewelry and 
abandon which made me gasp with excitement/* 

Living at night that sort of life did not make of the youth a 
good student during the day. He was often sleepy. And when 
he was not sleepy he was quarrelling with the idea of continuing 
studies which, at best, would get him only an apprenticeship 
in the business world that would pay him but a fraction of 
the money he already was obtaining in the Rat Mort. When 
he was fifteen years old his uncle agreed with him. The success- 
ful assignments in which he had been engaged, the delivering 
of love messages and the arranging of trysting engagements 
between men and women, had much to do probably with the 
growing prosperity of the night club. Both play-boys and 
women of the demimonde found the boy's services unusually 
efficient and successful. 

But Papa. Belbenoit was very angry when he found out about 
it. He wanted his son to get a good academic education and then 
a technical training; he wanted him, he said, to become a rail- 
road man. Someday when he was too old to work he'd retire 
and turn the Paris-Orleans Express over to Rene. Papa Belbenoit 
and UOncle Belbenoit quarrelled violently and Rene did not 
see his father again for a long time. 

Some patrons met at the Rat Mort during the day. They 
played games or bet on the races. Rene carried the money to the 
bookmakers and his commission when the horses won was con^ 
siderable. One day a group of patrons announced that because 
of some secret information they were betting more mortey than 
usual on a very long shot ^ on a horse which would pay twenty 
to one if it won. 

"It's like throwing money away," a friend of Rene's ad- 
yised him as the boy was taking the package of money to the 
race track. "Pon't'be a fool! Put the money in your own pocket. 



Don't place it. That horse will surely fall down, or come in last 
— and the money will be yours instead of the bookmakers!" 

Rene counted the money. The bets amounted to two thou- 
sand, two hundred francs. It would be a shame to give all that 
money to the already rich betting agents. He pocketed the 
money and did not go near the race track. 

Unfortunately the dark horse won. "I did not return to Rat 
Mort that night," Belbenoit said, "I would not have been able 
out of my savings to have paid off the bets at twenty to one 
and I didn't dare face my uncle and admit that I had not placed 
his patrons' bets but had deliberately kept the money. I walked 
the streets of Paris all night long trying to think of something 
I could do. Finally, towards dawn, I worked out a solution. I 
had failed to place the bets:: that was dishonest. But I still had 
all the money that belonged to the patrons. I had enough say- 
ings of my own to pay them double the amounts they had bet. 
So I crept into the Rat Mort through a rear entrance. My uncle 
glared at me like a tiger when I tried to explain. He grabbed 
die money from my hand, beat me over the head with his fist. 
He struck me with a heavy bunch of keys. I ran from the blows, 
and from, his voice calling me a thief, drugged with the disaster 
which so suddenly had befallen me." 

It was a catastrophic day for the rest of the world too. Sud- 
denly the streets of Paris became filled with anxiously reading 
and talking groups of people. "War! " a former schoolmate cried 
rushing up to young Belbenoit with a newspaper in his hand. 
"We're going to fight the Germans. War's been declared! My 
fathear has already gone to join the volunteers. Look!" he 
shouted, pointing down the street, "There's the place where 
the volunteers register. See how fast the line's growing! " 

The schoolmates walked toward the hastily opened enlist- 
ment stall. And there, nearly at the head of the line, Rene saw 



his own father. He stood out from the other men, for his rail- 
road uniform had been carefully pressed, the buttons polished. 
He looked almost like a general. Rene went up to greet him; and 
ask his forgiveness. He didn't know whether his father had 
heard about the unplaced bets but he was going to tell him and 
ask his forgiveness. He would promise to go back to school, 
study hard, and do as his father wished. 

"Stand back from me!" Papa Belbenoit said as the boy held 
out his hand to take the gold-braided coatsleeve. "Stand back, 

"The men in the line all turned to look at me," Belbenoit 
remembered, "but my father kept his eyes straight ahead, his 
face frozen with grief and anger. I do not think that any of the 
volunteers realised that we were father and son. I walked away 
as fast as I could/' . 

Two days later Rene Belbenoit stood in the balcony of a small 
hotel and watched the soldiers march through the street to the 
place where lorries would transport them up to the front. There 
at the head of a squad marched Papa Belbenoit. He was stiffly 
erect. His shoulders were back. His eyes were front. He was not 
the Chief of the Paris-Orleans Express any longer. 

"I watched his back," Belbenoit told me softly, "until it 
was indistinguishable in the river of soldiers and then I was 
alone. I was very alone. I do not think that in all Paris, where 
many people were becoming lonely, there was a youth so lonely 

In less than a month Rene Belbenoit was a soldier too. "I 
was not eighteen years old," he told me, "but I stood up as tall 
as I could and puffed out my chest. The Sergeant was very 
eager for recruits and didn't look too deeply into my years. I 
was still another one who could fire a gun." 

The French Army had a gun which was called a fusil- 
mitrailleur. It weighed thirty pounds, fired bullets in rapid sue- 



cession front twenty circular barrels. In practice Belbenoit be- 
came unusually adept at using this weapon and on the replace- 
ment train which took new soldiers up to the madly fighting 
front Belbenoit was in command of a brand new fusil-mitrailleur 
with two assistants. One carried ammunition and half of the 
gun while the other recruit, a skilled mechanic old enough to 
be Belbenoit's father, carried the other half and stood by during 
firing to fix the mechanism whenever the gun jammed. 

"The war," he said, "was terrible. But of course it was noth- 
ing to what I have since been through. My part in it was that 
of thousands of unknown soldiers, fighting as directed, charg- 
ing ahead as commanded, scared to death most of the time of 
what plight come out of the sky ahead of me, wondering when 
my time was coming. I tried not to look individually at the 
jmten I killed, I ran past them with my eyes averted. We went 
into Belgium and new replacements constantly took the place 
of those who had fallen. Outside of Roulers, which we were 
preparing to take from the Germans, I received my promotion. 
I became a Corporal of the 40th Regiment. Five hours later 
;word reached us that the Armistice had been declared." 

While with the Army of Occupation in Germany, Belbe- 
noit saw on the bulletin board of the Cologne encampment a 
notice asking for volunteers for the Army of the East. He be- 
came a Sergeant in the 2nd Regiment of Tirailleurs, the Arab 
Regiment, and went to Syria. Then at Alexandretta, after the 
capture of the city of Aleppo, he became Top Sergeant of his 
company. In the middle of 1 920 he became ill with fever and 
was sent back to France. Of the fourteen soldiers sent on the 
same ship only five lived to reach Marseilles. 

He was sent to Percy hospital at Clamart, and while conval- 
iescing he met a young nurse — . fell madly, head over heels, in 
love: Renee and Rene. They decided that as soon as he was 
demobilized he would get a job and they would marry. At th§ 

l 5 


end o£ February, 1921, he was dismissed from the hospital. 
He went immediately to the demobilization barracks. 

"In 3 military uniform,' ' Belbenoit remembered, "almost 
any man can look impressive. Rich or poor, we all had the 
glamour of epaulets, brass buttons, tight fitting tunics. I prided 
jnyself on my own fine feathers — the uniform of a Top Ser- 
geant of the African Army. A natty fez was perched on my 
head, three decorations were on my chest. Renee thought I 
looked very grand. Jauntily I reported to the authorities for offi- 
cial discharge. I took the three decorations from my uniform, 
wrapped them in paper and stuck them in the pocket of an ill fit- 
ting pair of grey pants which the Supply Sergeant issued to me. 
It was my Abrami suit, a present of the French Government to 
each soldier who hadn't died. The grey coat fitted me even worse 
than the pants. Pants and coat, the Sergeant said, cost fifty-two 
francs. If I didn't want them I could take the money instead. 
Many wealthy men took the fifty-two francs and used them for 
a champagne party. Tailors had made them plenty of good 
clothes. But I had no tailor and no money to spend on clothes. 
I took the Abrami suit." 

Thus Rene Belbenoit, civilian, twenty-one years of age, 
walked again the streets of Paris. He spent the first night in 
a cheap hotel. Early the next day he began looking for a job. 
He signed his name to many application blanks, even though 
he was told that his would lie at the bottom of earlier stacks- 
He felt, when the day was over and he went out to the hospital 
pj walk home with Renee, like a raggamuffin. 

"I was disgusted at not having quickly found a job, and I 
was scared that Renee would look at me, in my Abrami suit, 
with different eyes — decide she'd made a bad bargain. But 
she didn't. She cheered me up. There were many returned 
soldiers looking for jobs, she said. I should be patient and every- 
thing would work out all right/' 



But ten days went by and there was no job. His money was 
spent — . everything he had saved as a soldier. He hastened to 
the town of Besangon where he heard that a restaurant keeper 
needed a dishwasher. Eight francs a day, meals and a room was 
all the manager would pay. For ten days he worked in the 
steaming kitchen trying to save every sou in order to get capital. 
On the eleventh evening he discovered that in the locker of 
the restaurant there was a good deal of money. . 

"I looked at the few francs I'd been able, by sweating all 
day, to save," Belbenoit said. 'They would not have kept me 
alive for a week. As soon as the manager was busy elsewhere 
I reached into the open locker, took the wallet and stuffed it 
inside my shirt. Outside the door there; was a motorcycle. I 
jumped on it and rode all night over the national highway. In 
the morning I left the vehicle outside of Paris and with 4,000 
francs in my pocket began a shopping tour. I bought two good 
quality suits and had them altered until they fitted perfectly. 
I bought shirts, neckties, socks, underwear, shoes and a hat. I 
bought a suitcase and filled it with the things I couldn't wear. 

"I went to see Renee and for a while we laughed together 
as we had when I had been a sick soldier. She seemed very 
happy that I had found a job. I was rid of my terrible Abrami 
suit and now looked, as she said, so nice in my new clothes. To- 
morrow night, she said, I must come to her home so her mother 
and father could approve of me. But I was frightened. What I 
had done lay heavier and heavier on my conscience. I had com- 
mitted a theft. I was a thief I Already the police would be look- 
ing for me. I did not want to have Renee mixed up in such 
disgrace. I did not want her to know that I was a thief. For 
two days I did not leave my hotel room. On the third day I 
wrote her a letter saying I had been sent out of town and went 
hastily to the railroad station. I boarded the tr^in for Nantes 





and made myself as small and as unrecognizable as possible in 
a third class coach/ ' 

Nantes at that time of year, he said, was glittering with 
wealth and fashion. Using his military record book containing 
many highly favorable credits Belbenoit went to an employ- 
ment agency which had a fashionable clientele and within 
three hours after his arrival at the resort he was being fitted for 
the garments of valet in the Chateau Ben Ali owned by the 
Countess d'Entremeuse. 

"Looking backward now," Belbenoit said as we sat in the 
barracks of Trinidad, "upon that moment of my youth, from 
across the years of punishment and regeneration through which 
I have passed, I do not know whether that was the turning 
point of my fate or not. But I do not think so. I think the turn- 
ing point began the day my mother deserted my father and 
went to Russia. At the tasks in the castle I could have found 
long, comfortable and honorable employment and a good chance 
of entirely cutting myself off from the theft at Besangon. Yes, 
I could even have married Renee. The Countess d'Entremeuse 
was a gracious employer. No one was over-worked; there were 
frequent intervals when we could enjoy ourselves on the beach 
or in haunts to which other employees of the nobility gathered. 
But I looked on my days spent as a menial in that fashionable 
household, and on my livery, as a disagreeable penance and 
gradually became more and more discontented." 

"I had been at the Chateau only a month when I saw on 
the Countess' dressing table a red leather case containing her 
pearls. There was also a package of money, brought to the 
castle to pay the servants on the following day. 

"I took money and pearls, went to die servants' quarters, 
changed my clothes, and hastily took the train for Paris. The 
next morning two policemen in plainclothes began walking 
beside me as I came out of the postoffice where I had mailed 


' Introduction 

Renee a letter asking her to meet me secretly in Paris. I was, 
they announced, under arrest. . 

That, Belbenoit said, wripping up the bundle of manuscript 
and documents which he had brought from the penal colony, 
was the story of his early life. From the Gallery of Thieves he 
was taken to court — and sentenced to eight years of hard 
labor in French Guiana. A short time before two other men had 
stood before the same court for serious crimes. Galmot, the 
Deputy of French Guiana who had engineered the notorious 
rum scandal by which he was accused of profiting to the extent 
of four million francs ; and Vilgrain, who was accused of making 
over six million francs selling the French Army bad supplies. 
But these two men had many lawyers and influential friends. 
They were acquitted. 

Two big guards took Belbenoit, who began challenging the 
sentencing judge for such unbalanced justice, by the arms and 
without allowing his feet to touch the ground walked him 
quickly to the door of the prisoners' guard-room. There they 
dumped him on the floor and snapped handcuffs on his wrists, 
Rene Belbenoit, not yet twenty-two years old, was on his way 
to Devil's Island. 

"But that manuscript of your life in French Guiana and the 
documents," I said as he was tightly sealing the oil cloth cover- 
ing, "why don't you let me send it safely to the United States 
for you and find a publisher. It's impossible for you actually to 
gain permanent freedom. You'll be lost at sea or, landing in 
some unfriendly port, you'll be arrested and sent back to 

'Til make it this time," Belbenoit said. "I am going to 
reach the United States and I am going to take the manuscript 
with me." 

Twelve months later I was in the jungles of Panama. I saw 

l 9 

', Introduction 

a little man with a big butterfly net in the forest trail ahead of 
me. He stood still for a moment and looked at me as though he 
couldn't make up his mind whethef to run or not. I recognized 

"Rene Belbenoit!" I said. "Congratulations!" 

"Not yet!" he answered. "Panama's only half way to the 
United States. It's taken me a year to get here! " 

"Where are your companions, the others who were with 
you in Trinidad ? ' ' I asked. 

"I am, the only one who is still free," he said. I could not 
help but turn over in frny mind as I looked at his thin, worn 
body and face the fact that in the year since I had seen him. — 
the year which for me and most people in the world had been 
quiet routine — his life must have been a continuous night- 
mare. A whole year it had taken him to get from Trinidad to 
Panama! We sat in front of his little thatched butterfly hunting 
shelter, many miles from civilization — ten miles, he said — 
from the Chakoi village in which he live;d with primitive 
Indians. Again I asked him to let p&e fake his manuscript safely 
to the United States. 

"You can't continue lugging thirty pounds of paper through 
Central America," I said. "You'ye still to pass through Panama, 
Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Salvador, Guatemala and 
Mexico, countries that now guard their frontiers with the vigi- 
lance of hawks. You've no passports. You're a fugitive. What 
you are trying to do is impossible. Let me take the manuscript 
to the United States and get it published. It is an amazing docu- 
ment, and an extraordinary story. The publishers may be able 
to help you win permanent sanctuary and freedom." 

"Thank you, again," he said politely, "But I think I can 
make it. I want to take it to the United States myself. The 
United States is the land of the free, isn't it? The Land of 
Liberty. I have been fifteen years in hell. If I can reach the 



United States I may be able to put an end to the sufferings not 
alone of myself but of thousands of other human beings. If I 
am caught somewhere, if it looks as though I will be sent back 
to French Guiana, I will send the manuscript to you — before 
I kill myself!" 

I thought I would never see him again, that the story of 
man's inhumanity to man which he had transcribed painfully 
during fifteen years of torture would be lost to all other readers, 
lost in the jungle or in the sea which would be his grave also. 
But I was mistaken. Rene Belbenoit, after twenty-two months 
of superhuman trying and many amazing adventures, finally 
reached the United States. He crossed the frontiers in rags, but 
his manuscript was always safely wrapped in oiled paper. 

His book, Dry Guillotine, begins with his exile from society 
and civilization. It is the story of Devil's Island, of lies Royale 
and Saint Joseph, of Cayenne, the capital of a colony of sin, 
of liberes living like jackals, of men going crazy in solitary 
dark cells, of life more terrible than death and deaths more grue- 
some than fiction. At thirty-eight, terribly emaciated, almost 
blind, toothless, scurvy eaten and fever wrecked, he may not 
have many more years to live. He says that he hopes the publi- 
cation of his book will accomplish just one thing. He hopes, with 
all his heart, it will cause France finally to do away with French 
Guiana and send no more human beings there to suffer — on 
the Dry Guillotine. 

William LaVarre 

Fellow, The Royal Geographical Society 
The Harvard Club 
New Y)rk City 
Christmas Day 1937. 




bagne: (the galleys) convict slang for prison or the penal colony. 

condamne: a convict. 

debrouille: rake off; graft (slang). 

declasse: a convict who has been restored to normal prison life after a 

term at a punishment camp. 
doublage: (doubling) the law Gy which a convict, after release, has 

to reside as many years in the penal colony as the length of his 

prison sentence. 
doudou: a temporary mistress; prostitute (slang). 
durs (les): the penal colonies (slang) . 
evade: a convict who has made an attempt to escape. 
evasion: escape; whether successful or not. 
format: a convict. 

fort-a-bras: rough-neck; an old and seasoned convict. 
inco: a prisoner classed as "incorrigible" (slang) . 
libere: a convict who has served his prison sentence but who is still 

condemned to reside in the penal colony. 
maquillage: (make-up) convict slang for the bringing on of artificial 

sickness so as to get out of cells into the hospital. 
mome: boy-pet; young pervert (slang). 
mouchard: spy; stool-pigeon (slang). 
momllage: (wetting) disposing of a convict's corpse by throwing it 

into the sea to be eaten by the sharks (slang) . 
plan: a metal or bone suppository used by convicts to hide their money 

or other small contraband articles (slang) . 
plan d' evasion: special escape-suppository, furnished with a handcuffs- 
key and small saw and screw-driver (slang) . 
prevot: sergeant-keeper of the jail. 
relegue: an exile; a criminal with four convictions against him who has 

been banished to the penal colony, but without a prison sentence. 
stere: a cubic meter of wood — about 35 $ cubic feet. 
tafia: a cheap rum, made for local consumption in Guiana. 
vieux (les): old hands; seasoned criminals (slang). 

pjjj.'uu.uiv' v ij"- 'f}--\-: 

t-S^.T.-p iVjr 



THE transfer of convicts who are sentenced to French Guiana 
to the concentration prison, which lies on an island near La 
Rochelle, to await the convict ship is effected in the wagons- 
cellulaires, railroad cars which contain nothing but small cells 
three feet by four. Each cell contains one prisoner whose 
feet are securely fastened with chains, and a small bench; and 
it has a sliding panel in the locked door through which food is 
passed. There are three armed guards in each cell car, and 
these cars, hitched to passenger and freight trains, conie from 
all points of the nation to the focal point of La Rochelle, stop- 
ping by the prisons that lie in their path to pick up all the men 
condemned to the horror of banishment to the penal colony 
in South America. 

After two days in prison I was taken to Besangon to answer 
charges for the theft I had perpetrated in the railroad station 
lunch room — the first step in my fall to crime. There the 
court gave me a year in prison; my appearance there was merely 
a technicality and the sentence was incorporated into my eight 
years' term of hard labor. 

When the cell car began its devious journey to La Rochelle 
I was its sole occupant; ten cells stood ranged at each side of the 
narrow corridor, and in one of them I sat chained in utter silence. 
The next stop was Arbois, the town where Pasteur lived. Two 
of the guards went off to the prison and brought back a convict. 
They locked him into the cell that faced mine across the 

"Absolute silence! Or I'll slam the panels on your faces and 
you'll stifle in there," barked one of the guards. Then he walked 
off to the end of the car where he joined his two companions, 
jvho were preparing the meal. 

I began a whispered conversation with the newcomer. His 

2 5 

Dry Guillotine 

face, what I could see of it in the panel, was hard and deeply 
lined; his name was Guty and he had been given five years for 
stealing. He told me he had served several sentences and that be 
had been six or seven years in the African penitentiaries as a 
condamne militaire. In the years to come I was to learn the 
vicious import invariably connected with the African cori~ 
damnes militaires. 

The cell car stopped next at Lons le Saulnier; we arrived in 
the middle of the night, and the guards took us to the prison in 
the town where we were again locked in cells. When we left 
the next morning there were two more convicts. One of them 
was named Joannelly. He was sentenced to ten years' hard labor 
for sexually violating a woman seventy years okL He said 
he was innocent of the crime — he worked on a farm and one 
night when he was drunk he had lurched his way into a house 
to find a place to go to sleep: the old woman saw him come in 
and began to scream; he told her not to yell and said he would 
go away but at that she screamed all the more, so he caught 
her and stopped her cries by putting his hand over her mouth, 
and in the struggle they both fell down for he was horribly 
drunk. After that he fled and left her on the floor; the next 
morning the police arrested him and he told them just how it 
had happened. But they didn't take what he said as true because 
the old woman had many scratches on her thighs. This convict 
had also been in the military penitentiaries of Africa; and, as 
was the case with Gury, he had tattooing all over his body — 
it seemed to me very savage and bizarre. The other convict was 
named Moyse. He had been given fifteen years at hard labor 
for repeated theft. He was a war veteran and said he had 
several decorations and that he held a number of patents for 
mechanical inventions. It was to finance a new patent, he told 
us, that he had committed the theft for which he was being 
sent to Guiana. 


Dry Guillotine 

At Dijon, our next stop, we took on still another convict, 
named Richebois;. he was fifty-five years old and had been given 
eight years for seducing and abusing lasciviously his two 
daughters who were both under seventeen years of age; he was 
an inveterate degenerate. After this we came to Chalons sur 
Saone where we were locked into the city prison for two days. 
We had each been put into separate cells. I was pacing back 
and forth restlessly the first day when of a sudden there began a 
steady rapping of blows over my head. "There's somebody up 
there telegraphing to frie," I said to myself. I picked up the 
worn broom that stood against the corner of my cell and with 
its end I began tapping against the roof of the cell by way of 
answer. Over my head more beats acknowledged my answer. 
Listening closely I soon discovered that he was using a very 
simple code — one rap stood for A, two for B, and so on down 
the alphabet. 

"Where're you from?" 


* 'How many years ? " 

"Eight at hard labor." 


"For theft." 

"What did you steal? Are you wealthy with loot?" 

"No. I stole a necklace, but it was returned." 

"Ever been in jail before?" 

"No. Who are you?" I rapped. 

"I'm in detention. Cocaine traffic. Your name?" 

"Rene Belbenoit. And yours?" 

Georgette! so it was a woman who was in the cell above me? 

"How old are you?" I asked. She might perhaps be a di- 
shevelled old hag taken in on a drug clean-up. 

"Eighteen. And . . ." 

2 7 

Dry Guillotine 

At that moment I heard a key rattle in my door, I barely had 
time to shove the broom against the; side of the cell. The door 
opened and the guard cried out, "So you're rapping, are youl 
If you like dry bread there're still plenty of cells that are 
empty I" I said nothing and he slammed the door shut. 

In the; afternoon a ^small pebble fell into my cell. When I 
picked it up I found a bit of paper wrapped around it, which 

"My dear Rene— You re going4o the 'dues' (the slang name for 
the penal colony) and it's bad luck, but don't give up. You 11 es- 
cape! I'm waiting for my court trial and I'll get one or a couple 
of years in prison. Haven't you got some tobacco and matches? 
Tie up a little package for me and climb up on your window, and 
I'll give you a sign when to throw it. Too bad I can't make a hole 
in the floor of my cell. We might have lots of fun. Georgette" 

I made a little wad of tobacco, paper and matches and tied it 
to the pebble. Then I pulled myself up on the grill of the 
window. About fifteen women were circling around in the 
court below me at a slow walk while a female guard sat at the 
far end watching them. I had no trouble spotting Georgette, for 
the girl made signs to me as soon as she saw me appear at my 
window. She pointed with her hand to the spot where I was to 
throw the pebble, but made signs for me to wait. I saw her say 
something to one of the women, who fell out of line and went 
over to the guard and started talking to her. That was the 
moment, and I cast the pebble. I saw her snatch it up and hide 
it in her blouse. The whistle sounded for the end of the walk 
in the court. She threw a kiss from her finger tips, and then I 
watched her disappear into a door with the other women. 

That night she "talked" to toe again: "I'm puffing a ciga- 
rette. It's so good. You're a darling. I bet you can love like every- 
thing! A thousand kisses. Fll see you again tomorrow in the 
court." But at daylight next morning my cell opened. The cell 


Dry Guillotine 

car was moving on, and I left without hearing or seeing 
Georgette again. 

There were three new convicts in the car. My first impres- 
sion on seeing them was that they were being taken to some 
house of correction, for they were very young; but at the roll- 
call their names and crimes were read out, and I was amazed to 
learn that all three were going to French Guiana for five years. 
These three were Julien, Raoul, and Maurice. They had gone 
off to a near-by village together on a lark and had drunk too 
much. On the way home they passed a tavern which had closed 
up for the night; they were feeling hilariously merry and 
wanted to drink some more, so they banged on the door. There 
t was no response. So they broke the door in and helped them- 
selves to the bottles they found on the shelves! The owner of 
the establishment heard them and came down in his night shirt 
to see what was going on. There were words, and in the alterca- 
tion they struck him. As he fell they saw he had hit his head 
on something, for he got up bleeding. At this they became 
afraid and fled, carrying off in their pockets several hundred 
francs which they had found in the cash register, which they 
had drunkenly rung up while they had the run of the place. 
The next morning they were all arrested in their homes. They 
immediately returned the money and were put in prison. The 
owner of the place got out of the hospital in two or three days 
— he was only slightly injured by the fall. The Prosecutor 
brought them before a provincial Court of Assize, interpreted 
their somewhat picaresque action as a criminal assault, and 
pressed the court to brand their young shoulders with a term of 
five years of penal servitude in French Guiana. Julien was six- 
teen, Raoul and Maurice seventeen! In Paris they would have 
been given at the maximum a few months in prison or would 
probably have been $ent back to their families. They were not 
bad boys. They had never left their village and during the war 


Dry Guillotine 

when their fathers were at the front they had managed the 
farm. Circumstance had forced them to work and live like men, 
and they had learned to drink and go to cafes before they 
developed a sense of responsible conduct. Poor youths, in less 
than a year the penal colony was to kill all three of them. 

Our next stop was Tours where we picked up our ninth cell 
mate, Maurice Habert. He was a young man, twenty-seven 
years old, a Parisian like myself, and had been given ten years 
for theft. Two days later, stopping here and there to take on 
more convicts, the cell car finally ended its journey at La Rochelle 
where we were all taken out and locked together into a large cell. 

It was good to have space to walk in and, above all, after 
those interminable days of sleeping upright in the cells in the 
car, to be able to lie down at full length. I had only a pair of 
boards to sleep on, but at least I could stretch out! 

We nine prisoners for French Guiana were all together how 
for the first time. Naturally enough, we were interested in each 
other for we were all destined to be in the same boat, the notori- 
ous convict ship. Every man had something to say for himself; 
often it was in self-defense, and that the court had been too hard 
with him. In this last respect there was usually some justification, 
for in those chaotic years in France just after the war the courts 
were excessively harsh and were quick to send men across the 
sea when they possibly did not deserve this doom. Among us 
it was Gury who spoke the most; for he was seasoned to prison 
existence and was full of talk about the penitentiaries of Africa 
which, he said, had much in common with the penal colony 
in Guiana. He dwelt chiefly on the moral customs, the sexual 
practices, jvhich existed in these penal prisons where he had 
lived so many years and, as far as I could see, this was something 
that was deeply ingrained in the life and thoughts of all con- 
victs. His stories and conversation, obviously directed at the 
three youngsters in the cell, set me thinking. Here I was, now, 


Dry Guillotine 

a convict. What was I going to do about it? Never before had 
I ever been forced to live alone among men. I was going into 
an existence where I could not see or have a woman when I 
needed to. Its full meaning bit deep into my mind. I knew life 
thoroughly, and all the perversions resorted to and practised by 
men and women — but I had always thought of these things 
as coming from a choice and not as being forced upon the 
individual by circumstances. In Paris I had known men who 
were sexual perverts; I had nothing in common with them, but 
still, the way they lived was the result of their personal prefer- 
ence. The way I had lived, also was according to the preference 
of my moral choice. But now I was going into a world without 
women where I would be surrounded by men only for eight 
long years. 

While I listened to Gury's perverted stories and anecdotes, 
the significance of all this for the first time broke into my rea- 
son; and reason, which has grown to be the predominant force 
in keeping me alive, began its work. In the bleak barrenness of 
that cell where we all lay together at full length on the boards, 
my mind began to analyze what lay ahead of me in the future:, 
I loved one girl, and to be with her all my life I had stooped, 
foolishly and youthfully, to crime. But the thought of her clung 
in my mind as a living and beautiful image, and to return to her 
I would escape at the first opportunity; she was all life meant 
to me, who had been thrown out by my family and had no one 
else to love. To come back to her and prove to her that I was 
worthy of her love was the thing that gave me hope and 

But this night in that cell gave me a glimmer of the reality 
ahead of me: I was banished to a life of privation where only 
men would surround me, men who like myself were forced to 
lead an unnatural existence protracted through months and 
years, men who were prodded by sexual desire and had no op- 


Dry Guillotine 

portunity to appease it in the normal way, and my mind asked 
how I would meet the situation. Would the image of the girl 
f loved so completely sustain me until I came back to her and 
to the world from which I was being exiled? To the world 
where man is not forced from the normal by circumstances and 
is free to live the way he feels! It was a problem which worried 
me, but I found consolation in the determination to escape fronj 
Guiana as quickly as I could. 

Julien lay next to me on the boards; he had acquired a cer- 
tain confidence in me, for I was better dressed than the rest of 
the lot and was young like; himself and didn't look tough. He 
was loath to believe the erotic stories Gury was telling; he even 
said so, but old Joannelly confirmed them and vouched for their 
truth. *Td rather die than live a life like that/' Julien said to me. 
The stories had put a sort of consciousness of his youth in him. 
That night he slept between myself and Moyse; Moyse; had 
developed into a friend, because we understood each other and 
had the same ideas about escaping, which we agreed to attempt 
together at the first opportunity. 

In the morning, chained together and escorted by gen- 
darmes, we were walked through the town of La Rochelle and 
put on a ferry-boat for Saint Martin de Re. The passengers sur- 
veyed us curiously, and some pointed to Julien and his two com- 
panions as they discussed us among themselves, undoubtedly 
struck by their extreme youth; a few women waved us a Bonne 
chancel or an Adieu! with their hand, women whose profession 
made them feel a sympathy for us. It was an hour's crossing: 
when the ferry was out in open water the gendarmes took off 
our handcuffs; a sailor asked if we wanted tobacco, and at this 
one of th§ gendarmes told us to smoke as much as we liked 
because in the prison we would not be allowed to do so. On the 
advice of Maurice Habert, who said our clothes would be 

3 2 

Dry Guillotine 

taken from us in the prison, we swapped our overcoats and ties 
for cigarettes, giving them to the sailor. When we were about to 
land Joannelly slipped a ball of tobacco in his mouth. "This'll 
do me three or maybe four days ! " he whispered. 

The prison of Saint Martin de Re was, in former days, a 
grim embattlement from which the musketeers of Louis XIII 
once repulsed the forces of the Duke of Buckingham. We 
entered through a great drawbridge into a large court where a 
detachment of Senegalese riflemen were quartered. At the back 
of the court stood a high porte-cochere. The gendarme in charge 
of our escort rang a bell and a head appeared in a sliding panel. 
The door then opened and we went into the prison. The chief 
guard took the paper from the gendarme and called our names, 
and after that he signed the paper. It was our discharge from 
the gendarmes. 

A guard led us to a small court where four other guards stood 
waiting. These ordered us to undress from head to foot. Then 
each of them called one of us before him and barked;] 

"Hold your arms up high! 

' 'Open your mouth ! 

"Out with your tongue! 

"Turn around! 

"Spraddle your legs and lean down — down, lean way down! 

"Cough! Again. Again/' 
After making each of us bend over and cough, the examiner 
stuck a rubber-gloved finger into our rectum. Then, on finding 
nothing, allowed us to pass. 

They were looking for our plans, or suppositories, Guty 
whispered to me. A flan, as it is known in French criminal 
jargon, is a hollow cylinder about 8 centimeters (3 inches) long 
and about 2 centimeters (| inch) in diameter, made usually of 
aluminum but sometimes even of gold or ivory. It is divided in 
the middle and the two parts are held together by screwing one 


Dry Guillotine 

into the other. In this smooth container which is concealed by 
inserting it into the anus, convicts carry their money and other 
articles of small size which are of great value to them. These 
plans cannot be made of any metal which has corrosive quali- 
ties, as they would result in physical harm to the individual. 

I heard the sound of a vicious smack and turned my eyes that 
way; old Joannelly held his hand against the side of his face. 
The guard had discovered the ball of tobacco he had in his 

After this inspection a convict brought us a bundle of prison 
clothes and clumsy wooden-soled shoes. A guard made an 
inventory of all we had brought into the prison and said we 
could send these to our families if we wanted to, otherwise our 
things would be destroyed. I abandoned all I had in my posses- 
sion. This made me sad. For I prized the letters and snapshots 
I had with me — I had thought they would let me keep them 
— and it hurt me to realize they would be burned. I knew the 
moment had actually come when I was a convict; and a new life 
had begun. 

The guard who brought us to the compound had been stand- 
ing aside. He now took us to the prison barber. After we were 
all clipped and shaved, we were put through the icy showers. 

Next we were taken to the quartier cellulaire, the part of the 
prison where the bleak cells are; the guard let us into a large 
cell and lined us along the edge of the tier of bare boards which 
. served as a bunk. The prevot of the cells soon appeared. He 
asked us all our names and how many years of sentence we had 
each; when he came to Julien and had asked him this question 
he turned to the guard and remarked: 

"Young! . . . Pretty skin . . . nice cyesl Ha, some vieux will 
fight over him all right! He'll be snapped up! " 

The guard and the prevot broke into peals of rough laughter, 
and I saw a tear run down the youth's cheek. It must have gone 


Dry Guillotine 

hard with him to see that in Gurry's vicious tales there was no 

The prevot put chains on us and the two went out, com- 
manding us to observe a strict silence. 

In the morning we were each given a number and sent to 
Workshop Number 3 . There were about fifty men there, seated 
on benches shredding rope; all were dressed in the monotonous, 
irough prison clothes and they were all closely cropped and 
shaved. They were being watched by a guard who strolled from 
one end of the shop to the other, and as yve came in he motioned 
us to a bench, where a convict brought us bunches of rope and 
showed us how to work. A dead silence reigned, for the dis- 
cipline was one of iron. For the slightest thing — if a man 
turned his head, mumbled a word, exchanged a glance with 
another convict or smiled to him, he was taken to the cells, 
where the prevot was free to beat him as much as he liked ; and 
this cowardly punishment put fear into everyone, even into men 
who didn't give ia damn about irons or having nothing but 
dry bread to eat. However, there was a man working on a bench 
directly in front of us who immediately took an interest in 
Julien; every day he would roll a little note to him scribbled on 
a bit of paper. Then one day the guard surprised him in the act 
and they were both sent to the cells. 

Julien was in the cells two days. In the dormitory where we 
all slept together he was my neighbor, and the night he was 
brought back from the cells I noticed there were many long, 
livid stripes on his white back. In the dormitory we could get 
away with whispering and he told me the prevot had mistreated 
him brutally but had done nothing to the other convict, who 
was the cause of his being sent there, because the; convict and 
the prevot were friends. 

Julien began receiving scribbled notes from other convicts 
who proposed their friendship to him. My advice to him was 


Dry Guillotine 

to answer none of them. But a few days after he got out of the 
cells I caught him reading one of these notes one night; he 
said nothing to me, and I thought this a bit strange, because he 
had been consistent in making me his confidant. Then, the next 
morning I saw him scratch off a reply . . . and I understood. 
That night he confessed to me that in order to be left alone and 
have some peace he had given in and accepted:, it was the con- 
yict whose insistence had sent him to the cells, a hairy middle- 
aged ruffian called Dede, and from then on Julien became 
considered as Dede's little friend — his mome, as the convicts 
call the passive member of a sexual relationship between two 

It hurt me to see Julien fall prey to this heinous custom of 
convict life. However, he told me he had accepted the other's 
friendship only to escape the constant solicitations of other men; 
for every few days he received letters from his mother who 
assured him his sentence would be commuted to a term of 
prison, as his lawyer had addressed a powerful demand for his 
pardon to the Ministry of Justice and his commutation would 
certainly be granted, and Julien felt confident that he would not 
go to the penal colony. He was sure, therefore, that by favoring 
Dede he would be left in peace until he was taken away from 
Saint Martin de Re; in the meantime, the stringent discipline 
of the prison served to enable him to stave off successfully the 
consummation of the older man's desire. Then, one day, Julien 
was called from the workshop to the warden's office. "Must be 
that pardon," I said to him. But when he came back to his place 
beside me his face was white as a sheet and he looked like a 
man struck down by terrible news and intense emotion. His 
pardon had been refused! His doom was sealed. He must have 
known it too, for I heard his sobs where he lay that night in the 
darkness a few feet away from me in the dormitory. His two 
young comrades were in the same difficulty; they were also 

3 6 

Dry Guillotine 

receiving incessant notes and one after the other they were 
forced into accepting the favors of some one man in order to 
have any peace. By the middle of February there was talk of an 
early departure for French Guiana. Julien's fear now became 
ungovernable, and he sought to break relations with Dede; but 
the other threatened him, even openly at times, and Julien, 
afraid of the guards and that he would be sent to the fearful 
beating and kicking dealt put in the cells, fell into submis- 

Because I had an attractive penmanship and had some facil- 
ity of expression, every Sunday convicts approached me to 
;write letters for them; for many of those men in the prison 
couldn't write at all, or else didn't know how to write a good 
letter. Most of these letters were addressed to the Ministry of 
Justice beseeching pardons, others were instructions and details 
sent to a lawyer in the hope that he could work a miracle at the 
last moment. I wrote at least forty letters every Sunday, and 
this gave me an opportunity to learn the histories of a great 
many of the condemned men. 

Early in March the convict ship sailed for French Guiana, 
but neither I nor any of the others who had been brought to 
the prison with me were designated to sail on her. When we 
came the prison was overcrowded, although two months before 
a cargo had sailed for the penal colony; for in that year of 1923 
there were still some two thousand convicts in the various 
prisons of the nation, although there had been six convoys to 
French Guiana and more than four thousand convicts had been 
sent out. During the years of the war the convoys had been 
suspended, and the total of convicts waiting in the prisons had 
passed the five thousand mark! There still remained a great 
many distributed about in various parts of the country. A few 
idays after the departure of this last convoy they began pouring 
into the prison, and before long the six hundred that had sailed 


Dry Guillotine 

were replaced to ithe last man — they were to embark with us 
on the next convoy, which was slated to leave on the 3rd of June. 

Four hundred and fifty of us were designated to form the 
cargo and were separated from the other convicts. We were no 
longer made to work, and the prison authorities generously 
gave us an additional quart of wine every day; this was done, 
I learned, so that we would be in a better condition to stand the 
trying voyage. A doctor from the Army vaccinated us all for 
typhoid fever. The guards redoubled their nerve-cracking 
severity and every day at least thirty men were taken to the cells 
< — the true motive behind this added discipline was that the 
convicts sent to the cells didn't have a right to their extra 
quart of wine, and their share thus automatically fell to the 
guards in charge of them. Four days before jve were to embark 
a medical visit was conducted by two navy doctors; it was a 
rapid inspection, a very superficial one, for if a man was marked 
Hown to go he would be taken on the ship unless he was at the 
point of death. Out of the total number of men who were to 
sail only two were classed unfit; one jvas the son of a millionaire 
factory owner in Paris and the other, poor fellow, actually died 
jbefore we other men left the prison! 

During the days before departure many of the convicts' rela- 
tions came to the prison for a last visit with the forlorn who 
were still so dear to them. The visits were invariably very mov- 
ing, for almost all the convicts had their eyes red from crying 
when they came away: it was a wretched time because many 
Were seeing their wives, their children, their mothers and fathers 
for the last time. 

On the eye of departure bur canvas sailor sacks, containing 
two sets of clothing, a pair of wooden-soled shoes and a blanket 
were distributed to us. The last night had come! Many of us 
were glad to be off, to flee jhis prison where the discipline was 
so awful — most of us felt confident we would escape soon after 


Dry Guillotine 

jive reached the penal colony, and this certitude that we would 
soon manage to be free lifted our spirits a little and made us for 
a moment happier and more jovial. There were others though, 
for the most part men who were older and were fathers of 
families, who were bitterly sad; to them the departure meant 
good-bye forever — they were too old ever to return.: 

The morning came for the departure. The convict ship was 
ready. We were taken out into the court where we were lined 
into ranks of four. We saw now for the first time the guards 
from French Guiana. There were sixty of them standing in 
the court, waiting to take us in charge; most of them were 
going back to fcheir posts in the penal colony after a leave of 
absence, but there were some who had just received their rank 
and were having their first experience with convicts as well 
as embarking on their first crossing on the convict ship. 

Four hundred and fifty of us were listed to go; the ship could 
not take more because it had to take on convicts at Algiers, 
where the North African prison was overcrowded. The chief 
guard from Guiana counted every man; there were some miss- 
ing in the ranks, but the head guard of the prison showed him 
a wagon where three men who each lacked a leg and could not 
walk to the pier jvere chained, and where another lay, too 
weak to hold himself up. The count tallied and the consign- 
ment of human cargo was signed over. The guards of the prison 
then withdrew from their posts along our ranks and the ones 
from Guiana stepped into their places. From this moment on 
we belonged to the Penal Administration of Guiana. And, as 
if by a miracle, the discipline changed! We began to talk fear- 
lessly, cigarettes appeared — from nowhere — the new guards 
even deigned to light them for the condemned. It was a new 
and totally changed atmosphere. 

Guards immediately went out of their way to curry 
favor with exiled prisoners whom they were commissioned to 


Dry Guillotine 

guard! I was to learn quickly that each guard's mind was in- 
tensely active — searching out prisoners who might have ob- 
tained, in some manner, money or other valuables, and who 
were, therefore, likely prospects. 

Julien was at my side. His mind seemed remote from the 
rest of us while he stared vacantly at the back of the man ahead 
of him. He was going into the unknown, into uncertainty; and 
Julien was desperately afraid of the man he had thought he 
would be able to escape. 




Each of us shouldered his sailor bag. 

The gate of the old prison opened, 

Slowly we wretched, sordid-looking men who formed the 
cargo of the condemned began our last steps on the soil of 
France. A double line of Senegalese soldiers in field uniform, 
bayonets fixed to shouldered rifles, kept pace and hemmed us 
in. We crossed the large, embattled square of the fort and filed 
over the drawbridge into the town. 

Anxious and curious citizens from all points of France were 
there to watch our departure. Among them were the grief- 
struck — parents, wives, children and friends — who had 
come to have a last look at those who were close to their hearts 
and were leaving for exile. Among them, also, were the accom- 
plices who had come to see their unfortunate comrades go off to 
Guiana. Newspapermen snapped pictures. Standing precari- 
ously on an automobile an individual steadily cranked a motion 
picture camera. 

A wild scream suddenly broke out: "Adieu, Bebert! Good 
luck, courage!" It was the mistress of a cab driver from Mar- 
seilles who has come to see her man depart. 

"Oh, my son! Roger!" The crowd was in commotion, for a 
mother had fainted. The riflemen drew their line closer, and a 
couple of paces behind me the son of the poor woman growled 
at a guard who was kicking his mother back to sensibility. 
"You filthy brute," he said, "I'll kill you for that some day!" 

We reached the pier. 

Out on the water a heavy cloud of smoke billowed from the 
La Martinieres stacks. A number of barges waited to pake us 
to her gangplank. 

4 1 

Dry Guillotine 

After a long-drawn and nervous delay which made me very 
nervous the barges pushed off, Julien was at my side. Just then 
I felt the pressure of a hand on my shoulder, and turned to see 
Dede who had worked his way around to where we stood. When 
Julien looked up and saw him his face became pale. Dede 
offered us each a cigarette which in some manner he had man- 
aged to secure. Half an hour later we were boarding the convict 

As fc we marched up the gangway we crossed the deck and 
dropped our numbered sacks into a small hatch where they were 
stowed away. Then we went down a flight of narrow iron steps. 
One behind the other we were made to pass into a cage faced 
with heavy iron bars, through a small opening so low that we 
had to bend over to go through. Each cage was to hold ninety 
men. A guard counted usij "... 87, 88, 89, 90." I was the 
ninetieth man. He barred the opening after me, and turned 
Julien and Dede into the cage opposite. And that was the seal 
of Julien's doom. I cursed myself that I had not let him stand 
ahead of me — and thereby separated him from Dede. 

The portholes were closed and we could not look out at 
the coast. The line continued to file into the opposite cage, and 
in the rest of the ship more men were being herded into other 
cages. In this way, for more than an hour, the human cargo 
was finally distributed until the caged hold reeked with human 
sweat and bad breath. 

The steamer's whistle roared over us. Some of us ;were 
frenzied with despair. We milled in the cage, more possessed 
by the grief of departure than by the thought of the future. 
The heavy air, tainted with human smell, was sickening; We 
were like so many suddenly nervous animals penned behind 
bars. The ship began to vibrate. We were moving. A hopeless 
anguish possessed me: Would I ever see France again? 

A guard opened the grill and a sailor brought in a pile of 


Dry Guillotine 

Hammocks. Each man took one and hung it to the ceiling in 
the spot which to him seemed the best. Moyse hung his 
alongside of mine. Then the sailor opened the portholes. And 
those who had the chance to look through them were able to 
see, in the distance, the vanishing outline of the country's 
shore. In a few hours; half of the convicts ;were sick, for many 
of them iwere on the sea for the first time in their lives * — as 
jyell as for the last time. 

The La i ] Martiniete i is the old German freighter, Duala, 
iwhich used to make the run between Hamburg and the Cam- 
eroon. Since the end of the War it has been used for the trans- 
portation of convicts to Guiana. Its predecessor, the La Loire, 
;went down in the Adriatic, torpedoed by a German submarine 
in 191 6. 

On each trip to Guiana it carries about six hundred and 
eighty convicts, herded as we were into cages set up in the 
holds. Each hold contains two cages, one to starboard and the 
other to port. Between these two cages there is an open space 
in which, day and night, two armed guards stay constantly. 
The cages are approximately sixty-six feet long, about twelve 
feet wide and about twelve feet in height. They contain 
between eighty and ninety convicts, and there is hardly one 
square yard for each pair of feet. Their outer walls are the ship's 
hull, and their sides are the thick sheet-steel partitions which 
divide the hold of the ship. The inner side of the cages, facing 
the space where the guards watch, is a frame of heavy iron 
bars. They are entered through an opening in the center, so 
narrow that only one man can pass in at a time. 

Inside each cage there is a bench which runs the entire 
length of the frame of bars. This is the 'bench of justice*. On 
it unruly convicts are made to sit; it is so high that their feet 
cannot touch the floor and, with their backs against the bars, 
their hands are brought around on the outside and handcuffed. 


Dry Guillotine 

The position is unendurable and the toughest ones soon have 
had enough. For cases of extreme punishment there are the hot 
cells; these are of sheet-iron and are close to the boilers, and are 
so small that a man cannot straighten up in them. The heat 
inside is awful. A man is given only a quart of water a day to 
drink. The possibility of a mass rebellion has been foreseen: in 
the ceiling of each cage there are openings through which steam 
can be ejected; at a word the engineer with a turn of a knob, 
can send jets of scalding vapor spurting in on the whole convict 

For half an hour every morning the condemned are marched 
up on deck to breathe fresh air while the sailors slosh the cages 
with buckets of water. It is a critical moment, the only one 
when real trouble is possible. Discipline is then strict in the 
extreme: the convicts are not allowed to talk, move or even 
turn their heads, and must stand silently facing the sea. They 
are let out from only two cages at a time and all the guards, 
;with weapons drawn, watch them closely. 

The food is extremely bad. For, since the Government allots 
a sum of only 450 francs per convict for the crossing, the 
captain very naturally cuts down as much as he can on the 
quantity of the food he has to serve out. His excuse is that 
half the men, being ill from seasickness, do not eat. As for the 
quart of wine each convict is supposed to get on the ship, there 
are every day whole cages which have to go without it for some 
reason or another: The guards drink up every man's portion 
which, by some trumped-up charge, they are free to confiscate. 

These guards, I soon saw, were men of a very different type 
from the ones of the prisons of France. While the latter were 
individuals who had chosen their calling because it did not 
demand much of them and were for the most part rough brutes 
who thought of nothing else but punishing, the guards of 
Guiana were more approachable and one quickly understood 


Dry Guillotine 

that they had chosen the profession to line their pockets rather 
jthan to serve conscientiously in a social enterprise. 

Discipline was very lax and we were able to talk, play cards 
and smoke in the cages. Conversation turned naturally to 
jGuiana and the subject of escapes. There were some in my cage 
jvho had small maps of South America torn from atlases 
and they spent their time studying these minutely, measuring 
distances and learning names for rivers and towns of the coun- 
tries which surround Guiana; and the majority of them tried 
their ability to pronounce words which a few months ago 
for them did not exist: Paramaribo, Venezuela, Orinoco, 
Oyapok. . . . 

Cliques were formed quickly! Parisians got together, men 
from Marseilles sided off to themselves, each national gravitated 
to his kind. There was a distinct group, however, which is com- 
posed of men from everywhere. These were the forts-a-bras: 
the heavily tattooed ones, the strong-armed men who had 
lived many years in the military prisons in Africa and knew all 
the tricks. They were the ones who, from the very beginning 
of the voyage had tobacco and other things in the cage. On the 
second day out they had already organized different types of 
gambling games which they made ingeniously; playing-cards 
drawn on bits ,of paper or cardboard, checkers and dominoes 
fashioned from kneaded bits of bread or lumps of sugar. They 
became the leaders and the relentless bullies of the cage; their 
muscles which bulged on their shoulders like lumps of steel, 
their scarred foreheads, their thick lips that turned suddenly 
into snarls, vomiting coarse ejaculations and obscene sentences, 
jvere part and parcel with their tattooed obscenities-pictures 
;with the legend "Ca vaf poupeel" below. The forts-a-bras I 
Their quick eyes had a sinister, sizing-up look and theirs, I 
realized, was a vicious mentality. Every one of them sought out 
the company of some young convict, and before the third day 


Dry Guillotine 

they all had mome companions. They had no scruples and 
during the night, while the others slept, they stole anything 
they could. They stole pur linen and sold it to the sailors who, 
for it and other articles, swapped packages of tobacco? from 
the deck the sailors dropped a [weighted line to the porthole of 
the privy, and each parcel of stolen goods brought five or six 
packages of tobacco to the waiting tattooed form! 

When the time came for food, a few of the convicts in the 
cage were sent to get it. They would bring it in huge buckets 
and another would dish it out, invariably favoring his comrades 
at the expense of the convicts who were weak or old. Moyse 
and I were sticking together and between us managed to get 
our share; we had already begun to lay plans to escape through 
the forest when we got to Guiana, and had no doubts that our 
decision and courage would get us pur freedom easily. Oh 
repeated occasions I would look through the heavy bars into the 
opposite cage, trying to get a glimpse of Julien, but he 4 was 
always put of sight, buried in that human mass; then, once 
when I was doing this, a man over in that cage who had seen 
me several times from where he lay stretched out on his blanket, 
called across to me: "He's married to Dede now!" 

On the second night after our departure I was startled out of 
my sleep by a rough jostling against my hammock which 
nearly upset me and threw me to the floor. Two men were 
struggling in the hammock which was strung up next to mine; 
then the commotion ceased and I overheard their arguing, which 
was in a low; voice. I understood then what had been going on: 
the rather young fellow in the hammock had innocently 
swapped notes with the other while we were in the prison, had 
even accepted presents of food and other extras, believing this 
was one who liked him and wanted to be his friend — now the 
other was demanding what he claimed to be his right. 

Three days after leaving Saint Martin the ship arrived at 

4 6 

Dry Guillotine 

Algiers, where it took on two hundred more convicts, for the 
most part Arabs and blacks from the French colonies in Africa. 
It then headed, straight for Guiana. We passed between Gib- 
raltar and Tangiers and went out on the high sea. 

One day a quarrel broke out in the cage. Two convicts who 
had been enemies in the central prison, wanted to settle matters. 
Each one had fashioned a knife by sharpening the handle of 
his spoon on the cement floor. We all lined ourselves against the 
bars to hide the fight from the eyes of the guards; on duty. The 
forts-a-bras began singing a ditty in unison, so that any cries 
of the struggling men could not be heard outside. The fight 
lasted about ten minutes and blood ran freely over the strug- 
gling bare torsos. Suddenly one of the fighters slipped, and the 
other was preparing to finish him off when the fallen man's 
comrades stepped in and held him back. A few of the convicts 
got some water for him and he washed himself clean of blood. 
About this time the guards became suspicious that something 
unusual was going on in the cage and entered, revolver in hand. 
Their eyes fell on the; blood-soaked loser and they gave the; 
alarm. In a moment a dozen guards were in the cage. They 
commianded two convicts to carry out the wounded man and 
demanded that the other man in the fight step forward. The 
fellow had to denounce himself, for he still bled and knew he 
Would be found put. The wounded convict was taken to the 
infirmary and, an hour later, he was back again taped up and 
covered with bandages. As for his adversary, he was placed in a 
hot cell for the rest of the yoyage and there the matter rested, 

As we reached the tropics the heat and closeness of the; jair 
in the cage became terrible. Three-fourths of the men wore 
nothing but towels about their waists. The water became con- 
taminated and the sailors poured rum into it so it would be 
drinkable; later yvhen it became wqrse they had to replace the 


Dry Guillotine 

rum with permanganate. Twice a day we were given a collective 
shower; the sailors came down into the hold with hoses and, 
pointing them into the cages, soused the steaming men with 
fresh salt water. It was a delicious relief. 

Occasionally the ship cut its engines and slowed down. 
Then it would regain its speed. The human cargo, we all knew 
instantly, had been diminished by one. A wretch had died, 
finishing his term in the cages. One afternoon a convict who 
had gone to get the; soup exclaimed to me, "Do you know who 
was dropped in the sea this morning? " 
"No! Who was he?" I demanded. 
"Raoul — little Juliets friend," he replied. 

Already one of the nine men who had accompanied me on 
the prison train had died. Which one; of us, I wondered, would 
be the next to die? 

One day, when we had been on the sea about a fortnight, a 
piercing cry came from the cage opposite mine — then there 
was a noisy scuffling, accompanied by a series of yells. I was one 
of the first to the bars to see what was going on. Two Arabs 
had become engaged in a fierce fight all oyer the cage; one was 
chasing the other, who dodged among the men, and every time 
he caught up with him there would be yells and a furious scuffle 
while the other convicts tried to get out of the way of the fists 
and kicking feet. The guards on duty broke into the cage and 
put an end to the affair — which by this time was being cheered 
tumultuously by the men. The two Arabs were seized and 
dragged out into the space between the cages, and an investi- 
gation began. 

It seemed that one of the Arabs had pounced on the other 
while he slept, and bit his ear in two while he held him by the 
throat with one hand and by the hair with the other. The other 
Arab had kicked to his feet and, blind with fury, had tried to 
lay his hands on his assailant who fled from him through the 

4 8 

Dry Guillotine 

crowded cage. The bite had been brought on by a fit of jealousy 
over the favors of a young convict. It had all come about in a 
flash, and the ensuing mad chase, and yells of the enemies 
every time they closed, had created pandemonium in the hold; 
for when they yelled in a scuffle the cries and cheers of the 
other convicts in the cage were taken up by all of us in the other 
cages and the place sounded as though a cargo of lions had gone 
amuck! The guards came flocking down the narrow steps, not 
knowing what was taking place. 

The two guards on duty were furious. When they had bel- 
lowed, 'Silence!' we convicts had only intensified the uproar, 
and the situation had gotten out of hand. They were mad 
enough to murder the whole lot of us, and they took it out on 
the two Arabs, whom they cuffed and handled roughly in the 
space between the cages. Sarcastic remarks and insults came 
floating out to them from the herds behind the bars, which 
only added fire to their anger. 

The two Arabs became the butt of their revenge. The guards 
singled out the one who had done the biting — they went into 
a conference, and decided to punish him severely, by way of an 
example to the rest of us. Orders were given that he receive ten 
strokes with the rope and the punishment was to take place 
right there between the two cages. 

The guards all stood back, so that we could see. The Arab, 
naked to the waist, was made to kneel while a big sailor wielded 
the rope. The ship doctor looked on. At the: first blow blood 
flowed, but the Arab did not let out a groan! 

Whuahffff The second fell, raising another long welt across 
his back. 

Whuahffff whuahffff The next blows rained down. Blood 
ran in tricklets down his sides. The man bit his lips, but did not 
make a sound. He only shut his eyes hard when he heard the 
rope sing. The forts-a-bras were muttering curses at the sailor. 


Dry Guillotine 

At the eighth blow the doctor stopped the punishment, and 
the Arab was earned to the infkmaty while his enemy was taken 
to the hot cells. 

Over in a comer of pur cage two men jvhose faces were some- 
what more intelligent than those of the others talked together 
hour after hour; they were Sasse and Marquetti, who barely 
escaped the guillotine for assassinating the Chief of Secret 
Police of the city of Cette. Alone, and taking no one into their 
confidence, they ;were preparing carefully for an attempt to 
escape as soon as we reached Guiana. 

A number of pervert couples had become established, some 
of whom had had their beginnings in the prison of Saint Martin 
de Re and were now effective. The very young convicts, seven- 
teen and eighteen years of age, not having the strength or the 
^ill-power to resist, had fallen into the vice because of fear. As 
the crime cargo approached Guiana, the life which awaited the 
condemned there became more and more defined, while the 
guards looked on, and of ten aided in its development with a 
smile on their lips. 

One morning the shore appeared, and a few hours later the 
ship came to a stop off the mouth of the Maroni River. It 
waited for the high tide. Then we entered the river and steamed 
slowly along the French bank toward Saint Laurent. Twenty- 
two days had gone by. 

We all flocked to the portholes of the cage. All wanted to 
look. There were exclamations of many kinds. 
"Monkeys! Look, over there 
' 'Look, Toto, a parrot flying! 
"The jungle! Look how big the trees are!" 

With so many rude and forceful companions elbowing each 
other I succeeded in getting to a porthole only for a moment. As 
I looked out at the high green jungle which slid along the bank, 
its immensity frightened me, for I knew I had to live surrounded 


Dry Guillotine 

by it, and through it I'd have to take my chance &$ escape. 

The guards ordered some of the convicts out. They were 
made to go for pur sacks, yvrhich yvere distributed to us in jthe 

"Dress for landing," the order came. And every man began 
to put on clothes, setting his cap on his head as best he could. 
For we still had a little vanity left. 

The whistle blew. Then the ship came to a standstill. I 
could hear the river water lapping against its side. A little later 
the guards took their posts and the grills yvere opened. We 
began to file out. 

Before us Saint Laurent du Maroni, the city of crime, lay 
still under the morning sun, and its colonial aspect looked 
pleasant. But many among us turned their heads furtively to 
look at the other bank, the Dutch shore, and their hearts beat 
fast for they thought that there, in the Dutch jungles, lay 
liberty . > . close at hand. 

The arrival of a cargo of convicts at Saint Laurent is an event 
which the entire population comes to see :with curiosity. The 
pier jvas crowded with officials dressed in white and wearing 
pith helmets; some were accompanied by their wives. 

When the entire cargo had been taken off the ship we were 
marshalled into a line on the long pier. A group of guards who 
bore many service stripes on J heir sleeves counted the convicts, 
some of jvhom lay prone on the landing waiting to be carried 
to the hospital; a short list accounted for those missing from the 
convoy < — those ;whq had been thrown into the sea. A tall 
negro, dressed spotlessly in civilian clothes, stood to one side 
[watching the procedure. He was the Director of _the Penal 
"Sacks up!" a guard shouted. "Forward march!" 

And slowly we marched off the landing. A flock of blacks 
and negresses who had been kept off the pier stood along the 

5 1 

,7-ft. ■ 1 — .„ .—^fW— 

Dry Guillotine 

shore and lined pur path. The black women laughed freely and 
gesticulated in pur direction. One exclaimed, "Keep your spirits 
up, you!" Their spontaneity infected us, for it seemed so gay 
after the long trial of the crossing. There were also many white 
men, but they presented a miserable front. We could see they 
;were little excited by pur arrival. Most of them were barefoot; 
they were all shabbily dressed, and some were bare-armed and 
had on torn undershirts. A few wore dirty, frayed hats. Then 
we saw the convicts in red and white stripes and wide straw 
hats. One of them drew near and asked, "Any from Marseilles 
in your cage?" Two others came up and walked along with 
us. One of them had recognized in my neighbor a boyhood 
friend, and I overheard him say: "I'm the Director's cook — 
I'll send you a note tomorrow. If they ask your profession, say 
you're a painter! " And I saw him hand hisjiewly arrived friend 
a pack of cigarettes and some money. One of my companions, 
;who had also overheard the conversation, whispered to mej] 
"Eb ben, I'm going to say I paint, too!" 

After we had filed along the bank of the Maroni for a 
distance of several hundred yards we were turned to the left. 

In a high wall, there was a huge gate before which were a 
frumber of guards. Over the opening gate I read in large letters:; 


"C'est le bagnel" the man behind me murmured, in a voice 
that was already weary and, seemingly, robbed of all hope, "So 
this is where I'll live — until I die!" 


A SECTION of the Saint Laurent camp was ready to receive 
us and, as soon as we arrived, we were locked into barracks in 
groups of sixty men. Under no pretext whatever were the old 
convicts in Guiana to communicate with the newly arrived 
men. This order was official. But there was no official order 
which has to be strictly observed in the French penal colony. 
That was one of the first things I found out. 

A few hours after our distribution in the barracks and when 
the doors had been locked, five men came up to the barred 
"Tobacco?" they whispered. "Coffee! Bananas!" 

We were tempted. "But how are we to pay?" I asked. "I 
have no money!" 

"With your clothes," they answered and then quoted their 
prices. A pair of pants was worth 40 sous; a blouse, 30 sous; a 
blanket, 5 francs. 

Many of us hesitated. We were afraid of the punishment 
that would follow if we were found without our complete outfit 
of clothes. But the convicts outside assured us through the bars, 
saying: "Here things are different; the guards pay little atten- 
tion to whether you have clothes or not! And then," they 
insinuated, "you can always say the stuff was stolen from you 
on the ship!" 

This, unfortunately, had been true enough for many of us. 
The deal began. One new arrival sold a pair of trousers, another 
a blouse . . . And that night everybody had his pack of cigar- 
ettes — and a few bananas to eat! 

The next morning at reveille several men discovered that 
even the clothes they had retained in their possession had dis- 
appeared. The thieves did not have to be looked for: they were 
the same ones who had done the stealing at night on the ship. 


Dry Guillotine 

As for the buyers, they had been the turnkeys* on night duty 
around the barracks who had bargained for the stolen effects 
and obtained them for a small price. Seeing this, the men hesi- 
tated no longer. Rather than be despoiled of what remained p£ 
their clothes they preferred fro sell them, and the trading 

On the second morning after bur arrival, the Commandant 
of the penitentiary at Saint Laurent assembled everybody in the 
compound and made the following speech:] "You have here 
two paths to follow, the good one and the bad one. Those of ypu 
k who content yourselves with quiet behavior jnay hope to be par- 
doned:] at least it will be possible for you to serve your term 
[without suffering unduly, and to better your condition every 
day. Now, there is the other path: the alternative the majority 
of you, I know, are firmly decided to take — escape. Here in 
Guiana you enjoy a great amount of liberty, and you can try to 
escape whenever you like. But we have two constantly watching 
guardians who are always at their post; the jungle and the sea. 
In the jungle it will be death for you from hunger or under the 
knives of your own comrades: at sea the sharks will get you. I 
know what ypu are thinking about; lye been here sixteen years 
and I know your minds even better than you do! I know that 
in less than fifteen days many of you will be off into the jungle; 
I know also that these will return soon and I'll see them in .thg 

*note: These turnkeys are convicts, for the most part Arab, who are 
'detailed to help the guards. They open and lock the doors of the bar- 
racks and cells; they search the men at the command of the guards; 
and when there is not a guard available to accompany a small gang of 
convicts to work they take his place. They are often useful to the con- 
victs for they get many things to them which they are forbidden 
to have and cannot obtain, this depending on a financial remuneration, 
of course. They will also close their cyts when they search a convict, 
if Ee makes it worth their while. A Governor has said of them: "A 
turnkey is a functionary, and his position is not a sign of good conduct." 


Dry Guillotine 

cells or in the hospital, except for those who are lying as skele- 
tons picked clean by ants at the foot of some tree. 

"To those of you who are men with good intentions, I wish 
luck." He finished, but then he added as he turned away;! 
"Just to show you how impossible escape really is, I will not 
punish the first attempt! " 

A few days later our names were entered on the penal roll. 
"Belbenoit, Rene: 46635" — the figures burned like a brand 
into my mind. I was the forty-six thousandth, six hundred and 
thirty-fifth condemned man who had arrived in Guiana since 

Julien was given the number right after mine on the penal 
roll, and we were now put into the same barrack. I was able to 
talk to him again. He had learned about the miserable death of 
Raoul at sea. It had been a painful shock to him. I refrained 
from asking him any questions about how he fared on the cross- 
ing for there were no doubts in my mind as to what the poor 
youth had been forced to put up with. That same night when we 
;were together again in this barrack, he got a note from Dede 
telling him he was going to be changed to another barrack next 
day; and on that very next morning Julien was changed over 
to Dede's barrack. The latter had given die convict who was 
the bookkeeper at the camp a few francs as a bribe to transfer 
Julien! The youth made no effort to fight back, and went 
off quietly to the sexual brute whose victim he had become. 
He'd once said to me, 'Td rather die than live a life like that." 
I was never to see him again. In five days he became sick and 
died in the hospital shortly afterwards. I learned later that Dede, 
yulture and corrupt brute that he was, had sent Julien's few 
^personal effects to his forlorn mother, begging her to please 
send him some money to have a slab put on the tomb of her son ; 
she sent him several hundred francs, never suspecting that they 
were for the pockets of the beast who had kiUed her boy. 


Dry Guillotine 

Then came the medical inspection. It lasted hardly two 
hours. Nine tenths of the convoy was classed in good physical 
condition, capable of any work. Those who were very weak 
were classed for light work and a few (those who lacked a limb 
or were crippled) were classed as incapable. As I presented 
myself before the doctor I showed him my title to a war pen- 
sion and he classed me for light work: this saved me later from 
many a misery. 

At the end of a week we were distributed among the labor 
camps in the jungle. I now had to part with Moyse, with whom 
I'd made my plans to get away from the penal colony at the 
first possible moment. He was sent with a group of other con- 
yicts to install a radio station in the village of Saint Georges in 
the region of Oyapoc on the frontier of Brazil. All our hopes 
and plans had been of no avail! He wished me good luck before 
he went. I was never to see him again: news reached me later 
that he was drowned attempting to escape in a dugout with 
six others soon after he got to Saint Georges. 

Only a few of the men of my cargo remained in Saint 
Laurent. The others were all sent into the jungle to labor. The 
Administration makes no distinction whatever: whether a con- 
yict is young or old, is sentenced for life or for five years, is 
condemned for murder or for desertion from the Foreign Legion; 
whether in civil life he was office clerk, laborer, artist or business 
man: all are set to the same tasks. Since we had just arrived and 
were stronger, supposedly, than the anemic convicts already 
there, we were set immediately at the worst and hardest tasks. 

Most of the men of my cargo were put to work in the 
jungle. Most of them were men accustomed to city life in the 
temperate zone. Men who had never had an axe in their hands 
were put to work chopping down huge trees in the heart of the 
tropics. For them a miserable existence now began, a frightful 
life under which more than half of them would quickly break 


Dry Guillotine 

and die. Of the round seven hundred that arrive each year in 
Guiana, four hundred, the records show, die in the first year. 

In the timber camps, at five-thirty in the morning while it is 
still dark, the guards awake the prisoners. Tools are distributed, 
convicts go off in gangs into the jungle. The task imposed by 
the Administration is one stere, one cubic meter, of lumber per 
man for each day. The convict has to chop down the tree, cut 
it up into pieces and pile his stere in a designated spot — which 
is often hundreds of yards away from any place where there is 
standing timber. He has four days in which to learn how to do 
the work; if, on the fifth day, he has not completed his task he 
is given only dry bread when he comes from the forest. 

The convicts at work are not accompanied by a guard. Each 
is free to chop trees wherever he likes. For, when you think of 
it, where could he go — with only an axe? The guards, at three 
in the afternoon, visit the place where the s teres are to be stacked 
to see if every man has done his job, and the ones who have 
not finished by that time will go hungry. 

One has to see these ragged creatures trooping off into the 
jungle, their feet bare, carrying their axes awkwardly on their 
shoulders with just half a pint of black coffee in their stomachs, 
to realize the depth of despair to which they, have sunk. 
Drenched in perspiration, striking with all their might at trees 
which often are so hard they turn the edge of the axe, they 
sob and swear; they know nothing of jungle timber, and will 
sometimes try valiantly to cut down a tree which steel will barely 
bite into. One should see them at noon, working continuously 
in the hot sun or in the close, mushy dampness under the 
shadows of the great trees, with sweat streaming at every pore, 
and mosquitoes biting every inch of exposed flesh; working 
frantically to have their task finished on time so as to get some- 
thing to eat. And when they return to camp all wet there are 
no clothes to change into, for they have none; they have either 


Dry Guillotine 

bartered them; away for necessities, or someone has stolen .them 
before they came to the camp. 

For food, this is what the Administration issued to us:] 
In the morning, at five-thirty, half a pint of black coffee. At 
noon, 750 grams (26 ounces) of bread, a pint of broth [which 
contained no vegetables and was little more than hot water, and 
90 grams (over three ounces) of boiled beef, at least part of 
;which we had to throw away. At night, we received five times a 
;week 60 grams (over two ounces) of rice, ;which is the bare 
equivalent of six or seven spoonfuls. That is all. If there were 
no rice!, we received 100 grams (three and a half ounces) of yege- 
tables — either dty beans or dried peas. Every Frenchman, 
proverbially, must have bread in the morning to eat with his 
coffee, but there ;was not a convict in ten who could manage 
to save a little piece; for his breakfast next day! The bread was 
given out in loaves to be divided between two men, and the 
practice was to take turns each day with the other man at cut- 
ting one's loaf in two. The man who wasn't doing the cutting 
;would take his pick of the two halves. Yet the men were so 
pressed by hunger that bitter disputes and knife blows would 
arise oyer a ttiere crust of bread. Albert Londres, a French news- 
paper man ;who visited the prison colony, has said, and very 
rightly^ "Ee format pit sur sa faim." — "The convict lives on his 

For the mien of my cargo a miserable life now began. They 
had no money to buy even a little tobacco, and were obliged to 
barter away the stick of soap the Administration issued them 
every month. 

There iwere also the diseases prevalent; in this climate to 
which they Jwere not accustomed. These unfortunates who 
came from a cold climate and were made to work in a humid 
jungle, jvho had to endure the burning sun, who were bitten 
incessantly by mosquitoes and other pests, ;who were drenched 

5 8 

Dry Guillotine 

from head to foot by the daily rains, found themselves under- 
nourished, badly housed and indifferently treated; all down 
through the years, since 1 852 it has been the same. 

They see their companions falling sick and perishing all 
around them. Often, in the morning when they wake up, they 
find their feet soaked in blood: they were victims in the night 
of the silent-winged vampire bats which infest the jungle bar- 
racks, and it is only a matter of weeks before they are so anemic 
they can hardly stand up. Also after they have been in a camp 
a few days they are full of chiques, tiny insects like fleas 
;which dig their way into the human flesh under the nails of 
fingers and toes, and deposit egg sacks; ;when the sacks swell 
up and burst, or are punctured, infection and blood poisoning 
set in. One month after the arrival of each human cargo the 
hospital is filled, and every night five or six bodies leave for the 
'Bamboos', the cemetery of unmarked graves at Saint Laurent. 

To the physical exertion in the heat and dampness of a 
hostile climate, is to be added the mental suffering of which 
they are quick victims, in the monotony of their life. The 
psychology of the place at first frightens them: for the axiom 
of life in French Guiana is every man for himself; self-interest 
reigns supreme and is at the bottom of every action. Each man 
revolts inwardly against everything. Reduced to a struggle for 
bare existence, they shut themselves up within themselves for 
refuge. They are miserably lonely — but, to each man, each 
other convict appears incapable of sympathetic understanding 
or appears to be an evil character: for they all, with a warped per- 
spective, see each other at their worst, when they are looking 
with their hearts for someone unattainable to talk with, to con- 
fide in, to lift them out of that Hell. They hunger for someone 
'all right* to talk with. But they withdraw within themselves 
and encase themselves in a world of their own. Many acquire 
the habit of talking to themselves; it is a sort of a safe com- 


Dry Guillotine 

munion which, to some extent, brings relief . There is no help- 
ing of one another, no cooperation; for there is lack of good 
faith, lack of trust, among men of this type, particularly in this 
environment where life is stripped of all civilized sentiment. 
Individualism, egotism, take the leading role in guiding their 
actions, and every prisoner suffers in this exile from the devour- 
ing restlessness which is one of the factors in his obsession to 

The convicts in Guiana say that one cargo of convicts 
replaces another. This is true. For every year seven hundred 
new men arrive — and the total number of prisoners does not 
permanently increase. When a convoy comes the total rises to 
3,500; the hospital overflows, some disappear in the jungle, 
and in the twelve months before the next ship load arrives the 
count has dropped again to 2,800. The policy of the Admin- 
istration is to kill, not to better or reclaim. To the Administra- 
tion the men u who arrive on the convict ship are things to be 
disposed of. 

Many of us newly-arrived convicts remembered this re- 
mark which the Commandant had intentionally saved for the 
end of his speech to us, and of course most of us thought to our- 
selves: "The silly old fool — I'll be gone in a week!" And 
almost every man, when he thought he saw an opportunity, 
piade a break for freedom. They left their camps, taking along 
a few lumps of bread and whatever food they could manage to 
lay their hands on, certain that with courage and will-power 
they, although others had failed, would succeed in getting out 
to freedom. Some tried to swim across the Maroni River into 
the jungles of Dutch Guiana, others started off through the 
French jungle in an attempt to reach Brazil. The first were 
quickly arrested: if they succeeded in getting beyond Albina, 
the Dutch outpost, they were caught further on; at all events, 
only a few got beyond Paramaribo. The others wandered about 


Dry Guillotine 

in the jungle days and days, often weeks. Many became lost 
and perished. Most of them came back of their own accord, 
hungry and shaking with fever, to the camp from which they 
departed. Others got caught when they sneaked into a prison 
camp at night, looking for food. Some were captured by the 
relentless chasseurs dhommes who hunt convicts in Dutch 
Guiana for the reward they get per head. And all who came 
back had to be taken to the hospital, gravely ill: for they were 
bitten and cut, were suffering from dysentery and fever and 
other diseases, and many of them died in the hospital. The 
Administration had, indirectly, struck another group off the 
list of men. 

This procedure is not followed every year, but every Director 
of the Administration has his own way of getting rid of a cer- 
tain proportion of the unadapted new men who do not know 
how the game is played and are ignorant of the dangers of the 
environment - — it never fails. Within six months after they 
arrive in Guiana most of the convicts are reduced from a civilized 
state and live a daily life little — if at all — better than that of 
primitive beasts. 

They become accustomed to going barefoot, for the wooden 
shoes given out by the Administration are unsuitable for the 
environment and for the work which has to be done, and there 
is hardly one convict who will continue to wear them. Gov- 
ernors, many times, have protested and insisted that this type 
of shoe be changed, but no other type has ever been sent out 
from France. In addition to having nothing on their feet, under- 
clothes and socks are now; a thing of die past and, with hand- 
kerchiefs and towels, cease to exist for them. They do not even 
wash themselves in the morning, for this is often impossible, 
— > the water in the barracks is never plentiful. What little 
there is must be kept for drinking. As for a tooth brush, this 
is a luxury which is never seen. A rapid stripping of customary 


Dry Guillotine 

Habits crushes self-respect in many men, and is the beginning 
of their degeneration. 

They ;write home less and less frequently. For one thing they 
must buy paper, envelopes and stamps when they are miser- 
ably destitute and are pressed to use what money they get 
their hands on for the relief of smoking, a distraction which 
becomes a vice in (Guiana. Yet that is not the fundamental 
reason; the real factor is the environment and the distance 
between them and their former life. It takes four to five months 
for an answer to reach them, and they are further cut off from 
interchange with their former connections by being forbidden 
to receive packages or money. Some are lucky enough to get 
mail and money sent to them in care of a guard — who takes 
half for the service, but in time the convicts become estranged 
from those who were close to them, and the gulf grows wider 
between the present and the past they used to know back 
home, for they are ashamed to continue to write about their 
existence and find nothing else to say. Relentlessly, the environ- 
ment absorbs them and they soon fall into a mental attitude 
which makes it impossible to share their thoughts with those 
outside; it is too much for their pride, it is hard for them to tell 
of their existence and they shrink from writing. Little by little 
the urge to communicate with the outside is supplanted by the 
actuality of the insufferable conditions they jure; subjected to, 
and they cease writing altogether. 

There is no religious provision or observance for the convicts; 
no church, no priest. There are no books for these thousands of 
condemned men who are banished from civilization for the 
better part of their lives, or forever. 

The prisoner must be equipped with a strong constitution 
and temperament to resist and override these physical and moral 
exactions which most of them can not endure — and from 
which many perish. Those who are not dead at the end of the 


Dry Guillotine 

first six months are the ones who have adapted themselves to 
a bestial existence. For them life will be a little easier; but, even 
so, many of them are destined to die before their first year is 
up, or in the next ... or in the next. Three out of the eight men 
with whom I had walked into the prison at Saint Martin de 
Re jyere already dead — and the other five were to die in less 
than two years. I was one man in a cargo of seven hundred, 
little, physically weak, unused to hardship — how long would 
it be possible, I wondered, for me to last?, 



EIGHT days after my arrival at Saint Laurent I was told that I 
would be sent with a dozen other new convicts to Nouveau, 
a camp in the jungle. 

When he had handed each one of us our food rations for 
the day, the chief guard of Saint Laurent called over an Arab 
turnkey and told him to show us the way. 

We crossed the town and were soon trooping down a shoddy # 
street leading to its outskirts. 

The turnkey halted us as we passed a small store, where a 
Chinaman leaned in the doorway watching us, and remarked: 
"If any of you want to buy tobacco or food before you leave the 
town you can go into this store/ ' And he added, "He's got a 
good rum!" 

Two of us had a few sous resulting from the sale of our shirts 
but the rest were penniless. Nevertheless, we felt strongly 
tempted to go in the store. Such a thing had not been allowed 
us for so long! It was the enjoyment of a little liberty. 

The turnkey, realizing we had no money, proposed to buy 
our clothes. I sold a pair of trousers to him and the others sold 
various other odds and ends of clothing. Then we went into the 
store. A package of tobacco, a loaf of bread, a glass of rum . . . 
and my trousers were liquidated. 

When we came out of the shop the Arab led us to a place 
where a narrow path disappeared into the trees. There, at the 
edge of the jungle, he said to us: "You have to follow that path. 
This afternoon you'll be in Camp Nouveau — it's only four- 
teen miles from here." And he went off and left us. 

We stood there amazed. We could not believe we would be 
left alone that way to proceed unescorted into the jungle! We 
looked around furtively, and gazed over at Dutch Guiana across 
the river. Surely there was a guard hidden somewhere, watch- 


Dry Guillotine 

ing us, we thought. This must be a sly way o£ checking up on 
our intentions! 

We started off on the trail. As we walked along we expected 
to find a guard beyond the next bend waiting to pick us up and 
follow us to the camp. But there was not a soul in sight. We 
seemed to be alone in the jungle. 

When we had been on the way an hour or so, we passed by 
the first camp. It was Camp des Malgaches. Fifteen convicts 
;were stooped over in the dirt road digging weeds, while a few 
yards away a guard stood chatting with a turnkey. They all 
looked at us when we came up, and one of the convicts asked 
us where we were going. The guard pointed to a new trail and 
told us to keep moving. 

Later we encountered a group of half naked men coming 
toward us carrying axes, who jog-trotted along and seemed in a 
hurry. But they stopped a moment to talk to us, for they saw 
by our light, untanned faces that we were from the new cargo. 
They had finished their stere of lumber and told us they were 
going back to camp for their nets. Then they would go into the 
forest again and catch Morphos and other butterflies, which, 
they said, brought a little money when sold to the prison offi- 
cials. It struck me as bizarre that those tanned axe wielders in 
order to smoke and buy food had to chase the delicate, beautiful 
winged creatures which flitted so ethereally across my path. 
Little did I realize then that I was to make many a franc, in the 
long years to come, at the same strange occupation! 

Around noon we came to Camp Godebert, which was about 
ten miles distant from Saint Laurent. A few convicts stood near 
the path as we were passing, and one of them called out my 
name. I looked at him in greaK^rprise but failed to recognize 
him. He noticed this, and spoke his name as he came; up to me. 
"lye gotten thin, no?" he remarked. 

He was an old acquaintance of the prison, at Saint Martin 

6 5 

Dry Guillotine 

4e Re; he had been brought put in; the cargo just befofc§ 
mine. He was hardly the same man . — his face was haggard, 
and he could not have weighed more than one hundred pounds, 
*'I think I'm going to leave my bones here. It's the fever!" 
He said in a hollow voice. "At Nouveau, where you're going 
for light ;work, it's a little better. You ;won't be chopping 
trees out in the jungle. That's what kills a man, that and the 
fever. Look at me - — back home where I was a lawyer's clerk 
I'd never even seen an axe: now they make me chop eight hours 
a day, here on the equator! " A guard came up and told us to 
get moving, and that was the last time I was to see him. 

The early afternoon ;was stuffy. We were now in no hurry, 
£s jve realized that, between the camps, we were not being 
[watched, so we loitered on the trail. The day had been oppres- 
sive to us who had just come from France, and we were tired 
after the morning's walk. We would often sit at the foot of the 
big trees or whenever we came to a clear spot on the trail. We 
saw; a number of snakes; with their heads mashed in. We would 
jpick these up and examine them with interest, for they were 
new to us. There were monkeys jumping about in the high 
trees and ;we would stop and gather together to watth them. 
!We saw several beautiful birds and strange-looking parasitic 
plants dangling from the trees. All these things captivated our 
attention, and life did not seem so bitter to us then. 

As the afternoon progressed the going became cool. Around 
four o'clock we reached the Nouveau camp. In the jungle sea 
fifty acres of trees had been cut and burned — and many years 
of toiling men had trampled the mud into a sunbaked plaza. 
Thatch and tin-covered barracks « — > in which thousands of men 
had existed like animals, and other thousands had died *— 
stood in the clearing. 

We went directly to the bookkeeper, as we had bjetetl iti- 
structed to do, and he, after registering our names and numbers* 





Dry Guillotine 

indicated to each of us the barrack in which we were to live. 
There were five barracks and I went into one that looked as 
though it had once been a pig pen. 

Darkness fell. 

It was my first night in a convict camp out in that equatorial 
wilderness. I was anxious to find out what sort of an existence 
I had been condemned to serve. 

Stretched at full length on my back on a hard, bare board 
bunk, I watched what went on ipt the barrack. An oil lamp 
burned in the center, oyer the passage between the two tiers 
of boards on which the men slept; its pale light shed a glow 
over a radius of several yards. A number of the men had 
little lamps of their own which they had made from empty 
tins, and they were working by the light of these at some- 
thing or other; one mended a butterfly net, another was 
sewing his trousers, another took bugs out of his feet. Some 
jplayed cards. Outside, I could hear a group talking in front 
of one of the openings which serve for doors at each end. 

The bell clanged for turning in. The men outside entered 
and a few moments later a guard appeared, followed by a 

"No one; missing. Chief — thirty-one present," announced 
the convict who was keeper of the barrack. In every barrack, 
I learned, there is a convict who is officially termed "the 
keeper," and his duties are to watch the things in it and 
keep it clean. Every morning he goes to the kitchen, and brings 
the coffee and distributes it to the men; while they are at labor 
he sweeps, goes to the river for water and fills the water barrel, 
and stays in the barrack to see that nobody steals anything from 
it. The keeper of the barrack is in a position to carry on a profit- 
able trade with the other convicts who sleep there. He sells 
them tobacco, matches, oil which he saves from the regulation 
kmp, vinegar, onions and anything else they need. Most of 

6 7 

Dry Guillotine 

these things he has the turnkeys bring to him from Saint 
Laurent when they go to the town to take reports or to bring 
food supplies for the camp; he buys wholesale and makes his 
money selling piecemeal to the convicts at night. The keeper 
is not chosen for his good conduct or for any other such reason:' 
it is work like any other, although it is one much sought after 
by the convicts. "All present!" the keeper of my barrack said. 

The guard went on to take the count of another barrack. 

Little by little the individual lamps winked out, and after 
a while the only light in the place came from the dim regulation 
center lamp. 

I was unable to sleep. The hours dragged, for I wanted dawn 
to come so I could see what the routine would be. I stared 
vacantly at the gloomy outline of the men humped on the 
boards, lying in the sweaty clothes they had worked in all day; 
they were all asleep, worn out with fatigue — worn out from 
the work imposed by the Administration and by their efforts 
to catch butterflies. For in those days a blue Morpho was worth 
2 francs. 

* I had been lying there, musing and staring into the half- 
gloom many hours, when I saw a man rise and go over to the 
lamp where he made believe he was lighting a cigarette. 
Mechanically, I followed his movements and then suddenly I 
saw him blow purposely on the flame. The light went out. 

Fear gripped me. I knew what such convicts were capable 
of doing; I was young and I was afraid I might be attacked. So 
I drew my feet up, ready to kick out with them at the first 
sound close to me in the darkness, and held a knife, which I 
had acquired in Saint Laurent, lifted to strike. 

For minutes I held that position, prepared for defense. My 
muscles tightened at every sound while I tried to pierce the 
darkness with my eyes. I could distinguish shadows moving 
and heard whisperings. There was something going on in 


Dry Guillotine 

there, there was no doubt p£ that. And I prepared myself for 

An hour went by. 

Then a voice began muttering. I recognized it; it was the 
ypice of the keeper of the barrack. 

In the darkness I saw his dim form rise from where he had 
been lying on the boards and go over to the lamp, then it 
loomed in the glow of a match while he lit the lamp. "The 
damn wind," he grumbled, "it always puts this damn thing 

And the night passed, a long and nervous one for me. 

At reveille I discovered what had happened. Five men were 
missing at the roll call, and there were four more gone from 
other barracks in the; camp. There had been an evasion — an 

That filled my heart with hope. I wouldn't be in Camp 
Nouveau long, I promised myself. I, too, would escape! 



I WAS assigned to the workshop where wide straw hats for 
the convicts are made. With a pile of awarapalm fiber in front 
of me I had to sit and plat a braid twenty yards long which 
would later be fashioned by another convict into a hat. 

I started work before dawn and usually had my task finished 
every morning by ten o'clock. Then I went into the jungle. I 
was attracted there mainly by the new things which I never 
failed to see; in the rank vegetation of the great rain-forest which 
submerged the trails that led out of the camp; but at such 
times I was all alone and walked in the forest, where I could 
think things out with myself. 

I had begun to realize it would be impossible for me to 
(escape — it was a thing which turned in my mind constantly — 
with the other convicts there in the camp, for, in the first place, 
I had no money to put up for my part in a planned evasion and, 
lastly, I did not know how to get any. So I made up my mind 
to escape alone into Dutch Guiana. 

At the Nouveau camp there were many convicts who had 
been in that neighboring Dutch colony across the river and 
had been brought back. Every night I chatted with them, and 
I learned from them all the details of the route I was to take. 
Yet all of them, without exception, tried to convince me it 
was a folly I was bent on doing; they explained to me that I had 
no chance of getting through the Dutch jungle and they 
assured me that, in all events, I would get myself arrested at 
Paramaribo, the capital, if I was lucky enough to get that far. 
But I would not listen to them. Dutch Guiana seemed, from all 
I could find put, to be full of trails and native jungle villages — 
just because they had run afoul of the authorities was no reason 
why I should also. 

In the first days of August I struck up an acquaintance with 


Dry Guillotine 

a young convict, Leonce, who was also prompted by a strong 
desire to escape. He was the object of incessant homosexual 
proposals from the older more vicious convicts in the camp, for 
he was good-looking and under twenty, and from this came 
his urge to get away from the place. He had a little money and 
I had secured useful information, so we agreed to pool the two 
and try together. 

We decided on the 14th of August as the day we would 
set for pur dash for freedom; for I had been told that the day 
after would be the birthday of the Queen of Holland and that 
on this date a holiday was declared and on such an occasion no- 
one would bother to trouble us in Dutch Guiana colony. Each 
afternoon Leonce and I would leave camp separately and go 
down to the edge of a creek a few miles away, where we secretly 
made a raft with bamboo trunks and tree vines. 

On the 1 4th we quietly left Nouveau camp after the noon- 
day meal. Down by the creek we uncovered our raft, and 
pushed it out into the water and let it drift down on the current. 
We had with us for provisions, half a dozen lumps of hard 
bread, some tins of sardines and condensed milk, salt, tobacco 
and a bottle filled with matches; these we had collected in the 
camp, one thing at a time. 

We both felt extremely happy, for, in our youth and inex- 
perience, we were certain we were going to liberty. 

Night came. A pitch-black night, which did not even give 
us time to build a shelter, it came so quickly. We could not see 
to navigate the raft through the creek and we; had to make 
a halt. 

It was our first night out in the jungle alone. We were afraid 
to make a fire for there might be someone already pursuing us 
down the creek. We; drew the raft up against the bank and hid 
under a tree. 

Mosquitoes buzzed about us by the thousands. We slapped 

7 1 

Dry Guillotine 

and slapped, and it was not long before our hands were smeared 
and sticky with blood. Our faces itched and became swollen 
with knots from the maddening bites. Repeatedly fruit would 
fall from the high trees or a branch would crack near us and 
we would be startled, for we thought some animal was walking 
about our hiding place. Buried in between the huge, flaring 
roots of the tree, pressed against each other in the cold damp 
night, we dared not talk. 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. 

Suddenly my companion caught me by the arm in a vise- 
like grip. 
"Look there!" he whispered "a tiger!" 

Two glowing eyes watched us. They were hypnotic. My 
tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, and Leonce was shaking 
violently against me. The two eyes seem to fasten on us, moved 
slightly. Then, suddenly the eyes separated, one going one 
way the other another! Two fireflies had been courting together 
on some leaf — and that, in the silence and loneliness of the 
strange forest, had scared us until we were alternately too cold 
and hot in our spine to relax into laughter. 

But the worst fear came a short while before dawn. Needless 
to say we had slept not at all during the night, for there was 
always something to fire our inexperienced imaginations. We 
?vere both humped together between the roots in a dulled stu- 
por of cat-napping when a pandemonium — a veritable hell — 
of noise broke loose all around us, plunging us into stark terror. 

We jumped up and started to run. Then I saw scores of shad- 
owy forms moving in the trees. They were giant-sized red- 
monkeys — the kind we were to become used to hearing close 
at hand, and know as "Howling Baboons/* 

At last dawn began filtering more and more through the 

7 2 

Dry Guillotine 

foliage and the jungle came to life. Birds began chirping and 
butterflies came out and flickered along the creek. Our fear of 
the night was dissipated like magic — as day came we seemed 
in another world. 

After eating some food we pushed put the raft again and 
continued towards the Maroni River. 

When we came to the river we drifted down the current for 
awhile, and then decided to wait until darkness set in before at- 
tempting to cross it. There would be less danger then of being 

When the tide started running up river we decided it was 
time to try to get to the other bank, as there was less current to 
buck. It was almost dark, so we made up our minds to take the 

I had made a small paddle with a forked stick over which I 
had slipped the end of my sleeve and, steering carefully, we 
ventured out into the current. We now got into real trouble. 
Neither one of us knew anything about rivers. The Maroni, 
at the point where we were attempting to cross, was almost a 
mile wide. First one current dragged us toward the Dutch bank, 
then another would take us over in the direction of Saint Lau- 
rent. In spite of all our efforts, we could do nothing to steer the 
raft, and it looked as though we were going finally to drift into 
the river's eastern bank at Saint Laurent! Leonce, who could 
not swim, hung on to a short branch of a tree we had stuck up in 
the center of the raft, so as to have something to tie our bundles 
of clothes and food to, and with his free hand he tried to paddle 
in the swirling water which splashed continually over the sides 
of the raft. 

When, after many hours of struggle in the dark night, we 
;were beginning to lose hope entirely, another current caught us 
again and carried us obliquely toward the Dutch shore. After 
two more hours of hard work we finally reached the Dutch bank , 


Dry Guillotine 

a few hundred yards below Albina. We jumped on land with 
our bundles and let the raft go. We hid ourselves and waited for 
light to come. Clouds of mosquitoes piled on us until we could 
hardly breathe. 

The convicts in Nouveau camp had told us that there was a 
path which led from Albina to a tribe of "Bush Negroes" who 
lived on the edge of the Cottica Creek some twenty-five miles 
grest of the Maroni River. Fumbling around in the jungle we 
searched for the trail; and we foolishly came out into the clear- 
ing where a group of Carib Indians were at work. They saw us 
immediately and started toward us. We could see they had shot- 
guns and machetes. But we realized it would be useless to flee, 
for they would surely overtake us. 

So we waited where we stood and, when they came up, we 
tried to induce them to leave us alone. We gave them the little 
money we had, hoping to buy them off. But they held their 
guns on us, stuck the point of machetes in our ribs and mo- 
tioned for us to march ahead of them. They took us to Albina, 
where we were put in prison. The next day a launch carried us 
over to the French side of the river and dumped us at Saint 

The Commandant had us locked in the blockhouse, on the 
charge of arrest for evasion. The Director's final remark in his 
nice speech — about not punishing us for our first attempt to 
escape — seemed to have been forgotten. 

Our escape, a childish thing, as I realized later, had lasted 
only thirty-nine hours! 



THE penitentiary, or prison unit, at Saint Laurent is divided 
into two parts. One is the camp itself and the other is the dis- 
ciplinary section, called the blockhouses. This disciplinary sec- 
tion is as large as the camp. It consists of four blockhouses each 
large enough to hold fifty convicts, and ninety individual cells. 

There are usually about two hundred and fifty convicts in 
the disciplinary section. Some fifty of these are undergoing 
punishment in the cells. The others are locked up in the four 
blockhouses, waiting to be tried for their crimes by the Tribunal 
^Maritime Special, which sits three times a year. Three fourths 
of these men are; in detention for attempting to escape, guilty 
of evasion; the others are guilty of theft, murder, refusal to 
jyork, insulting a guard. 

When we came to the blockhouse a turnkey searched us 
carefully, and then took our clothes and all we had in our pos- 
session away from us and gave us each a pair of trousers and a 
jumper made from flour sacks, on which were painted, in red, 
"L. D." (Locaux Disciplinaires). 

We were then locked in. Convicts, in the blockhouse, most 
of them completely naked, got up as soon as he closed the door 
on us and came around with questions: 
4 Where were you arrested?" 
"What camp did you escape from?" 
"And so and so, is he still in the Nouveau camp?" 

After a few moments, realizing our escape held no interest- 
ing or unusual information or anecdotes, most of them went 
back to their places. 

Of the forty men in my blockhouse the majority were in 
confinement for evasion and had been brought back from Brit- 
ish or Dutch Guiana. One had been extradited from Cuba. 
They had sold all they possessed for tobacco and not one. of 



Dry Guillotine 

them had clothes. A few had a piece o£ rag wrapped around 
their loins. Some of them continued talking to us and I quickly 
understood from their manner what was holding their interest 
— the youthfulness of my companion, Leonce. 

We were given no blankets, so we stretched ourselves on the 
bare boards just as we were. In these blockhouses there were 
two long tiers of boards raised two feet above the ground on 
either side of a center walk; the men slept on these in rows 
with their heads to the wall and one ankle in an iron lock. The 
heat was stifling in the blockhouse, for it was but fifty feet long 
by sixteen feet wide, and had a height of only twenty feet; the 
only air entered through six heavily barred small openings in 
the walls about twelve feet above the floor. A nauseating odor 
permeated the place. It came I saw from a bucket for human 
excrement over in a corner — a bucket that was emptied only 
once every twenty-four hours! 

It happened to be dry-bread day, so Leonce and I who had 
saved no food and had no money, had nothing to eat. At five 
o'clock in the afternoon about a dozen of the men massed around 
the heavy door of the blockhouse, which was being unlocked, 
and waited. 

An order broke the silence:] "Push!" 

And the men dashed into the court to grab the best of the 
small buckets for the night, to use as latrines when they were 
in irons. There were not enough for all, only one for every three 
men. A convict warned me to get mine right away, but the best 
ones had been seized already and I had to content myself with 
one which was battered and leaky. 

A turnkey called Leonce and myself over and handed us each 
an ankle lock for the nightly placing in irons of every man in 
the blockhouse. Then the chief guard commanded the men to 
go back inside and drew the heavy door shut. 

Then followed the procedure pf being put in irons. We got 

7 6 

Dry Guillotine 

up on the boards facing each other in two rows, and fitted die 
locks over one ankle. As the long bane de justice was pushed into 
the blockhouse from the outside, each man caught the end of 
it as it came to him and shoved it through the rings in his lock 
and, when the bar came out through a hole at the other side of 
the blockhouse, it was secured with a padlock. The guard made 
the roll call, inspected the irons, and the door was then bolted 
until the following morning. 

The irons clicked and rattled with incessant monotony. 

The temper, and attitude as well, of these men in isolation is 
terrible. It is caused primarily by the abject misery they have to 
live in while they are locked up in a blockhouse, where they 
have no distractions, nothing to do, and no money for tobacco 
or with which to better their ration of food. When a newcomer 
comes in and they discover he has money, if he is weak, he is 
soon plundered if he refuses to divide what he has with the 
others. Then there is the fact that they usually come back in a 
group from an unsuccessful attempt to escape and blame each 
other for the failure of their dash for liberty, and quarrels break 
out which usually end with knives. Murders in the blockhouses 
are a common thing; often enough the stretcher is brought in 
to fetch a convict who is cut open or stabbed beyond hope of 

The men slapped mosquitoes. A small oil lamp cast its feeble 
light after dark, and we all sweated in the heat. There was jhe 
smell of decomposing offal in the tepid closeness. 

The men knew there were only two guards on night duty 
and that these were under official orders not to enter any block- 
houses at night. So a few of them slipped off their irons: they 
had exchanged their own for a larger one of someone who died 
or went to the hospital, or else they had a precious bit of soap 
with which they lathered their ankle and painfully squeezed 
their foot free. 


Dry Guillotine 

One or two had tobacco and they smoked a cigarette which 
ithey passed around for a puff to five or six comrades. The con- 
yersatiqns turned around the coming session of the Tribunal 
Maritime Special, even though it would not sit for another three 

Life in the blockhouses, I was to discover, never changes 
from year to year. Many of the prisoners will be dead when the 
day of trial arrives — after weeks of waiting and suffering, of 
longing to get put. In detention for months, they show the 
wear of the close confinement. There were some who yrere 
yeritable walking skeletons. Continued existence in a place 
■where there is so little light, and where they have to lie around 
breathing a tainted air which is hot and saturated with humid- 
ity, soon makes them anemic. Their digestive systems do not 
function properly, they lose all desire to eat. They suffer from 
dysentery, from hookworm, from; malaria — they need medi- 
cal attention and exercise. By day jhey pace up and down and 
fret:] for these are the men who have rebelled at conditions, who 
had the courage and will-power jto face the dangers of evasion 
rather jthan see themselves exterminated and degenerated in 
the cesspool ;which is the prison colony: any other civilized 
nation should have given them a chance to remake their lives, 
instead of sending them to death. Some of them committed a 
first felony in an excess of folly, caught in a cycle of circum- 
stances, as so often happens in life, and are in no sense criminals; 
jthey are men who have energy, moral fiber and self-respect, 
;who lost in the gamble for liberty with the odds all against 
them, and are now locked up like animals in close quarters yvith 
iassassins, thieves and perverts. They are all men of action, and 
the confinement goes hard yvith. their temperament. 

Those who have made a try for freedom pay dearly when 
they are put there. Hardly one of them gets a chance to go to 
the hospital; for the men in the blockhouses are considered the 

7 8 

Dry Guillotine 

troublesome ones, they are the damnable and rebellious, and 
are given last call for medicine or doctors. And so, week by 
week, those who were once strong become weak. The ones 
guilty of evasion who survive for the trial will be sentenced to 
solitary confinement on the dread Saint Joseph Island off the 
coast, for periods ranging from six months to five years, and will 
then be classed incorrigible. The Administration, frowning at 
the; fact that they came back alive from their attempted escape, 
weakens them; in the long months of confinement in the block- 
houses and then sends them to Saint Joseph to die. 

"Sing something, Lulu! " called out one; of the men. 
Lulu sat up. He was a former cabaret singer from Paris, con- 
demned to seven years for killing a man with a bottle in the 
course of a night of revelry. He was tubercular and his days 
were numbered, but, nevertheless, either because the memory 
of his profession lingered on in him, or because he was not aware 
of his condition, he was frequently gay and ready to sing. 

"Keep quiet, and don't move, anybody," said a convict, for 
the noise of the irons was distracting. 

Lulu hummed for a while, then broke into some old French 
songs. He knew; hundreds of them, many of which brought 
memories to the men listening to him, and his voice was good. 

"Bayard! Sing L'Oraput!" somebody demanded. 

"Yes, L'Oraput!" half the blockhouse chimed in. 
Bayard was now in his twenty-fifth year in the prison colony. 
He had been in the terrible Oraput timber camp, the former 
camp of the incorrigibles about which the great song of the 
prison colony was written, composed by the poet who died 
there. Bayard drew himself up on the boards and hung his free 
leg over the bar, and in a, voice which was rough but full of feel- 
ing he sang this song which, set to the tune of the Eucharist, 
tells of the life and the miseries of the convicts who worked and 
died like flies in the death camp of the jungle: 


Dry .Guillotine 


There goes the bell! Up, all of you! Five o'clock, fellows! 

The night mists are still hanging low over Oraput, 

And the foul bats, drunk and heavy with our blood, 

Are flapping slowly towards their hiding places for the day. 

A fearful awakening for most of us: our spirits 

For a little while have been drifting under kindlier skies, 

But the infernal bell has called us pitilessly back 

To another day's suffering in this Hell. 

Out we go, our tools over our shoulders, 

Stumbling in and out among the gloomy trees 

Like a row of drunken devils 

—For this is the real Hell, not Satan's— 

On past the rollers we go, falling and getting up again, 

Down among the stumps and the mud which there's no 

escape from, 
And all the encouragement we ever get is: "Keep going 

or rot, 
The next ship will bring us plenty more of you." 

In vain the sun tries to struggle through the sagging clouds 

That press darkly down on us and stifle us. 

It rains — God, how it rains! It is always raining in this 

filthy hole. 
O France — for just one glimpse of your blue skies! 
Hurry up! Get to the biseau and fix the ropes, 
Then start a chorus, you miserable dogs, to get the thing 

Hooray, hooray, fellows! the damn log is moving! 
It begins to travel, while the guards look on and sneer at our 


*NOTE: The French original of this chant will be found on page 345. 


Dry Guillotine 

At last we have got it up to the timber chute: 

Then, without even a pause for breath, back again to haul 

up the next one. 
And on top of the strain and the pain, comes the worst, the 

ultimate insult: 
The Arab guard barks at us, "Get moving, white men!" 
Day after day, day after day, we suffer this! 
O sons of proud Gaul, is this what you have fallen tp! 
When even the strongest of you must hang down your 

heads for sheer shame. 
Weep — weep for yourselves, you cowardly convicts: you're 

not men any more! 

This sad song, which I heard there in the blockhouse for the 
first time, moved me to the verge of tears. Then strong blows on 
the bolted door brought me back to reality with a jump. 

"You'll be on dry bread tomorrow! " a guard's voice said harsh- 
ly through the door. "Shut up! " 

"Owooooh!" The men sang back at him. They were not 
afraid ; for we were already on dry bread that day and they knew 
we could not be put on it the next, as the regulations prohibit 
two consecutive days of dry bread. 

After a while, quietness fell over the blockhouse. Occa- 
sionally one of the men, out of his ankle lock, would bring water 
from the big barrel to a comrade or for a sick man. One after 
another the men fell asleep or sank into a drowsy stupor. Only 
snores broke the stillness, the groans of the sick, and the in- 
cessant sound of irons clicking on the steel bars when a man 
changed his position. 

At six in the morning the turnkey drew out the bars and each 
man freed himself from his iron. After this came the exercise 
in queues around and around the courtyard for half an hour. 
Then we were locked up again until late afternoon, when ;we 
were let out for another short period. 


Dry Guillotine 

[The days were long for me, they dragged interminably in 
the stench and heat, in the monotony of the noise of irons and 
the same dying faces week after week. The only distraction was 
when the French mail boat arrived in the river, which was usu- 
ally once; a month, as more often than not it brought evades 
back from the neighboring countries, and these were interesting 
for a few days because of what they had to tell. 

Since it was the first time I had attempted to escape, word 
came from the Tribune Maritime Special that I was to be pun- 
ished with only sixty days of cell, and when these came to an 
end I was; sent back to the Nouveau camp — from which I 
made up my mind that I would try to escape again, this time by 
sea. For during my stay in the blockhouse I had talked with 
escaped men brought back from Surinam, Guadeloupe and 
other places, and I had absorbed many facts from their unsuc- 
cessful experiences. I had decided that there was only one way 
to escape which offered a chance to reach liberty, an escape by 
way of the sea, and not by way of the jungle! 



I WAS sent back to the Nouveau camp, under guard. For a 
week I worked in the hat shop, then I had to go to the infirmary 
because my feet were full of chiques and had become so badly 
infected that I could no longer stand up. 

During this period I was more unhappy than I had e;ver been 
at any other time in my life. I had absolutely no clothes to put 
on, for the Administration had none to issue to convicts. The 
storehouse, I learned, had been emptied as the result of the op- 
erations of an unscrupulous official who had sold the government 
blankets and clothes, which had been sent from France for the 
convicts, to men who were working in the Soom gold mines up 
the Maroni River and to Indians. A scandal had broken loose 
also in Cayenne, the capital of the colony. A Commandant 
there had been arrested for selling a thousand of the commissary 
blankets to Brazilian contrabandists. He was condemned to five 
years in prison; and a high official who was his accomplice 
hanged himself in his cell while under arrest to escape dishonor. 
The Governor of the colony, M. Chanel, as a temporary mea- 
sure in the crisis, authorized us convicts to clothe ourselves as 
best we could out of our own pockets and to wear whatever kind 
of clothes we wanted, until a new shipment could be sent out 
from France. This order solved the situation for the convicts at 
Cayenne, who, since they usually have some money, were able 
to go into stores and buy trousers and shirts; but as for the un- 
fortunates who, like myself, were buried in the camps or were 
in the blockhouses at Saint Laurent, we had to wear our old 
clothes until they fell apart. We went half naked for months 
until the matter was finally attended to in France. 

Albert Londres has nicknamed the Nouveau camp, 'La 
Cour des Miracles'! There were about four hundred men there, 

8 3 

Dry Guillotine 

of whom at least a hundred were cripples, lacked an arm, had 
elephantiasis, were blind, or were hunchbacks — in a word, all 
the human deformities imaginable walked about in rags and 
none of them were excused from work of some kind or another. 

iWhen I was well again and out of the infirmary I returned 
to my barrack, and the chief guard decided he would send me 
to ;work in the jungle clearings where they were trying to grow 
vegetables. The first day of my labor there I was literally de- 
voured by huge black ants, and the next morning I was so 
swollen and feverish that I reported sick and asked to be again 
given a cot in the infirmary. 

But the doctor rejected my petition. So I then reported my- 
self sick every morning; but this only after I had drunk my 
coffee, for the sick who are not going out to work do pot have 
any coffee. So I would wait until after the coffee had been dis- 
tributed, and when the moment came to start I would fall out 
of line and say I was not well enough to go! I thought I had 
found a good system. That went on for a fortnight, then the 
disciplinary commission arrived on its rounds. 

Eveary fifteen days the Commandant of the prison unit at 
Saint Laurent visits all the camps under his jurisdiction to pre- 
side over the disciplinary commission. He sits with a civil em- 
ployee of the Administration and is aided by the chief guard of 
the camp. Every time a convict commits an infringement of 
the rules a guard writes a report against him, noting his name, 
number and what he is guilty of. The Commandant reads the 
reports to the convicts as they appear individually before him, 
and lets them speak to defend their action before he decides on 
the punishment to be inflicted. Usually he is rather generous 
and will give only 1 5 or 30 days in the cell. 

It was now my turn to stand before him. ' 'Belbenoit, ^6635, 
has reported himself sick after drinking his coffee — "read the 
Commandant from the reports that the guard had written 


Dry Guillotine 

against my name. I had twelve of these reports, and they were 
all alike. So the Commandant, looking at me sternly while I 
made an attempt to account for them, gave me six punishments 
of 4 days in cell for the first six reports, three of 8 days for the 
next three, two of 1 5 days, and one of 3 o days for the last one ; a 
total of one hundred and eight days in the cells. 

And that same night I lay in irons alone in a small cell. 

I was most certainly better off there than going to work in 
the clearings under a parching sun and subject to the painful 
bites of those ants. In the mornings I had only a glass of water, 
instead of my coffee, but after a while I became accustomed to 
this. I did not mind being on dry bread for two days out of three ; 
not being a heavy eater, it did not affect me much. As for the 
irons, I found that one could become habituated to them after a 

The 14th of July arrived:; I had then completed sixty-five 
days. The chief guard came and announced that the Com- 
mandant had pardoned all those who had been sent to the cells, 
and told me to pick up my things and go back into camp. 

My things! They consisted of a bent mess-tin, a spoon and 
a dented aluminum quart cup; I had absolutely nothing else, 
no clothes except those which jvere on me and which were in 
tatters — no blanket even. 

I refused to get out of my cell. "Tomorrow I wouldn't go to 
work anyway," I told him, "and you would have to bring me 
back here. So leave me alone/' 

"You may come back tomorrow," he answered, "but you are 
to come out today." 

I had to obey. I returned to my barrack where I had been ab- 
sent more than two months, during which period I had seen 
none of the convicts I kn^w; not one of them had even sent me 
a package of tobacco or anything to eat during my time alone 
on dry bread. I stretched out on the boards, waiting for the next 


Dry Guillotine 

morning to come to go back to my cell where I decided I would 
be far happier. 

In the afternoon the chief guard sent for me. 

"Belbenoit," he said, "are you ready to go to work?" 

"No," I replied. 

"And why not?," he demanded. 

"Because I make nothing while I am working out there and I 
have no love for going into that sun and having myself eaten up 
by the ants. In the cell I am in the shade and, furthermore, I 
am not exposed to the mosquitoes and malaria." 

"You are frank," he said. Then he added, "And if you had 
some interest in what you were doing would you prefer that to 
the cell?" 

"Yes, if it permitted me a means of getting my tobacco and 
to better piy food." 

"That is good," he said. "Tomorrow the infirmary attendant 
returns to Saint Laurent and you will replace him. I hope you 
ynll conduct yourself well!" 

"Thank you, sir," I said, "That's better than working in the 

My work consisted of sweeping out the infirmary, keeping 
fresh water always by the side of the sick, and bringing them 
their medicines. 

One day, as I was going for water in the garden of the chief 
guard, I noticed a large orange tree full of fruit. And the next 
day, instead of going after the water in the morning I went for 
it at the time when he was making the roll call in the camp, and 
filled my buckets with oranges which I sold later in camp for 2 
sous apiece. I made 5 francs, and right away bought myself a 
shirt. The next day I did the same thing again, and was able to 
buy a new pair of trousers. Some of the convicts at the Nouveau 
camp had spare clothes, for they were men who had become 
sick at Cayenne and had bribed the bookkeeper to have them 


Dry Guillotine 

sent there so they would have three months rest from hard work. 

On the third day my luck failed me, for the chief guard sur- 
prised me in his orange tree. 

"Is this your idea of behaving yourself.?" he exclaimed. He 
looked annoyed. 

"I'm destitute of clothes," I said, "and I have need of some. 
When the doctor comes, do you want him to find a half naked 
attendant in the infirmary?" I asked earnestly. 

"So! Well, tonight you return to your barrack," he said 

In the afternoon he appeared in the infirmary. "The oranges 
belong to me, understand?" he told me. "When you need any 
to sell to the sick you will come tell me. But you can gather all 
the chestnuts. I give them to you." 

So I began a trade in chestnuts, which I roasted on a piece of 
tin and sold at 2 sous for twenty. From that I earned 20 sous 
a day. Then I dealt in tobacco, bread and even in rum; for the 
convicts .who earned money hunting butterflies spent many 
sous for a glass of tafia, as the cheap rum made in Guiana was 
called. They would sell these-butterflies very cheaply to the 
chief guard, who made a big profit sending them to buyers 

This chief guard was in some ways a splendid individual, and 
he had a deep knowledge of the psychology of convicts. But, 
poor fellow, he was unlucky; accused of receiving a sum of 
money for a spy who had planned to escape, he was put in 
prison, and hanged himself in his cell at Saint Laurent. His 
tragic end impressed me veiy much, for toward me he had con- 
ducted himself with unusual humanity. 

Little by little my capital increased. 

Three months later, by the middle of October, I had got to- 
gether the sum of 500 francs, and also had a sufficiency of 
clothes, and I began to talk of escape with some acquaintances 


Dry Guillotine 

who also had saved up some money earned from the sale of 
butterflies. We started with the greatest secrecy possible to pre- 
pare for my second attempt to escape. I now; had more knowl- 
edge, more experience — and having been in French Guiana 
for over a year I was hardened to both the climate and the primi- 
tive conditions of existence; this time, I told myself, I would not 
fail! Yet, even with knowledge and the resources which I now 
had this second undertaking was to have far more serious con- 
sequences for me than my first one. 


chapter yni 

IT WAS the night before Christmas, and we who were about 
to attempt an escape numbered nine, sworn to the last man to 
gain liberty or die. As the eight o'clock summons bell tolled we 
slunk out of the Nouveau camp. Through the blackness in the 
silent jungle we hurried until we arrived at a creek where 
a long canoe had been hidden. Quickly we jumped in and 
pushed off into the dark stream. We were certain that this 
night our chances would be excellent, for the guards had a big 
supply of bottles and were already beginning to celebrate 
Christmas noisily. 

The preparations for our get-away had not cost us much. 
One of us had stolen the dugout, an Indian pirogue thirty feet 
long, in the Chinese quarter down by the river in Saint Laurent; 
it ;was a well selected one, made from the trunk of a huge rubber 
tree, and we had fixed it up well for the voyage. The sail had 
been fashioned from old trousers and some cloth hammocks 
which a libere from the village had sold us. Our water tank 
was a privy barrel of the camp which we had submerged in the 
creek for several days to remove its bad odor — after we had 
burned it out well with fire and tar. As for food — coffee, rice, 
tapioca, tins of condensed milk, some dried beef and a bunch of 
bananas * — that had cost us in all about ioo francs. 

We reached the Maroni. But this time I was in a canoe, 
manned by eight eager paddles and not dependent upon a 
current and a raft. Three hours later we had traveled the 
thirteen miles down the river and were at the mouth, with the 
open Atlantic in front of us. 

Marseillais, who had been steering, spoke to the convict 
who lay in the bottom of the dugout: "Basque! " he whispered, 
"We are at the end of the river. Take the paddle and steer! " 

Dry Guillotine 

"I feel sick," Basque answered. "The sea here; is all right.: 
You go on steering a while, I'll take it later," 

This answer did not surprise any of us, for we; all Knew that 
Basque had just come put of the hospital and ;was still suffering 
badly from malaria. 

The water was calm and Marseillais kept the canoe heading 
into the swells without trouble. He knew nothing at all about 
handling a boat at sea even though he had been the leading 
man in helping me organize the escape. But it was not necessary 
to be a sailor, a navigator as Basque had claimed to be, to keep; 
a dugout pushing onward in that almost still sea. 

It was a still night and we drifted slowly out to sea. The tide 
;was going out and there had been no high wind to stop us at 
the mouth of the river. We were soon out upon the open sea. 

JVe set the sail. The light on Point Galibi fell off behind 
us as we slipped gently forward. 

"Sing something, Robert!" said Big Marcel. And Robert 
sang the Angelus of the sea while we listened to him with 
swelling hearts. And when he had finished that he had to sing 
another song, and another. We were all happy •. — » we ;were 
going towards liberty! — and were full of hope. 

"In eight days we'll see the light of the Barima beacon at the 
mouth of the Orinoco! " exclaimed Big Marcel enthusiastically. 

Old Poletti, who was making his ninth try, sang put; "This 
time . . . yesl This, mes enfants, will be the lucky one!" 

"Damn right," rejoined Marseillais in the stem, "in eighfi 
days we'll all be free men!" 

The sail began to fill. We went faster and faster over the 
growing waves. I was drowsing where I sat, for the excitement 
and preparation of the night had worn me out. Then suddenly 
I heard Big Marcel's voice. He cried put, "Listen! It sounds 
like thunder!" 

Dry Guillotine 

We all listened closely. There seemed to be a hollow rum- 
bling in the distance. 

"Can't be thunder . . . it's top steady," remarked Marseillais. 
"Besides," he said lightly, "there are stars up there!" 

But Big Marcel was in no mood for such things. "That 
shows how much you know of the sea," he answered. "A 
storm could rush up and drown you while you were looking at 
stars ! You've been too long in dungeons ! " 

The sound gained slowly in intensity. After a while it lost 
its far-away tone ... it rumbled nearer — nearer, louder and 

Then it was that old Poletti suddenly stood up in the canoe 
and exclaimed, "We're in the rollers! " 

We began listening anxiously now. Marseillais, especially, 
was deeply concerned. And so was I, for that matter, for there 
was no doubt in my mind that the heavy sounds were coming 

Marseillais shook Basque roughly, for the latter still lay at 
full length in the bottom of the canoe. He yelled at him: "Here, 
take the paddle! We're getting into rough water!" 

Basque groaned that he was too sick. Marseillais then shoved 
him with his foot. He shouted excitedly: "We're in danger, 
Basque! I don't know a thing about a boat, and you — you 
were brought along as navigator! Take the steersman's paddle. 
Take it, I tell you!" 

Basque sat up. He began moaning and begged me to forgive 
him. He knew nothing about sailing, he said. He confessed 
that he'd posed as a navigator just to get us to take him with 
us. He had no money to chip in his share of the expedition. 
"I've never sailed a boat! " he cried. "I lied!" 

The terrible truth of our predicament stared us in the face. 

He had hardly ended his excuses. A good breeze was up 
and we were skimming along rapidly, when a huge roller 

9 1 

Dry Guillotine 

heaved ahead of us without warning and crashed in from both 
sides. Marseillais yelled from the stern. The dugout slit it like 
a knife, and the forward length spanked down on the water 
;with a vicious slap which nearly snapped our heads off. It was 
the saving of Basque who had betrayed us — there was now 
no time for us to pounce on him. The dugout was full of 
;water. Big Marcel's wrist had become dislocated with the first 
impact. We had to grab everything in reach and bail rapidly. 
"We're in them now!" old Poletti screamed. "They're driv- 
ing us in behind the rocks . . ... they come ripping in with the 
tide through these shallows ... we didn't go out far enough!" 

Just then a second roller, higher than the first, drowned us 
again. The canoe floated almost level with the water. It was a 
wonder the thing did not split when the great mass of water, 
hissing viciously at us out of the night, struck it with a solid 
crash! Fortunately, the rollers were coming in far apart, with 
tranquil periods between them. This gave us time to bail some 
of the water out of the wallowing dugout. We bailed silently 
and furiously while Marseillais, clutching the paddle, drove 
us straight ahead. 

Soon a third surge of water descended over us, showering 

down on our backs. The dugout sliced through and leaped out 

into empty air. I thought we were done for. The mast snapped 

in the jolt and the sail fell down on us as we bailed for our lives. 

"We're going under!" cried Big Marcel. 

In our desperation we shouted and tore at the sail, almost 
knocking some of our number overboard in our efforts to get 
it out of the way before the next roller bore down. 

Marseillais shouted things from the stern, and all was hectic 

Just at this point, when I was steeled for the next oncoming 
surge, I heard Marseillais: "We've passed the last line of them, 
I think," he shouted, "Keep bailing! Get all the water out!" 

Dry Guillotine 

Moments passed — they seemed an eternity. But no more 
rollers loomed out of the night. The dugout was lapping quietly 
in still water. 

"We just made it by a miracle," said Big Marcel. "And he's 
to blame, that fool!" he said, as with a curse he kicked at 
Basque's prostrate form. 

We discovered that the rudder had been torn away, — Now 
we had neither rudder, sail nor mast! Our water supply was 
ruined, for salt water was mixed up with it. We had lost prac- 
tically all our food! 

There was a slight breeze, so we took off our shirts and 
rigged them on two paddles, into a makeshift sail. The dugout 
slipped forward in silence. Hardly nine hours had gone by since 
we had left the camp. 

Dawn broke slowly for us, and then the sun appeared golden 
over the horizon. 

We saw the low jungle shoreline a few miles away. The 
wind was with us, so we made straight for it. There were no 
rollers now in sight. This was due, I imagine, to a happily 
different condition of tide and wind. 

The canoe was leaking badly, and we shoved it on a muddy 
beach in sullen silence. But no sooner had he set foot on the 
sand than Marseillais said to Basque: "I don't want to kill you 
now, but somebody ought to." He looked at him coldly a few 
moments and then pointed to the trees. "Get going before it's 
too late," he said, and he took his long knife out of his waist- 

I think the rest of us would have pardoned Basque and 
allowed him to stay with us, but we hung dejectedly in a circle 
and said # nothing. Basque looked at the threatening knife and 
then without a word walked slowly away with hanging head 
and disappeared in the coastal jungle. Without comment, wq 
turned our thoughts to our own problems. 


Dry Guillotine 

We took stock of our situation. With the exception of a 
heavy sack of condensed milk tins, practically everything had 
been washed out of the canoe. There was some tapioca, but this 
;was all sodden; we spread it out to dry, however, for even 
though salty it could still be eaten. 

We decided that we could not now continue our escape bv 
the sea. None of us knew how to sail a boat, and the dugout 
looked too battered. Its bow was split, and we had no means of 
repairing it or of making it seaworthy. 

We agreed to rest on the beach until the next day and then 
set out for Paramaribo overland through the jungle. There we 
;would try to get a boat and enough provisions to go on to 
Venezuela. We divided what food remained. 

Then we stretched out on the sand and slept. 

Next morning, just as we were gathering ourselves together 
for the start, greatly to our surprise we saw Basque come put 
of the trees and walk toward us. When he was about fifty steps 
away he stopped and called out: "Everywhere there's flooded 
savannah land, I can't get through I" 

Marseillais looked at Big Marcel, and in that look I recog- 
nized Basque's death sentence. Marseillais got up and walked 
towards him. 

Basque stood motionless. He knew probably that it was 
death, but he was too weak from fever and fear to run. 

Two yards in front of Basque, Marseillais stood still facing 
the man who, by claiming to be an experienced navigator when 
he was not, had upset all our own hopes and plans. There was 
a moment of motionlessness while the two looked at each other. 

Then, with a curse, Marseillais leaped and struck. 

There was a piercing scream and Basque sank to the ground. 
Then Marseillais, as if nothing had happened, took his body by 
the heels and dragged it to the edge of the water, where the tide 
would claim it and take it out to the shark scavengers in the sea. 


Dry Guillotine 

It was the first crime of our escape and we hadn't even been 
gone as much as two days from the penal colony! However, 
to men of my companions' type that was in essence not murder 
but execution. Basque had not hesitated to risk the lives of eight 
men in order to gain an opportunity to save his own. Yes, I 
think he deserved his fate. 

That day we set off on foot, keeping as close to the shore 
line as we could. But here and there we had to go several 
hundred yards into the muddy forest for it was impossible to 
follow along the edge of the water because of mangrove marshes. 

Just as Basque had reported, there were flooded savannahs 
everywhere. We had to plog along in water and mud and when 
we got into heavy growths of mangrove roots our faces became 
covered with blood from the constant biting of swarms of sand 
flies. We tramped all day. At night we built a lean-to on a little 
hummock of soft ground. It began to rain and we were unable 
to make a fire. Without a smudge the mosquitoes became a 
torment to us. We took big handfuls of black mud and smeared 
our faces, necks, arms, hands, legs and feet — but it did little 
good, and the mud smelled so foul I couldn't sleep. 

As soon as dawn broke we resumed our march. We were in 
an exhausted state, but we were glad to get away from such a 
pest-filled place. Towards noon we saw the sea ahead of us; so 
we swung sharply to the left — inland, as we thought. 

An hour or so later, we saw the sea again directly ahead of 
us! Robert and I, who were small and light, climbed to the top 
of mangrove trees to have a look round. We discovered that we 
were wandering along one side of a wide, flat peninsula which 
spread seaward from the land. To cross it we realized we would 
have to fight our way through miles of mud and tangles of 
mangrove roots before we could reach the coast and continue 
on firm ground! 

So we now began retracing our steps. All our plodding had 



Dry Guillotine 

been for nothing! The way back was just as wearying as the 
struggle forward had been, and the following night, in a 
miserable condition, we arrived at the place where we had spent 
our first night on die strip of beach beside our useless canoe. 
We chopped it up, and out of its remnants built a fire to keep 
the insects away. I looked out over the sea but Basque's body 
was nowhere in sight. 

Next morning after a long talk we decided to get back to 
French Guiana as quickly as possible! 

This might seem to have been a foolish resolution, but it 
was really the safest thing to do. Our food was almost ex- 
hausted, and we had no means of securing more. If we struck 
out for any other destination we would have to plod across 
great mud flats and afterwards cut our way through wide ex- 
panses of jungle; and the jungle, contrary to general belief, is 
not a place where edible things are found at every turn. With- 
out a gun we would either starve or poison ourselves trying to 
eat the things we might find. On the other hand, the Maroni 
River was not more than thirty miles away, and we knew our 
food and strength would last until we got to its banks. Once 
at the river, we planned to spend several months catching 
butterflies and, from the sale of their wings, we would get 
together the money necessary to organize another escape. We 
had friends we were sure of in the various camps, on ;whom we 
thought we might depend to help us hide out. 

So we set out toward the east, hoping to reach the Maroni 
by the following night. 

Progress became easier now, for, after wading a short strip 
of swamp, we emerged from the mud and mangrove into 
higher ground and started cutting through the jungle. Big 
Marcel and Marseillais were in the lead, slashing out a trail 
;with machetes. I followed in their rear with three others, and a 
short distance behind us were Gypsy and Robert. The going 

9 6 

Dry Guillotine 

was rough, as the region was very broken and uneven. We 
had to scramble over stretches of rock covered with slippery 
moss and we encountered many large clumps of bamboo which 
we either had to circle or painstakingly dodge and bend pur 
way through. 

Gypsy had a wooden leg — he was a War veteran — and 
this slowed him down considerably; he fell often on the rocks 
and had difficulty bending low to avoid the vines. Robert, a 
man even smaller than I, and Gypsy had long been companions 
in the camp, and now, drawn closer by their physical handi- 
caps, they walked in the rear and helped each other when the 
need arose. 

All that day we pushed forward through the snarled jungle 
taking turns at the machetes when Big Marcel and Marseillais 
got tired. Gypsy and his little companion were exempt from 
this work for they were too slow with the blades and made us 

At nightfall we came to a stream and there we spent the 
night. By the fire we ate a few handfuls of tapioca and sipped 
some condensed milk. Marseillais had caught a small turtle. 
Our meal was less than a taste of food. For men who had strug- 
gled all day it was nothing, and we slept that night hungry and 
exhausted. Big Marcel and Marseillais, who was also a big 
fellow, suffered most: they were ravenous. We had not had a 
square meal since the day we left the Nouveau camp — and 
we had started off with i oo francs worth of food! 

Early next morning we started again into the jungle. We 
were on higher ground now, and sometimes we found the 
going easier. In many places there was little undergrowth. The 
towering old trees soared to a tremendous height, and their 
foliage met high above to cut off the sun from us below. Mosses 
and long-leafed parasitic plants hung over our heads. In these 
places we walked with comparative ease and had little need for 


Dry Guillotine 

the machetes, but there were quantities of low plants whose 
broad, thorn-bordered leaves constantly drew blood from our 
legs and ankles as we attempted to step among them. We 
endeavoured frequently to creep up on a bird or throw sticks at 
iguana lizards, but had no luck. 

At noon there was nothing to eat. We drank some more 
(condensed milk. 

In the late afternoon we reached a good-sized stream and 
decided to spend the night there where the ground was less 
damp than under the trees. 

Gypsy and Robert were still behind us on the trail. 

The six of us stood around and tried to figure out just where 
$re were. We agreed we had hardly covered half the distance 
to the Maroni River; and this was a discouraging admission, 
in the tired and famished condition we were in. We made up 
our minds to start at sunrise and push eastward as fast as we 
could, for the sooner we reached the Maroni the better it would 
be for us. We stood a good chance here of finding an Indian 
yillage, where we could secure food and dugouts; for we all 
had money, and we knew money would get us anything we 
panted from the Maroni Indians. 

Soon Gypsy came out of the trail and joined us. He was 

"Where's Robert?" Marseillais asked him a few minutes after 
he had stumped up to where we stood. 

Gypsy said that Robert had lagged behind because he was 
feeling sick. He'd be along presently. 

An hour went by. 

Robert still did not come. We called after him in the jungle 
but there was no answer. 

So Marseillais decided to go and look for him. He disap- 
peared in the trail, calling, "Robert! Robert! . . ." at the top 
of his lungs. 

9 8 * 



'*"i i w m u mw mimp ^i ^wwyp 

SS^:/' ■■'■■■. 

"V " VWW^ ' VWliw^ 

Dry Guillotine 

He traced back almost a mile. And he was about to give up 
and turn back to camp when a number of cut branches piled 
on the edge of the trail caught his eye. He fyad a sudden sus- 
picion and stepped closer. There was Robert's body under the 
branches — it was still warm! His face was all bloody, and 
when he turned him over he saw where the back of his skull 
had been split by a terrific blow; and Marseillais remembered 
the heavy stick Gypsy always carried to steady his wooden leg. 
Close at hand lay Robert's food bag. It was empty. Gypsy, had 
murdered his little friend and companion for a few mouthfuls 
of tapioca and milk! 

Marseillais was a hardened individual. He returned to camp 
and told us he had found no trace of Robert. But, unnoticed at 
the time by the rest of us, he got Big Marcel off to one side and, 
as I learned later, revealed his discovery to him. The two men, 
Marseillais and Big Marcel, because of their size were close 

The rest of us talked about Robert's disappearance, advanc- 
ing various opinions as to what might have happened to him. 
There were some who thought he might have become turned 
around — and gone in the opposite direction; they said he 
would surely discover his mistake and catch up with us some- 
time in the night. Others feared a jaguar had killed him and 
carried him off. Gypsy, all this while, stood leaning against a 
tree, resting on his good leg. He did not have much to say, but 
we all attributed this to his sorrow over the loss of his friend. I, 
for one, tried to console him. I caught his eye roving after 
Marseillais constantly and, every time Marseillais came near, 
Gypsy would ask innocently what Marseillais thought could 
have happened to Robert. "He was my friend!" Gypsy almost 
cried. "He was my good friend!" But Marseillais wouldn't 
answer him. He was very taciturn, and busied himself getting 
the camp in shape before dark. 


Dry Guillotine 

Marseillais was busy cutting palm leaves to protect us from 
the; rain. He was hacking around with his machete, approach- 
ing nearer and nearer the spot where Gypsy was standing. 

Suddenly he passed behind Gypsy's tree and the latter, still 
suspicious, for he must have been wondering if Marseillais 
might not have seen Robert's mutilated body — - it had not 
been well concealed, for he had not expected any of us to go 
back to look for Robert! — turned his head to keep an eye on 
him. At that instant Big Marcel leaped on him — and planted 
a long knife squarely in his heart! 

Gypsy crumbled to the ground. "You got me, Marcel!'* 
he wheezed — 'Take my food . . ." His last thought was that 
he had been murdered for the same reason he had killed his 
best friend — for food! 

The others and I had witnessed this sudden scene in com- 
plete bewilderment. As Big Marcel wiped the blood from his 
knife Marseillais told us of his discovery on the trail. 

We looked in Gypsy s bag: It contained the can of milk 
little Robert had hoarded so preciously against the last day. 

I remember even now, many years later, every detail of the 
horrible scene which followed. 

My companions were all large, husky brutes, demoralized 
by the life they had had to live so long in this Hell and by the 
primitive necessity of the moment. They were utterly famished. 
They did not know exactly where they were nor when they 
would be able to eat. Alone, among us, I will say frankly that 
I was the only one who was not suffering greatly from the need 
for food — possibly because of my slight physique. 

It was Dede, the brother of Big Marcel, who proposed it. 
"We ought to roast his foot," he said. 

jMarseillais agreed. "He; was but a beast — and beasts can 
be eaten! " The others approved. I did not join them in cutting 
Gypsy s body open. I had no heart, or stomach, for such work. 


Dry Guillotine 

Half an hour later Gypsy's liver, skewered on a stick, was grill- 
ing over the fire — which, ironically enough, had been kindled 
with Gypsy's wooden leg. 

"One might think it was wild pig/' declared Big Marcel, 
who was the first to taste the meat. 

And then they ate. . . . 

In such a situation as this, with men of this type, one's life 
is in danger if one refuses to be one of the crowd. Although I 
;was not tormented as much as they by hunger, I was unwilling 
to expose myself to their dislike and hatred. So — and 
prompted, even, by a slight curiosity — I tasted a small piece 
of the human flesh. I still had a handful of tapioca and one tin 
of milk, but I had to be as one of them, or else I might jeopardize 
my life by incurring their dislike. None of us knew what lay 
ahead, and I could not afford to take a chance of making myself 
an outsider, an outcast of the group, for, if necessity came, I 
would then be the next in line to fall. 

Marseillais chopped off Gypsy's good leg and placed it on 
the coals to broil. 

They had left Gypsy s body lying a few yards away from 
the fire. But Dede, who was a degenerated and coarse fellow, 
went over to it, saying he was going to quarter it. 

Soon he came back into the circle of firelight. He squatted 

by the edge of the coals and set two of the emptied milk cans 

down on the hot ashes. 

"What 're you doing there?" asked Big Marcel. 

"It's his blood — I thought we might dry it and take it 

along," Dede answered. "We'll be hungry again tomorrow!" 

Later that night we stretched out, exhausted by the day's 
struggle, to try to get some sleep. That night there was no talk 
— not even the most cynical, I believe, could get away from the 
horrible events of the day. Three bodies lay now in the trail of 
our escape. 


Dry Guillotine 

Two days passed. It was morning, and we were still march- 
ing through the jungle, keeping the sun on our right shoulder. 
Rain had fallen all the previous afternoon, and ;we had again, 
somehow, turned off our course. 

We were cut, bleeding, and our jvounds were festering. 
Marseillais limped badly. We had cut up Gypsy's thigh and 
each of us carried a piece of human meat in his own shoulder 
bag. The flesh was beginning to decompose in the hot damp- 
ness of the jungle, and occasionally a revolting whiff came to 
my nostrils from the ones ahead. But no one dared suggest we 
throw away what we had with us, as we had been made desper- 
ate and grim by the stark fear of hunger. 

Suddenly, we saw prints of human feet in the mud! 

We followed the trail, and soon arrived at an Indian yillage 
— we had reached the bank of the Maroni! 

The men of the village happened to be away. There were 
only women and children in the thatched houses and they ran 
off when we approached. 

We walked up to a hut. A thin old woman sat in it. She 
must have had some knowledge of convicts and of the white 
people of Saint Laurent, for she seemed unafraid. It is possible 
that she just took pity at our sight. 

Marseillais pointed to a string of dry fish hanging from a 
pole, and she gave them to us. For a few pieces of money she 
gave us a large bunch of ripe bananas. We gulped food as fast 
as we could. Unnoticed I went down to the river and threw the 
lump of smelly human meat, which I had been carrying, into 
the water. We visited other huts and any food we ran across 
we immediately ate. In half an hour we had gorged ourselves 
to capacity, and we sat down in one of the empty huts and 
drowsed in its shade. 

Some of us had fallen asleep when the men of the village 
came back. They had fish with them, and must have been off 


Dry Guillotine 

fishing along the river. The women most probably had gone 
to warn them of our arrival. They showed no pleasure over our 
presence. Marseillais held out a quantity of coins, hoping to 
gain their friendship. They took them, but our gesture did 
not help to change their attitude. 

We lay around in the same hut all that day, stupefied from 
the food we had gulped down. We had no plans. The Indians 
left us alone. We felt safe and were all imbued with a feeling of 
immense relief. 

But while we dozed the Indians were not idle. 

Several of the village men made a fast run by canoe down 
to the police post on the Wana creek and brought four Dutch 
soldiers back with them. 

Those Indians must have set out soon after they came into 
the village and saw us, for the soldiers were there soon after 
nightfall. They took us by surprise, pistol in hand. We made 
no resistance for we realized it would be of no use. 

That very night they packed us, tied together into a large 
pirogue, and took us down to the post on the Wana where we 
jvere locked up. And the next morning they took us to Albina. 

After we had confessed who we were, we were taken in the 
police launch across the Maroni River to Saint Laurent, where 
;we were; hustled at bayonet point to the blockhouse. 



BACK again in the blockhouses at Saint Laurent -. — ■• thy second 
escape a failure — we were in a miserable condition. Marseil- 
lais's foot, torn by razor-edged vegetation, and on which he 
had been limping when we were captured, rapidly became 
;worse from infection, until he could only just hobble around. 
He was suffering badly from the pain. But it happened that he 
found himself assigned now to a blockhouse in which an old 
accomplice in the crime for which both had been condemned 
,was a prisoner. There was bad blood between them for some 
reason, and Marseillais' former accomplice, seeing that he was 
in a bad way, now started bullying him behind the closed 
iron doors. One night Marseillais squeezed out of his leg iron 
and drove his knife into his new adversary. Then gangrene 
developed in his infected foot and he had to be taken to the 
hospital. Six days later he died of blood poisoning. 

The rest of us were locked up in a weakened condition, also, 
and the smell and lack of air in the house were again unendur- 
able to me, after the days I had spent out at sea and in the deep 
jungle. It was a fearful contrast, and there were moments when 
I wished I had died on the escape rather than have to pace the 
floor in that stifling close stench of human sweat and excrement. 

Our well-planned effort to reach freedom and life had failed 
completely. But in the blockhouse we stuck together, for we 
attributed the disaster to Basque, our 'sailor', who in the mind 
of every one of us, had wrecked our chances so we were still 
friends, and agreed we would try again at the next opportunity. 

It was lucky for us we were in harmony, for there happened 
%o be numbers of forts-a-bras and other dangerous and vicious 
types of convicts in the house; we all had our money, of which 
fact some of them were certain after they had talked with us 


Dry Guillotine 

and decided we had not touched at any civilized point. Big 
Marcel knew most of these bad characters by sight, and warned 
us all, immediately, to be on constant guard, but when they 
saw we were hanging together, they left us alone. 

There were men in there whose bare bodies were baked a 
red-brown by the sun. There were some old convicts among 
them who were burnt almost black, and others, the forts-a-bras s 
had blue and red and green tattooing on their bodies and faces. 
Mixed in with these were the white bodies of newly arrived 
men. To some, whom we had known before trying to escape, 
we parted with a little money to get them tobacco: we had to, 
for in there, where tempers are tightened by so much waiting 
and misery, friendships hang on a thread. In the blockhouse 
one has to sleep with one eye open in order not to be robbed or 
killed, even though all are supposed to be ironed. And even 
in the daytime, the forts-a-bras, if a man is weak and has no 
comrades, will take what he has by force — and then kill him 
the next day if he complains. Men in the blockhouse become 
beasts even though when they are outside they may conduct 
themselves with their fellow-convicts in an ordinary half- 
friendly fashion. 

The weeks passed. In time, the filthy stench and heat in the 
blockhouse grew more endurable by dint of living in it so long. 

A month and a half passed . . . uneventfully. Then, rumors 
began to circulate among us that some men were going to be 
executed in the court yard of the blockhouse; this was a momen- 
tous piece of news to us, for the court was along one side of our 
house, and could be seen from the barred windows. Someone 
said that Hespel, the executioner, was going himself to be one 
of the guillotined! This piece of information created high ex- 
citement in the blockhouse, for the beheading of an execu- 
tioner is always an event in the prison colony. 

News ran from word to mouth, there in Guiana; it reached 

I0 5 

Dry Guillotine 

even the solitary cells. Before long the current rumor was con- 
firmed: the guillotine was to be set up on a certain morning, 
and two men were to lose their heads. Yes, one of these two 
men was to be Hespel, "the Jackal," as we called the crudest 
executioner the prison colony had ever known! 

Hespd's story was discussed and repeated in the blockhouse. 
I heard it time and again before the day arrived on which he was 
scheduled to die. He had been the executioner at Saint Laurent 
for several years. In 1923 he, a libere, had escaped into the 
bush with the intention of making good his escape and it was 
then he had gained for himself a dreaded nickname: the 
"Vampire of the Maroni"! For, at this time he owned a dug- 
out, and he made a business of taking escaping convicts over 
to the Dutch side of the river for 25 francs. But many of these 
evades had been found dead by the edge of the river: they had 
been murdered and, in every case, their abdomens had been 
cut open. These crimes had all been pinned on Hespel, who 
was suspected of having killed them, and then cut them open 
to grope in their bowels for their suppositories which, without 
doubt, contained money! For they were in the act of escaping, 
and no convict will try to escape unless he has money on him. 
Hespel was caught, and put in detention on the charge of — 
not murder, but evasion. He tried then to escape out of the 
blockhouses, but a turnkey stopped him. Hespel told the turn- 
key;] "Before long, I'll have your hide! " And the next day when 
he was let out with the others for exercise in the court yard he 
attacked the turnkey with his knife and killed him. This was 
his third witnessed murder in the Saint Laurent penitentiary 
and this time he was given the death sentence. 

The eve of the execution finally arrived. Rain fell heavily on 
top of the blockhouse all night, and the dank air was close with 
humid, lush heat. Mosquitoes entered in quantities through 
the high, barred windows above our heads, as was usual ;when 


Dry Guillotine 

there was a storm outside. Those of us who had tobacco smoked 
continuously, in a futile effqft to keep them away. 

A group of us talked in a low murmur, hunched on the 
boards. In other parts of the house the iften had slid their ankle 
locks along the bars, and whispered in groups. There was a 
monotone of murmurings, an atmosphere of tenseness, and the 
irons clicked more restlessly than usual. Throughout th.e house 
conversations centered about the subject of executions. 

Rivet — we called him The Claw because of his long, 
hard nails — had slipped his leg iron and sat near me among a 
group of whispering men. He had a powerful but emaciated 
body; with vivid gestures, which made him grotesque against 
the dim light of the lamp, he told us how one of his best friends 
had lost his head. 

"Deleuze . . . Hah!" he exclaimed. "He and I, we wcre*good 
friends. He came out with me in the same ship. We liked each 
other from the first day. He was a quiet fellow • — they sent 
him for ten years because he killed a neighbor in some sort of 
property quarrel. 

"Well, when he got here he had a big surprise. He found one 
of his old regimental buddies here in Saint Laurent — but his 
buddy was a guard! In spite of their difference of position, they 
became fast friends again, just as they had always been. And 
his friend kept cautioning him to watch his conduct so he could 
be promoted to a second-class convict. He could then take him 
out of the cells and make him a servant in his house, where 
he would have things much easier. Deleuze was having an 
awful time but he watched his step and led a quiet life, just 
waiting for his chance. He avoided getting punishments, and he 
put up with everything, with just one thought in his head « — 
to get to be a convict of the second class! 

"After a while he got to where he had twenty-three months 
already done, without one punishment! That had been hard 


Dry Guillotine 

for him, for he'd to take a lot from the Corsicari guards. He 
needed only thirty more days with good conduct to get the 
higher rating. Then one day he was reported by the captain-at- 
arms because he sneaked some bananas into the barracks. He 
;would get several days in the cells for that infraction of the 
rules, and that meant he'd lose the promotion — after all of 
those twenty-three months when he'd fought off his temper! 

"Deleuze got depressed. It just about drove him mad, the 
thought of going all through it again. Poor fellow! He was 
frantic. He went after his friend, and told him all about it. 
And his friend went to the captain-at-arms and asked him if he 
wouldn't tear up the report. But the captain had something or 
other against Deleuze, and he wouldn't listen. So Deleuze 
then, himself, ^vent to the chief guard at the camp and asked 
him to fix it so he [wouldn't have to come before the Commis- 
sion. But the chief said;! 'You're guilty, and you're going to get 
punished.' They all knew what Deleuze wanted by then, and 
they were mainly intent on keeping him from his goal. 

"And so that night Deleuze ;was sulking when he went to 
his barrack. He was pacing up and down, in a bad temper * — 
he was a quiet fellow, but he had a foully hot temper when he 
got mad! 

"There were two young convicts in the barrack and they were 
making fun of him. He told them: 'You'll see tomorrow how 
a man acts! ' He'd made up his mind what he was going to do. 
He was out for revenge! 

"As soon as the turnkeys opened the barrack door at five the 
next morning, he went out. In the crowd of exercising men 
nobody noticed him especially. 

"It was still dark, and he went straight to the house of the cap- 
tain. The captain was sitting at his desk writing reports. Deleuze 
came up behind him quietly and drove his knife into his back 
twice! He left the captain as soon as he was sure he jyas dead, 

1 08 

Dry Guillotine 

and making his way behind the barracks went to the other side 
o£ the penitentiary, where he knew the chief guard always stood 
when sending the men out to work every morning. Sure 
enough, the chief guard was there, watching the men as usual; 
and Deleuze sneaked quickly up behind him and brought him 
down with his knife, and raced for his barrack before anybody, 
he thought, saw what had happened. But one man did see 
him, though! It wasn't the chief guard, for he was badly 
wounded and had been taken completely by surprise. It was a 
jturnkey, Labib: he saw Deleuze jump on the guard, and he 
denounced him. Everything was against Deleuze, and he was 
brought to the blockhouse. In a couple of months they had 
sentenced him to the guillotine. 

"All the time he was in detention, his friend the guard sent 
him tobacco and did everything he could to help him out. 
Some of the men, for we had all found out about it, sent him 
things to cheer him up. 

"And then the day arrived. His friend the guard didn't go 
out in the morning to count his men, he was so dejected he 
stayed at his house. The chief guard, whom Deleuze had tried 
to kill, asked permission to see Deleuze's head fall off, but the 
Commandant wouldn't let him leave the hospital. 

"Deleuze was led to the scaffold. I was one of the convicts who 
had to witness it on bent knees. Hell, it was hard to see him 
there — by this time, poor devil, after the weeks in the block- 
house, he was a mass of scurvy. He had asked twice to be sent to 
the hospital, but they knew he was going to die anyway, so 
it was refused. He hadn't eaten a thing for five days. The 
executioner had to help him up to the knife, he was so weak. ^ 
He was just weak, it wasn't that he was scared. Humm, not 
Deleuze — he was iron right down to the bottom! He might 
have been all right, if he hadn't become obsessed with the idea 
he had no chance in this damn hell. 


Dry Guillotine 

"All he said when he put his head in the loop, was: 'Don't 
hurt me any more,' because he was already in such pain because ' 
of the scurvy! 

"The official executioner (it was Carpentier then) happened 
to be in detention at the time, too. He was also cook for the 
blockhouses. He went back to the kitchen after the job was 
done, and got the rations ready. Hah! when the soup came at 
ten, nobody touched it! 'We aren't going to eat the soaked 
food I ' the men said. It was made with hands still wet with the 
blood of a comrade!' 

"The chief guard then went to the Commandant about it. 
And he said if the men didn't want the food, that was their 
hard luck! And it was; but I was glad, for that day nobody 
in the blockhouse ate a thing because Deleuze was dead. 

"And another thing," Rivet continued " — and this shows 
how much his friend the guard liked him. In less than ten days 
he handed in his resignation ! Yes ! And somebody told me when 
he got back to France he wrote a lot of true things against the 
Administration. But one voice crying against the wolves didn't 
accomplish anything at all ! " 

We had listened to The Claw's vivid account in utter silence. 
Some of the convicts now started making comments, and dis- 
cussions sprang up. 

It's a strange thing, but always on the eve of an execution, 
these convicts, most of them men capable of committing great 
crimes, become seized with a vague nervousness — I have never 
known it to fail. It is a type of uneasiness ; explainable, in a sense, 
by the fact that there is not one of them but feels that he himself 
may go up to face the polished knife some day. I have felt that 
way myself , many a time, for, in the nip and tuck struggle 
between the corrupt Penal Authority and the condemned man, 
a convict can never know when he suddenly may find himself 
facing capital punishment. The convicts waiting during the 


Dry Guillotine 

night know that a man, like themselves, is going to have his 
head sliced off at dawn; and they also know that they too are 
helpless beings, subject to an authority which would be un- 
questioned if it chose for any reason to cut one hundred heads 
off instead of one! A man who has seen the knife flash and 
the spurt of red blood when the guillotine falls is struck with a 
terror that never really leaves him. He hates bitterly — all the 
convicts do, and no one can blame them for it •■ — the man who 
as official executioner lets the knife fall. 

Out of the dim night Georges, a tattooed fort-a-bras 9 asked 
The Claw: "Do you remember the execution of Gautier on 
the Islands?" 

* 'I wasn't there, ' ' answered The Claw, f 'but I heard the story. 

"Well, I was," said Georges. "And I was one of the men they 
brought out and made stand around the instrument to watch 
it happen!" 

"Go on!" several of the men in our group said, <r What 

"Gautier killed a guard when he was in solitary," Georges 
said. "Any of you remember him?" 

"Yes," said The Claw and several others. 

"One afternoon, the captain-at-arms on the Saint Joseph 
Island came to the cells to pick out thirty men who were to go 
to witness the knife fall. I was one of the ones chosen. It was 
going to be done in the morning. 

"About five next morning we were let out of the cells, and 
six guards took us into the court. The guillotine had been set 
up there. The; Jackal (Hah, he'll die tomorrow) was putting 
the last touch to the frame. 

"After a while day broke. The guards had us all get down on 
our knees around the instrument, and we had to cross our arms 
over our chests. It was the first execution I had ever witnessed 
and I began to feel sick all over. 


Dry Guillotine 

cc 'At the moment of the execution,' the captain-at-arms said, 
c all of you bend your heads.' 

''The Commandant of the Islands — he was Garagnon — 
now appeared. A big turnkey and two guards went with him to 
Gautier's cell. 

'Then it was it happened! The Commandant announced to 
Gautier that his plea for a pardon had not been granted by the 
President, and that the hour was now at hand for him to die 
under the knife. While he was speaking this formality, the 
turnkey took the irons off Gautier. Gautier had listened respect- 
fully to the Commandant's words. But when the irons were 
off, he drew his feet up slowly as though he was going to get 
to his feet. Then he did it! With one bound he was on the Com- 
mandant! He struck him with something: The Commandant 
brought his hand to his throat, where a stream of blood spurted, 
and cried, 'He's killed me!' The guards rushed on Gautier, 
while the prosecutor and the chief guard carried the Com- 
mandant off to the infirmary. Ha! it was a tense moment; for 
we could hear the commotion, even though we couldn't see 
actually what was taking place. The guards who were watching 
over us, on our knees there in the courtyard, drew their pistols 
and menaced us, crying: 'Any man who moves will be shot 
where he is!' 

"We stayed that way all around the guillotine, on our knees 
in the court, with our heads bent as though in prayer. It must 
have been for about half an hour: my knees were paining me 
terribly but the guards were so nervous I didn't dare move an 
inch. Then the prosecutor showed up. He went in to see Gautier 
in his cell — he was in there all ironed up again, poor devil. The 
Prosecutor questioned him on his motives for attacking the 

"I learned later what Gautier said. Tor more than a montH 
I've been on dry bread only — yes, only dry bread! They neves; 


Dry Guillotine 

gave me water to drink. I've been in a stupor from thirst. It 
was the Commandant's orders.' 

"He would answer none of the questions about where he had 
obtained the knife. 

' '.When he got up on the platform, he cried out to us : 'There'll 
be one less of the sons-of-bitches to bother you fellows ! Ha-Ha- 
Ha, he died, before me the cur!' 

"A few minutes later his head rolled from the instrument. 

"They found some bits of wax in his cell, which led them to 
believe he'd had the knife a long time. He'd pushed it up inside 
of him like a suppository, sheathed in a coating of wax! Some 
trick, I say! It was a small knife, but a good one, made with an 
old razor. 

"But the Commandant, however, didn't die! " Georges added. 
"He lost his voice, though — could never say a word after 

the knife cut his throat. So Gautier got even ;with him: >. — I 


When Georges finished telling about Gautier, other stories 
followed, and there was talk on and on into the night; for no- 
body in the blockhouse wanted to sleep. There was too much 
restlessness, too much heat, and the mosquitoes were terrible. 

The rain, with occasional lulls, kept pounding down until 
that expected hour before dawn when we began to hear noises 
in the court — that hour of half gloom for which we had all 
been waiting and listening. 

I had slipped my iron, and as I was the smallest and lightest 
of the men loose from leg irons in the blockhouse, I was lifted 
up to one of the windows on the shoulders of taller men to 
watch what went on and pass the word down to everybody. 
Another convict was hoisted up to the other window. When 
the men underneath us got tired, others took their places, so 
we could rest pur feet on them while we clung to the grills. 

Absolute silence reigned in the blockhouse, for all of the 


Dry Guillotine 

men inside were straining their ears to listen to what I and the 
other observer would report. 

The executioner, aided by two turnkeys, was putting the 
finishing touches to the guillotine. There was e;nough light now 
for me to see them plainly in the courtyard. 

Bang! . . . He dropped the knife to see if it was working well. 
"Dieu!" murmured someone below me in the house. 

Soon some guards appeared. Then the Commandant. 

The Jackal's cell was in the row across the court. The door 
was unlocked, and they brought him out. 

There were convicts in a circle around the instrument. They 
had been brought out in a lump from the blockhouse on the 
other side. * 'Kneel down!" The order barked and every convict 
witness knelt hastily. 

When he found himself before the instrument, the Jackal 
stopped and addressed the executioner — the man now at the 
knife had been his former assistant. 

He said to his former aide, c< You see," and his remark was 
so distinct the men in my blockhouse overheard his words, 
"now the executioner becomes the executed! My predecessor 
also at last gave his head to The Widow! Be careful, some day 
will come your turn! " And after a slight pause, he saluted his 
executioner and added: "Do it neatly, mon enfant, just like I 
showed you how the job should be done!" 

In a few seconds the Jackal's head lay in the bloody basket. 
"Ca y estl" (That's it!) cried the men in the house; when they 
heard the knife clatter. There were whistles and cat-calls; they 
hated him, every one of them, for he had cut off thirty heads. 

As soon as HespeFs head had rolled into the basket, a cell near 
the one he had occupied was opened and the other man who 
was to die that morning was brought to the guillotine. This fel- 
low was a libere, a free convict in exile for life, named de 
Delorme. He had assassinated die agent for the Cie. Generale 

n 4 

Dry Guillotine 

Transatlantique at Saint Laurent, ;who had surprised him steal- 
ing a box of cargo on the pier. 

I had noticed that quite a number of civilians came into the 
courtyard to witness this execution, and I recognized the son of 
the murdered agent among them. Delorme, when he saw the 
young man, fell at his feet and exclaimed "Pardon, M. Oura- 
doul PardonV 

Then Delorme turned suddenly to the executioner: "Well, 
do it quickly!" he shouted, "Hurry up — I'm not here: for 

The; executioner nodded, the knife dropped. Another head 
;was in the basket. 

Three days later they executed a Chinaman, but this time 
the guillotine was set up at Saint Jean on the Maroni. The 
Chinaman made the trip from Saint Laurent on the same wagon 
with the death instrument; and they say he rode the distance 
leaning his back against the crate in which the; knife was 

The ;weeks rolled on. My detention of many weeks in the 
blockhouse had rendered me excessively anemic. I could not eat, 
and would sell my ration of bread and meat for drinks of coffee. 
Day by day I rapidly became thinner. 

Every time I presented myself at medical inspection, the doc- 
tor would hurriedly prescribe for me some general medicine 
which could not possibly cure my condition. I realized this, and 
reached such a state of desperation that I was sure I was going 
to die in that stench and damp heat. There came a time when 
I could not even drink coffee; and I calculated then that a man 
could live twelve days without eating, and that if I went beyond 
that time it would mean certain death for me. 

One morning, after six days had gone by that time I had 
eaten nothing at all, I again presented myself before the doctor. 
He gave me, as he had done before, a quantity of quinine. I 


Dry Guillotine 

knew that quinine could in no way help my condition, so in the 
afternoon I wrote a note to the chief doctor, begging a special 
visit or some attention to my case. He took the trouble to an- 
swer my note formally: "The doctor who makes the visits at 
the; blockhouses," he wrote, "is qualified to know whether a 
man is sick or not. Request refused." 

I was frantic. I saw myself dead in another week, for I saw 
no hope of getting to the hospital or of receiving any treatment. 
Three days later I reported at medical inspection again. I could 
hardly w;alk, so two of my companions supported me between 
them. And that day, barely glancing at me, the doctor wrote 
in his booklet: "Hospital." Then, realizing I was the fellow 
who had dared to ask for a special visit, he crossed out "Hospi- 
tal" and [wrote; "To be given milk." 

Seeing this, I found strength to cry in his face, "You are 
a devil!" 

The; guard standing by his side immediately called the 
turnkeys and had me put in a cell. 

A few minutes later the guard appeared outside the cell and 
told me he had made put a report against me, for outrage and 
insult against a doctor who was exercising his duties. 

But, on the following morning, by a personal order of this 
same doctor (I hated him so by this time that the thought of 
him was harder on me than the disease from which I suffered), 
I was taken to the hospital. My condition was such that I had 
to remain six months. The doctor realized his mistake — he took 
personal care of me, and he also put in a request that the pun- 
ishment given me for the recorded insult be reduced to the 
minimum: six months in prison. 



UNCLEAN and fetid, the hospitals for the condemned in 
Guiana are dilapidated and inadequate structures. Except for 
the handful of doctors in charge of them, the personnel is un- 
trained; and a few doctors who do the best they. can in trying 
to relieve pain and disease are the only thing about them jvhich 
deserves a favorable mention. 

Each prison unit has its hospital: there is one for the con- 
yicts in and around Saint Laurent Penitentiary; there is an- 
other on the Islands, and another at Cayenne where the convicts 
are cared for in a special building of the colonial hospital. The 
total hospital enrollment varies between four hundred and five 
hundred men, and to this is still to be added another hundred 
and more who are in the various infirmaries — a figure which 
represents one-fifth of the total number of convicts in the prison 
colony. Constantly one-fifth of the convicts are incapacitated 
and seriously ill! Of these sick men, most of them suffer from 
fever, dysentery, or ankylostomiasis and, above all, they are 
victims of growing anemia. 

The doctors are French army doctors detailed for a period 
of two years of colonial duty in Guiana. Usually, they are 
humane and treat the convicts as sick men and not as animals 
— it is fortunate when a convict, sent into a hospital at last, 
finds that he can obtain, for the first time, some degree of hu- 
man sympathy. 

Every two days in the penitentiaries, and once a week in the 
remote convict camps, a doctor makes the rounds. The sick man 
comes before him completely stripped ; this is not to facilitate the 
medical inspection, but because once a convict killed a doctor 
with a knife concealed in his clothes when he refused to send 
him to the hospital. The convict is allowed to tell the doctor 
what he thinks he is suffering from. The doctor examines the 


DkY Guillotine 

convict and writes in his booklet, by the side of the convict's 
names, what he thinks is the necessary prescription; the medi- 
cine the man is to have, the number of days of rest he should 
be given, or the official order for him to go to the infirmary or 
to the hospital. 

The hospital wards contain some twenty beds each; no 
springs, merely three boards and a mattress. There is only one 
sheet on each bed and when a convict leaves the hospital, dead 
or alive, the mattress is aired in the sun a few hours, and is then 
ready for the next man. By each bed there is a small table and 
at the foot is placed a container for bodily needs. This is usually 
an old tinned-beef can and, since most of the sick suffer from 
diarrhea and dysentery, one can well imagine for himself the 
smell which prevails in the ward in the mornings. The ward 
is swept every day by the attendant, who sometimes runs a mop 
over the floor. Once a week he sprinkles it with creosote. 

The sick eat on their beds, for although there is a table, they 
have nothing to sit on. The diets, such as they are, are divided 
into two types. That given to the men who are in a better con- 
dition consists of a half pint of coffee in the morning, and 400 
grams (about 1 2 ounces) of bread for the day; at noon, half a 
pint of bouillon, another of vegetables and 60 grams (about 
2 ounces) of meat; at night, the same as at noon. The diet for 
the men who are in a worse condition consists of 250 grams 
(nearly 9 ounces) of bread, coffee in the morning, and porridge, 
meat and vegetables at noon and night. Then there is the milk 
diet for the men who are about to die; three and a half pints of 
condensed milk and water; the attendant is supposed to make 
this quantity with one tin of condensed milk — but he makes 
five pints with it, and sells the surplus in the ward. For he must 
smoke, also! It is his graft, or as the convicts call it, his 

The doctors have each from one hundred to a hundred and 


Dry Guillotine 

fifty patients to attend to. They have visits to make, operations 
to perform, and they do not have time to attend closely to the 
condition of the men. Added to this, is the fact that very often 
they do not have; the medicines they require. Quinine often 
runs short, due to the theft on the part of the guards, and often 
the bandages give out and it is necessary to wash the old ones 
and use these again. On the Islands, in 1926, there was no 
more iodine or permanganate, and the attendant could not 
make any injections. Often, on the Islands, there is no milk for 
the sick for one and two months at a time, and it is necessary 
for patients, bleeding internally from the ravages of dysentery, 
to eat solid food or starve! Very often the prescriptions filled out 
in the pharmacy by a convict working there are diluted or else 
they are simply lacking the necessary ingredients which should 
go into their composition. 

If a sick man does not die it is net the fault of the care he 
receives. As soon as a fever stays down three or four days, the 

patient is put out of the hospital and returns to his camp 

where his fever will not be long in starting up again. I have 
known convicts who had ten hospital periods in less than a year, 
and at the eleventh one they left feet foremost. In fifty per cent 
of the death reports of these hospitals at the prison colony the 
death entry reads: "Death from physiological weakness." At 
the age of twenty-five, could a man die of physiological weak- 
ness? At the Ministry this did not seem probable, and so now 
in the reports this citation is replaced with "Died of pernicious 
anemia." It looks better! 

The attendants are all convicts. Although most of them 
have no notion whatever of the qualifications which their jobs 
demand, there are a few who seem to have the proper inclina- 
tion and acquire a capacity for it. There were, for instance, 
Mandat, the leader of the band of Parisian apaches, Marcheras 
his accomplice, and Pelissier, who were all three attendants 


Dry Guillotine 

capable of cutting a leg or an arm just as well as any surgeon, 
and they learned how to cure ulcers and attacks of pernicious 
fever properly, saving, in many instances, patients whom the 
doctor in the hospital had given up. 

Death comes often in the wards. 

I remember one case vividly. The man lay at length, un- 
clothed, under a single sheet in which the holes showed his 
bony body. At the foot of his bed, his sweat-soaked nightshirt 
lay drying from his last fit of fever. 

"He will catch the tide!" commented the attendant that 

The dying man looked at the attendant for a long time and 
then dropped his head towards his neighbor on the other side 
of his bed from me, and said feebly ;j "Roll me up a cigarette, 

The other sick man hastened to his neighbor s aid for this 
meant he could roll one for himself also. He got up and felt 
under the dying man's mattress and drew out a package of 
tobacco and a box of matches. He rolled a cigarette, lit it and 
stuck it between the lips of the near-corpse. Then, after rolling 
another for himself, he put the tobacco back in its place. 

The sick man sucked on the cigarette and his throat rattled 
at every draw. He was too weak to lift his hand to it. 

' 'Look ! " a convict who was watching him exclaimed, ' 'I think 
it is come ..." 

The dying man had let the cigarette fall on his sheet, still 
burning, and his head fell backward with the mouth gaping 
open. From my bed, next to his, I could see his eyes fixed on 
the roof above his head. 

One of the convicts in the ward approached his still form and 
shook him. Then he lifted one of his arms, and it fell heavily. 

"Dead! " and he shook him again. He picked up the cigarette, 
puffed on it a few moments, then leaned down and picked up 


Dry Guillotine 

the dead man's shoes; then he turned to his own bed and hid 
the shoes under his mattress. 

Another convict got up and snatched the small sack the dead 
man kept his possessions in ... an Arab took the eggs which 
lay on his table . . . his neighbor, across on the other side from 
me, found the tobacco again and kept it for himself. 

Then the attendant came along. With one glance he under- 
stood, and he turned pale! For in that one glance he had seen 
that the man was dead and, what was worse, that everything he 
had possessed had disappeared. It was that that affected him 
most, for the looting of the dead was his due, it was part of his 
graft, his debrouille. Nevertheless he did not dare say anything, 
for he ;was not a strong individual and in the ward were two 
or three giant forts-a-bras. He approached the bed of the dead 
man and stuck a piece of glass before his mouth. That formality 
over, he searched under the mattress, hoping to find something 
the others had missed. Nothing! Furious, he went away. Ten 
minutes later he was back again with another attendant carry- 
ing a stretcher. He picked up the body and placed it on the 
stretcher without troubling to close the man's eyes, which were 
still staring wide open, and covered the body over with a sheet. 
Again, the attendant felt all over the mattress and raised it up 
— but there was nothing. So he picked up his end of the 
stretcher and, with his colleague, they took the body put to 
the amphitheatre. 

"What's happened?" demanded a sick man at the end of the 

"just another!" somebody told him. "That makes two this 

"He was a pretty good fellow," someone said. 

"A rat — • a piece of foul rubbish." another man insisted. 

"He was soon to be freed," a third voice suggested. 

"Oui" a harsh voice laughed, "Well, he is free now." 


Dry Guillotine 

The next day ftot$pdy thought about him any more. 

In the amphitheatre, the attendants put the bodies on a 
mortuary stone, one beside the other. The convict who is work- 
ing on duty there watches the attendants go away; when he 
knows he is alone he picks up the feet of the dead man and 
moves the legs rhythmically • — ■ he is pot trying to bring them 
to life — not by any means! He is hoping the corpse may still 
be carrying a suppository filled with money. 'this is his de- 

Then will come the hand-drawn wagon, pulled by dvo 
grumbling attendants (at Cayenne it is the same wagon which 
is used for gathering garbage in the streets), the two or three 
rough coffins will be piled one on the other and will go to the 
burial ground with no mourners. And it will be dropped into 
the "Bamboos," a pit in the mud with a cross without a name! 
They have finished suffering; from now on they will be happier 
and better off. They are dead men! 

On the Islands it is even simpler. The bodies are taken out 
on the sea at sunset, where they are thrown to the waiting 
sharks that flash their broad fins around the death boat. 

I had for a neighbor in the next bed a rather old convict 
;whose name was Sigaut. 

Sigaut had come to the bagne with a sentence of eight years 
in [19 1 2, but now he still had twelve years to do before he 
would be a libere, for he had tried to escape five or six times 
[without attaining his cherished freedom. He had gotten to the 
point where he cursed eternally at the guards, at the Admin- 
istration, and even at other convicts. He was in the hospital 
under treatment for hemorrhoids, and he was to be operated 
on one particular morning at nine o'clock, immediately after 
the medical visit. 

To be brief, Sigaut was very much perturbed. Where was 
he going to hide his plan until the operation was oyer? The 


Dry Guillotine 

suppository contained 800 francs — a fortune — and for him 
it was more than a fortune; it was liberty, for he had made ar- 
rangements to embark on another escape the following week, 
hoping that this time luck would be with him. Therefore, 
Sigaut was deeply perplexed; it was a serious problem. Should 
he risk trusting it to the attendant, or, perhaps, to another con- 
vict? This seemed a dubious matter to him, for in the thirteen 
years he had been in the prison colony he had never come to 
have any friends and he did not trust a soul. In that environment 
where one is assassinated for 25 francs, why should he confide 
800 francs to another man? 

Should he hide it in his mattress? But, what if they changed 
it? It was a deep problem, and the clock had come around to 
eight and he still found no solution. 

He got out of bed and went to the privy. 

While he was there, his eye fell on the water tank up on the 
wall over his head. An idea came to him then. Up there, he 
thought, nobody would think of looking for it! He raised 
himself up and put his precious container on top of the tank, 
where it could not be seen from below. Then he vacillated. But 
what if some other fellow tried to hide something there! 

While he stood in perplexity, the attendant called out from 
the ward:' "Everybody in bed for the medical visit!" 

Sigaut had no time to think, and he did not hesitate — 
hastily he placed his suppository in its usual hiding place, and 
hobbled back to bed . 

He was taken to the operating room and stretched on the 
table. The attendant dropped the ether mask over his face. 
Sigaut said later he saw thousands of suppositories spiralling all 
around him as he became unconscious. 
"Pass me the knife," said the doctor to the attendant. 

Then he proceeded to operate. All of a sudden he breathed 
an exclamation of surprise: "Ah, par example ... I" He had 


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encountered his patient's suppository. He held up the object 
between pieces of cotton, opened the tube and examined its 
contents. There ;were the 800 francs. So he put them in his 
pocket and continued with the operation. 

Half an hour later Sigaut came to in his bed. 
' 'Don't say a word about the suppository ." the doctor had cau- 
tioned the attendant. 'Til have you sent to the cells if you do! " 

Sigaut was on a diet for two days. He wanted very much 
to eat, not because he was hungry, but because he wanted to 
have to go to the privy so he could verify the safety of his for- 
tune. On the third day, the doctor allowed him a light diet — 
and before long he was on his way. 

When he came back from the lavatory his face was pale. His 
suppository had disappeared! 

So Sigaut then started reconstructing everything minutely. 
"I had that suppository when I went to be operated on," he 
said to me. "When I came back I was bandaged, and I didn't 
remove the bandages until the third day. It disappeared when 
I was in that operating room, and it's the doctor or that atten- 
dant who stole it! " And he went to interview the attendant. 

"You know very well I am above stealing 800 francs," said 
the attendant, "Particularly when it comes to you, who have 
been my friend for ten years! " 

Sigaut remembered then that, true enough, he had known 
Pelissie* to have had often 1 2,000 francs in his own supposi- 
tory — undoubtedly, he was above such a robbery. Further- 
more, he enjoyed a good reputation with the other convicts, and 
he would not be stupid enough to turn thief and earn their 
hate and mistrust for 800 francs. 

"And as for the doctor, now, he is certainly above it," Pelis- 
sier told him with a tone of finality. Then he observed : ' 'It seems 
to me your suppository is stuck. With a good purge you'll prob- 
ably find it!" 


Dry Guillotine 

Sigaut followed the attendant's suggestion. He took castor 
oil. He had to visit the privy four times. But there was still no 
suppository. The; old convict was almost beside himself with 
worry and anger. The next morning, during the medical visit, 
he asked the doctor for permission to speak with him privately. 
The doctor motioned away the guard. 

Sigaut proceeded to tell him about his troubles. The doctor 
listened and finally he told him to lie flat on his back. 

Sigaut stretched himself out, and Pelissier, who stood near, 
put his sleeve over his mouth so the poor convict would not 
notice how he was about to burst with laughter. 

The doctor then proceeded to press and tap Sigaut and then 
ileclared:; "Your suppository is right there — I can feel it. A 
good purge, and it will certainly come out! " 

Sigaut followed what, this time, were the doctor's instruc- 
tions. Hopefully he made the necessary frequent visits. Still 
nothing! So he asked to speak to the doctor again. This time 
the doctor said to him gravely: "Your suppository must be 
lodged. It will necessitate an operation, otherwise there may be 
complications — fatal complications! What do you say?" 

Sigaut remained pensive for a while, and then he declared:, 
"Well, if that's the only way I will see; my 800 francs again, 
then, sir, go ahead and operate! " 

"Very well," said the doctor. "You will come into my office 
after the visit to sign the authorization." 

That morning, when Sigaut walked out of the doctor's of- 
fice, there was a smile all over his face; and in his funny pro- 
vincial dialect he said to me, while he sat on the edge of his bed :j 
"What do you think of that! He made me clean myself, like 
a gun barrel, from end to end — and then he told me I had to 
let him slice me in half! Some joke! But he's not a bad fellow:; 
He gave me back my suppository. He prescribed me a whole 
quart of rum. I'm getting quite fond of him! " 


Dry Guillotine 

I was well treated in the hospital, because of the doctor's 
special attention, and when he announced that he was leaving 
for France I asked permission to speak with him. I asked him 
now to excuse my attitude, a thing I had not done before — 
for when a man has nearly lost his life through that sort of 
thing, he is not inclined to forget about it quickly. He was very 
decent about it all; he even thanked me warmly for forgetting 
how he had treated me at first. He was at heart a conscientious 

"It would be necessary to send everybody to the hospital I" 
he exclaimed to me. "For all of you are sick! If sometimes I do 
not do my duty, it is because it's impossible for me to do so; you 
men confined in the blockhouses come last, for I am ordered to 
give hospital space to the other convicts who are more obedient. 
I suffer morally in the face of my helplessness as much as you 
convicts suffer physically from your miseries. I'm resigning and 
going back to civilization ! " 

I understood how he felt; but hard as he thought his lot 
had been, he had never been a convict and could not realize how 
terrible our end of the penal situation was. 

When I had been in the hospital several weeks, the time 
came to appear before the Tribunal Maritime Special. I was to 
stand trial, with those who had been sent back from Dutch 
Guiana with me, for a second attempt at escape. 

"This time things will not go so lightly with you, Belbenoit," 
a guard said. "Two attempts to escape are one too many ! " 



CONVICTS who commit a crime or any other offense are 
tried by the Tribunal Maritime Special, the T. M. S. as it is 
called. This criminal court is composed of a President who is an 
officer of the army, usually a captain on duty at Cayenne, and 
two counselors, of whom one is an official of the Administration 
and the other a judge of the colonial civil court. 

At every sitting of the T. M. S. about a hundred men, on an 
average, are tried. They are put through at the rate of twenty a 
day. The procedure is very rapid. The President questions the 
convict. Then the prosecutor has his turn, always demanding 
the maximum punishment. The defense for the convict is con- 
ducted by a guard who has no facility for speaking in public, 
and so he usually contents himself with saying merely: "I ask 
the court's indulgence for my client." That is all there is to 
the trial. The twenty men pass in four hours: after they have 
all come before the court and it has tried them, their punish- 
ments are read to them in a group. 

The punishments dealt out are as follows: for offenses such 
as stealing, fighting and wounding, verbal outrage, insults, and 
refusal to work — from one month to five years in prison. For 
crimes such as assassination, murder, and striking a civilian or a 
guard — from six months to five years in solitary confinement, 
or capital punishment. There is no intermediary punishment 
between five years in solitary confinement and the death pen- 
alty! In fact, the bridge is even greater, for a man given five 
years in solitary confinement can obtain a conditional liberation 
from it when he has done a quarter of the punishment, or 
fifteen months, with a record of good conduct; so the court 
really has to decide between fifteen months or death for him. It 
is a vexatious dilemma for the court and an uncomfortable pre- 
dicament for the prisoner. He usually goes to the guillotine, 


Dry Guillotine 

particularly if he is guilty of assaulting a guard or a civilian. 

The crime of attempting to escape, evasion, is punished with 
one to five years in solitary confinement for convicts who have 
a life sentence, and, for all the others, it is from six months to 
three years in solitary confinement. When an evade is brought 
back and placed in a blockhouse, a guard enters a report of 
evasion against him: "When did you escape? From where did 
you escape? Why did you try to escape? Did you have money?, 
Did you have supplies? Have you any statement to add?" This 
report is then sent to the Governor, who decides if the man is 
to be brought before the T. M. S. or not. The evades always 
have an excuse: They say that they had some sort of quarrel, 
and attempted to escape so as not to be killed by the other 
convict; if they are young men, they say they were prompted 
by the solicitations from older convicts; others say that they 
got lost in the jungle and wandered out of French Guiana; 
others that they wanted to get home to see their mother before 
she died; and some say that they were so miserable they took 
the chance, hoping the genuine excuse will move the authori- 
ties. There was a time when these reasons and excuses held, 
and the men were punished lightly, for the Administration 
hoped they would try again and not come back — that they 
would die in the attempt. In the past few years, however, since 
the newspapers and other agencies, by publishing the first- 
hand story of those who escaped and lived to tell about the 
horrors of Guiana, have drawn attention to conditions in French 
Guiana, the prison authorities have found, in this desire to 
escape and live, an excuse to kill off all such men by punishing 
them unreasonably. So the criminal court now punishes evasion 
with the maximum penalty, and, after the first attempt, this 
means from three to five years of internment on the Islands. 

When we had been brought to the blockhouses after our 
disastrous attempt to escape, I had told the chief guard that I 


Dry Guillotine 

had been prompted by desperation:, for, I said, I had learned I 
was about to be sent to Camp Kourou and I felt that would be 
certain death for me because of my weak health, so I had pre- 
ferred the other alternative. My army disability pension backed 
my claims, and, because of it, the court acquitted me for this 
evasion. But I was classed as incorrigible, and was given six 
months of prison because of my episode with the doctor. Big 
Marcel was acquitted also; for he invented some story to tell 
the court and, whether they did or did not believe it, they let 
him by, for it was his first time. He and I are the only two of 
the group alive today. The rest were all given the customary 
penalty: two years in solitary confinement for those with a life 
sentence, and six months of the same solitary confinement for 
the others. I was to learn, however, that the penalty of being 
classed as an "incorrigible" was a very severe punishment. 


wy^^»fcjiij^Mvat< * awMH*-yy^^ W-. ■* •; »» ■ ■ 


THE "incofrigibles ,, of the prison colony — - the rebellious, 
the ungovernable — are all men with unbroken wills, men 
;whose thirst for liberty is supreme; some who are deeply cynical 
and have no care for what happens to them, others who are 
out-and-out villains and criminals: all of them individuals who 
are desperate and unafraid. For the classification "incorrigible" 
means that they will not bend weakly before the terrible 
authority of the prison guards. N 

The incos as they are called are, for the most part, convicts 
who have tried repeatedly to escape. The regulations state that 
automatically at the third attempt to escape a man is to be 
classed as incorrigible, after he has finished the punishment 
given him for his evasion. Other incos may be men who are 
headstrong, unruly workers and bad characters who, along with 
the confirmed evades, are lumped together under conditions 
where the chances are very good that death will overtake them 
quickly. Any convict who, in less than three months' time, has 
been given cell punishments of 108 days, is also classed as 
incorrigible and is sent to the dread camp — if he survives the 
j 08 days in semi-darkness on a ration of dry bread two days 
out of three. 

Until 1926, the incos were banished to the terrible Camp 
Charvein, which was known, along with Camp Kourou, as the 
* 'Camp of Death ! ' ' Then, when this camp was suppressed, the 
incos were put on Royale Island until 1935. But today they 
are again on the mainland, segregated in another camp which is 
just as deadly a$ Charvein, but has another name:, Camp 

I was sent, at the direction of the Tribunal Maritime Special, 
to Camp Charvein. It was then the most terrible camp in 
Guiana. Situated in the heart of the jungle and about fifteen 




*a&t<frytsiw*yt-Mpr~ ^rrvr 

Dry Guillotine 

miles from Saint Laurent, it was in a region where malaria and 
dysentery raged. The guards were protected by nets and screens 
from the mosquitoes and they were also protected from the 
menace of bad water, but not? so the convicts. It was a low 
swamp region, and the men had to work with their feet wet 
all day; and many of them had large ulcers on their legs and 

When I arrived at Camp Charvein, there was an inco crazed 
by the existence there, who was determined to get out of the 
camp at any cost. One afternoon after we had been locked up 
in the barrack he approached me and held out a piece of needle 
in his hand: 
4 'Here," he said, "make a hole in my eye!" 
"Why, you're stupid, .man!" I said in amazement, "What 
good would that do!" 

He said lowering his face and holding open his red eyelid 
with one hand. "No, I mean it. Do it for me — just a punch." 

I simply could not do it. Finally, under the insistence of the: 
man an old convict took the blunt needle and stabbed gingerly 
at the other's eye. We were all grouped around. The eyeball 
pushed back into the socket for the needle was not pointed 
enough to pierce it. After a few moments of looking on I had 
had enough of the gruesome sight. Some of the men told the 
old convict either to punch it in, or use a pointed knife. The 
old man was afraid that with a knife he would punch a hole 
in the other's brain, and he gave it up, but there was blood 
streaming down the other's cheek. 

The next day the convict did the thing himself so he would 
be sent to Saint Laurent to the hospital. 

There was another fellow there who, anxious to get out of 
the camp also and knowing the hospital was the only way, 
spread sperm on his eyes to get an infection; but he so overdid 
it in his desperation, that he became totally blind. 


Dry Guillotine 

The incos were driven in a manner that was not human. 
The way we had to work was unmerciful. We had to cut down 
and chop up trees from morning until night. We were given 
no rest. For one in good physical shape this would have been 
hard enough, but we ;were all suffering from diseases, against 
the ravages of which we were given no medical treatment. 

We had to work entirely naked/ with only straw hats on 
our heads. This practice was instituted so as to reduce our op- 
portunities of escape. Yet it did not prevent a good number of 
the incos from fleeing into the jungle completely naked. Their 
desperation was often so intense that, like naked animals, with- 
out even food, they ran into the jungle seeking escape or death. 
I have known several who escaped naked without a thing, and 
miraculous as it seems, one of them eventually reached Europe! 
The guards at Charvein, because of the nakedness of all incos, 
had to be single men or, if they were married, they were 
required to leave their wives in Saint Laurent. 

My life at Charvein? A day among the Incorrigibles went 
on somewhat like this: 

Five-thirty in the morning, riveilti. 

We had been in irons all night. The turnkeys drew out the 
banes de justice, each inco disengaged his ankle lock and slipped 
it back on the bar — this last was a necessary precaution, other- 
wise the incos would see to it that the ankle locks disappeared 
in the camp. All the men would then take off the clothes they 
had slept in, for, contrary to the normal custom in life, the 
men at Charvein would dress when they went to sleep and 
undress when they went outside to work. Then an inco, the 
keeper of the barrack, ;wquld go to the kitchen and get the 

A few minutes after this, the gang was off to labor. The 
work might be in the forest or in a clearing. We proceeded in 
single file, carrying picks, shovels and axes on pur bars 


E5ry Guillotine 

shoulders. Guards, armed with rifles and girded with revolvers, 
escort us. These guards on duty over the incos are the meanest 
o£ the lot at Guiana, and most of them are hard-boiled Corsicans. 

In every group there would also be a number of Arab turn- 
keys; these, chosen for their speed, were called by the incos 
'the running camels,' for, in case any of the convicts fled into 
the jungle, the Arabs yrould chase after them with machetes 
and guns. 

"Point of diriectiori, clearings! " one of the guards commanded 
jthts morning, motioning which way our gang was to start. 

Once at the clearing, the guards placed us in a line, five 
yards apart from each other. Our task was the making of 
ninety mounds of earth, each three feet high:] they were to be 
used for potatoes, which later would be planted in them. 

At each end of the line of toiling men, two turnkeys took 
up their stand, and in front and behind a guard held himself 
in readiness with his rifle under his arm, prepared to shoot in 
case of trouble, for the instructions were to fire on any inco 
who .made a break to escape. 

It yvas still early . — around six in the morning. It was cool, 
and everybody worked easily. But, little by little, the sun 
came up over the clearing, and perspiration was soon flowing 
freely over bare insect-bitten bodies. The men after a while 
;were blotched and streaked with earth, in a few hours they 
looked like animals which had been rooting in the ground. 
The line, which was straight when we started working on the 
furrows, became broke;n for some were stronger than the others 
and worked faster. 

The guards look on. 
"You, there! Lascret, I'll send you before the commission!" 

One of the guards had noticed that the inco, who was in 
advance of the line, was working over on his neighbor's row, 
intending to help the slower man. 

J 33 

Dry Guillotine 

"What do I care! " answered Lascret, "The hell with you and 
your reports!" 

' 'You'll get another report, for impudence, ' ' barked the guard, 
taking his notebook from his pocket. 

"Make it three, if you want to!" snapped the inco. Then, 
after a while, he let his tool fall to the ground. "I'm sick," he 

"Turnkeys!" cried the guard, in anger. 
The Arabs came around Lascret and put handcuffs on him. 
He was made to sit on a stump, out in the center of the clearing 
under the burning sun, until it was time for the gang to start 
back to camp. 

"You'll go to the commission, also, for another! " 
An inco has picked up the stub of a cigarette which the 
guard has flipped near his feet on purpose, so as to catch him 
in the act. 

"Can't you get it into your head," the inco replies, "that I 
don't give a damn what you tell the commission!" 

So the second man is handcuffed to a stump in the burning 

Noon! Of the twenty-five incos, fifteen have finished their 
set task. 

"In line, assemble!" barks the chief guard, while the other 
guards jot down in their books the names of the men ;who have 
not finished. 

"Direction, the creek!" the guard commands. 

When we reached the stream the men went into the tepid 
water to wash themselves. No diving was allowed; for there 
have been some who have continued to swim off under water 
and escaped into the jungle on the opposite bank! 

We returned to camp. The two who had talked back to the 
guard and those who did not finish their task have to go hungry, 
and are locked up in a special barrack. 

J 34 

Dry Guillotine 

Food at noon, and again at five o'clock; the ration was always 
reasonably sufficient, for the cooks in the camp never pilfered 
the food allowance of the incorrigibles. 

At six o'clock the irons went on. Each man put on clothes 
as soon as darkness fell. Talking was prohibited, but we did 
talk in low voices; we talked of escape, naturally, for that was 
all we thought about. For freedom all of us had already staked 
our lives at least once — and we were ready to do so again at 
the next opportunity. Perhaps there is a little tobacco in the 
barrack bought at a high price from one of the turnkeys, and 
the carefully rolled cigarette was passed from mouth to mouth, 
the butt stuck finally on a pin until there was nothing left of 
it; for among the incos there is a certain amount of mutual 
misery and comradeship. After a while we fell asleep and the 
only sound that remained was that of irons clicking on the bars. 
This is the only moment in the 24 hours that these miserable 
beings find any relief from their sufferings. Some dream they 
are free: others lie awake and plan their next attempt at escape. 

The regulations state that for an inco to be restored to the 
normal life of the prison he must have served six months, and 
in the last three of these he must not have any punishments 
marked against him. The guards in the camp, either because 
they take a dislike to a man or because they are simply bullies, 
do their best to catch one tripping, especially when a man has 
only a few days more of good conduct before losing his grade 
of Incorrigible. At night, after the men are put in irons, a 
guard will roam; stealthily around or simply stand outside the 
barrack so as to surprise a man in the act of speaking, solely to 
make a report against him! If an inco is caught committing an 
offense he must start the three months all over again; another 
eternity, during which he is prodded and goaded and kicked, 
to endure without a single error before he can be declasse or 
restored to normal prison life. Many of the prisoners get so 

r 35 

Dry Guillotine 

desperate they make themselves targets for the guards' bullets, 
others eventually fall victims to disease, some manage to live 
;whole years there before they escape from the "Incorrigible" 
class. There was one of them, Meurs, ;whq stayed eleven con- 
secutive years at Charvein, with a total pf .2,300 days in cell 
on dry bread two days out of three! 

There was one inco, Peploch, who was what one might call 
the king of the confirmed evades. Peploch, condemned to five 
years at hard labor in 1 902, ;was still there when I arrived. He 
had brought upon himself a grand total of thirty-six years of 
supplementary punishments for evasion. As an inco he escaped 
six times into the jungle, and this he did completely naked! 
The guards fired fusilades at him, and never succeeded in 
wounding him; but, poor fellow, he ;would be brought back 
every time, sometimes from Venezuela, other times from Dutch 
Guiana or somewhere else. And each time he came back they 
would give him two or three more years, and back he would 
be in the hell at Charvein. He was hated by every guard, for, 
each time he escaped, the ones that were on duty with the 
gang would get suspended for thirty days without pay! 

A Corsican guard whom the convicts called 'The Assassin/ 
because he had five killings to his credit, would often ask 
Peploch, "Is it today you're going to escape?/' He hated 

"No," Peploch [would reply, "But the day soon comes * — I'll 
;warn you!" 

One morning Peploch ;went off to labor ;with shoes on; this 
this was unusual, for the incos almost never ;wear shoes when 
they go to work, although it is the only piece of garment they 
are permitted to ;wear. 

The guard asked him, "jWell, Peploch, I guess it's today 
you're going to escape, eh?" 
"Yes!" answered Peploch. "Today's the day!" 

i 3 6 

Dry Guillotine 

TKe guard took up his post behind the working gang, with 
his rifle under his arm ready for trouble. He unbuckled the strap 
over his pistol so he could draw it quickly. An hour went by. 
Two hours went by. All of a sudden two incos started a violent 
quarrel. The other guard cried out, "Turnkeys! " At that same 
instant Peploch, hurling a shovel of dirt into the face of the 
guard as he stood behind him, yelled to him, "Good-bye, Son- 
of-a-bitch!" and raced off at top speed toward the jungle. 

It happened in a split moment. The guard was so blinded 
by the dirt in his eyes that he lost his head and did not fire until 
Peploch had already reached the trees. It ;was then too late! 
Peploch was not seen again in the penal colony until, eight 
months later, he was sent back from some point far along the 
coast to the west. But he got his laugh at the cocky guard, 
who had again been suspended for thirty days without pay. 

In 1925 while I was at Charvein the dean of the incos was 
old Laporte, whom they called D' Artagnan. He was sixty-two 
years old. Laporte had been condemned for five years in 1 887. 
Shipped to New Caledonia, he had escaped several times and 
;was arrested in France, and was sent out next to Guiana when 
the former penal colony was suppressed because it was too far 
away and less convenient for convict transportation. From 
Guiana he escaped six times and lived in Colombia and Ven- 
ezuela, but had the hard luck to be arrested and sent back from 
both those countries. He finally died in prison, being mowed 
down by a guard's bullet. The youngest prisoner at Charvein 
then was Roger Pecquet, who was less than seventeen; you will 
read about him further on. 

Classed as "incorrigible" in June of 1925, I had the good 
fortune to be declasse in August by favor of a new Director of 
the Administration to whom I sent a petition. I was thus spared, 
after eighty tormented days, from certain death. In the run- 
down and anemic state I was in, I should certainly have died 


'"%rf l *~MK.'* H U/**** - " 

Dry Guillotine 

there before the expiration of my full sentence. I had addressed 
a petition to the new Director stating the condition of my 
health and asking that I be released from the incorrigible class. 
I had been so classified unfairly, I said — according to the regu- 
lations three evasions were necessary, and I had only two against 
me! However, though freed from the Camp of Death, I still 
had my sentence of imprisonment for insulting the; doctor to 
serve, and I had to go to Saint Joseph for a term of six months. 
And so, I was embarked for the Islands . . . for the Islands 
of Hell. 



IN THE courtyard of the blockhouses at Saint Laurent, some 
sixty men, chained two and two, were waiting on that August 
afternoon to be embarked for the Islands. They had received 
punishment for evasion or for murder at the hands of the 
T. M. S. — banishment to the feared solitary confinement cells 
on Saint Joseph. There were three who were sick and were not 
in irons; of these three two of us were being sent by the doctor 
to convalesce for a few months in the hospital on the Royale. 
The other was on a stretcher and was going to solitary confine- 
ment, in spite of his condition: he had on only a pair of trousers, 
which were soiled by his dysentery. He was groaning, but no 
one except myself and one or two of hisf friends paid any 
attention to him. 

We moved out of the penitentiary and proceeded to the 
landing, where the night steamer, the Mana smoked, ready to 
push off. The small coastal boat connects Saint Laurent with 
Cayenne, the capital of the colony, on the northeast coast. The 
passengers went aboard first. These were all blacks, who did not 
even look at the gang of chained convicts, for they were thor- 
oughly accustomed to such sights. The black women had on 
bright-colored dresses and checkered handkerchiefs wrapped 
around their heads. They talked and laughed gayly. There was 
a clutter of baggage on deck: reed baskets, pans and other cook- 
ing utensils, vases de nuit in all colors, dogs, pigs and babies 
some of whom were a bit too white. We chained men were then 
shoved below deck into the hold. In a few minutes the boat was 
out in the Maroni River, and had begun to nose down stream 
in the thick muddy current. 

When we reached the mouth of the river, the turnkeys came 
down and removed our handcuffs. This was done, however, 
only after we were well out at sea, for it has frequently hap- 

r 39 

Dry Guillotine 

pened that condemned men, going to the Islands, have leaped 
out of the hold and into the fiver and escaped under the bullets 
of the guards. When night came, a dim lamp was lit in the 
hold. Some of the men got seasick and stretched out where they 
could; they yomited everywhere, and the hot stench was foul. 
Someone sang in a minor key; he had a good voice, and knew 
some new; songs, for he had come to the prison colony in the 
last cargo from France. 

■Most of these men ;with me, thrown into the hold with bags 
of cement and other freight, were going to the Islands < — 
Royale, Saint Joseph's, or Devil's Island to stay for many long 
unendurable years in solitary confinement, or to the prison on 
Saint Joseph, then to be transferred to Royale and interned there 
until their crimes were forgotten or their conduct showed they 
had mended their ways; or, more probably, until there got to 
be too many men on the Islands, and the Administration would 
find itself forced to clear some of them out. When this situa^ 
tion arises, the Administration selects those convicts who have 
been on the Islands longest <— . whom the Islands can't destroy 
— for it knows that these restless men will have but one objec- 
tive when they get back to the mainland, that jyhich they 
have been thinking of and planning to execute so long < — 
escape. Then the Administration can punish themt again, and 
this time they will probably die! 

After eighteen hours of shaking and chugging the boat came 
to a stop. L We could see the group of three islands outside bur 
barred portholes in the morning light. It seemed a lovely pic- 
ture. Green and studded with palms, they looked like a minia- 
ture paradise. A large rowboat, manned by brawny, tanned 
convicts, with a guard standing at the helm, came alongside. 
It began going back and forth, taking twenty convicts at a 
time, and in a short while we were all landed on Royale. We 
Jooked pensively at the Mana chugging off in the distance; and 


Dry Guillotine 

in every man's mind jyas the thought:] When will it take me 
back again?, 

Ten miles from the mainland and thirty miles west of 
Cayenne the three islands rise from the blue sea. "Iks du 
Salutl". . . a name ironical to the condemned. They were 
named thus three centuries ago by the first colonists sent by 
Louis XV to Guiana. Having founded a colony at Kourou on the 
mainland, they were rapidly decimated there by a devastating 
epidemic of yellow; fever, and so they took refuge on the small 
islands they saw out at sea. The pure air on the islands brought 
health back to many of them, and from this comes the name, 
"Islands of Salvation.' ' But to the condemned they are now 
"The Islands of Hell!" 

The largest one was named Royale to please the French 
King; the island neighboring it was named Saint Joseph, for 
the saint under whose protection the original expedition had 
set out; the smallest one, on which the early colonists never 
went, because the current made it unapproachable, was called 
Devil's Island because they attributed the fury of the sea in the 
narrow channel between it and Royale to the devil himself. It 
is yety difficult even today to get to Devil's Island; the Ad- 
ministration has connected it with Royale by a cable which 
serves to take the provisions across to the political prisoners. 

The first prisoner on this island, which is a large rock covered 
profusely with coconut trees, was Captain Dreyfus who lived 
on it alone in a hut for five years. His famous case attracted thd 
attention of the entire world, and it was through it that the 
existence of the most terrible prison on earth was made knowri 
to the general public, which still confuses the penal colony with 
the tiny island on which Dreyfus was confined and which has 
given it its name. When he was proved to be innocent and taken 
back to France, Devil's Island remained uninhabited for about 
twelve years, until 1 9 1 o. In that year Ullmo, an officer in the 


Dry Guillotine 

navy, was brought there and lived in Dreyfus' cabin for fifteen 
years. After the Armistice, some twenty political prisoners were 
brought to the island. Today there are only six. Each one lives 
alone in a small cabin; They have better food than the other 
convicts. But theirs is a lonely, barren life on the sea-surrounded 
rock, and is a sadder life than that of the other condemned men 
in the colony. 

Only some fifty men have been put on the island since 
[1852 — Every night each prisoner is locked into his cabin 
from dark to dawn; they are not made to work, and spend their 
time doing what they want to do: most of them sit and fish 
all day long. They must cook their own food. Their only duty 
is to gather the coconuts on the island for the Administration; 
this they must do if they wish to get their ration of wine. 

Royale and Saint Joseph are about the same in area, having 
a respective shore line of one mile and a quarter in circumfer- 
ence. Devil's Island is only about twelve hundred yards ih 
circumference, and one can almost circle it while smoking a 
cigarette. Seen from a distance they have all a pleasant aspect, 
covered with palms and whitewashed buildings which have 
red tiles on their roofs. From the sea they lobk like a paradise, 
but in reality they are an island hell, where 850 damned souls 
suffer eternally in torment. 

In the first years of the penal colony the Administration 
was established on the Islands. It was there that the first convoy 
of convicts was landed in 1852; then, a few years later, when 
the prisons were built on the mainland at Cayenne and at Saint 
Laurent, the Administration made the Islands a unit for repres- 
sion and punishment. 

The normal number of convicts on the three can be divided 
up as follows: On Devil's Island: political prisoners — ri . On 
Saint Joseph: convicts in solitary confinement — 300; turn- 
keys — 30, convicts sent for disciplinary measures to prison 


Dry Guillotine 

there — 70. On Royale: convicts freed from solitary confine- 
ment and held for a period of time on the Islands as punishment 
for evasion — 350; turnkeys and convicts sent there for other 
crimes — 100. 

Life on the Islands, I was to discover, 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. While 
a convict is on them he must put off all his projects connected 
with escape, and he resorts to making his idle time pass as best 
he can. Two vices flourish there with greater ease than they 
do on the mainland; gambling and immorality. 

Two convicts carried me on a stretcher from the landing to 
the hospital of Royale. I wonder, even today, how I ever endured 
that trip from the mainland in the; stifling hold of the Mana, 
for during the entire crossing my jaws clacked with fever and 
I vomited incessantly. 

The doctor of Royale ordered me to be put in a partitioned- 
off room reserved for the very ill. 

My temperature went up and up. I could not even swallow 
bread, and everything else I tried to eat would not stay down. 
What was wrong with me? The doctor diagnosed my sickness 
as "some sort of stomach trouble," and prescribed milk and 
eggs lyith laxatives as medicine. 

Even this nourishment I could not eat. Only chocolate, and 
now; and then an egg, would stay with me. I could not touch 
bread, an indispensable food to me. The doctor tried to get me 
to eat it dipped in coffee, with butter on it, with chocolate, in 
chicken broth; but I couldn't keep it down, and day by day I 
grew alarmingly thinner. Then I developed diarrhoea. I 
weighed around eighty pounds — was really nothing more 
than a listless bundle of bones. More than once the attendant, 
I knew, thought I would die in the night. But my will to live 

J 43 

Dry Guillotine 

stuck by me, and that is probably what pulled hie through. 

I experienced at this time a state of deep depression. Four 
years had passed since my arrival in Guiana. Long years of 
physical privations and mental torture — dragging years of 
pain, hunger and illness. My former life had faded slowly in 
my memory: France, my family, Paris and Renee herself ,. . . 
all had lost their vividness in my thoughts, which had become 
absorbed with the obsession to escape and to live. And here I 
jvas now, dying! There were moments, rare ones, when the 
past would surge up in me and my mind would turn to all 
;which I had lost — which seemed hopelessly lost. Then I 
.would be steeped in melancholy. But those vivid retrospections, 
f ortunately , were not frequent. I thought of the men who had 
come with me to Guiana, and there was a long list - — a very 
long one — of dead men. I, too, like the few others who had 
survived, had now become regimented among the uncivilized. 
I was now an established convict, familiar with the ways of the 
prison colony. Little by little I had grown to know and under- 
stand the attitude and mentality of the condemned, terrible 
because of the utter lack of anything remotely resembling 
frankness or friendship, and the ever-present sexual corruption 
fehich brooded like a black miasma over it all. 

Only those individuals continually bent on evasion > on escap- 
ing, seemed worthy of respect, for they did not abandon them- 
selves to vice and had only one thing in mind < — to get out 
of that Hell at any cost. 

In my mind, I had divided the convicts amongst v whom I 
had to live, into three classes ; those who thought only of escap- 
ing, and were prepared to gamble their lives to regain their 
liberty; those who did not think about evasion, because they 
;were too old or were resigned to their fate, and the ones who 
were apparently content, because they were like animals. These 
last were, for the most part, the forts-Orbras, jvho arere the curse 


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jo£ the prison colony; for any self-respecting man, prisoner or 
officer. They were yile, steeped in moral, physical, and sexual 

I had also come to understand the underhand workings of 
the Administration; I realized that good conduct meant noth- 
ing; I knew that only if I had money in my possession would 
I have a chance and, if I had it, I could get everything I 
pleased, I had seen for myself how, frequently, convicts sent 
25 francs to the wife of the Director of the Administration so 
as to obtain a favored position, and had obtained it. I had 
learned about the incredible rackets practised by the guards — 
incredible but, nevertheless, true. Lying there in the hospital, 
I was utterly disgusted and shocked. I found nothing, absolute- 
ly nothing to cling to, and I knew I had to get away, if I hoped 
to remain a man, a self-respecting individual, before it was too 
late. The abuses of the Administration revolted me as much 
as did the yileness of the convicts. It revolted me even more, 
for there was no excuse for it, and it was a hideous advantage 
taken by a crooked governmental system oyer poor men y/bp> 
had no powerful friends, no redress. 

One day I happened to notice on my temperature chart the 
letters "T. B." Tubercular! I, tubercular? For a few; moments 
I was surprised. Then I became frantic. The attendant was 
passing by and I gave him 20 sous to go get the convict who y/as 
the bacteriologist, to come and talk with me. 

After a while he appeared, and I asked him if it seas true 
I was tubercular. 

"Oh, pay no attention to that chart!" he said. "The doctor 
has been doing the analyses himself, and you know how he 
sees everything around here as a tragedy •. — » Fll make the 
analysis for you myself — • for ten francs! " 

A few; days later he came back and assured me there was 
nothing wrong with my lungs, and he prompted me to ask 

x 45 


Dry Guillotine 

the doctor to analyze my sputum again, which I did. The 
"T. B." disappeared from my chart, much to my relief! 

The doctor was very good to the convicts; he was really too 
good, for our suffering so upset him that he put everybody he 
could in the hospital and gave all the.sick copious quantities of 
medicines as well as monumental diets. He was going a little 
crazy himself, I often suspected. Within a few short months he 
emptied the pharmacy and the food magazine as well, and the 
Administration lost no time in seeing to it that he was replaced. 

As a contrast to him in technique, there came Doctor Rous- 
seau. The fact that the hospital for the Islands has no running 
water, that all its windows are brokea out and the floors about 
to fall in, and that he had to leave to the next day the patients he 
could not get around to who were in agony from dysentery, 
typhoid, malaria and tuberculosis, only brought out his spirit 
instead of causing him to adopt a philosophical and resigned 
attitude. When there was no chicken and no broth for the men 
in the hospital, he would calmly take his rifle and go into the 
chicken yards of the guards, and ping! ping! ping! — he 
would have twenty chickens for the men. And he would tell 
the furious guards they had no right to more than a few 
chickens when there were dying men in need of food. He would 
have the men in solitary confinement brought to the hospital 
for a month's respite, at the end of every three months in the 
awful cells. He never hesitated to tell the guards, and the Com- 
mandant also, when, how and where to go to the devil — and 
^vhen he said anything he meant it and insisted on it, and it 
;was done I 

He began his duties on the Islands by emptying the hospital. 
He found one hundred and twenty men in it, and he arbitrarily 
decided that in the future there would not be more than fifty! 
When he got to my case and investigated my diet, he was 
openly astounded by the quantity of food his predecessor had 


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prescribed for me, and he suppressed almost the whole diet. 
It was that which saved my life. The miracle happened! I was 
soon able to eat a little bread, and before long I gained weight. 
Every week I gained six or seven pounds, and, when I stood 
on the scales, I was happy; for I felt again that I was nos 
destined to leave my bones in Guiana. 

In the middle of March the doctor talked of putting me on 
the outgoing list but I asked him to let me stay until the first 
of the month, which was the date when I would have been 
six months on Royale and when, in consequence, my punish- 
ment of six months would be ended. This would save me going 
to solitary confinement for even a few days! He understood, 
and was kind enough to keep me in the hospital until the first 
of April. 

When I was sent out, I went to the office of the chief guard 
of the Islands, to sign my release on the jailbook, and he put 
me in the Second Platoon of prisoners and sent me to the Royale 
barracks . • . the Crimson Barrack, where many famous prisoners 
have died. 

Doctor Rousseau is probably the only man (with the excep- 
tion of Governor Siadous)whom the condemned still talk of and 
know by name; But he was recalled to France. The day he left 
the Islands, the; convicts made and gave him a huge bouquet 
of flowers as he got into the rowboat. He has never been for- 
gotten by the condemned. 



LA CASE ROUGE — the Crimson, the Bloodstained Barrack: 
it is the most colorful barrack of the entire penal colony of 
French Guiana, the prison quarters of the Second Platoon. For 
the men assigned to them are usually the m^st dangerous and 
yicious convicts in the prison colony. 

When a man has finished his prison term for a crime com- 
mitted in the prison colony he is sent there. When he is freed 
from the dark cells of solitary confinement on Saint Joseph, 
where he has been imprisoned for many months — or many 
years — for a knife thrust or an attempt to escape, he is brought 
over to Royale and locked up in this barrack of the Second 
Platoon. The incorrigibles, also, if they live to be declasses, are 
brought there. It is here, that, likewise, the criminals whose 
crimes caused sensations in France are confined by the Admin- 
istration, which is ever fearful that these particular individuals 
will get away and cause another stir in the press against the 
unspeakable conditions in Guiana; they, the notorious crim- 
inals, are brought to the Crimson Barrack straight from the 
cargo when the convict ship arrives. 

It is here, in this barrack of evil reputation, that the celebri- 
ties and heroes of the colony have spent much of their time. 
Dteyfus was kept there before he was taken to Devil's Island. 
Dieudonne was imprisoned there for many years, together with 
his friend Jacob, who was the leader of the Amiens gang which 
used a Browning gun in France for the first time. The famous 
Mandat, France's first apache, lived there and he performed 
•the duties of attendant in the hospital, and Paul Roussenq, the 
"king of the black cells," stayed there most of the time he was 
not in a cell. In recent years, new names have been added to 
the roll of the case rouge! Baratand, the millionaire murderer 
against whom the town of Limoges made a mass demonstration 


Dry Guillotine 

because he was not given the death sentence; Peter Klems, who 
became a Moslem and, as lieutenant for Abd El Krimm, com- 
manded the Moroccans against French troops and was finally 
captured by the Foreign Legion from which he had deserted; 
Pierre de Reyssac, the count who feared scandal and drowned 
the child he had had by one of his servants, who later revealed 
his crime; Boppe, brother-in-law of Maurice Barres the famous 
;writer and member of the Academie Franfaise, who created a 
major scandal among the wealthy aristocracy of France when 
his criminal attempt against his beautiful wife was openly 
denounced by his family; the three Oustachis, who took part 
in the attack which caused the death of King Alexander and 
the French Minister, Barthou; and others, many others. Com- 
posed of famous criminals, evades and men who have com- 
mitted the worst crimes in the prison colony, this Second 
Platoon has a special flavor of its own and is set apart from; all 
the other island convict groups. 

The barrack of the Second Platoon is about forty yards long 
by six yvide, and the number of men in it varies between sixty 
and eighty. The convicts are admitted into it through a grilled 
door made with enormous iron bars. To look at it casually one 
jyould think it might be some kind of crude zoo — that there 
jwere gorillas inside. At six in the evening, when the roll is called, 
ithe guards fasten the door, bolting it heavily. They will not 
£pen it again until next morning at reveille, unless during the 
hight a man has been seriously wounded and has to be taken 
to the hospital, a thing which happens with consistent fre- 
quency, much to the pleasure of the Administration: for every 
convict who dies in this barrack is a man of whom the Admin- 
istration is more than glad to be; rid. 

As soon as the great door is closed, things take on their 
personal aspect within, such as even the guards do not know. 
Little lamps, lighted in the; darkness, flare up and fling a little 


Dry Guillotine 

light over each convict as he devotes himself to his personal 
occupation. Two rows of hammocks are strung up, and in the 
narrow passage between them men pace back and forth. The 
little lamps are all of a standard model, a condensed milk can 
in the opening of which the owner has inserted a small socket 
made from a piece of tin: they give a light necessary to see and 
;work by, which the regulation oil lamp in the center of the 
barrack does not provide. The men buy the oil from the keeper 
of the barrack, who is the lamplighter, who always has some to 
sell, because of his economical use of the oil for the regulation 
lamp. This is a part of his debrouille, his kerosene graft! 

Look over my shoulders, while I show you around. 

Over there, a man naked to his waist and his skin blue from 
tattooing, is weaving a rug out of a pile of aloes. It is Le Masque, 
The Mask, an old fort-a-bras — he has been given this name 
because of the tattooing with which he is covered from head to 
foot: his face is all blue, he has a red mustache on his upper lip, 
and his skull which is cropped like mine, \s blue. — He says 
that this tattooing is his hair! On each cheek he has an ace 
of spades and on his forehead an ace of clubs is tattooed. Beyond 
him, another prisoner is carving a design on a coconut. Near 
him four or five men play cards on the floor. Under another 
lamp a shoemaker squats at the foot of his hammock, mending 
a shoe which a guard has given him to patch. Another convict 
sews on a pair of pants for which he will get a few sous, while 
his neighbor plucks a tango tune on a mandolin made from a 
bit of wood which he has found on the island. One man is 
writing, with frequent curses, to his lawyer in France. There is 
another convict sitting in the light of his lamp, reading an old 
newspaper which he has found in the garbage can when he 
swept the Commandant's yard. In the passage between the 
hammocks, a few naked men talk about their last evasion, and 
plan their next one. Others discuss a bit of debromlle, some 

i 5 o 

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graft combination through which, tomorrow, they will get 
some sous to add to their funds, for they are all whiling away 
their time and thinking of something which will get them 
money — escape from there and acquisition of money are their 
predominant preoccupations. From time to time, above the 
sounds made by these seventy odd men while they talk, comes 
the cry, "Ho, Carpette . . . two coffees!" "Carpette, three 

Carpette is the keeper of the barrack. For 4 sous, he sells 
coffee made from the leftovers from the kitchen; he mixes it 
with beans, and it is sweet and hot, and it is good although it 
has a taste which is only slightly reminiscent of coffee. When 
an order is called out, he sends his protege around with the 
coffee. Carpette is a man of business, and this is part of his 
accepted debrouille. He also sells tobacco, cigarette paper, 
matches, salt, pepper, oil, vinegar and onions; in short, all that 
a convict may need to improve his ration, he sells for a few 
sous. He; has stolen these things from the Island supplies. In 
addition he is the owner of the only 'library' on the Islands, com- 
prising twelve hundred volumes which he has persistently col- 
lected in the course of many long years: gifts from liberes who 
are at Cayenne and at Saint Laurent, discarded novels handed 
him by the doctors, volumes which the Commandant has 
read and does not wish to keep any longer, magazines and books 
which the guards have turned over to him: a library where the 
novels of Nick Carter and Buffalo Bill rub elbows with the 
Odyssey and the Iliad! There are books for all tastes; Nietzsche 
is a good neighbor of Victor Hugo, and Jack London of Tolstoi. 
And Carpette, the scoundrel, rents his books at the price of 
2 sous for three days, payment in advance! He was sent to 
Royale for eight years in 1 9 1 2. He has four or five more years 
to do before he will become a libere — eight attempts to escape 
have cost him sixteen additional years as a convict. 


Dry Guillotine 

The rattling of a tin box filled with sous is heard. It is the 
signal for the la marseillaise, the favorite gambling game of 
the convicts.: The men start gathering toward the persistent 

A strumming of instruments has started up. It is "Szsses 
Orchestra," getting ready to practise for the dance that will be 
held on Sunday by the guards. Sasse! Because he was accused, 
but [without proof, of attempting to murder Gomez, the Presi- 
dent of Venezuela, that country closed its doors to all other 
French evades. He had come back here, at the end of three 
years in the most dreaded and notorious Venezuelan prison, "La 
Rotonda," with twelve other escaped convicts who had been 
rounded up in Venezuela, and the scars of the irons they had put 
on him were still visible on his legs. Mandolin, banjo, violin 
and guitar strike up the latest songs, with a fine touch of origi- 
nality; for, after all, the musicians have been there so long 
they do not know how a modern piece should sound! The music 
lasts until the nine o'clock bell, and then because silence is 
ordered by the guards, the musicians put away their home- 
made, instruments and join the gambling game ;which ;will last 
until dawn. 

Everywhere in the prison colony there is gambling. It is 
one of the only distractions at night -. — the convict is tempted 
to try his luck constantly to gain a few francs. The most 
popular of all the games is the la marseillaise, a form of 
baccarat. The man who holds the game as the banker has to 
be a strong character, an individual who is not afraid to receive 
knife blows or to give them; he is usually a fort-a-bras or a Cpr- 
sican, or a man from Marseilles. He deals the cards and super-* 
yises the course of the game; and, ;when disputes and quarrels 
arise, he has to exercise his authority by taking it upon himself 
to settle the differences and bring order back to the game. The 
jmoney bank is his and into it goes at every play, as his gain, 

I 5 2 

Dry Guillotine 

one tenth of the winnings; he wins in a night between ;i o and 
ioo francs, and there are nights ;when his winnings amount 
to as much as 500 francs. Naturally, it is a position which is per- 
sistently coveted, and he has to be a man who is able to defend 
it. Often it costs him his life! He is always partial to a few men 
who are his friends; this is his privilege. To one he gives the 
job of spreading out the blanket for the game; to this convict 
goes one tenth of the winnings of the money bank — on the 
Islands this job is always the accepted right of the last man who 
has come from solitary confinement, simply so that he can have 
a few sous immediately after his release from the awful cells. 
Another puts cigarettes on the blanket: from the tobacco in 
a pack of twenty cigarettes which cost him 20 sous, he rolls 
forty new cigarettes, which he puts on the blanket in a box; 
the players have no time to roll their own, and so they drop 2 
sous into the box and take out a cigarette while they play. Some 
other friends of the convict who holds the bank have a box or 
two of candy on the blanket, and the players drop 2 sous and 
munch one while they sit absorbed in the gambling. The game 
keeps the money flowing from hand to hand and creates com- 
merce! From time to time a player goes to the privy, where he 
takes a bill put of his suppository and returns to play it on the 
blanket. Carpette, as keeper of the barrack also sells candy and 
cigarettes to the players, making a one hundred per cent profit; 
some convict down to his last sous has empty tin cans to dis- 
tribute for the men to relieve themselves in, and these ;when 
full he empties in the privy, thus earning his tobacco; and, 
when a man makes a lucky pass, he orders a round of coffee for 
the whole house, or he empties the boxes of cigarettes and bon- 
bons out on the blanket for the men who are around him. 

The little lamps are put out one by one. Soon only the tooth- 
less old fort-a-bras is awake weaving the rug from aloes; he 
needs money and tomorrow the mail boat from France stops 

x 53 

Dry Guillotine 

at die Islands. He will give the rug to the brawny oarsmen, who 
jyill sell it for twice the sum the old convict asks. Rolled up in 
their worn blankets, many of the men begin to snore. A few 
sitting on the edges of their hammocks whisper in the dark. 
This is the hour of whisperings, the hour of vice among the 
condemned. The other men pay no attention, for this is part 
of the life of the prison colony. The forts-a-bras are the ones who 
lead in all homosexual vices; they seek out and make vice slaves 
of the younger convicts. They are at home with prison life, for 
it has been their existence for years; and since they know prison 
life so well, they assist each other, and lack nothing whether 
in solitary confinement or anywhere else in the prison colony. 
Their self-esteem is set on a hair-trigger: over a word they will 
draw a knife. The Administration uses them to its advantage: 
they are usually appointed cooks in the camps; for if a convict 
makes a complaint to a chief guard about the food, he makes 
it at the same time against the cook; and if the cook is a fort-a- 
bras he will confront the convict and maim or kill him. Usually 
they do not attempt to escape: they talk about it, but do not 
put their hopes into effect, for their lot is better in Guiana than 
that of the other men. They manage to get the most remu- 
nerative jobs; they have their perverts. They have neither scru- 
ples nor honor; they are the accomplices of the guards and con- 
fide to them when a prisoner has a large sum of money, so as 
to get their part if it is confiscated. They know that if they are 
surprised at any wrongdoing the guards will seldom denounce 
them. They become very jealous and fond of their momes or 
young perverts. However, little by little the younger ones will 
grow older and more vicious themselves, and then in turn each 
will look for the company of a young pervert for himself. Verita- 
ble dramas turn about this phase of life at the prison colony. The 
young perverts are very touchy about their sexual relationships. 
Never does a convict permit himself to call one of them 


Dry Guillotine 

"mome" to his face, for this will bring on him the anger of 
the older man and he will have one more hatred to be on guard 
against. It is the older man of a pervert couple who 'keeps 
house', so to speak — he defends his young mome and makes 
the money necessary for lavishing presents of tobacco, bonbons 
and other gifts on his companion. 

At last it is quarter past five. Reveille! The door is unlocked 
and the guards come in for inspection. Carpette goes to the 
kitchen to make the coffee. The house is cleared, and every- 
thing folded away. Knives have been hidden in the hollow bars 
of the hammocks, or in the rafters of the roof, and the guards 
do not trouble to look closely for them. The cards have dis- 
appeared, as well as the tools of the shoemaker and those of the 
man who was carving on the coconut. As for Carpette who, 
like a real smuggler, sometimes has tafia, or rum, to sell, he has 
only water now in his pot! The guards take a final look in the 
privy. It is at the far end of the barrack, connected with it by 
a narrow corridor about fifteen feet long. They are making sure, 
as a last measure, that a bloodstained body is not sprawled out 
at its end. 

The privy of the Second Platoon is more bloodstained than 
any place of its size in the world; there, in that one spot, more 
murders have been done than in any place on earth of such re- 
stricted space. There, matters are settled; jealousies, vengeances 
and personal grudges — there, a man's money is taken from 
him after he has been surprised suddenly! It has happened hun- 
dreds of times. Time and again while I lived in the Crimson 
Barrack I have been awakened by a cry, and heard groans fade 
into a death gurgle. I knew where the sounds were coming 
from. Sometimes a victim runs back into the barrack room 
grasping for a support in the dim light, finally falls dead in the 
passageway. No one will make a move against his assailant — 
it is a characteristic of the convicts. But eyes flame in the dark- 

J 55 

Dry Guillotine 

Hess, those of the yictim's friends, who plot the other's certain 
death, when he can be taken by surprise. And when, a little 
later, the door opens to admit the guards and turnkeys with 
lanterns and cocked revolvers in their hands, the guards know, 
immediately .where to look. Often, too, going to the privy in 
the late hours of the night, I have stumbled over a still form and 
have had to ;wipe sticky, coagulated blood from my bare feet 
on the sides of the corridor! 

There are periods when there are two and three crimes a 
month in the privy of the Crimson Barrack, sometimes more 
than five. The guilty one? When the murderer is discovered 
he has nine and one half chances in ten of being acquitted. For, 
curiously, among the convicts the unwritten law is to place the 
blame on the dead man. Accuse the victim, who is dead to all 
suffering, and save the live one, even if he is guilty -. — even if 
he is your sworn enemy. For you can kill him later when it is 
convenient and safe. There is never a witness against the mur- 
derer; no one will be a mouchard, a blackguard informer, for 
he will bring upon himself the hatred of his fellow-convicts by 
rendering even such a service to the Administration. 

Carpette comes back with diluted coffee, and passes along 
the hammocks with the big copper kettle. By diluting the issued 
coffee he accumulates beans to sell later. Each convict takes the 
measuring cup attached to the coffee kettle and dips into the 
steaming liquid, plunging the cup deep to bring it out full, but 
in vain, for the handle has been strangely twisted so the cup 
cannot be brought up full! This is another phase of Carpette's 
business flare. By denting the measuring cup he saves a little 
quantity of coffee from each man, all of which adds up to sev- 
eral portions, which he will sell later for 4 sous each. When he 
has twisted the handle too much and the men show open an- 
noyance over his little trick, he redeems himself by having it 
perfectly straight for several days — thus throwing them off 


Dry Guillotine 

guard the next time he passes by, for Carpette never loiters 
;with the kettle! He always points ahead with one impatient 
hand ;while the convict is filling his cup, grumbling that the 
other men are waiting! The men, including the forts-a-bras, are 
lenient with him, for he is worth keeping on the good side since 
.they are dependent on him for the purchase of extras. He knows 
just how far he can go, even if he finds it necessary to distribute 
a gift occasionally, and he never oversteps their patience. 

La case rouge! That is what the men call it. It is also the 
barrack of despair « — for while a convict is there he has no hope 
of escape, and can only dream of a distant freedom while he is 
confined with an utterly reckless group of exiled prisoners; and 
while he hoards his money for liberty, he has to defend it and 
his life every night. Before he can return again to the mainland, 
he has to be promoted to the First Platoon, which is quartered 
on the other side of the compound. And to do this, eighteen 
months of good conduct are necessary; and, when a convict can 
see the coast on the horizon and dreams of escaping each night, 
this is ... . too long. 

No outsiders are ever allowed on these Islands, and very few 
are the people who have visited them for other than official rea- 
sons. Of the bloodstained barrack of the Second Platoon, in par- 
ticular, nothing has ever been written. I have suffered there be- 
yond the power of telling. I have lived nights of desperation and 
despair there. I kept on living while all about me blood flowed 
and men died. 



AFTER a convict has been in Guiana a few months he 
comes to know, from hearing them so often repeated, the names 
of the notorious dreaded aces of the penal colony; men who have 
come by their reputation through their audacity, by reason of 
their herculean strength or because of their easy deadliness with 
a knife. 

In 1 926 on the Islands, three men had earned the nickname 
of "Terror"; these three were Louis Briolat, known as € La 
Brioche \ who met with death three years later in the Second 
Platoon, Julien Palanco, who is still alive today and is surround- 
ed by waiting enemies, and Muratti, called 'Le Fou (the Mad- 

Muratti was in the Second Platoon on Royale. He was a Cor- 
sican and, although small of build, he was the most dangerous 
of the three men most feared on the Islands. A few months pre- 
viously he had been liberated from solitary confinement, where 
he had done two years for his last murder. The number of men 
he had wounded could hardly be counted. When he needed 
money, he would aggressively demand it openly from some 
convict in the barrack, no matter whom. On several occasions 
he had, at night, possessed himself by force of the money bank 
from the man who held the game at La Marseillaise! And, after 
emptying the contents, he would stand in defiance and cty 
menacingly:; " Anybody who thinks he can, let him come take 
the money from me! ' ' Not one would make a move, for they all 
knew that before the money could be reached a life would have 
been taken. Muratti was very clever with his knife. And thus 
jMuratti came to be the banker who conducted the gambling 
game every night! 

One night the six o'clock bell had just clanged for the lock 
up. We were lined in front of the barrack answering to the roll 


Dry Guillotine 

call, ;when pur attention was attracted by the arrival o£ a new- 
comer to the platoon whom the turnkeys were searching under 
the gate before sending him into camp. 

A name passed swiftly in a whisper from mouth to mouth, 
"Balestra! Balestra!" We all turned our heads mechanically to 
;where Muratti stood. Time and again, after he had come put 
of solitary confinement, Muratti had threatened terrible men- 
aces against another convict from Marseilles — one Balestra 
who, he said, attempted to poison him; for Balestra was cook- 
ing at the time for the men in solitary confinement. 

"I'll kill the scum the day he puts his foot on Royald" Mur- 
atti had sworn. And now Balestra had been brought to Royale, 
and had been fatef ully assigned to the Second Platoon. The day 
for vengeance was here! 

The roll call was over, we went inside. Balestra entered at 
the end of the line. The turnkey closed the heavy iron door, and 
locked the bar into place outside. Muratti did not seem to have 
noticed the arrival of his sworn enemy. He went over to his ac- 
customed place in the barrack, while Balestra found himself a 
place at the other end among compatriots from Marseilles, who 
celebrated his arrival by ordering several rounds of coffee from 

I saw one of the men from Marseilles slip a freshly sharpened 
knife into Balestra's hand, with the warning: "Keep your eye 
on Muratti!" 

"Right," Balestra muttered. He slipped the knife quickly 
into his blouse. 

The darkness of night shut down on us and Carpette lit the 
regulation oil lamp over the center of the passageway, while the 
other convicts got out little ones of their own and lit them. 

Soon the hour rolled around for the game to start up. Muratti 
spread the blanket out, not in the usual place but, this time, 
near the corridor which led into the privy. He took his place 


Qry Guillotine 

at the head of the blanket and rattled the money bank. Men 
got up from their hammocks and before long there was a circle 
around the blanket, and the game got under way. Muratti, ap- 
parently, didn't have a thought for his enemy. Seeing his in- 
difference, we thought, Well, it's not for tonight! And those 
jyho had been prepared to see blood spilled in a hand-to-hand 
combat reassured themselves. 

The evening went along quietly, and so did the game. Bal- 
estra, who had been whispering in a group with his Marseilles 
friends all the time, suddenly left them and walked along 
through the passageway on his way to visit the privy. As he 
passed the circle bent over the game, he shot a furtive glance at 
Muratti. Muratti seemed to be watching the game with close 
attention. So Balestra, reassured, continued on his way and dis- 
appeared in the narrow corridor. 

This was just what Muratti had been waiting for. For, while 
he supervised the game, he had watched his enemy like a cat 
watches for a mouse which it knows will come out of its hole 
after a while. He knew that sooner or later Balestra would go to 
the privy. 

And, the moment Balestra disappeared into the corridor, 
Muratti left the game, handing the bank to his aide, and went 
to the privy also. The men around the blanket, engrossed in the 
game, paid no attention to his action. Only one or two, who, 
like myself, had seen Balestra enter the corridor, raised them- 
selves up, realizing what would happen. 

Suddenly there was a muffled sound, a noise of scuffling. 
Then there was a piercing cry, which was followed by guttural 
"Balestra * — he's finished him!" men exclaimed, tensely. 

The little lamps were quickly blown out. The players caught 
tip their money and ran to their hammocks. The blanket dis- 
appeared, and in a few seconds the barrack jvas as quiet as 


Dry Guillotine 

an empty tomb in the semi-darkness of the regulation lamp. 

The groans in the privy became fainter. All pyes were glued 
to the entrance of the little corridor, waiting for Muratti to ap- 
pear — for no one doubted that the victim had been Balestra. 

A few minutes later Muratti reappeared in the barrack room 
and went straight to the water barrel where he washed his hands 
and quickly wrung out the sleeve of his blouse. After this he 
hurried to his hammock and rapidly got out of his blouse and 
threw it up to dry over a bit of string. The barrack was in utter 
silence. There was an air of expectancy in its quietness. 

Two minutes later the guards came! The bars of the door 
rattled and it was opened. The captain-at-arms, followed by a 
number of guards with revolvers in hand, rushed into the bar- 
rack room with a group of turnkeys who carried lanterns. As the 
convicts had expected, the turnkeys on duty; had given jthe 

"Up, on your feet, all of you!" commanded the captain-at- 

We pretended to be asleep, we seemed to be slowly awaken- 
ed, and got up slowly. 

Two of the guards went straight to the privy, with some of 
the turnkeys following at their heels. In a few moments they 
came put with Balestra's body, which they set down near the 
door. * . 

"Everybody to the far end of the barrack I" commanded the 

He made us file past him one by one while he examined us 
minutely by the light of the lanterns. He looked at pur hands 
and clothes to see if there ;were any signs of blood. Muratti 
passed among the first, and the captain gave him a look which 
seemed to imply: "You're the guilty one, all right. I know it 
well enough! But we're both Corsicans so I'll see what I can do." 

The short investigation of our hands and clothes gave no 


Dry Guillotine 

results. There seemed to be no clues. The captain barked: 
"Well, who's the guilty one?" There was a dead silence. 

"Well! well! well!" he exclaimed. "Didn't anybody kill 
him? We'll see about this tomorrow." And he glowered at us. 

After a few minutes he barked again: "Two of you scaven- 
gers get a stretcher and take the thing out." 

Ironically enough, Muratti was one of the men who emptied 
the offal of the barrack. Not wishing to attract attention upon 
himself by hesitating, he went quickly for a stretcher to the 
guardhouse of the camp. And, when he returned and lifted 
his victim into it, he took pains to get a lot of blood on his trou- 
sers: for this would be a good alibi, should any blood be found 
on his blouse the next day. Then, with the other convict, he 
carried his victim to the hospital. 

That night, Balestra died without having regained his 
senses. He had seven deep knife wounds in his body! 

In all the prison units of the colony, the convicts who act as 
scavengers are the ones designated to carry the sick and wound- 
ed in and out of the hospitals, and, in addition, they also take 
them to the place of burial. Since there is no cemetery on the 
Islands in which to bury the convicts, their bodies are thrown 
into the sea — - this sordid practice is called le moyillage, the 

Muratti, astute criminal that he was, had continued to get 
this particular job. For it required only an hour or so in the 
morning and he could, therefore, sleep in the daytime and be 
fit to watch the game all night! It so happened, then, that he 
was able to gloat over Balestra until the last moment. It was he 
who carried his lifeless body the next morning from the hospital 
to the mortuary slab; again, it was he who secured from Bales- 
tra's body the suppository full of money. Later, with the others 
in his calling, he took the body in the late afternoon to the; row- 

Dry Guillotine 

A few hundred yards out at sea the oars came to rest. Muratti 
tilted the stretcher and watched his victim's body slide out x pf 
it and splash into the sea. 

"Pull!" The guard at the tiller commanded, and the boat 
turned toward die landing. And, from where he stood at the 
stern of the boat, Muratti gazed at the great fins the 
sunlight as the sharks fought over Balestra's remains. 

The Administration made an investigation, for it had to 
comply with the regulations exacted by the Ministry. The 
Commandant, Crucionni, was a Corsican. He had assembled 
about him on the Islands a group of guards who were all Corsi- 
cans: the captain-at-arms, Taddei, was a Corsican, and the as- 
sistant Commandant in the investigation was a Corsican, also! 
Now, Muratti was a Corsican, and these Corsicans stick up for 
each other; even if it is a Corsican convict vouching for a Corsi- 
can guard: for the Corsicans on Royale, at that time, were all 
more or less related. As a matter of fact it is not a very unusual 
thing for a convict to have a relative who is a guard. There was 
not one of the convicts on the Islands who did not know that 
Muratti had murdered Balestra, and most of the guards knew 
it also. The convict who cooked for their mess had overheard 
them discussing the incident, and they had spoken Muratti's 
name. The Commandant was in close touch with what went on 
in the barrack, for he had his paid informers. How then was he 
to be in doubt over a crime which had had seventy-five witness- 
es! He was in no doubt whatever about it. A few of the older 
convicts, whom thelpfficials trusted not to talk about the matter, 
were put in prison: in two days the captain-at-arms released 
them, and the whole matter was forgotten. But it had permitted 
the Administration to make another report to the Ministry, 
telling that another murder had been done in a penal barrack in 
the presence of seventy-five other convicts of whom none was 


Dry Guillotine 

honorable enough to expose the guilty man; and in the report 
went another official hint of the perpetual danger the officials 
lived in, a suggestion that they had to be merciless with such 
men and they deserved better pay when they exposed their lives 
to watch over such dangerous criminals. 

But Balestra had many friends in the Second Platoon, and 
these men from Marseilles decided to avenge him. Maddened 
by the impunity which Muratti enjoyed as a Corsican, they de- 
cided to finish him. 

Muratti was well aware of what was going on, and he took 
the necessary precautions. He gave up his place in the game, 
for it was one which furnished too easy a pretext for a dispute 
and knife blows. At night, he stayed awake: stretched out in his 
hammock, he kept an eye on the goings and comings of his 
enemies, the convicts from Marseilles, ready to spring up at the 
slightest suspicion with knife in hand to defend himself to the 
last stab. He slept only in the daytime, when the others were 
out of the barracks; and, even then, he kept a protege close at 
hand to watch for trouble. 

But at the end of a couple of weeks he had had enough of 
that sort of an existence. He went to see the Commandant and 
told him that, unless he sent him to the mainland, he would 
be forced to kill three or four men in the barrack so as not to be 
murdered himself. 

The Commandant, being a Corsican, understood. In a few 
days, he saw to it that Muratti was transferred to Cayenne. All 
Royale knew that Muratti was fleeing from the Islands! But on 
the same boat several messages left Royale also, sent by the con- 
victs from Marseilles to compatriots at Cayenne. 

Muratti went to Cayenne 'loaded* — that is to say, with a 
well-filled suppository. His mind was set on escaping quickly, 
for he knew that on the mainland he would not be much safer 
than he had been on the Islands. And so, a few days after he 


Dry Guillotine 

came to the penitentiary at the capital, he was out and on his 

Was it folly? Or simply sheer bravado! For he was escaping 
;with four men who were from Marseilles; he knew this, when 
he agreed to start off with them, and that they might be his 
enemies! Yet, perhaps he thought that in the great thrill of ex- 
pected freedom they would let bygones be bygones, and think 
only of the future. 

Two mornings later, some blacks who were walking along 
the beach found the shark-torn bodies of two convicts and noti- 
fied the guards. The convict scavengers brought the bodies to 
the hospital, where they were identified: one was the partly 
eaten corpse of Muratti, and the other the body of one of the 
convicts who had sneaked out of camp with him the night they 

What had happened out there on the sea none has ever 
known, for the rest of the convicts in that evasion have never 
been caught. 

So died Muratti, the Corsican murderer, who for more than 
twelve years had been a terror in the prison colony. 



NOT having received a single fresh piece of official clothing 
since the day I first set foot in Guiana, I wrote a letter to the 
Commandant of the Islands, telling him that I was, so to speak, 
naked. He had me allotted a sack of effects which contained, 
much to my relief, a change of clothes, a blanket and a pair 
of wooden shoes — the last, of course were worthless as foot- 
wear, and I sold them to a man who needed the wood for a 
piece of carving he was doing. In my letter to the Commandant 
I took advantage of the occasion to ask for a writing job in one 
of the offices on the Islands, so I would have some work with 
which to pass the long days away. I was designated to help 
with the bookkeeping for the food supplies. 

I enjoyed with this job a great deal of liberty, and almost 
every afternoon I would go down on the landing and spend an 
hour or so looking out over the sea. One day, a guard asked me 
if I wanted to give lessons and act as a tutor to his young 
daughter, who was going over to Cayenne, when the classes 
started, to continue her schooling. He offered me 30 francs a 
month! I accepted, without a moment of hesitation. 

That same evening I went to his house to begin my duties. 
Being bookkeeper, I was free to return to the barrack at any 
hour providing it was before nine o'clock. 

Suzanne, the guard's daughter, was sixteen years old; but 
raised, literally, among convicts — for from her earliest child- 
hood she had been accustomed to seeing them in her home as 
servants — she knew much more about the facts of life than a 
girl of her tender age was supposed to know. From the very 
first day of my duties as her tutor, ;with her knowing little ways 
she: began to turn our interest toj subjects which had nothing 
whatever to do with mathematics and geography! 


Dry Guillotine 

I was barely twenty-seven. For years . . . endless years . . . 
I had not had occasion to talk with a woman, to say nothing 
pf seeing regularly a white girl who was young and desirable. 

I was far from being unaware of the risk I was running. 
If her father had found out what was going on, he would have 
made a hole in my skull with his revolver, just as he had done to 
a convict who had insulted him a few; months before; in one of 
the barracks. 

The element of danger, however, in a way gave spice to our 
affair. Two and three times in the day and sometimes it was 
pftener, Suzanne would come to the office where I worked, 
under the pretext that there were explanations needed for the 
assignments I had given her the day "before. And she would 
profit by the opportunity to slip me little love notes which, 
although they were discreet, were more those of a woman than 
a girl of sixteen. 

I kept a circumspect eye open, so as not to get myself 
into serious trouble, and I took every precaution to keep my 
idyll completely under cover; and in effect no one, not even my 
closest fellow-convicts, were aware that I was in the middle of 
a romance. 

Then, one night when we were having no lessons, Suzanne 
took it upon herself to wait for me when I came out of the 

We had met in the dark and walked about on the island 
before, but the surprise of seeing her there that night when 
there would be no excuse if we were caught together in the 
neighborhood of the office, made me feel extremely uneasy. 
But she reassured me . . . she said she would leave right away, 
and she added that her father was on night duty at the camp. 
Sure enough, she kept her promise; after she had given me 
a long kiss and I had returned it with another, in the shadows 
beyond the office, we parted. 


Dry Guillotine 

But the next night she was waiting there again for me. And 
on other nights, there she was again in the same spot — just 
beyond the shadow of the building. I got to expect her there, 
every time I finished work and by a path which was littleaised, 
she would accompany me almost to the gate of the Crimson 
Barrack. The Islands at night are dark. On Royale, there is 
only a small oil lamp every hundred yards! 

Then, one night . . . Our romance ended with a crash! 

The Commandant happened to be strolling around in the 
vicinity of the barrack. He was a very quiet walker — and he 
heard whisperings and the unmistakable sounds of kisses in the 
shadow of the wall. Thinking it was some affair of a guard and 
his wife, a thing which is viewed in silence on the Islands, he 
discreetly went the other way. But — alas for me and Susanne! 
« — he chanced to see her running stealthily down the slope 
between the barrack and her house. He recognized her. Sus- 
picious, he went to the gate of the barrack and demanded from 
the guard on duty at the guardhouse who the convict was who 
had come in last. 
"Belbenoit, the bookkeeper/ ' the guard answered. 

The following morning I had orders from the Commandant 
to come to his office. 

"I'm sending you to Saint Joseph this morning, on the ten 
o'clock boat," he said to me, with a penetrating look. "You 
are lucky it was not the guard at the landing who surprised you 
last night. The sharks would be eating you now!" And he 
continued eyeing me sternly. 

I was very nervous. I had expected to be called down by the 
Commandant for something else, something far less serious. 
This was a total surprise to me, as I had not seen him the night 

"Just what are your relations," he demanded, "with this 
guard's daughter?" 


Dry Guillotine 

"We arc just friendly," I replied. "I have been her tutor for 
several months." 

"Her tutor, eh," he shot at me, smilingly. "Get your things 
ready to go across. There has been enough scandal on this 
island, without you convicts being mixed up in it also * — tutor 
or no tutor." 

So I left for Saint Joseph. 



THE Island of Saint Joseph! the loathsome, the cursed and 
detestable! It is a place of punishment and repression unparal-* 
leled on earth for inflicting pain and slow death. It is here that 
the convict suffers most. 

On Royale the convict is not under the physical torture of 
disciplinary confinement nor the mental strain of being com- 
pletely alone. On Royale he enjoys the possibility of news from 
the mainland, when the boat stops off shore every week while 
the oarsmen go out to it to unload, and every month there is 
the mail boat from France which comes by. But on Saint Joseph 
there is nothing! One small boat of the island Administration 
comes out every day with supplies and with more convicts to 
be put in the cells; it goes back to Royale as.soon as its business 
is over, and none of the convicts on the island are allowed to 
come near it or to talk with the oarsmen. And the new men are 
immediately searched by the turnkeys as soon as they land, to 
see if they cany notes for others on the island! 

A road circles Saint Joseph. Another road leads to the flat 
hill which commands the island, and on which are ranged 
three rough and austere structures of solitary cells. The third 
of these is reserved for demented convicts. Halfway up the 
island, down close to the churning sea, is the camp for the men 
who are sent to the island but not to solitary confinement. It is 
surrounded by a high wall. A hundred men, including the turn- 
keys, are sequestered there. These are convicts who have done 
something the authorities on Royale didn't like and have been 
sent over to Saint Joseph by way of added punishment, for 
the Administration; knows that the thing which annoys a con- 
vict most of all is to be deprived of his debrouille, his chance to 
obtain money, and on Saint Joseph a convict can make absolute- 


Dry Guillotine 

ly nothing, not a sou. He is unable to smoke or to do anything 
to better his condition. 

Solitary confinement . .. . ! Entombed in a dark cell! The 
convicts call it "La guillotine seche" the dry guillotine! The 
convicts call these three cement cell structures, The Castle. 
Each of these is covered with a V-shaped, corrugated iron roof, 
and contains forty-eight cells arranged in two blocks of twenty- 
four. On the cell block of each structure is an iron walk where 
an armed guard paces night and day. The top of each cell is a 
grilled network, and he can gaze down and see everything 
which is going on inside. The cells are about twelve feet by 
nine, with a height of nine feet. The roof keeps out the sun 
and, also, the coolness of the rain. The only light which comes 
in is through the barred opening above the inmate's head: he 
is immersed like a fish in a clammy well. 

In each cell there is a narrow wooden bench for the prisoner 
to sleep on and, during the day, he usually sets this up on 
end so that he can have more space to move. A small bucket 
for excrement is the only furnishing in the cell. An old blanket, 
and sometimes a piece of rag, and the prisoner — that is all. 
At the bottom of this semi-obscure pit the prisoner stays 
twenty-three hours put of each twenty-four. Each cell has a 
solid door; these open onto two walled passages that lead to 
an enclosed court. For an hour in the morning the prisoner is 
taken into this silent court where he can walk around in soli- 
tude, then he is taken back to his cell. It is the only time when 
he can see the sky. The rest of the day he lives in dim light; 
from dark to dawn — blackness and silence. He is alive in a 

He has no work, nothing to read, nothing to write on — 
nothing to occupy himself with. In the dim obscurity his mind 
ganders while he paces back and forth or goes round and round, 
and at night he dreams on his piece of board. The only sounds 


Dry Guillotine 

He hears are those of the sea breaking on the rocks and the 
screams of the demented crying and howling in the third struc- 
ture. And these elemental sounds which faintly reach his lonely 
ears in the depths of the cell block are of a kind which are hor- 
ribly depressing to a man . . . the monotonous noise of the sea 
. . . the heavy splash of tropical rains on the iron roof when 
the wet season is on . . . the howls and piercing screams of the 
demented, are the only sounds which reach him vaguely from 
the outside world. The cells are damp, very damp, in that region 
where the atmosphere is already saturated with humidity. His 
teeth fall out with scurvy. He watches the green mold grow 
and creep along in the cracks, and passes his time away making 
tiny patterns and designs in it with one of his long nails which 
he has painstakingly worn into a point on the cement. 

Thoughts . . . dreams. Of what? He is alone with whatever 
inner self he may have. The past is dead. For many the past 
was so sad that they have no pleasant memories to attach them- 
selves to; for those who have something worth while in their 
former lives, it is even worse, this present emptiness. Most 
prisoners turn to the future, where things have not yet hap- 
pened, and then become lost in great dreams, in fine plans. 
They dream of impossibilities, they foresee happiness. Life 
takes on the tone of a mirage, and they are soon blissfully going 

After a while a prisoner in those cells has an ungovernable 
desire to go to the hospital: to see somebody, to talk with some- 
one, to smoke a cigarette. It becomes overpowering, it is stronger 
than he: it becomes necessary that he get out of the solitary cell 
no matter what the price. The one way he can get out is to go 
to the hospital. So he finds an excuse for the doctor's visit, when 
he comes to the island once in the week. He must be sick, 
gravely ill; he knows that, and he makes himself sick! It is a 
yoluntary and a desperate alternative. 


Dry Guillotine 

Some find a way to wound themselves purposely, some 
smoke quinine to sham fever, some breathe sulphur to sham 
bronchitis or rub sperm into their eyes to induce a suppuration, 
others put castor beans in a cut so as to get a serious infection:, 
they try everything. They impair their health, and often pay 
with a part of their bodies or with their lives. But when they 
are in the hospital they can talk, and read and smoke; and when 
, they are brought back to Saint Joseph again, each will have on 
him a suppository made with paper or bread-dough, and full 
of tobacco! 

When a prisoner has tobacco, and has almost finished his 
carefully rolled cigarette, he will wait for the guard's steps to 
get to the far end of the walk: he then throws the lit stub, 
tied to a precious pebble, up through the grill above his head; 
the butt falls into the next cell, the inmate draws a few puffs, 
then throws it in his turn into the adjoining one. The guard, 
if he pays any attention, has a hard time finding where the 
cigarette came from, for the long range of cell tops all look 

It is a miserable life, a life of horror where beings suffer 
inhumanly and are cared for like beasts. They are few, those 
who endure five years in the cells on Saint Joseph; yet this 
punishment of slow rot and death is inflicted on the condemned 
for their evasions, because they attempted to flee to life out of 
that Hell. La guillotine sechel The dry guillotine! Albert 
Londres has found, better than anyone else, the name for the 
nerve-freezing cement structures on Saint Joseph. 

"Fortunate are the simple in mind." But I do not think the 
pitiful depraved, locked up in the third cell-block on Saint 
Joseph, are fortunate. When I was on Saint Joseph there were 
more than forty crazy men in the "Howling House," — help- 
less, and treated and handled like so many rotting lumps of 
flesh. Their minds had been murdered but their bodies still 


Dry Guillotine 

hung together for a few more months or years. The guard in 
charge of them stole part of their food supply, the turnkeys 
stole another, and the little that was left for them was barely 
enough to keep them from dying of hunger. Most of them 
were naked, the clothes of the others were in shreds; they had 
nothing but part of a pair of trousers or a blouse made of old 
flour sack, and they chattered at night in their cells. Trembling 
from cold and physical exhaustion, they moaned and cried 
hoarsely to ears that were ever deaf; and, whenever one had a 
moment of lucidness and complained, a bucket of cold water 
thrown down on his head by a turnkey quickly calmed him — 
or started him off raving again. 

Human derelicts prostrate in so many cages like frantic 
animals dirty and half-naked, their eyes bloodshot, their chins 
streaked with drool, they are forced to drink dirty water out of 
buckets that are filled whenever the turnkeys take a notion to do 
so. They are closed up just like the others and come out only for 
an hour, if at all. In the walled court some occupy themselves 
with their individual peculiarities. One man counted eternally, 
just as he had done for more than a year already, "27, 28, 29 
— 27, 28, 29 — 27, 28, 29 . . ." Those who are as mild as he 
have a chance to exist longer than others, for their folly is inof- 
fensive and does not annoy the guards too much. There was 
another who, every time he came put in the morning into the 
walled court, would throw pebbles * or whatever he could lay his 
hands on, at his enemy the sun; and, in the darkness of his cell, 
he would burble, staring at the dim light which reached him 
through the grill above his head :_ this dim light was to him the 
sun's eye! Another used to have a wild fear of persecution, 
which was probably well founded, and would throw his food in 
the face of the turnkeys every time he had a chance, thinking 
always they came to poison him. It was not long before his cell 
had another inmate. There was another who scratched on his 


Dry Guillotine 

cell wall day and night, thinking his mother was in the other 
room, dying; in his frenzy, he thought he had to get to her. He 
would not stop to go out for exercise; sometimes the turnkeys, 
seeing his bleeding fingers, would take pity on him and drag 
him out into the court by force; but when they did, he would 
stand by the wall and scratch and mutter, without taking the 
time to eat his food. His fingers were worn, literally, to the 
bone, but this seemed not to bother him; I believe he finally 
bled himself to death. 
. Another, and he was an example of what is probably the 
most pitiful sort of inmate of all those locked into these rows 
of horror in the third cell-block, was constantly in the process 
of wording a letter of defense to the Director of the Administra- 
tion. He was an intelligent individual, and I know for a fact 
that even the guards on the walk would listen, moved. He, 
like many others who have exposed how things are in the prison 
colony to the press and to the high authorities in France, had 
been classed as demented by the Administration and was kept 
there in the third cell-block out of pure revenge until he actually 
did go crazy. The Administration had seen to that, so that 
there could be no come-back in the future against its action. 
It may seem unbelievable, but this forcing of a sane man to 
become insane has happened time and again. Some of the 
most intelligent convicts in the colony have died, reduced to 
raving idiots, right there in the third structure cell-block of 
Saint Joseph, because they took it upon themselves to tell the 
people of their country how things are done in the French 
Guiana. Forgotten martyrs, all of them! For they got no thanks 
for their humanistic endeavor, and the press seldom sent them 
money for the revealing words they smuggled out and which 
cost them their lives. They were individuals who were civilized, 
who were educated and reared in the ways of civilization, — 
who thought their nation should know the atrocities which are 

x 75 

Dry Guillotine 

done under its flag. Their names are sent back to the Ministry 
of Justice in France, with the citation: 'gone crazy in the heat 
of the tropics" — that is the end to investigation, hushed 
efficiently by the local Administration. 

Idiocy is often a pretext resorted to by the Administration to 
get rid of men it can't kill or silence. And proof of this lies in 
the fact that out of twenty convicts classed as demented there are 
usually ten whom the new doctors, when they arrive "for duty 
in the colony," humanely send back to the mainland — their 
professional decisions as to the mental or physical health of the 
men they examine on their first visit to the third structure can 
not be overruled, not even by the Penal Administration. But 
the years between the shifts of medical men are very long, and 
some of the doctors are not too conscientious. And many a 
man committed to the third cell-block when he was perfectly 
sane, has become demented through despair and through the 
howls of the crazed all around him, morning, noon, and night, 
before a new doctor who is sincere in his profession has arrived 
on the scene to take him out and to write another official report 
against the Director of the Administration. 



THE Commission had arrived, and although I had been on 
Saint Joseph Island only twenty days — in the camp com- 
pound and not in the cell houses — there were two reports 
against me. With others who would have to face; punishment 
I stood before the administrators. 

"Belbenoit!" a guard's voice called my name. 

"Here! " I stepped forward to the desk at which the Commis- 
sion sat, and stood at attention. The Commandant, M. Tout- 
blanc (in spite of his name he was a blue-black negro!) gath- 
ered up a few sheets of papers, my reports, and read out the 
first one: 

"Belbenoit, 46635: Spoke impudently to a guard. To a 
guard's remark he answered: 'Oh stop bothering me; with your 
damn opinions!'" 

"What have you to say to this?" the Commandant asked. 

"Nothing, sir," I said. 
The Commandant picked out another report: "Caused his 
ration of bread to be weighed, asserting it did not weigh what 
the regulation allows. Weighed 700 grams. (24I ounces) 
Complaint unfounded." 

"But I have a right to 750 grams (26 ounces), sir!" I in- 

"Yes." The Commandant scowled — scratching his kinky 
head. "But you must know the bakers can not make all the 
round loaves of bread so they are exactly 750 grams; there may 
be some that weigh only 700 grams, but there are others that 
jveigh 800 (28J ounces)". 

"No, sir! " I said, "Out of one hundred loaves there are prob- 
ably five that weigh 750 grams, — the rest will weigh less than 
3vhat is prescribed by the ration — not one will weigh more!" 


Dry Guillotine 

"Very well, that's enough!" the Commandant frowned. 
"Stand back!" 

The injustice of the things I had been submitted to on Saint 
Joseph had made me foolishly lose my temper before the negro 

A few moments later the Commandant announced to me; 
"30 days in cell for the first and 30 for the second." After 
a pause he added: "I am making a report against you, myself, 
for speaking impolitely to me — and giving your opinions put 
of place « — 30 days in the cell for that too!" 

"How many, Rene?" asked a comrade when I returned to the 
camp barrack. 

"Three times thirty," I retorted dryly, while I got myself 
ready to go to the cell blocks. My comrade filled my suppository 
with tightly packed tobacco, inserting some carefully folded 
cigarette paper and a few match heads; while he did this, I hid 
three 5-franc bills and a razor blade in the seams of my trousers. 
"Belbenoit!" The turnkey, before I was ready, had come to 
take me to my cell. I was in the privy, concealing my sup- 
pository. I hastily put on my pants and went out of the barrack. 

The solid door of the cell closed on me. 90 days to do, alone 
. y . for nothing. 90 days struck from the sun and the light, 
from the life of the living! With nothing to look at except a 
piece of board and a foul bucket . . . and four walls. 

Little by little the darkness became clearer; I had been 
brought in from the bright sunlight. After a while my eyes 
became accustomed to the somber glow, and I could see. 

I removed my suppository and made myself a cigarette. I 
smoked slowly, listening for the guard's steps on the walk. 
Then I started pacing back and forth in the cell . . . thinking. 

A key rattled in the lock. It was the turnkey: he wanted 
to know if I wanted anything. I gave him 20 sous to bring me 


Dry Guillotine 

coffee and some bananas. And when he closed the door I started 
walking back and forth again. 

A few thuds sounded faintly through my wall. It was my 
neighbor in the next cell. 

After a moment, I rapped in my turn. 

A telegraphic conversation now began. 

The man tapped: one tap, A; two, B; three, C; and so on 
tapping out alphabet till they made words. I listened intently. 
Between each word he would stop a moment, and then he 

H-O-W - M-A-N-Y his telegraphic taps asked. 

N-I-N-E-T-Y, I answered. 

W-H-O- A-R. . . 

I cut him short with three quick raps, and telegraphed my 
name. Then I asked his. 

I listened eagerly for his name. 

I-N-A-U-D-I, he answered, 

Hell! It was only a stupid bestial convict for whom I had 
never had any use. There went my chances of having intelligent 
companionship near at hand when I wanted it, needed it so 

He continue*! tapping for several minutes, but I wouldn't 
notice him. It was better to be alone with my thoughts than 
to cany on a conversation with such a man! 

Silence. Then the soup, at ten o'clock. The; turnkey brought 
.mje the coffee and bananas with my soup. 

In the afternoon I walked back and forth and thought. The 
air was hot under the iron roof, and it reached down into my 
cell. I took off my clothes and stretched on the; board for a 
siesta. Just before dark the turnkey woke me up and told me to 
get out into the court with about a dozen others. We walked 
around for half an hour. Some asked me for tobacco, but they 
y/ere not friends and I refused to give them any. 


Dry Guillotine 

Back In the cell, rice was dumped into my plate. Then the 
3oor was closed until the next day. 

Back and forth, back and forth I walked, adjusting my step 
so that I could push the wall with my hand for exercise as I 

The blackness of night shut down on me. I paced back and 
forth mechanically. I set the board bed up on end and steadied 
myself along the wall until I could grasp the grill at the top 
of the cell. I hung there as long as I could to exercise my arms 
before I finally dropped to the floor. 

Thoughts. They became so clear in the darkness. I reviewed 
my past, my existence from day to day. I remembered men I 
had not thought of in months, and wondered if they were 
still alive on the mainland. I thought of new ways to escape. 
I thought of my future — my future, in which the past will not 
figure. Reneei She returned to my thoughts, now that I was 
alone with myself. I remembered every little incident of our 
life together. She must have found another. And why not! 
Why should she wait for me, who had been banished from 
civilization? I took her side, and thought; She is right! I took 
my side and was sure she was wrong. On and on my thoughts 
raced into the night, while I paced back and forth, back and 
forth in the darkness. 
. Then I fell asleep on the board in my cell. 

In the days which followed, my thoughts toned down and 
changed. I became accustomed to the isolation, and the days 
passed — one after another. I asked the turnkey to give me 
the broom: I told him I would sweep the cell myself. He gave 
me a frayed bundle of straw. I invented an occupation for my 
hands, as well as my mind: I would sweep the cell minutely, 
I would get down on my hands to get everything out of the 
cracks. Before the soup was brought to me, I would sweep the 
cell again. Before I ate I would cut my bread into small slices 


Dry Guillotine 

;with my razor, and I would polish my spoon until it shone with 
a bit of earth and dust saved up in a corner with my constant 
sweeping. After I ate, I picked the frayed threads of my trousers 
and separated them out into little pieces. I would take off my 
trousers just to look for a fresh piece of thread and every time 
I found one in the darkness in which I began to see as with cat's 
eyes, it was a momentous discovery. 

Afternoon again. Rice again. Tomorrow the ration would 
be dry bread, but I gave the turnkey some sous to bring me 
coffee to dunk the crusts in. 

Night again. The cell was pitch black again. I lay down 
for a while. Then I got up and paced back and forth, back and 

My thoughts turned to the future for hope — to escape, to 
liberty, and I lived in essence the things which I dreamed. I 
would bicker over every little point that came to my mind, I 
would discuss with myself for half an hour the color of the suit 
I would buy from a tailor in New York, or in Buenos Aires, and 
I would calculate the price I should pay for it. I would have a 
date with some beautiful girl I had met in imagination, and I 
would be impatient waiting, in a dream world, for her to arrive 
— just as if it were all reality! By the mere power of thought 
I thus lived during long, long days of solitary darkness. Some- 
times I would be on the boulevards, and I would spend many 
minutes deciding what the drink was to be, even deciding what 
tip I would give the garfon. 

While I thought and imagined, I lived. It was a life of my 
own! A dream life! When my neighbor rapped on the wall, 
or when the turnkey opened the door of my cell to bring me 
food or tell me to go out into the court for exercise, that would 
annoy me. It would annoy me exceedingly, for it would break 
the spell, and I would have to start over again the long, detailed 
vision-life in which I was able to immerse myself completely. 


Dry Guillotine 

There ware days jvhen in return for a few francs paid to the 
guard some of us could go down by the edge of the sea and 
bathe accompanied by a turnkey. I would find, by paying more 
francs, in a certain spot in the rocks a small package of tobacco 
and matches. The; turnkey would pretend not to see that I had 
anything with me when again he locked me up. 

Thirty days, 45 days, 60 days went by — 30 more still, 
and I would be out in the sunshine. 

"Belbenoit!" the voice of a guard shouted outside my cell 
"Yes ! " I yelled through the iron door."Well, what is it now? " 

The Disciplinary Commission had again summoned me. 
Another report, I learned, had been made against me. Fifteen 
days more for hanging from the bars of my grill and exercising. 

Forty-five more days now instead of only 30. My cell was 
yery damp. And the soles of my feet had softened, which 
caused me a lot of trouble, because I had a habit of pacing up 
and down continually. 

I made up my mind to get out. I had had enough. My 
money was nearly finished. I felt myself weakening fast:; two 
days in three with only hard bread and water to eat, the con- 
finement, the lack of air, that bone-aching dampness were all 
beginning seriously to weaken me, I must go to the hospital, I 

With my last few francs I persuaded the turnkey to get from 
the infirmary a little sulphuric acid. It was a very small amount 
but that t was all I needed. On the day of the doctor's visit, 
about three hours before the time came to go before him, I 
began my maquillage: as the convicts call it when a man makes 
himself sick: I poured the acid into my spoon, and breathed 
the fumes caused by its action with the metal. When I was 
before the doctor my lungs, through his stethoscope, wheezed 
excessively. I coughed and sniffed as if I had a cold. I had 


Dry Guillotine 

bronchitis, the doctor announced, and sent me to the hospital! 
I left Saint Joseph for Royale, hoping to stay in the hospital 
long enough to spend the last one day of my 105 days there, 
for every day I had to lie there in bed counted on the punish- 
ment. Food! Something to read! Air and the sight of the sun! 

i8 3 


IN THE hospital on Isle Roy ale I found that during my absence 
a scandal had broken out — a scandal far more serious than any 
which die guard's daughter and I might have brought about 
had not the Commandant sent me post-haste to Saint Joseph. 
This was the scandal of Maurice, Raoul, and the wife of Leclerc, 
the island's eldest guard. 

Maurice, once a headwaiter in an exclusive restaurant on the 
boulevards, had during the years of his imprisonment in Guiana 
become a hardened, uncomplaining convict. He lived in the 
Second Platoon, in the Crimson Barrack, and his whole life 
seemed wrapped up in an intense homosexual relationship with 
a young convict named Raoul. The two were together every 
night in the farthest corner of the Crimson Barrack. While 
others played cards or occupied themselves with other activities 
Maurice and his young mome stayed back in the darkness — 
behind a blanket which Maurice habitually hung every night 
on a string, as a screen for their perverted orgies. 

While I had been in the barrack, before being sent to the 
cells on Saint Joseph, Raoul had done no work. Maurice had 
supported him — providing Raoul with tobacco, clothes and 
other things in return for the satisfaction of his desires. But 
suddenly Raoul had been commanded to work each day in 
the house of Leclerc the guard. The youth was about twenty 
years old, was handsome in spite of a very weak mouth, and 
had several engaging mannerisms. Leclerc was past sixty and 
the climate had sapped his vitality to such an extent that his 
wife, who was much younger — and had led undoubtedly a 
wayward life before she came out to marry him — decided 
that she would carry on an affair with a younger man. 

This is not an unusual state of affairs in the Guiana settle- 
ments, barracks, and camps. Many of the wives of the guards 


Dry Guillotine 

and even of the officials are former prostitutes. I doubt that a 
good woman, a woman of gentle birth, education, or refinement 
could stand living in French Guiana for more than a month 
or two. It would be like throwing a rose into a vat of smelly 
garbage and expecting it to survive. A guard, therefore, has 
a hard time finding a wife — - unless he sends to France and 
offers that compromise to some dope addict or prostitute who, at 
the moment, may be especially down on her luck and willing to 
do anything. Each time the French mail-boat arrives from 
France there will be a few women on board, consigned officially 
to. various guards and under-officials who have applied for them. 
They are married hastily by the civil authorities — but I never 
knew of such a wife or of a guard who thus lived happily ever 

Leclerc's wife had a voluptuous figure. She used to torment 
us convicts frequently by walking up and down in the island 
breeze clad only in a sketchy, very thin dress. It was common 
gossip that it had been she who engineered RaouFs; transfer, 
during the day, to her household. 

Raoul thus suddenly found himself filling a double role, 
and trying to do it to the satisfaction of two abnormally sensuous 
demanders. In the daytime, when Leclerc was away, he was 
an ardent lover. At night he had to satisfy Maurice's homo- 
sexual desires. Maurice knew what was going on, but this 
triangular relationship did not bother him. Leclerc's wife, how- 
ever, began to insist that Raoul keep away from Maurice. Raoul 
told Maurice all about it, that she was insisting she would not 
share him with anyone. Maurice seemed to think it was a 
good joke. 

"Amuse yourself, but be careful!" he cautioned Raoul. "If 
Leclerc ever finds out you'll get a bullet in your head — and 
what will /do!" 

But Leclerc's wife could see for herself each day that Raoul 

.8 5 

Dry Guillotine 

Ead given up none of his nightly activities. One day, in an 
overpowering burst of jealousy when she saw Maurice passing 
lier house, she called him to her and asked him point blank to 
get another mome and leave Raoul completely to her. But 
Maurice told her jauntily to mind her own affair — and let 
him mind his. 

Leclerc's wife became more and more jealous. A week later 
she accosted Maurice again, but this time he rudely laughed in 
her face. She became incensed with rage, and she determined 
to have Raoul all to herself at any price. 

After a few days had gone by she called a sweeper, working 
in front of her house, and told him to find Maurice and tell 
him she wanted to see; him. Maurice out of curiosity, and I 
suppose to further torment her, came to her house. When he 
stood in the doorway the woman called him from the top of the 
stairs and told him to come to the second floor. 

Maurice climbed the steps and stood before her. 
* 'It's about Raoul — finally! " she said tensely. 
"Again!" Maurice said, angrily. "Well, if you don't stop 
bothering me about that he ;won't come to your house any 
more!" And he turned to go down the stairs. As he did so 
Leclerc's wife picked up a revolver and fired point blank into 
his back. The impact of the bullet spun him around and he 
fell like a sack down the steps. Instantly Leclerc's wife began 
tearing her dress off and screaming. "Rape!" she yelled. 

The whole island rushed to her house. Maurice was found 
at the bottom of the stairs. The woman said that he had entered 
Jwhile she was dressing and had attacked her. That she had 
been forced to fire in self-defence. They took Maurice to the 
hospital, badly wounded. But fortunately there was a good 
doctor in attendance and soon he was out of danger. 

He became yiolently angry, however, when he was told by 


Dry Guillotine 

the attendant that as soon as he was well he was going to be 
sent to the blockhouse at Saint Laurent to await trial on the 
charge of violence and criminal attack against the wife of a 
guard. He turned over and over on his cot next to mine and 
swore that he would get even with her. Maurice was no fool, 
and he knew how to write. He sent a letter to the Prosecutor 
General of the colony and gave him complete details of the 
whole affair and charged the guard's wife; with attempting 
premeditated murder. 

Quickly the Prosecutor General made an investigation, and 
the scandal broke wide open. Leclerc's wife;'s relations with 
Raoul were already known to many of the men on the islands; 
and now previous affairs of hers with other convicts were brought 
to light. Finally, the sweeper she had sent to summon Maurice 
gave evidence which satisfied the investigating commission that 
Maurice's accusations were true. Briefly, her guilt was proved 
beyond the shadow of a doubt; but when she appeared in the 
civil court at Cayenne the court acquitted her. It was not seemly 
that the honor of an official of the Penal Administration should 
be publicly besmirched by a convict! She immediately left her 
husband and went back to France by the next boat. But while 
it lasted it was very exciting, and gave us all something new to 
talk about. 



IN FEBRUARY of 11927 while I was still in the hospital I 
had completed my island sentence, including the months 
accrued from additional punishments so I was ordered returned 
to the mainland. 

Le Grande Terre, the mainland, again! Now, at last, I could 
once more play my chances and attempt to escape. 

I was put to work during the day as bookkeeper in the work- 
shop of the Administration at Saint Laurent. But, unfortunate- 
ly, I was not able to make a single sou. This was very annoy- 
ing, for I was looking for a good debromiie — some graft where- 
by I could accumulate enough money to pay my part in an 4 
escape by the sea. I gambled at night with other convicts but 
succeeded only in making sufficient for tobacco and cigarette 

In the middle of March an opportunity suddenly presented 
itself. The Saint Laurent, a freighter which brings cattle for the 
Administration from neighboring colonies, was to leave for 
Venezuela. As bookkeeper, I had charge of checking the load of 
firewood for its engines. In the gang of convicts assigned to 
the job of loading the wood into the holds were some good 
acquaintances of mine. While I looked on, checking off the 
loads, the idea flashed into my head that it would be a simple 
matter to hide myself in a hold with a quantity of food and 
;water to last the trip, which was one of seven days. I revealed 
my intention to my comrades and, as they piled the wood down 
in the hold, they left an empty space in the middle. I sneaked 
on board in the bundles of wood several small containers of 
food, and these they hid for me together with a lard tin which 
they had filled with fresh water. The boat was to sqil in the 
morning with the five o'clock tide, and I had decided to get into 
my hiding place the day before when the gangs quit work on 


Dry Guillotine 

the ship in the afternoon. As I was not checked when I went 
on and off the boat, not being in the gangs, the guards would 
go off with their full count of men and no one would be aware 
that I had remained on board. 

But, at the last moment, a man came to me and whispered: 
"Don't try to do it. If the old boat gets into any bad weather 
the stacked wood is liable to come down on you. You'll be 
crushed to pieces!" That started me thinking. The man was 
right! Such a possibility had not once crossed my mind. I went 
back to camp that night, in deep dejection. 

On Sunday afternoon in the first days of April, a convict 
asked me f I had seen the Americans who, the day before, had 
taken pictures of the condemned as they went into the^barracks. 
Since I returned to the barrack at varying hours, I had not been 
there at the regular time and had not seen these visitors about 
;whom he spoke. 

"They must be newspaper folks," he said to me, "for they 
take a lot of pictures! They're staying at the house of the 
Commandant over in the square." 

Having lost that day what little money I had, and being 
some 1 5 francs in debt, I decided to go to see the Americans next 
morning and propose the sale of a few stories I had Written 
about Guiana and the life of the convicts. So, the next morning 
around eight, I left my desk with my bundle of papers under 
my arm and proceeded to the house where the strangers were 

It was a relegue* who let me in; he was employed there as 

* A relegue is a man who with four convictions of more than three 
months each for theft is banished to exile in Guiana for life. These 
relegues are quartered in camps in the jungle to the south of Saint 
Laurent, and are kept separate from the convicts. Although technically 
they should be allowed to live freely in the colony, they are restricted 
to die camps of the Relegation; they are guarded by the same guards 


Dry Guillotine 

cook. He left me standing before the door while he went to tell 
the Americans that a convict was there to see them. 

A man with a pleasant American face appeared and asked 
jvhat it was I wanted. I explained to him, as well as I could, in 
the broken English I had learned many years previously in 
school, that I wished to sell him a few; stories and articles which 
I had written about French Guiana. He took my bundle of 
papers and went upstairs. A few minutes later he came down 
accompanied by his wife. They were, they told me, Mr. and 
Mrs. Robert Niles of New York. Mrs. Niles,** her husband 
said, was a writer of travel and adventure stories. 

"How much do you want for these writings?" Mrs. Niles 
asked me. 

"Whatever you wish to give me, Madame!" I said. 
She gave me a bill folded neatly. Out of politeness, I held it 
in my hand [without looking to see whether it was large or 

"Come again tomorrow morning," she said. "I might want 
to talk to you." 

I thanked them for their generosity and left. When I had 
gone a little distance from the house I took a look at the bill to 
see how much I had received. I thought it might be for 25 
francs. But I was mistaken. It was for 100 francs! I went 

who watch the convicts, are dressed like the latter, and have to work 
and receive punishment. These men are the petty thief type, the riffraff 
that is a nuisance to society, and the Relegation is a cesspool within 
the Hell in Guiana. There vice reigns supreme as well as crime and 
stealing. Of the 20,000 relegues that have been sent to Guiana since 
1885, the year the Relegation was established, more than 1 7,000 have 
died there and not more than several hundred of them have returned 
to France; the others escaped. At present there are 2,500 relegues in 
Guiana. Their transportation to Guiana has been definitely suspended 
since July 10, 1937. 
** Author of Condemned to Devil's Island 


Dry Guillotine 

straight to a Chinese trader where I bought bread, a tin of 
sardines and a package of tobacco, primarily to change the note; 
then I went to the barrack. After I had paid my gambling debt 
I had 80 francs left:; a small fortune in the prison colony. And 
that afternoon I told the latheman at the workshop to make me 
a new suppository — one of aluminum, instead of tin. 

Next morning I returned to see Mrs. Niles. She was having 
breakfast with her husband, and invited me to a cup of coffee 
and a roll. Then she asked me to sit awhile and tell her the 
story of my life. She made many notes as I talked. She handed 
me a list she had written containing a number of things she 
wished to know, and asked me to write these things out for 
her and bring the work on the following morning. Then she 
gave me another note for 100 francs! 

My fortune was beginning to turn! 

For many days I went to see her, taking along some manu- 
script each morning which I had sat up most of the night writ- 
ing, and after reading it she always paid me generously. One 
day she made me a present of a poker set, and on another 
occasion she presented me with a little but extremely keen 
pocket knife. 

Then one morning she announced to me that she would be 
leaving soon. She and her husband were going to New York, 
she said, on the American freighter Tom Gibbons, which she 
would board at the Moengo aluminum mines in Dutch Guiana. 

A new plan for escape appeared before me. If I could reach 
the Moengo mines at the same time, perhaps she would facili- 
tate my getting a passage or a job on the outbound American 
freighter! The Dutch authorities I felt would show me much 
consideration if she; were there to protect me and intervene; 
they would have few objections, provided they were sure I 
was getting out of their colony. 

And so, on the eve of her departure, I went to see her for 


Dry Guillotine 

the last time; but I lost my nerve and was unable to say a thing 
to her about my intentions. I had once explained to her how 
the condemned use castor beans to sham sickness and she asked 
me to bring her some of these beans. I left hurriedly to get some 
for her so she could have them before she left Saint Laurent. 

I went to the shack of a libere, gave him five francs and told 
him to find me civilian clothes immediately. He brought me a 
white suit, shoes, and an old pith helmet. Then I told him he 
must find a libere who owned a dugout, to carry me over to the 
Dutch side of the river. Soon we had the man, and it was agreed 
I would give him 25 francs to take me across the Maroni. At 
high noon, the hour when all the gendarmes were having their 
siesta, we went through Saint Laurent and got into his little 
dugout down by the bank. An hour later we were on the Dutch 
side, a few hundred yards below Albina. After I had paid him, 
I asked him if he wanted to earn 20 francs more. I handed him 
the money and told him to go to Mrs. Niles and take her a 
quantity of castor beans. Months later, I found out he had 
done so. 

By a trail I reached Albina and went to a store, where I 
bought a bottle of beer. Not a soul bothered me; everyone took 
me for a mine worker. I sat around and let the afternoon drag 
by. When darkness settled over the jungle I left the town and 
began walking down the road which goes to the Moengo mines. 

That was my mistake! It had been my intention to walk a 
few miles down the road and hide myself that night among the 
trees. Then when Mrs. Niles came by in a car on her way to 
the mines the next morning I planned to stop her and ask her 
to take me with her. But I had been on the road hardly more 
than fifteen minutes when I came face to face with two Dutch 
policemen, who happened around a bend with a group of 
prisoners being brought from road work to the prison in Albina. 
The presence of a white man out there in the road at that hour, 


Dry Guillotine 

headed for the interior, seemed a bit odd to them. They asked 
me for identification papers, my mine-registration card, and 
when I acknowledged that I had none, they insisted that I 
accompany them to Albina. There they took me to the police 
station. The Commissioner had no doubt at all that he had 
before him an evade! 

What a sad night that was — escape so near, and yet so far! 
Still another time my hopes had failed. On the following morn- 
ing the Commissioner decided to send me across the river to 
Saint Laurent in the Magistrate's launch — the same launch 
which, on its return, was to bring across Mr. and Mrs. Niles. 
So I then took the little knife she had given me out of my pocket 
and asked him to please give it to her when she came over to the 
Dutch side a few minutes later. 

I was put in the blockhouse again — but I determined to 
commence a struggle not to pay for this attempted evasion. 
A new regulation to the effect that for a convict to be considered 
an escaped man it was necessary for him to have been absent at 
least twelve hours, had just been passed. Now, I had left my 
work at ten in the morning, and that was the hour when I was 
reported absent, and I had been arrested in Albina at seven in 
the evening; therefore, I had only nine hours' absence and could 
not be considered an evadel So I wrote a letter to the Governor, 
M. Juvanon, explaining my situation, and he gave me credit 
by filing a comment: "Belbenoit was arrested in Dutch Guiana 
dressed as a civilian, but he was arrested before his twelve hours' 
absence stipulated under the new regulation had elapsed, and he 
cannot therefore be considered technically an evade. To be read 
before the Disciplinary Commission jvith report of illegal ab- 

But in spite of his memorandum the Disciplinary Commis- 
sion sentenced me to be punished with 60 days in cell, to be 
classed as incorrigible, and imprisoned again on the Islands. 


Dry Guillotine 

Having money and having been bookkeeper, I had no diffi- 
culty obtaining ink and paper, and before I was embarked for 
Royale I found an opportunity, through an intermediary who 
was a libere, to send Mrs. Niles in New York some additional 
manuscript that I wrote during my two months' detention in 
the Saint Laurent blockhouse. Mrs. Niles made use of some 
of these facts and of the others I had given her before in her 
romantic story Condemned to Devil's Island. 



IN THE Crimson Barrack of the incorrigibles in the discipli- 
nary quarters on Royale, a new man was assigned to the space 
next to mine — a man I had not met before, Pierrot Josse. He 
was intelligent and had traveled far over the world as a sailor. 
We struck up a friendship and talked together a great deal. 
Brought up on sailing ships, Pierrot had later joined the Navy, 
but he was unruly and was sent to a disciplinary battalion in 
French Africa. From there he had been sent to Guiana in 1923, 
condemned to eight years; for a theft he had committed while 
he was a soldier. He was haAdsome, and also young. Further- 
more, although I spent time with him only because of his keen 
mind, and I was attracted to him merely by intellectual ideas 
jvhich we shared in common, he was a pervert. He had many 
admirers among the older men but he knew how to make him- 
self more respected than the usual perverts of the prison colony 
and chose his intimates carefully, without being intimidated 
by either force or persuasion. 

There is a story connected with Pierrot:' a great tale of a ro- 
mance such as can only exist among the condemned men in the 
exile colony of Guiana. 

The year after Pierrot came to Guiana, there arrived a young 
convict who was only seventeen years old. His name was Roger 
Pecquet. He had been given seven years for robbery, and for 
firing on the police who arrested him. At Saint Martin de Re, 
the island concentration port of France, Pecquet had distin- 
guished himself by his bad conduct; ungovernable and temper- 
mental, he was always having to be put in a cell, and it seemed 
that dry bread and irons meant little to him! He had drawn to 
himself the admiration of the forts-a-bras s and these had shown 
him; respect in spite of his youth and effeminate look. A few 

r 95 


Dry Guillotine 

monthsfaf ter he arrived in Guiana, he had earned a total of three 
hundred and twenty days of cell and was classed as incorrigible. 
And so it was that in August of 1 924 Pierrot, who was in de- 
tention for attempted escape, came to know Roger Pecquet, 
who was also in the Saint Laurent Blockhouse en route to 

Roger slept alone in a cell, while Pierrot slept among others 
in one of the blockhouses; but Pierrot had noticed him when 
they walked in the court, and he had been attracted by his 
youth and manner. 

One day he placed himself behind him when they were 
walking in the court for exercise, and said:. "Go to your cell, for 
I want to see you. I must talk to you! " 

Roger turned on him, red in the face. He thought Pierrot 
was about to make him another proposition — like those solici- 
tations which had been made to him so often by older men. 
Pierrot perceived this, and reassured him quickly, saying, "No, 
it's not at all what you're thinking about! I want to talk with 

So Roger went to his cell. In a few moments Pierrot joined 
him. And, very openly and without shame Pierrot admitted 
his homosexual habits and asked Roger point blank if he would 
let him become his mome. 

Roger who had expected the other type of proposal, "such as 
had been made to him by other convicts, was taken off guard 
by this sudden and open proposal, and did not know exactly 
what to say. It was already time for the cells to be locked, so he 
merely said: 'Til let you know tomorrow." But Pierrot was a 
handsome youth, and Roger's vanity was flattered. 

But the next day Roger left with a group of convicts for 
Camp Charvein. He told Pierrot, as they were saying good-bye, 
that if they met again the answer would be "yzs" Pierrot's 
eyes lighted up. He promised Roger that as soon as he got out 


Dry Guillotine 

of the blockhouse he would send him whatever he could to help 
him. A month later Pierrot was brought up before the T. M. 
S. which condemned him to two additional years at hard labor 
for evasion. That same evening he was sent to Camp des Mal- 
gaches, and forty-eight hours later Pierrot was off again on 
another attempted escape through the jungle! 

He was a fine swimmer, one of the best, probably, that had 
ever come to Guiana. In a few days he had got himself a canoe, 
two guns and a good supply of food. He stole the canoe at Al- 
bina, swimming across the river at night to get it. The guns 
and food supply he had stolen late at night from miners' dug- 
outs, anchored out in mid-stream, ready to leave at dawn to 
carry supplies to the gold placers on the headwaters of the Ma- 
roni; sometimes there would be a negro guarding the dugouts, 
but Pierrot would take whatever he needed while the fellow 
slept, swimming back with it to the shore or to his own dugout 
anchored a few yards away in the darkness. He collected a little 
money by secretly meeting liberes, and selling them the cheap 
pilfered supplies he did not want. 

One day he met with six escaped convicts in the bush who 
planned to make an escape by sea, but who had as yet no dug- 
out. Among them was one whose mome Pierrot had been when 
he first came to Guiana, but Pierrot had left him after a violent 
quarrel in which this convict had struck him. 

"I've got everything necessary for an escape by the sea," Pierrot 
told them. "As you all know, I can sail; if you want to try with 
me we'll leave together, but only on one condition," he added. 
"We've got to cany with us a friend of mine who is at Charvein. 
I've got two guns. We can overcome the guards and get him 
away — then we'll dash to the sea! " 

The others, eager to avail themselves of Pierrot's boat and 
supplies accepted, and Pierrot took them to the place where he 
had his dugout hidden. Night came. They sat around the fire, 

Dry Guillotine 

talking and smoking. Some stretched out. Soon when Pierrot 
was Asleep, the others began whispering among themselves. 
They had no desire to go to Charvein and take a chance on being 
shot by the guards when a boat and their freedom lay within 
easy reach. That was pure just folly! They plotted together and 
finally decided to start immediately, carrying Pierrot along by 
force for he was absolutely necessary, as he alone among them 
knew how; to sail. So they jumped on him while he slept and 
tied him up. Then they got things ready to be off. In the mean- 
time, Pierrot lay trussed up by the fire, wild with anger and in- 
sulting them every way he could. 

When the dugout was loaded they put Pierrot in the stern 
and paddled off downstream. As they paddled they tried to 
console him — while he continued to fume and curse with rage. 
They attempted to bring him to reason — telling him he could 
send Roger money and forged papers from Venezuela and that 
in less than six months Roger would also be free and could join 

They came to the mouth of the river and paddled put into 
the sea. The dugout was soon rolling in the waves, and it was 
necessary to release Pierrot so he could show them how to raise 
the sail and how to steer the craft on the sea. 

Without a word when free of the ropes, he took his position. 
It was a clear night, with the moon shining over the water. 
Pierrot looked at the coast: off in the distance the light on Point 
Galibi flickered, and he decided they must be at least five miles 
out to sea. For him that would be easy. It was feasible, and he 
made up his mind! With a sudden move he brought the helm 
up hard and threw all his weight on one side of the dugout. In 
another second it had turned completely over! 

His companions cried out in surprise, but no one had time 
to prevent his move. In a short while they were only four, for 
two drowned quickly as they splashed around the dugout tty- 


Dry Guillotine 

ing to find something to cling to. Pierrot, afire with rage, swarii 
quietly in a circle holding his knife in his teeth; in a mood for 
revenge, he was looking for the convict who had once given 
him the blow. The other, struggling in the water, saw him com- 
ing. Relentlessly, Pierrot approached, and struck him with a 
sudden splash! The man screamed in the night. Now they were 
three. Pierrot then swam over to one of them for whom he had 
some esteem, a fellow named Hutin, and told him to swim 
easily, and that he would help him get ashore. One of the other 
two had found a box, which he hugged with both arms. Pierrot 
swam in his direction to take the box away and give it to Hutin. 
In the moonlight, his eye caught the gleam of a knife which the 
man held in one of his hands as he grasped the box. Pierrot, 
still smouldering with anger, was deadly in his tactics. Quietly, 
he? slowly circled about the man, drawing nearer and nearer. 
His victim could not swim, but managed to kick himself around 
in the water to face the death that menaced him — the float- 
ing box hq clutched under him was a buoy of life, and he was 
determined to keep it at all cost. 

Pierrot, however, was at home in the water. As the other 
twisted the box around, kicking in the sea, Pierrot circled im- 
perceptibly nearer. His kriife was no longer in his teeth. As he 
approached, he held it in his hand ready to strike. Slowly he 
circled, a fraction closer every time. Then, with a violent swirl, 
he changed direction and closed in on his enemy's unpro- 
tected side. Suddenly one arm arched in a flurry of spray from 
the water, and his knife gleamed as he brought his hand down 
on the other's back! Another scream shattered the stillness. 
Pierrot took the box over to Hutin and shoved it to him. 

They swam on, side by side. When dawn broke they were 
close to the shore, and Pierrot spoke encouragingly to his com- 
panion, urging him not to give up. Finally they touched land. 
[They had been in the sea more than eight hours! Worn out, 

Dry Guillotine 

they lay down and slept. Before noon, however, they woke up. 
They were being shaken roughly. 
"Hey, you! What are you doing here?" 

It was a turnkey; and a guard stood near with his revolver 
cocked. Unfortunately, they had reached land near Camp 
dts Hakes. That night they were back in the blockhouse. 

It was Hutin, himself, who told me the details of this story 
of Pierrot's vengeance. 

From the blockhouse, Pierrot, in detention again for evasion, 
corresponded with Roger as often as he could by means of 
notes carried by convicts going to Charvein or brought from 
the camp of the incorrigibles to the blockhouses; and, whenever 
he had an opportunity, he sent Roger some tobacco and, now 
and then, a 5-franc bill. When he appeared before the T. M. S. 
Pierrot was punished with six months in solitary confinement, 
and was taken to the cell blocks on Saint Joseph. The new regu- 
lation had just come into effect, punishing evasion with solitary 
confinement instead of adding additional years of hard labor. 

But this new regulation suppressed at the same time, tempo- 
rarily, the dread camp of Charvein, and the incos there were re- 
moved and taken to Royale. And so it happened that Roger, 
also, was embarked for the Islands. Now they were nearer, only 
the distance between Royale and Saint Joseph separated Pierrot 
and Roger. Roger worked as water carrier on Royale, and from 
this he made a little money. Now, in his turn, he assisted Pierrot, 
who was still buried in the cell blocks, by sending to him by 
guards or turnkeys tobacco and money. Then Pierrot was freed 
from the solitary confinement cells on Saint Joseph and brought 
to Isle Royale — and to the Second Platoon. At last, after 
two years of trying, they were united! Since the time they had 
become acquainted, they were now together in a barrack for the 

first time! 

But their ecstasy did not last long, Roger had been classed 


Dry Guillotine 

as an invalid by the doctor on the Islands, for he had become 
subject to spells of epilepsy; he was to be sent again to the main- 
land — to the Nouveau Camp. He tried in vain to be removed 
from the list. He gained a few more weeks with Pierrot by pay- 
ing the bookkeeper every week to leave him out of the current 
list of those going to the mainland ! 

Finally Roger had to leave Royale. Pierrot promised him he 
would try by every means to join him as soon as possible. He 
set about doing it; he began smoking quinine incessantly, to 
make himself ill. 

It was at this juncture that, sentenced to Isle Royale and 
the Crimson Barrack, again an Incorrigible, I found Pierrot and 
came to know him — and watched with interest his attempt to 
gain his freedom from the Islands and join the youth Roger for 
whose company he pined incessantly. 

He would talk with me for hours, about the sea, about the 
world he had known — but all the time he was smoking quin- 
ine and getting physically weaker and weaker. Finally, he ac- 
tually became very ill, almost an epileptic himself. He was at 
last able to manoeuver the doctor into issuing an order for him to 
be sent to a mainland camp. But the doctor ordered his transfer 
not to Nouveau Camp but to another camp — the dreaded 
camp Kourou, one hundred and fifty miles away from the camp 
he had hoped he would be sent to so he could be with his friend 

I never saw Pierrot again, and was certain he had died of fever 
or dysentery. Kourou was the deadliest camp in all the penal 
colony. Four thousand convicts died there in three years. This 
Camp of Death has always been the Administration's "regu- 
lating camp." It is opened for six to eight months every year, 
when the convicts are put to work on that notorious Route O, 
for every yard of which there is a convict corpse. This death 
camp is opened every time the number of convicts passes the 


Dry Guillotine 

normal total which the penal colony is prepared to take care o£; 
the work they are sent to do on the road is a mere sham, for since 
1907 it has not passed beyond the 25-kilometer mark. The 
road is in the heart of swamp and jungle along the coast; the 
men work up to their waist in mud and water, their food ration 
is the minimum allotted in any camp in the penal colony, and 
day after day they are at the mercy of mosquitoes and tropi- 
cal sun and rain. They are sent to Kourou to stay until malaria 
or dysentery ends their days. Convicts sent to Camp Kourou 
will do amazing things to get away. I knew one, named Coup- 
leux, who pushed a guard into the mud, rifle and all, and fled 
through the jungle to the penitentiary at Cayenne. They sent 
him back, however, and he died there. When I met Coupleux 
he had only four fingers and three toes; he was a fat fellow who 
cringed at the sight of a knife, but he had discovered that it was 
painless to lop off a finger or toe. The guard confiscated all the 
meat for the convicts; he would take it to the black mistress he 
had in Cayenne, who would sell it and split the profits with 
him. Even Albert Londres, in his book on the penal colony, re- 
ferred to this matter; for this guard, half crazed from the rum 
he drank every day, tried to shoot him and wounded a convict 
who was standing beside him when he made a visit to Camp 

The story of Pierrot's adventures, however, came back to me. 
It became, actually, a legend of the prison colony. 

When he had been at Kourou six days, Pierrot escaped with 
four other convicts and headed in the direction of the Nouveau 
camp to find Roger and organize an escape by sea. But on the 
second day after they left Kourou he and his companions were 
caught in the vicinity of Sinnamarie. Pierrot, alone, escaped in 
the night. He continued on his way by himself, following the 
cut made for telephone wires through the wild jungle. At the 
end of ten days he was at the edge of Camp Nouveau, and got 


Dry Guillotine 

jrord to Roger that he was hiding near at hand in the jungle. 

Now, again, these two men were once more united. In a hut 
jvhich Pierrot built a short distance from the camp, they saw! 
each other almost every day. Roger, as though hunting butter- 
flies, would visit him in the afternoon. Again, life was bliss to 
them. Roger brought Pierrot tobacco and food. Alone, there, 
in the deep solitude of the jungle they found together the kind 
of happiness they both desired. 

Then, they started getting ready for the escape. Pierrot soon 
found a good dugout down die river, and brought it back into 
a creek. In the meantime, several convicts at the camp to whom 
Roger had talked had decided to go with them. One of these 
convicts was Big Marcel, — the same convict who accompanied 
me on my bloody second escape. On a clear night they left, 
eight men altogether, with as much food as they could buy or 

Pierrot was at the helm. Roger sat next to him. They gained 
the mouth of the river. The sea was calm and Pierrot was an 
excellent sailor. Nine days later they were entering the Orinoco. 
They were in Venezuela; they were, they thought, at last free I, 

A few months earlier they would have had their freedom, 
but now the authorities of Venezuela, which had always been 
a land of liberty to men fleeing from the death and starvation 
in French Guiana, had begun rounding up and arresting all the 
escaped French convicts in the country. And these eight, who 
had come thinking they had sailed to freedom, walked right 
into prison! 

Arrested by the Venezuela police, they were thrown into 
the citadel of Puerto Cabello. Soon they were taken to work on 
the highway between Ciudad Bolivar and Caracas, — a high- 
way which for many years has been constructed almost entirely 
by the labor of merf who escaped from the French Guiana. Life, 
laboring on that highway, was trying; bad food, hard work, 


Dry Guillotine 

and rough treatment. All that after they had risked their lives 
and thought they would be free! It was not long before Roger, 
;with his rebellious nature, had his temper and patience at the 
cracking point. One day, when one of the guards struck him 
across the back with the flat of a machete, Roger leaped at his 
throat. That cost him his life, for he was brought to the ground 
riddled with bullets! Pierrot had witnessed the murder of his 
friend. Maddened by grief, a few days later, he attempted to 
stab one of Roger's murderers. And Pierrot fell, in his turn, 
under a volley of bullets. Big Marcel, finally brought back to 
the Isle Royale, told me of Pierrot's and Roger's last adventure 
and of the end of these two inseparables. 



THERE are some men whose audacity surpasses the imagina- 
tion. Launay — we called him La Pomme — was beyond 
doubt one of the most strong-hearted and daring convicts ever 
in the penal colony. The story of his last effort to escape is a 
fantastic tale. 

Launay, punished with three years in the dark cells of soli- 
tary confinement for his last evasion, was aboard the Mana with 
a group of other convicts being shipped to Saint Joseph. The 
hatch had been left open. During the night of the crossing he 
proposed to one of his comrades that they slip into the sea on 
one of the life buoys which hung at the side of the boat. His 
friend refused, feeling no fancy for struggling in the black' 
waters some twenty miles from shore and being a prey to the 
sharks. So, twenty-four hours later, Launay was confined in one 
of the solitary cells of the "Castle." 

But when he found himself in the cell blocks, in the semi- 
obscurity where he could hardly pace six short steps and where 
he was sentenced to exist three long, unbroken years, he had 
but one idea, which soon became a fixed obsession — to escape. 

A fortnight later he had tapped out his intention to his 
neighbor in the next cell, Marcel Mazet, a Parisian like himself, 
whom he knew had similar ideas. Marcel agreed to join him in 
the attempt, and Launay revealed his project to him, which 
consisted in getting over to Royale and escaping from there. 
And they set about doing this. 

Neither one of them was sick. But for the convicts in the 
cell blocks, helpless as tigers in a pit, there is only one way to 
get off the island of Saint Joseph, and that is to get themselves 
sent to the hospital — which is on Royale. The condemned 
have innumerable ways of shamming sickness, tricks which in 
the convict slang are known as maquillages; and they are so 


Dry Guillotine 

clever at it that they will often fool an able doctor. For four 
or five days Marcel smoked cigarettes in which he had mixed 
quinine copiously with the tobacco, and in this way he was 
able to show the doctor on Saint Joseph that he was running a 
high temperature. 

Launay also made himself appear ill and simulated erysipelas ; 
he stuck a needle through his cheek' and, holding his hand over 
his mouth, he would blow constantly and hard until soon he 
had the side of his head inflamed and very swollen. And so, 
when the doctor came on his weekly tour of inspection, he sent 
them both to the hospital. The next day they were in the row- 
boat which is the only link between the two islands. The first 
step in their scheme had succeeded! But, as they knew, it was 
the easiest one of all. 

Stretched on their hospital beds, they both mused incessant- 
ly over one idea. How and with what were they going to get 
away from Royale? 

Launay, at first, had thought of stealing the operating table. 
But he discovered this would be impossible. For the hospital 
guard slept in the operating room. The best thing to do, then, 
would be to make a raft with trunks of banana trees lashed 
together; it was on such a raft that Dieudonne had gotten away 
from the island several years before, and had succeeded in reach- 
ing the coast. 

Marcel, also, was thinking of the same thing, when his eyes 
fell on a pile of boards in a corner of the long ward. There were 
about twenty of them, stacked along the floor. These boards 
are used to replace those on the beds of the sick, which consist 
of two iron supports across which three boards are placed to hold 
up the mattress. A brilliant idea came to Marcel. Their raft! 
Their raft was right there before their eyes. And he disclosed 
the possibility to Launay. 

The next morning, under the pretext of changing the boards 


Dry Guillotine 

of their beds because these were full of lice, they fooled with 
the stack over in the corner of the ward until they had sorted put 
the largest and lightest ones. 

The problem now was to get the boards out of the hospital 
and get themselves out also. The situation was a difficult one. 
The ward they were in was on the second floor, and Launay 
proceeded, in an indirect manner, to find out from the attend- 
ant what was below on the ground floor. He learned that it 
jvas a room in which old mattresses were stored. So, in the 
night, kneeling under his bed, he patiently cut a small hole 
in the decayed wood with the metal saw he carried in his plan 
d 'evasion* Before dawn, he had finished, and he closed the 
hole neatly and got back into his bed. The other convicts could 
be trusted, of course; they knew what they were doing, and 
followed every move with interest. That afternoon Launay 
bribed the attendant to take a note to a friend in the camp, 
and that night he received a ball of stout cord which he and 
Marcel used to tie into bundles, the boards they had selected. 

Eleven! It was the hour of the rising tide. 

All was quiet in the hospital. At six that night, when the 
bell tolled for turning in, they had lain down quietly. They 
had decided to make the attempt that night, when the rising 
tide would drift them straight to the mainland. They had no 
clothes to wear, for these had been taken from them when they 
entered the hospital. But they had 800 francs in their supposi- 
tories between them and they knew they could buy clothes 
later. For food, they had no need; they expected to spend only 
one night on the sea, and were confident they would find some- 
thing to eat on the coast next day. 

* This is a special escape "supppository" whicH contains a key for regu- 
lation handcuffs, a screw driver and a small metal saw; the compact 
outfit being made and sold by convicts working in the shops at Cay- 
enne. Carried in addition to the regular money plan. 


Dry Guillotine 

Launay jvas the first to descend through the hole. Deftly, 
Marcel passed him the bundles of boards. Then he dropped 
him a blanket and a sheet, and let himself down. Soon they 
were in the court of the hospital. They had not made a sound! 

They threw the blanket, folded, over the wall which sur- 
rounds the building, encrusted at the top with sharp pieces of 
broken bottles. Marcel climbed up. Launay handed him the 
bundles of boards which, cautiously, he slithered down upright 
on the other side of the wall. Soon they were by the edge of 
the sea. 

The raft was easy to put together: four bundles of two 
boards, across which at each end they secured, at right angles, 
a board on top and another below. Quickly, they lashed it 
tightly with the cord. Then Launay stripped the sheet which 
he had carried wrapped around his waist, and tied an end of the 
strip to the raft and the other to his left wrist. 

Marcel, amazed at this, asked what he was doing. 
"I'm tying myself to the raft, so it can't get away from me," 
Launay answered. "I don't know how to swim." 

It was true. This man who had the courage to face the sea 
at night on a flimsy raft and venture among sharks which were 
fat {torn feeding on human bodies could not swim! 

When all was ready, he muttered to Marcel, "Let's go! " 

Royale has a rocky shoreline, and the sea breaks over the 
rocks with a great commotion. There is always a surge of waves. 
The night was dark and without a moon, and, as they advanced 
into the water, each one holding up an end of the raft, they 
could see barely a few yards ahead. Soon they were waist deep 
in surf, and the noise of the waves kept them from hearing the 
warnings they gave each other. They struggled out with the 
raft, trying to get it through the waves and away from the 

They were lost in the darkness. They faltered in the swirls. 


Dry Guillotine 

Suddenly a big wave lifted the raft. Marcel, carried off balance, 
lost his footing and let go. The waves boiled him over the rocks 
and he felt a violent pain. Then he lost consciousness. 

He came to his senses a few moments later, and floundered 
to a sitting position in the water. His head throbbed sicken- 
ingly and, when he put his hand to it, he felt a deep cut; warm 
blood flowed down the side of his face. Then he remembered 
Launay! He struggled to his feet and shouted for him in the 
darkness. But there was no answer. 

Marcel then decided to get back into the hospital, and slowly 
climbed the slope toward the building. But he was so weakened 
from: loss of blood that he couldn't scale the wall. Blood from 
the wound in his head covered his face and neck. He sat down 
on the ground and asked himself what he should do. Give him- 
self up at the guardhouse? But then the alarm would be out 
and the guards would be after his friend! He doubted that 
Launay had gotten through the surf. But made up his mind to 
wait until dawn. Yes, he would stand the pain and wait until 
then. If Launay was alive, that would give him a better chance. 

iWhen the guard at the gate saw Marcel stagger up that 
morning all blotched with blood, he gave the alarm immediate- 
ly. A check was made, and Launay was found missing from 
the hospital! None of the convicts were sent out to work that 
morning. While they were held behind bars, the guards and 
turnkeys combed the island. But they found no trace of Launay! 
And there was no raft on the horizon. 

The news of his evasion got beyond Royale. There were 
rumors of all descriptions, and every convict had his theory. 
The audacity of Launay's escape rapidly became a byword 
among the men! Then word came that the wreck of the raft 
had been identified on Devil's Island. Later a message was 
relayed from Sinnamarie that Launay's partly eaten body had 
drifted up there on the beach! 


Dry Guillotine 

But all that was not true. The following is what really hap- 
pened. It was not known until four months later, when Launay 
returned to Royale and told me about his adventure. 

The wave which had nearly drowned Marcel on the rocks 
had carried the raft out as it retreated. Launay, clinging to it 
and safe, had called for his comrade but had received no answer. 
The raft was dragged into open water by the current, and 
drifted toward the shore. 

When day broke, the Islands were out of sight, and Launay 
found himself barely a few miles from the mainland. He was 
still moving toward the coast, and his heart pounded with joy. 
At last he had gained that freedom, for which he had worked 
and thought so hard I 

In a few minutes . . . He? saw himself free in Brazil, in 
Paris! Free! The raft drifted slowly to the coast. Nearer . . . 
nearer! Soon he was less than a hundred yards away. He 
watched the beach, every yard counted. Then he noticed he 
was no longer drifting towards the shore. The raft had come 
to a standstill! Then slowly it began going out to sea! Launay 
understood. The low, tide which had set in, took him out and 
out until he had lost sight of the mainland. 

The next morning he drifted back to within a few hundred 
feet of the coast. If he could only swim! It would be an easy 
stretch, and io a few minutes he would be on the shore! But 
he did not know how to swim, and that short distance was an 
immensity to him. Maddened by rage, and in despair, he felt 
the raft come to a standstill and then start drifting slowly back 
to sea again with the changing tide. He loosened a board and 
paddled, but the strong tide overcame him mercilessly. A few 
hundred feet, only, separated him from liberty, but even to 
him, as strong and as desperate as he was, they were an abyss, 
which with all his courage he could not cross! That night, 
again, he was far out on the open sea. 


Dry Guillotine 

He was hungry. But the thing from which he suffered most 
was thirst. Naked ■ — at night he was cold, and during the day 
he was parched and blistered by the hot sun. Each day was an 
eternity. His malaria came over him and, to keep from falling 
off the raft in his spasms of chill and shivering, he tied himself 
down on it. 

Soon he was in a state of delirium. Four days passed. Sharks 
followed around the raft, and when he was conscious he 
.watched them in terror. 

He endured seven days of it. 

It was in this state that a party of Indians who were fishing 
off the coast of I>utch Guiana found him. The drifting raft 
attracted them and, jvhen they saw a naked white man lying 
on it, they took him into their canoe. Launay was still alive, 
and they brought him to their village, where he pulled through, 
thanks to the attentions of the old women who worked oyer 

In eight days he was well and on his feet. He decided to 
cross the Maroni River and while hiding out look up some 
friends in the camps around Saint Laurent. He had money, and 
with them he hoped to organize an evasion by sea. But a detach- 
ment of soldiers came through the Indian village on a round of 
inspection and discovered him, and two days later he was back 
in the blockhouse in Saint Laurent. He was sentenced by the 
T. M. S. and, within four months, he had been taken back 
to Saint Joseph. Four more years had been added to his previous 
sentence of soul-blasting solitary confinement! 

But, more than ever, he was decided not to stay in his dark 
cell on Saint Joseph! 

"Launay, 39,875- Suspected shammer. Not to be sent to the 
hospital except in case of extreme urgency.' ' These words, in 
the shape of a boldfaced sign, had been put on the door of his 
cell by order of the chief guard. Every time Launay came out 


Dry Guillotine 

for his half hour of sunshine in the court he would read that 
sign to himself. He ;was thinking more than ever of evasion, 
dreaming about it every night. He knew it would be a difficult 
matter to get himself back in the hospital, but he had hope. 
Constantly, he schemed and thought. 

Months went by, and Launay was very quiet in the depths 
of the Castle. He seemed to be beaten. Then one night, the 
guard, as he paced the iron walk along the top of the still cells, 
heard groans coming up from one of them. He plunged his 
flashlight ray into the darkness below, and saw it was Launay 
who was twitching spasmodically on the floor and groaning 
miserably. After a while he got the attendant, and the two 
entered the cell to see what was wrong. 

Launay was clutching his abdomen and there was foam on 
his lips. The attendant questioned him, but he continued to 
writhe and groan and made no answer. The attendant told the 
guard it looked as though Launay had a severe attack of colic, 
so they gave him a few spoonfuls of paregoric and left him there. 

The next morning was the day for the doctor's visit to the 
cell blocks. Launay, of course, knew that. He acted as though 
he were dreadfully sick. He told the doctor he had had an attack 
of appendicitis in the night, and it was the second one he had 
suffered in two months. And he begged the doctor to take him 
to the hospital and operate on him! The attendant and the 
guard said that Launay had been in great pain all night, and 
the doctor considered this a confirmation of what Launay 
claimed to be the matter with him. The doctor, in spite of the 
warning sign on Launay's cell door, ordered him sent immedi- 
ately to Royale. The chief guard of Saint Joseph protested, assur- 
ing him Launay was a dangerous individual, a suspected sham- 
mer, and had had absolutely nothing wrong with him. 

"Him again? You ought to throw him back in the cell!" 
exclaimed Morelli, the hospital guard, when he saw; Launay 


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arriving at the hospital. He had not yet forgotten the thirty days 
[without pay that Launay's last escape had cost him! 

Launay was locked up inside a barred room which is reserved 
for those men who must be attended to with caution. The next 
morning, Wednesday, the doctor came in to see him and 
ordered two days of diet. He said, "I'll operate on you day 
after tomorrow. You must eat nothing, absolutely nothing, 
understand? Stick strictly to the diet." 

Morelli was standing by the doctor. "Have no fear, sir," he 
commented. He was going to take personal care of Launay, in 
his own way. 

Friday I'll be far away! thought Launay to himself. For he 
had a good friend in the chief attendant at the hospital, Pelissier, 
who that morning had taken a note for him to one of his friends 
over in the barracks. The note read: 

My dear Toto: I came to the hospital yesterday afternoon. Let 
me know if you are still decided to escape with me. If you are, 
let me know by Pelissier the attendant, who is bringing this note. 
Slip me a metal saw in a package of tobacco, but don't send me 
anything to eat for I am on a diet and the turnkey wont let any- 
thing pass except the tobacco. Give me an answer right away, 
and by tonight Til send you another note telling you what is 
to be done. Your good friend, La Pomme. 

Toto wrote him in the afternoon that he was ready to escape. 
Launay quickly sent him another note, which read: 

Dear Toto: We will leave tomorrow night when it is dark. When 
you are free in the day, hide everything in the Flat Rock. We 
need a machete, extra clothes and strong string. Leave the pla- 
toon at 11 o'clock, and meet me on the rock. Til getaway from 
the hospital at the same time. Thanks for this good saw. La 

And on Thursday morning Launay woke up secure in his 
mind that that evening he would not he sleeping there! 

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That same morning M orelli was airing his views to Pelissier. 
He was still very suspicious about Launay. "Do you believe 
Launay 's going to have himself operated on?" he demanded. 

"Sure," Pelissier replied. "Why not?" 

"Well, I, for one, am absolutely sure he has nothing wrong 
with him. He's here in the hospital just to do what he did that 
last time — he's going to try to escape!" Morelli scowled as 
he walked up and down. 

"Maybe this time you can stop him," Pelissier chuckled. 

"I'll bet you three bottles of champagne Launay won't be 
operated on tomorrow morning!" Morelli snapped. 

"Good!" said Pelissier. "An easy way to get champagne! I 
accept!" And they shook hands on it. 

The value at stake in this bet is something which should 
not astonish the reader. For Pelissier, convict attendant, received 
extra pay for giving quinine injections to the guards and their 
families and for other attendance as well, and he also had his 
debrouille from the food rations for the sick; so that he made 
as much money, if not more, than the guard Morelli. 

Late in the afternoon of that day Launay received a note read: 

Comrade: 1 am sending you 250 francs which were collected for 
you among our comrades here in the Second Platoon. They 
think this time you will get away, and are wishing us both good 
luck, 1 have everything hidden and reddy in a spot on the rock: 
there's a machete, some good string, and trousers. But we cant 
go tonight, because GrosMouton is the guard on duty, and you 
know how he is. I cant do anything with him, and know I cant 
get out tonight. I can manage it tomorrow night. We will go 
then tomorrow night, Friday. Don't fail me. Be patient, and 
tomorrow LIBERTY! ! I Toto. 

Tomorrow night! Launay knew he was going to be opiated 
on in the morning! 


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How would he manage to delay the doctor? He thought a 
long time. If he ate something the doctor might have to delay 
the operation. 

Later, Pelissier came into his grilled room. He asked Launay 
how he felt. "Not so good/' said Launay and this time he 
meant it! 

"Do you know that I've just bet with Morelli?" said Pelissier. 

"No ide^," Launay replied absently, hi$ mind absorbed in 
his problems. 

"Three bottles of champagne, of the best champagne! He bet 
me you won't go to the operation tomorrow, and I took him 
up on it." 

Launay sat up, and looked Pelissier squarely in the eye. 
"Then, my friend, you've lost your bet," he confided. 

"You're not going to let the doctor operate?" Pelissier ex- 
claimed in surprise. 

"No! I'm supposed to make my escape tomorrow night," 
Launay answered. The attendant was an old friend of Launay's, 
and he had absolute confidence in him. For Pelissier had at- 
jtempted an evasion, himself; in 1920 he escaped from the 
Islands with Dieudonne. Caught, he had paid dearly for the 

"Listen to me," Pelissier replied. "If you intend to escape, 
do it tonight. For what are you going to tell the doctor tomor- 
row? You know Morelli is sure there is nothing wrong with 
you, and for two days now he's been repeating it to the doctor. 
If tomorrow morning you refuse the operation, the doctor'll 
think you've deceived him. He'll send you immediately to 
Saint Joseph, and you'll have one devil of a time getting to the 
hospital again." 

"But the agreement is for tomorrow night! And I don't know 
where the things are hid," said Launay. 

"Well, then, you'd better let him carve," Pelissier advised. 


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"Thanks!" Launay exclaimed. 

"Sure," Pelissier continued. "The doctor will see you have 
nothing wrong, and he'll stop the operation. Then you'll have 
ten days here in the hospital, when you'll have lots of time to 
prepare an evasion. I'll help you! It's the advice of a friend I'm 
giving you. I wouldn't say it just to get three bottles of cham- 
pagne, you know that!" 

Launay understood — it was his best course. 

"I guess you're right," Launay said. "Get word to Totdy and 
tell him what's happened." And, as Pelissier was about to go, 
he said smiling, "Maybe you'll give me a glass of champagne?" 

'Two! " Pelissier laughed. His trick had worked! 
It was early in the morning, Friday. The doctor had finished 
his rounds, and was in the operating room. ' 'Is everything ready 
for that operation on Launay?" he asked Pelissier. 

"Yes, sir," answered the attendant. 

"Well, bring him in," said the doctor. 
Morelli went with Pelissier, and unlocked the grill, himself. 
A few minutes later Launay was in the operating room, stretched 
full length on the table. 

"You haven't eaten anything these last two days? " the doctor 
questioned while he cleaned his instruments. 

"No, sir," said Launay. 

"How; about your heart — has it ever given you any trouble?" 
asked the doctor. 

"No," replied Launay. 
All this while, Morelli looked on, a bit disgusted at the turn 
of events. He had never believed, for once, he would ever see 
Launay on that table! Now he would be out the price of three 
bottles of champagne. 

The doctor had no chloroform, so he put Launay under 
ether. Pelissier smiled as Launay became unconscious — and 


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smacked his lips thinking how much champagne he would 
soon be able to drink. 

Fifteen minutes later, the news spread like wildfire through 
the wards and barracks. Launay was dead! An accident? Cer- 
tainly! Possibly orders. At any rate, so died one of the convicts 
whom the Administration couldn't beat or cower into subjuga- 
tion and cell death. 

That afternoon, at dusk, Launay's body was flung into the 
sea a few hundred yards off the rocks of Royale. He who had 
had the courage to balk the sharks at the expense of so much 
suffering, in the end became their dead prey. We made a large 
wreath for him with flowers and palm fronds which grow on 
the islands (a rare homage on the Islands), and the oarsmen 
pitched it into the sea over his body. 

And at night, Morelli the guard and Pelissier the attendant 
sat with their glasses and three bottles of champagne. 

Yet, in the hospital, it had only been another accident! 
"Of course there was nothing the matter with him!" said 
Morelli. "The autopsy showed he had no appendicitis!" 

"Sure," Pelissier replied, "But the bet was whether he'd let 
himself be operated on, or not!" He smiled to himself as he 
raised his glass to the dead man in the sea who had been his 



DURING my long months in the isolation of the Islands, I 
wrote a manuscript in the many hours of idleness which were 
[weighing heavily on my mind. I managed to get this manu- 
script off the Islands by secret means, and sent it to Governor 
Juvanon in Cayenne. It was a heartfelt work, in which I de- 
scribed in detail the sufferings and trials of the condemned 
and revealed fully their side of the lax conditions which exist 
in the penal colony. I sent it to the Governor with an humble 
request that he read it. 

I wrote in it this dedication:, 

"To his Honor, Governor Juvanon, who saved me from solitary 
confinement by his leniency and thereby caused me to appear 
before the Disciplinary Commission for my third escape and not 
before the T. M.S. In recognition, 

46,635, Rene Belbenoit." 

The Governor received my manuscript a few weeks before 
he left Cayenne on a tour of inspection of the Islands; and, 
when he reached the quarters of the incorrigibles on Isle Royale, 
he had me brought to him. As I stood at attention, he thanked 
me for the manuscript, and then told me: "If you have a record 
of good behavior for three months, I shall see to it that you're 
declasse." Grateful again for his interest in me, I assured him I 
would do my best. 

The weeks passed; they were trying ones, when my heart 
ached with suspense as I did everything humanly possible to 
avoid having one single report given against me by the cut- 
throat guards. When, at last, I had three months of good be- 
havior, I sent a letter to the Governor, reminding him of his 
promise. His reply came immediately by the next boat, 
instiructing the Commandant to take me out of the incorrigibles, 


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and adding that I was to be disinterned from the Islands and 
sent to the penitentiaty at Cayenne on the first boat to the 
capital city. 

And so, in November of 1927, I went to the mainland 
again and saw Cayenne for the first time. I had been in the 
penal colony almost six years. At last, I was in the favorite peni- 
tentiary of the condemned — at last I had come to the capital, 
the center of the penal and civil activities of French Guiana. But 
Governor Juvanon, whose much-needed protection I had en- 
joyed, was called to France, and I was unable to see him again 
before he departed. 

To see Cayenne is to see the depths of human degeneration. 
It is the sort of capital which should be expected in a colony 
which, after more than three hundred years as a French posses- 
sion, and the only French possession on the continent of South 
America, had only butterfly wings and stuffed monkeys to 
send to the Colonial Exposition of 1931^ in Paris. Cayenne! 
The convicts call it Tafiatown — Rumtown!' Although it is 
the main city of one of the oldest possessions under the French 
flag, it is the capital of a colony without colonists. For who would 
establish himself in a region where, at every moment, he comes 
face to face with none but convicts? 

Founded in 1626, French Guiana flourished for two hun- 
dred years until, in 1848, slavery was abolished. Then the 
large plantations collapsed, for the freed African blacks scat- 
tered into the South American jungle and refused to work. 
The Colonial authorities thought they had found an expedient 
to relieve the situation: four boatloads of orientals from French 
Indo-China were imported. But the yellow men, instead of 
forking the plantations for the colonists, set up small stores 
and exploited the commerce of the possession. So that failed. 
There was no one to work the large plantations, and things 
went from bad to worse. 


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Followed then the idea of white labor, under the regime of 
Napoleon the Third. Convicts were sent out in 1852 and the 
Penal Colony was planted. Since then French Guiana, as a 
colony, has simmered down to nothing, and is in complete ruin. 

In 1852 three hundred and fifty-four convicts were: brought 
to the possession and since then the total number has passed 
fifty-six thousand. 

At first, for many years, they served their term and then 
were taken back to France after they had worked at forced labor 
in the colony. In those days there was much interest in the 
colony; so the idea was propagated that, if the convicts were 
made to stay on, being already there anyway, they would marry 
with the colonists and have children, make their lives over, and 
the colony would thus become settled by hard, strong men. 
For this reason, the accessory penalty of doublage (doubling) 
was pinned to the statutes of the penal code. A freed convict 
had to serve as a libere a period of exile equal to his original 

But nobody wanted to have anything to do with the convicts 
when they became free men forced to stay in the colony as 
colonists. Not even the black women would marry them. The 
(people accustomed to having seen them chained and ordered 
around in gangs, shunned them and began to be afraid of their 
increasing numbers. This all gave the colony a bad name in 
France and citizens in search of new fields went elsewhere; and 
so, since the days when the penal system was established the 
possession has gradually dwindled into a place where there is 
no progress:; where lawlessness, degeneration, poverty and 
taisety surpass that of any other colony in the world. 

Today, ruined, French Guiana is the camping ground of 
futility. It has less than fifty miles of road, including the tragic 
"Route de la Mort" which Albert Londres christened "Route 
Zero" because built in the jungle by convict labor it goes from 


Dry Guillotine 

nowhere to nowhere. There is not a mile of pavement. There 
isn't one industry, one single factory, one railroad. Once a 
month a cargo steamer comes in with supplies and returns 
empty. The only development there today is the penal system 
planted eighty-five years ago. A quantity of blacks are concen- 
trated in villages. A number of Chinamen carry on the meagre 
commerce. Indians shuffle along the path sidewalks. And the 
adjacent prospering colonies of Dutch and British Guiana strug- 
gle frantically to keep the wave of penniless convict would-be 
colonizers out of their inviting boundaries. 

France has long realized that the plan is a failure. Once 
famous for its Cayenne pepper, which takes its name from the 
capital, producing spices, sugar, and precious woods, the colony 
now exports only raw gold and has become nothing more than 
a depot for criminals. Each Governor who arrives tries to develop 
something or other; one tries coffee, another cattle, another 
cocoa. But there is no element of population to sustain an inter- 
est in exploitation, and all efforts fail completely. Even cattle 
for beef have to be purchased in other lands. 

Unattractive and ugly, Cayenne, the capital of the colony, 
is representative of the complete failure which France's experi- 
ment in her American colony has come to, and even in France 
the name Cayenne is a synonym of prison; it brings to every 
Frenchman's mind the thought of assassins, thieves, and 
outcasts. v 

The town stretches along the sea-shore for about a mile and 
is choked to the south, east and west by the great equatorial 
rain-forest of the northern South American coast. Five dirt roads, 
paralleling the sea, leave from the market-place and pier and 
cross the town, to end at the wireless station, where the jungle 
begins and where, also, is situated the penitentiary. 

These roads are the capital's main streets, and they are kept 
fairly clean, although they are not paved. But the small cross- 


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roads, traversing the town in the opposite direction, are a 
deplorable sight. These present an utterly abandoned aspect; 
all of them choked with weeds and grass. From time to time a 
gang of convicts is set to work pulling up the weeds and grass, 
but a week later the place where they worked will look no better 
cared for than it did before. The drains and ditches are choked 
with mud and more obnoxious refuse, and there millions of 
mosquitoes and flies swarm and breed. 

The houses are low, usually not more than one story high, 
and they are all built of wood; their architecture is indiscrim- 
inate, and they are painted without taste in shades of green and 
faded rose, or whatever colored paint may be at hand. 

In this town, where rain water runs through the streets in 
great abundance, ;water in the houses is at a premium. For it 
flows through the pipes of the householders only twice a day, 
for about an hour in all, and it is just too bad for the house- 
keeper who didn't draw enough for her daily needs while she 
could. She will have to wait until the next day! Electricity is 
also insufficient ; the small power plant runs only at night, from 
six until four in the morning. There, also, the convicts are the 
ones who run the machinery, and when there is an attempt at 
escape by night they will cut off the current and put the whole 
town in darkness at the moment of the escape — for only 20 
francs. Debrouille, rackets and combinations to procure the 
precious money — they are everywhere! 

The disposal of sewage is handled by convicts also. At night 
they go all through the town on wagons which are drawn by 
oxen, and they go in under the houses and take away the filled 
buckets which they replace with empty ones. Whenever these 
convicts are in need of money they will not hesitate to work 
this simple racket: The regulation specifies that the sewage 
buckets of Cayenne must not be entirely full — they must 
have at least a space of five fingers width left empty at tiie top, 


Dry Guillotine 

so the men can pick them up without soiling their hands; so 
the convicts drop a large stone into the bucket, and after that 
they wake up the civilian and show him that his bucket is too 
full! They refuse to empty it. The civilian is then forced to give 
the convicts 40 sous to take the thing away. Sometimes a 
civilian who has forgotten some article of clothing outside his 
house on a line, or in the court, finds, next morning, that it 
has disappeared, and the men doing the sewage collecting are 
the ones immediately suspected. The position of sewage col- 
lector is a sought-for job; there are always a few francs to be had 
from the naive practice of the convicts in the late hours of the 
night. There is often a pair of trousers to be had from one 
clothes line or another and, maybe, even a silk nightgown 
which can be used to sleep in when they return to the peni- 
tentiary. The morning garbage service is likewise handled by 
the condemned. Every morning six of them drive through the 
town hanging onto a truck. As they empty the garbage it is the 
job of one of the men to set aside everything which might pos- 
sibly be of use or which can be sold or repaired: old rags, pieces 
of lead, broken plates and glasses, and all sorts of other things; 
these all find their way into the penitentiary where they are 
made into something or are repaired to be sold later to the 
negroes or to other convicts for a small sum. Debrouille again! 

The only interesting monument in the town is the statue of 
Schelcher, who caused actual slavery to be abolished in early 
Guiana; and this statue, strangely enough, is of a nature which 
is ironically symbolical. Schelcher has his arm around the waist 
of a small negro, and with his other hand he is pointing to 
something. And when there is a gang of convicts pulling weeds 
around the statue, he seems to say to the little black boy — in 
actual words, almost: "Do you see them? You are free — these 
are the slaves now!" 

The only attractive thing in Cayenne is the Place des 


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Palmistes, a square which is probably unique in the world. It 
is a squared-off park some two hundred yards wide from which 
soar two hundred and fifty giant traveller's palms. These rise 
to a height of more than eighty feet, and are crowned with 
huge, sweeping fronds which stir dreamily and deliciously in 
the afternoon breeze. 

The population of the capital is about 1 1,000 souls; more 
explicitly stated, it is of 10,000 souls and 1 ,000 bodies, for there 
are 700 convicts and 300 liberes in Cayenne. The others, the 
civilians, may be divided into four classes. There are the officials, 
mostly white, who live off the budget and the graft of the 
colony, and if one adds here the few white merchants who do 
business in the colony, one has the total white population of 
the capital, which amounts to about 1,500. The Oriental 
element in the capital comes to about 1 ,000 people, mostly 
retail merchants who have small stores.from and in which they 
exploit the convicts as well as the civilians. Finally, there are 
the negroes who are in the capital in large numbers, just as 
they are everywhere else in the colony. Most of them have 
small plantations in the outskirts of the town, which suffice to 
keep them alive. Some of them have the energy to go off to 
the gold mines for a few; months, where they make money; but 
they come back to the capital to eat it up or, more commonly, 
to drink it up in the dives kept by the Orientals. 

In the market place down by the water one sees the popula- 
tion of Cayenne meet and melt into one. There, in the cor- 
rugated iron structure, all paths come together in the early 
morning. Doudous, as the Creoles call the black women, stand 
in groups, chatting and laughing in a loud voice. Bedraggled 
and penniless liberes — men free of prison but still exiled to 
French Guiana — wander hungrily among the booths, looking 
for cheap bargains, picking up vegetables that have fallen on 
£he ground. Convicts are there in their wide straw hats and red 


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striped clothes buying something to take off to eat with their 
regulation ration. A few white women pass here and there 
through the crowd, often followed by some admiring convict, 
making their own purchases because they are too poor to hire 
a servant. And there are also the cooks of the Governor, of the 
General Prosecutor, of the Mayor — these servants are convicts, 
but they are dressed as civilians except for the wide straw hats. 

The cost of living is high. Three string beans are worth all 
of 2 sous, two small carrots are 2 sous also, and a tomato costs 
10 sous. True enough, a sou is not much; but it is to be 
remembered that money is at a premium in Guiana, and that 
a sou is the relative equivalent of a dollar to many of these 
miserable and destitute souls. Among the venders in the 
market, there are more convicts: the chief butcher, for instance, 
is none other than the former leader of the famous Villette 
gang, and is a man who was sent out to Guiana for life for a 
triple murder. Buying from him may be seen Metge, of that 
famous Bonnot gang which terrorized France, and who, con- 
demned for life for a double murder, was cook for three Gov- 
ernors in Guiana. 

The convict is everywhere; he overruns the town. At the 
far end of the town, near the sea and with its back to the great 
rain-forest, is the penitentiary. There are no walls around it — 
for of what use would these be, when a convict wanders alone 
and freely in the town all day long! This penitentiary is en- 
circled only by a few iron fences which enclose a garden. 
There are three large barracks in the penitentiary, one for the 
Orientals, another for the Arabs, and the last for the European 
convicts. Many of the convicts sleep in town at night, at the 
houses of their employers. 

This is the penitentiary which the condemned dream of, for 
here, in all Guiana, they have the most liberty, the most chances 
to make money. For the high civil authorities are right at hand 


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and the condemned are better treated and are not subjected to 
as much abuse as in other penal units. At six in the morning 
the gangs of prisoners leave the barracks, accompanied by only 
one turnkey, and the first thing the men do is to stop by an 
Oriental's store and have a glass of tafia and buy tobacco. At 
ten they return for the food ration. Then they go put at two, 
work again, and come back at five in the afternoon. 

When a man is at Cayenne he can have his doudou* and he 
can find an opportunity to sleep with her almost any afternoon 
he likes — all he needs is the 40 sous to give her, and a little 
more money to buy her one or two glasses of tafia. Tafia is die 
drink of the town,and it is part of the pay the many prostitutes 
demand; it can be had straight, adulterated with various drugs 
;which the Orientals know how to mix with it to make it sweet, 
also weakened with water to which pepper has been added — 
so the unsuspecting customer will not realize he is being 
cheated. The stores are prohibited to sell any drink to the pris- 
oners, but each day a convict will drink from two to three glasses 
of his favorite tafia; while he is inside a store drinking with 
others, a convict friend lolls at the door watching out for a pass- 
ing guard, and the Orientals who sell tafia are all accomplices, 
for they have no scruples. 

Without the convicts, Cayenne would perish, and it is for 
this reason that, whenever anything is said in France about 
suppressing the penal colony, a cable is sent in protest by the 
Mayor at Cayenne on the instigation of the populace, for the 
civilians are at a loss to know how the town can live if the 
convicts are taken away. They are the slaves of the colony 
today. They are its necessity, though evil spirit, and the civilian 
populace of Guiana is too ignorant to realize that it is this spirit 
of the condemned, this taint of degeneration, which will per- 
petually constitute the check and ruin of Cayenne as a city 
until the day comes when it is blotted out. 


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Everything is fantastic in Cayenne, in this colony where 
so much lawlessness, degeneration, poverty and misery exist 
and flourish more than in any other possession or colony any- 
where in the world. Here are a few incidents which could not 
have taken place anywhere else except in this colony where 
nothing is normal. 

There is a remarkable little incident which is very charac- 
teristic. It is the story of a convict who played Governor! 

His name was Leffay. The Governor of the colony at that 
time was Thaly, a very black negro from French Africa. He 
had gone to the Islands on a tour of inspection, and had taken 
along with him his butler, Leffay. He returned to Cayenne on 
the Biskra, which had stopped by for him on its way from 
Martinique to the capital. The captain of the ship had invited 
the Governor to dine on the ship, so, when it arrived at Cayenne, 
the Governor entrusted his brief-case, which contained all the 
reports and other documents that he had collected on the 
Islands, to his butler. And he said to Leffay, "Take this to the 
Government house, and when the postman brings the mail 
you will have him put it on my desk, and you stay there until 


Leffay went to the Governor's house. A few hours later the 
postman came with the official mail which had arrived from 
Paris on the same ship. This mail was, of course, strictly official; 
there were registered dispatches, sealed instructions from the 
various Ministries, and other papers of that sort. 

"Put it all on the Governor's desk," said Leffay to the 

, The postman did as the man sitting in the Governor's chair 
instructed, but he demanded a receipt. So Leffay then calmly 
took the post-office record book and signed on the dotted line: 
"Received for His Honor, the Governor of Guiana. 

The convict and butler, 
227 Leffay." 

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It was only a few days after this that the Inspector General 
of the Colony noticed that there was not the Governor's but a 
convict's signature affixed to the receipt which announced the 
safe arrival of all the official mail from France. It was necessary 
to destroy that page which Leffay had signed, for the Admin- 
istration could not allow that signature to go back to France. So 
the [whole record book had to be copied over because its pages 
were in numbered sequence. The incident cost Leffay his job, 
the fine job of butler to the Governor, but, since he had been 
prompted merely by a desire to be of service to the high official 
of the colony and had signed the receipt in pure ignorance of 
the consequences which might arise, he was transferred to a 
similar job in the employ of a minor official. 

Another incident, a tragic thing which was a veritable 
drama, occurred later. It had an international repercussion but, 
more than that, it is typical of the degenerate and lax way of 
things in Guiana. Eight miles out to sea beyond Cayenne, on a 
rock which is only some forty-five yards in circumference, is 
the beacon of L'Enfant Perdu, which guides ships into the 
harbor and which is one of the main lights along that part of 
the coast of South America. This beacon is always tended by 
three convicts. 

In the middle of March one of the convicts at the beacon 
became sick. The distress signal was raised, and on the follow- 
ing day the port launch came for him. According to the regula- 
tions, this man should have been replaced right away. It was 
not done, however, and the other two convicts at the lonely 
watchtower on the rock didn't insist that a third man be sent 
out, for they hoped the port authorities would give them the 
pay of this other man which would mean 30 additional francs 
they could share between them. 

The days passed. April came. Habitually, the food supplies 
were brought to the rock between the first and the fifth of the 


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month. The fifteenth of April came, and still nothing had been 
sent out to them! Since they had the ration of their absent com- 
rade, they concluded they had not been restocked because back 
on the mainland this had been taken into account. In the mean- 
time, however, they had been feasting well, and now on the 
morning of the fifteenth of April they had enough food for 
only two days more. They raised the distress signal, so that 
Cayenne jvould think of them. But the launch failed to»put 
put for the rock — neither did it come on the next nor on the 
second day after the flag went up! The distress signal was kept 
flying, and they watched anxiously for the launch. Since they 
now had nothing to eat, they had to resort to the shellfish 
which, fortunately, abounded on the desolate and sea-beaten 
rock. The twenty-third passed, the twenty-fourth . . . 

The twenty-sixth passed, and they were still marooned. 
Then the gasoline for the beacon gave out, and they also had 
no more matches for the light! On the twenty-seventh they 
failed in their efforts to keep the flame going. That night 
L'Enfant Perdu was shrouded in darkness! And it is one of 
the main navigation lights on that part of the South American 
coast! Two more days passed while they continued in that 
predicament, and still the port launch didn't come from 
Cayenne. What could be the trouble? In the town they could 
not have failed to notice that L'Enfant Perdu had been dark 
for the past three nights, and they couldn't have missed spot- 
ting the distress signal which had been flying all day long for 
more than fifteen days! Then, on the thirtieth of April, the 
launch finally came out to the rock. It approached to within a 
short distance of the famished men, but the sea was so bad 
that it turned back. 

The first and second of May passed, while the two stranded 
men groped in the foam of the receding surf for shellfish and 
gambled their lives against the hissing swells. They knew the^ 


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Had been left to die. The dark beacon no longer made any dif- 
ference to them. They were helpless to do anything with it, 
anyway, and the only thing which concerned them now was 
to save themselves, for it was a question of only a few days 
before they would be dead of hunger. They made a heroic 
decision; heroic because one of them couldn't swim, and in 
that wild sea it took courage to do what they proposed to try. 
Rather than die there on the rock of L'Enfant Perdu, they 
decided to try for the mainland on a raft, which they put 
together with the wood of the tiny hut in which they lived at 
the foot of the tower. The sea was running dangerously high; 
On the sixth of May, after they had waited all day clinging 
to the hope that they would be given succor, they finally 
realized they must either make the mainland or die where they 
were, and they took the raft to the water when the last brief 
glints of sunlight faded. The sea was so rough that it overturned 
their raft twice, and they barely escaped drowning in the surf. 
In the middle of the night, after struggling for hours in the 
lashing, vicious waves they reached the mainland. They were 
naked for they had left their clothes behind so as to lessen the 
danger of drowning. They spent that night on the beach, not 
knowing where they were, bitten and tormented beyond en- 
durance by the mosquitoes. When dawn broke, they started 
fighting their way into the jungle tangle; at the end of a few 
hours they finally broke through into the Colonial Road, the 
futile "Route Zero" on which convicts have been at work for 
twenty years, near a gendarme post. They told their story to 
the gendarmes there, who, after giving them food, took them 
on to Cayenne, where they were sent immediately to the 
hospital, under arrest for deserting their post! One of these two 
convicts, who was named Job, had the audacity to report this 
incident to the International Lighthouse Commission, thus 
causing an investigation and an international complication for 


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French Guiana. Job was sent to camp Kourou to do the four 
months which remained of his sentence and he was kept there 
for additional punishment until he died. The other convict was 
freed of the remainder of his term and also of his doublage and 
was allowed to return to France. His pardon was given him 
because he had not exposed the matter to civilization! 

In a certain room in the hospital at Cayenne there are seven 
large bottles side by side on a wide shelf: in them are the seven 
heads preserved in alcohol of criminals who were executed on 
the guillotine! Seven heads — but among these seven there 
is one which is not the head of a man who died on the guillotine 
and who was never condemned to death in the penal colony! 

These seven heads are a horrid sight. The jars containing 
them are filled with clear alcohol, and one can examine them 
minutely at close range. The hair on their heads, their beards 
and mustaches are massed in abundance inside the large jars, 
for, as most people know, hair grows for a long time after a 
man's head has been severed from his body. Among the six 
human heads which, true enough, were sliced clean by the 
guillotine, are some of men who created something of a stir 
in the penal colony; there is that of Pstate and also that of his 
accomplice, both of whom butchered an entire family of Indians 
in Dutch Guiana merely to rob them of some gold — but un- 
fortunately, they left a little child alive, who later identified 
them and caused them to die on the guillotine; in another of 
the jars there is the head of the convict who killed a doctor at 
camp Kourou, and who, because of this murder he committed 
at the medical inspection, brought into effect the practice 
whereby all convicts coming before doctors on their medical 
visits must be completely naked so as to avoid the possibility 
of having a weapon concealed on their persons. As for the 
rest of the heads, all pale, macabre, and diabolical-looking, they 
are those of convicts who killed some official or civilian. 


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But it is the seventh one in this row of horror, that head 
of a man ;who never walked up to the guillotine and who was 
never condemned to death, which is the most macabre of all. 
This head has a sad and an atrocious history; it belonged to a 
man who was accused, and convicted, of a horrible crime of 
which he was innocent. His name was Briere: he was accused 
of haying murdered his five children, whom he had gathered 
together at a family feast. He had a sixth child, a little girl, 
whom he had also invited for the gathering; but she had not 
come in time, and the prosecutor declared she had thus escaped 
being murdered by a miracle, for, he said, her father would have 
killed her also. Briere defended himself as best he could, pro- 
testing that he was innocent. But, nevertheless, he was con- 
demned for life. Fifteen years later a half-crazed tramp con- 
fessed on his death-bed to a priest that he had been the author 
of this mass murder, and he gave such a detailed description 
that justice had no doubt about the truth of his confession. 
Briere was recognized to be an innocent man, but French law 
waited until he died before rehabilitating him, and for two 
long years, his innocence acknowledged, he clung to life in the 
penal colony waiting for a re-trial which would give him back 
his freedom. And there he died. The poor man passed away in 
the hospital at Cayenne, still a convict branded with the ignoble 
stripes, two years after he had learned the name of the man who 
killed his five children and after the people of France had 
realized his innocence and French justice had been brought face 
to face with its error. French justice, which will never admit 
a mistake, withheld its verdict on the revision of this unfor- 
tunate's case month after month and kept him unnecessarily 
in the penal colony, and let him die there! 

But that is not all. Someone among the officials of the 
bloated and corrupt Administration of the penal colony, decided 
that the innocent man's head should be cut from his body and 


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lined up in an alcoHol jar in the midst of those of the executed 
criminals. Who could be so base in mind to allow that such a 
thing be done.? Why was it done? No one knows, and no one 
ever will know. I do not know, myself, although my curiosity 
prompted me to try to find out through various channels; but 
I never found even a doctor or an attendant or a guard who 
could tell me. Not even in the records in the archives of the 
Administration could I find the slightest clue as to what made 
the authorities of Cayenne exhibit an innocent man's head. It 
is shameful, even for Guiana! 




MORE than three fourths of the condemned in Guiana haye 
but one thought: to escape as soon as they can! 

There are four types of evasion or escape from the penal 
colony; through the jungle; by way of Dutch Guiana; as super- 
cargo of the Brazilian contrabandists; and, lastly, by way of 
the sea. There is also a fifth method which is rarely practised — 
although it has a one hundred per cent chance of success. This 
last is an evasion, prepared by a free individual, a relation or 
friend, who comes after the convict with papers in order, sends 
word to him to join him at a designated spot and then takes 
him away with forged papers. This has happened, strangely 
enough, very rarely, but every time it has been tried it has been 
successful. I knew two citizens of the United States, the only 
two from that country who have been in the prison colony in 
the last twenty years, who escaped in this fashion. They were 
brothers, and had been soldiers in France during the War, and 
were condemned for life for murdering a cabaret girl in Mont- 
martre. Soon #f ter they arrived in Guiana the elder one escaped 
by sea in a pirogue and managed to reach the United States. 

He then took it upon himself to free his brother who had 
been left behind. He went to Baltimore and talked with the 
sailors of a freighter which made a trip every two months to 
load bauxite at the Moengo mines in Dutch Guiana, thirty- 
one miles from Saint Laurent. One day an Indian appeared in 
Saint Laurent and asked a convict if he knew C. C. was located, 
and asked the Indian what he wanted. He was handed a note 
which instructed him to follow the Indian. He did so, and was 
never seen again in Guiana. These two brothers, Americans, 
condemned for life, remained in the French prison colony less 
than a year! It is, as I have said, a rare type of escape perhaps 


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because the relations and friends on the outside do not know 
just how it is to be arranged. 

Escape through the jungle is almost an impossibility. No 
one has ever gone from French Guiana across into Brazil 
through the jungle: there are large rivers to cross which back 
their waters miles and miles into the rain-forest; it is impos- 
sible to proceed on foot, and a pirogue cannot be pushed up 
stream by white men. It would be a long wearying expedition, 
which would require the right equipment, and this the men 
in Guiana do not have. Only monkeys, leaping through the 
trees, could flee without preparation in that direction. The 
convicts, although they are changed into beasts by the life and 
regime under which they exist, have no chance to learn how 
to overcome the privations and natural barriers of the jungle 
— they become its prey when they expose themselves to it, 
and they perish. 

Escape by way of Dutch Guiana? Before 1923, the evades 
were well received by the Dutch. They were tolerated in the 
colony, where they easily found work, and in the capital there 
were at least a hundred of them. Then one day one of them ^— 
Coutancot — committed an atrocious crime. He was sentenc- 
ed to death and hanged at Paramaribo, and after that incident 
all the evades have been consistently hunted down and arrested 
in the Dutch colony, and sent back on the first launch to Saint 
Laurent. Only the German convicts get by Dutch Guiana 
now. The German consul at Paramaribo has special funds for 
helping out his nationals and facilitating their passage through 
the Dutch colony. They have only to get across the Maroni. 
The police commissioner in Albina verifies that they are Ger- 
man, and then gives them a pass to proceed to Paramaribo, 
where their consul shelters them and embarks them on the 
first steamer for Hamburg. This is a tacit international situation 
which is, in some ways, remarkable. Hitler does not forget to 

2 35 

Dry Guillotine 

save His subjects condemned to hell and death by another gov- 
ernment. However, the Administration has become aware of 
all this, and puts the German convicts on the Islands or in the 
penitentiary at Cayenne — one hundred and twenty miles 
away from the river! But, all the same, this does not keep a few 
of them from getting through the jungle between Cayenne and 
Saint Laurent and crossing the river. And when they do, they 
are never heard of again. They are free! 

There is the escape as stowaway. It often happens that a con- 
vict, escaping from a camp, hides himself in the freight on a 
vessel out in the river at Saint Laurent; he mingles with the 
gang of convicts working at the unloading of the cargo, and 
hides himself on board. When the gang has finished for the 
day the guard counts the men and, since he is not one of them, 
the vessel goes away and he is not discovered. Some succeed that 
way. But it is rare, for most are taken in Martinique, as they 
come out for food and water. Convicts TJvho try for liberty as 
supercargo of the Brazilian contrabandists or pirates', as these 
are called in Guiana, take a greater gamble. These 'pirates' 
demand i ,000 francs per head to carry a man from Guiana to 
liberty, but nine times out of ten they throw their passengers 
overboard • . . after having searched them and cut diem open 
to see if they catty a suppository full of money. It is especially 
true at the present time, since the Brazilian Government, which 
formerly closed its eyes to this passenger traffic, now seizes the 
contrabandist's boat and makes him pay a heavy fine if he is 
caught bringing an evade from French Guiana into the country. 

There is, last pf all, the great and magnificent adventurous 
escape — by way of the sea. This is the most dangerous of all, 
yet the one which offers the best chance of success. Every year 
there are at least six or seven such escapes attempted, out of 
^vhich one or two succeed: which is to say liberty for eight 
*or sixteen men. Four of the attempts result in capture and 


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return from the neighboring colonies or from Venezuela and 
Colombia, and the rest disappear forever, swallowed up in the 
silence of the sea. 

It is no easy matter tp go several hundred miles through the 
turbulent and treacherous waters of the Gulf in a slender 
Indian pirogue only twenty feet long and less than three feet 
beam. To gain the republics of Central America, and even to 
reach Venezuela, requires a voyage of some 2,500 miles, sail- 
ing well offshore at a distance of a hundred miles. One is forced 
to remain sitting down and bent over in the narrow; craft for 
a fortnight without being able to move, — or for more than 
three weeks sometimes — suffering from thirst and often from 
hunger also, drenched constantly by waves and by the heavy 
dew at night and scorched by a fiery sun during the day. And 
there are the heavy squalls to ride and the sharks which haunt 
the wake. Yet it is this venture which every year tempts from 
forty to sixty convicts! The chances are eight to one they will 
be brought back, unless they manage to get beyond Venezuela, 
or that they will sail into disaster; they know all that but, never- 
theless, it does not stop them. For always existence in the 
prison colony holds up to them the two alternatives: escape or 

In the middle of February of 1 928 I received an answer to 
a letter I had written Mrs. Niles. She advised me not to try 
to escape again, and to finish my term, which now lacked only 
eighteen months. But, since even after finishing my sentence 
of eight years I would be forced to live all my life as an exile in 
Guiana, and it would, therefore, be necessary for me to escape 
later anyway, I decided to make another attempt as soon as 

I started thinking of attempting an escape in a dugout by 
way of the sea. But in Cayenne, where the men who are ready 


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to take the risks of evasion are few, I was unable to find a sailor 
to do the navigating. 

Now I was firmly decided, just as I had been on previous 
occasions, to get away, particularly as I had such a sum of money 
in my possession,and I had a restless urge to get out of Guiana 
before any of this money which meant salvation for me got out 
of my hands. I had to go as soon as possible, while I still had it! 
So I thought up a scheme. It was a good one: I made up my 
mind to embark as a passenger on a French coastal ship which 
was going to the colony's Brazilian frontier and, there, I would 
get on a Brazilian mail-boat and go on down the coast of South 
America. To do this, however, I would need papers; they were 
an indispensable requirement. To obtain these necessary papers 
I found, after looking around, would not be difficult. The most 
important thing of all was to obtain a Brazilian passport, and 
this I got without trouble: the employee who acted as secretary 
for that country's consul in Cayenne was a convict, and he was 
able to find me a passport to which he had affixed all the 
required seals and stamps . . . for a price of i oo francs. I needed, 
also, libere papers in order to ride on the coastal boat. The 
liberes are so miserably destitute in Guiana that they will sell 
their papers for even as little as 5 francs when an occasional 
opportunity presents itself, and I was able to buy the papers 
I needed from one who had finished his term of exile and was, 
therefore, free to take any ship and leave the colony. He would 
have gone back to France long ago, no doubt, poor fellow, but 
he had never been able to get together enough money to buy a 
passage. I sent this same man to buy my ticket, himself, with his 
papers and in his own name. It was a passage to Saint Georges, 
on the Brazilian frontier, and I planned, when time for sailing 
arrived that I would pass on board the ship with the passport 
and papers of a freed exile. 

The ship was scheduled to leave at five o'clock on the fol- 


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lowing Saturday afternoon and, by Thursday, I had everything 
ready: I had my civilian suit hidden in the hut of a liber e friend 
down on the waterfront; I had my officially stamped passport 
to re-embark at the frontier on the Brazilian mail-boat. I ex- 
pected to get myself in readiness for the evasion at three o'clock 
that Saturday afternoon — I would leave my gang at that 
hour, and then go dress myself and walk on board. But, at 
two o'clock that Saturday afternoon, as I emerged from the 
penitentiary to work with the gang, my heart filled with hope 
and joy, I heard the town-crier drumming through the town 
jthat the ship Oyapoc had been delayed, and would not leave 
tintil eight o'clock Sunday morning! That was the French 
coaster, my ship, on which I had banked all my hopes of free- 
dom, and this delay troubled me greatly. If I left my gang at 
two o'clock in the afternoon, as I had intended, and were then 
arrested before the ship sailed, I wouldn't have more than three 
or four hours of absence and could not be considered attempting 
an escape! But, the ship leaving on Monday morning, it would 
be necessary for me to start preparing my evasion on Saturday 
afternoon all the same, because on Sunday I wouldn't go out 
from the penitentiary to work; I would have to spend the night 
outside, in hiding therefore, and, if anything happened when 
I tried to get on the ship and I were caught then, I would have 
more than twelve hours' absence and would be considered a 
convict in the act of trying to escape! 

But there was always the cheering thought inside me that 
everything would be all right. I had a certain amount of confi- 
dence in my predicament; I told myself, reassuringly, over and 
over again that, if I was not arrested at the moment the ship sail- 
ed from Cayenne I could consider myself as having attained my 
freedom; for, at Saint Georges, that diminutive village of eight 
hundred inhabitants on the Brazilian frontier, there would be 
only one black gendarme, who would have nothing to say to 


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me, since I was completely in correct form as a libere who had 
finished his exile and could go anywhere he liked. Oh, I had it 
all planned in my feverish mind! Once landed in Saint Georges, 
I would after night came pay a black 2 5 francs to row me across 
the river to the frontier village in Brazil, known as Demonti; 
I would throw my libere papers into the water while I crossed 
the river and, when I found myself in the Brazilian village, I 
would show the authorities, if they asked for it, my official 
and valid passport which was visa'd and in order for entry in 
Para! Yes. It would all work out just as I planned, I told myself, 
over and over again. It would be silly to falter, when I had the 
whole thing so clear in my mind. The only hitch was the delay 
in the sailing of the ship. Still, that was no reason to change my 
plans and be afraid to take the chance — die opportunity was 
one in a thousand, since I had all the papers which I required in 
my pocket and in order. Few were the convicts, who, in the 
history of the penal colony, ever had the good luck and oppor- 
tunity which was now in the palm of my hand! I decided to 
take the chance, and followed it out step by step. 

At three o'clock that momentous Saturday afternoon, I left 
my gang as we worked on the weeds along the edge of one of 
the streets, saying to the guard in charge I was going over to a 
store to get something to eat. I entrusted my weeding tool to 
the convict who worked at my side, giving him 1 9 sous to take 
it back to the camp that night, to avoid suspicion. I went 
straight to the hut of my libere friend, where I had my civilian 
clothes hidden, and there I hid myself. I spent the night pacing 
the floor, too restless to sleep. Would I gain my liberty this 
time? Would I! As soon as dawn flooded the village the libere 
went to the pier to find out the exact hour the ship would sail. 
He seemed to be gone hours. Then he came back, advising me 
* to get myself ready right away, for the hour of sailing had not 
been changed, and telling me it would be best for me to get 


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aboard the ship then, as soon as I could, when there were fewer 
guards about in the streets. 

* I dressed myself rapidly. In a few minutes I was ready. 
Clothed in a neat, white suit, with a pith helmet set at a smart 
angle on my head, and wearing a pair of green sun-glasses 
over my cyes y I left the hut, accompanied by my friend, and 
together we crossed the town, picking out least frequented 
streets. After a while we arrived at the pier — nothing had 
gone amiss so far. 

t We were in front of the gate. Beyond it jutted the long 
narrow pier and there, at its end, was the ship. I took my com- 
rade's hand and shook it warmly, squeezing it so hard that he 
flinched. Then I turned and, without batting an eyelash, I 
passed by the gendarme on duty at the pier's gate. Once by 
him, I broke into a cold sweat. I was on'the pier now! It was 
like a long runway to freedom, with the ship, resting languidly 
at its end under the morning sun, as my goal. Slowly, embued 
with a deadly calm, I walked on — the pier seemed to have no 
end. It was interminable. I counted every step, I remember 
them today — it was five hundred and sixteen steps that I 
took slowly and calmly, with my heart in my throat, before I 
came to the ship's side. I walked up the gangplank, presented 
my ticket, and a steward showed me to my cabin. 

"Oufl" I breathed, when he had taken his tip and closed the 
door. Now I was alone, and could think — check over every- 
thing and see if I had made any mistake. Everything was perfect 
- — this time it was freedom at last! 

Standing in the center of my cabin, behind the locked 
door, my heart brimmed with joy. "It worked," I murmured 
over and over to myself, the tears in my eyes. "It worked!" 
Soon, however, my restlessness returned to me. I wanted the 
ship to start moving, to get going. I peeked out of the porthole; 
the river glided by beneath my eyes 9 and the little eddies in 


Dry Guillotine 

the water glinted in the sunlight as they passed my line of 
vision. The Dutch bank lay directly in front of me. As I stared 
at it, as I had done before countless, endless times for hours 
on end, it seemed a cursed mirage. "Good-bye!" I breathed, 
as I stared at its shadow-etched outline under the early morning 
sun — "Good-bye! Never again, so help me God, will I ever 
have to look at you any more." Then I turned back into the 
cabin with a deep sigh of relief, and began pacing back and 
forth. I had no watch. I yearned for the ship to start, to feel it 
moving — moving, and taking me with it, out of that Hell 
on earth. I was getting very nervous. "It must be time, now! 
Why are they waiting?" I kept asking myself. 

Then the whistle blew. The first signal! Soon the ropes 
would be cast off! Mad with joy, I slipped up on deck and 
found a secluded spot from where I watched the last passengers 
coming on board ■ — I was safe on deck, as there are no peniten- 
tiaries or jungle camps in the region of Oyapoc on the Brazilian' 
frontier, for which the ship was destined, and so there would 
be no guards or convicts coming on the ship. 

The whistle blew again. It was the second signal. In a few 
more minutes, now, we would be free of the pier, and I would 
be free of the penal colony and French Guiana for the rest 
of my life. 

Then, just at this moment, when my heart was pounding 
with elation, I saw a gendarme running full speed down the 
pier. He was waving at the ship with his right hand as he ran 
at top speed! My eyes became glued on his form while I 
reasoned with myself to allay my feeling of terror. How could 
he be coming for me? But he was coming for me — I knew r it, 
suddenly, and my heart thumped with excitement. 

I remained standing, motionless in the seclusion of the spot 
where I was while he rapidly approached the ship. He hailed 
the ship's officer in charge, who was at the top of the gang- 


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plank, and came up into the ship with great strides. I overheard 
him ask the officer if there was a man named Ormieres on 
board. "At all events, his name is on this passenger list," the 
gendarme was saying, pointing to a sailing register blank which 
he had brought with him. 

Ormieres! I stood against the rail, thunderstruck. Ormieres 
was the name of the libere from whom I had bought my papers. 
But why was this gendarme looking for Ormieres? He was a 
freed man, and there would be nothing wrong with his being 
on the ship. I was thinking very fast, and all my senpes were 
riveted on the conversation going on near me. 

The officer had called the steward by this time, and the 
steward told the gendarme that there was an Ormieres on board, 
and said he was most probably down in his cabin. 

They went below. I decided in a flash that there was no 
time to lose, and, as they went down the stairs which led to 
the deck where my cabin was, I went down the gangplank. 
My feet once on die pier, I started walking down its length at 
a rapid stride. Once more, that pier seemed an eternity; but 
this time there was terror in my heart, where less than an hour 
before there had been bursting, overpowering hope! Rapidly I 
;walked on, my goal the little gate at the far end of the four- 
hundred-yard pier. 

"Ep! Ep! Ep!" It was the gendarme, somewhere behind me. 
He must still be on the boat, I concluded. I had gone almost 
one hundred yards by then. I wanted to break into a run, to 
race with all my might for that gate. But I didn't dare. The 
jig would be up, if I did. He might even shoot! So I walked 
on, without even turning my head, at the same rapid pace. 

"Ep! Ep!" He was closer now. I could distinguish the sound 
of his footsteps. They were like thuds pounding in my head 
like blows. I was the only soul on the long pier — and the only 


Dry Guillotine 

thing I could see was that gate far in front of me. Thefe was 
not a sound, except the feet behind me drawing nearetf every 
second. It was all I could do to stay my impulse; to nin. He 
was after me, all right! There was not the slightest doubt about 
that. But perhaps he might let me go — he was looking for 
Ormieres, and I was not Ormieres. I had no other saving 
thought to cling to. 

I walked on, the steps behind me grew louder . < . louder 
. . . louder. I knew I would look very pale in spite of all my 
efforts to control myself, when that gendarme caught up with 
me and looked into my face. 

* 'Ep! EpJ Ep ! ' ' This time it was at my very ear, and I stopped. 
I had to face him. 
"Where are you going?" he detiianded. 
"To the town," I said calmly. 

The moment he took a look at me, amazement seemed to 
spread over his face. The people on the ship were pointing and 
making signs at me. 

I played my last trump then. I tried to take advantage of his 
apparent perplexity. "I forgot something in town, and must 
get it in a hurry/ ' I said simply. "The ship's about to leave." 
I feigned an anxious voice, as if I feared I would be left, and 
looked back and forth from the ship to the gate at the end of 
the pier. 

He didn't seem to know what to do. I merely stood and 
waited, while the split seconds dragged. If he would only tell 
me he'd made a mistake, I could give him a rapid "It's perfectly 
all right!" and dash at a mad run down the long pier. . . . 

But the people back on the deck of the ship continued 
making signs, insisting I was the right man. The gendarme 
looked at them, then at me. I shifted on my feet and stared 
impatiently at the gate. He pulled at his mustache, undecided 
what to do. Then, since the people on the ship were so insistent, 

2 44 

Dry Guillotine 

he asked to see my papers. So I calmly tendered him the only 
ones Ihad, which were those of the man he sought 1 

He opened them hurriedly and examined them at a rapid 
"But you/' he exclaimed, "you are not Ormieres!" 
"Yes! These are my papers," I said emphatically, as if sur- 
prised that he shouldn't think so. 

"But I arrested Ormieres yesterday, dead drunk in the street! 
He's in prison !" the guard said. 

In a flash I realized what had happened — Ormieres had 
become drunk with the money I had paid him and had had a 
set-to with this gendarme! 

"But I am Ormieres, also," I said to the gendarme. "The same 
name evidently; but you can see Fm not the man you arrested." 
It was a possible loophole through which I might still squeeze. 

It might have worked. He might have given back my papers 
and passport which were strictly in order and let me go my 
way, if it hadn't been for that cursed Ormieres' first name — 
Gabriel • — . which was written down in both! For, when he 
arrested Ormieres, he had taken down his whole name — and 
there it was, Gabriel Ormieres, on both my fine documents to 

That was what finished my chances. He insisted that I 
come along to the gendarmerie where things could be investi- 
gated properly. There I was quickly identified and taken to the 
penitentiary, where I was thrown into the blockhouse! 

What a fatal curse coincidences can sometimes be. Ormieres 
had, true enough, insulted this particular gendarme in one of 
the streets of the town, being dead drunk from rum bought 
jvith the money I had paid him for my freedom, and the gen- 
darme had slapped him into the civil prison (for Ormieres was 
a civilian, since he had ended his term of exile) ; the gendarme 
had then happened to see his name on the passenger list. 

2 45 

Dry Guillotine 

Ormieres had been set to work in the market place, and the 
gendarme had concluded he had intentions of running away. 
Fatality, it seemed, dogged niy every step. Had the ship sailed 
Saturday as it was supposed to do, everything would have been 
all right. I would have sailed down the coast to certain liberty! 



I STILL had in my possession almost all o£ the large sum of 
money which I had received from Mrs. Blair Niles, and I made 
up my mind to make every effort to leave not one thing undone 
to avoid being given additional years of hard labor as a convict for 
this fourth attempt to escape. There remained only eleven more 
months for me to do to finish my term. If I were punished with 
two or three more years as a convict, all my money would then 
be dissipated in the vicious circle of my lengthened misery, and 
I would have none to finance another attempt. * 

My predicament was extremely bad, however, and the 
chances were all against me. At the Gendarmerie they had 
found and confiscated my false passport, and the fact that I had 
in my possession one which was officially stamped and in form 
made my incrimination all the stronger; there were, also, my 
false libere papers, which they had caught me in the act of 
using. It looked bad for me: in addition to being guilty of 
evasion, I had been caught red-handed with false identification 
papers. But by now I knew the way of things in the penal 
colony thoroughly, and I realized there was one means of 
getting myself out of my difficult situation which had fair 
chances of working and thus saving me from disaster. 

This possibility lay in the former deputy of French Guiana, 
Monsieur Jean Galmot, with whom I had had dealings several 
weeks earlier. Jean Galmot was running for deputy again, in 
the elections which would soon take place in the capital. Being 
certain he would be elected, he had asked me to write him a 
revealing and smashing expose against the Administration and 
its penal system, which he expected to use to back up his 
demands for the abolition of the penal colony. I had written for 
him a thorough and detailed treatise of more than two hundred 
and fifty pages, and, when he had asked me how much I wanted 


Dry Guillotine 

for it, I had told him, "Nothing! I am glad to contribute what 
little I can to help put an end to this Hell." He insisted, how- 
ever, and gave me ioo francs and he promised me that he 
jvould always be interested in me, and assured me he would bs 
glad to aid me should I at any time need his services. It was 
now the time, I concluded, if ever, and so I wrote him a letter 
in t which I explained the difficulty of my situation. In a fe^r 
days I received his answer. 

"I give you my word" he wrote, "that, as soon as these elections 
are over, I will have you set at liberty for your attempt to escape, 
no matter what the results of the elections are. Therefore, have 
patience for a few weeks'' 

^nd, in his note, he enclosed 25 francs attached to a slip of 
jgaper on which he had written ' Tor cigarettes ! ' ' 

One month later Jean Galmot died a mysterious death, 
allegedly poisoned, and the entire black population of the 
capital was in an uproar, suspicious of foul play against their 
'Papa' as they called their demi-god. The morning after his 
death the negroes of Cayenne rioted. They burned to death, 
in revenge, the six councillors of the town; the Governor was 
forced to flee in haste to the Islands for safety, while the director 
of the Bank of Guiana had himself locked into the blockhouse, 
dressed as a convict, to escape being massacred! And in that 
;way ended my first and, as I saw it then, my only hope of 
escaping punishment. 

I turned now to another possible chance to save myself. 
Leonce was, at this time, at Cayenne. I had learned through 
him, and through other convicts who knew him at Saint 
Laurent when he worked as cook for the Director of Admin- 
istration, that he had great influence over this highest official 
of the Administration. The convicts had confided to me that 
this influence was the result of a sexual relationship existing 

Dry Guillotine 

between the two. I had never spoken on the subject with 
Leonce, but he had told me that the Director had repeatedly 
begged him to return to cook for him at his headquarters in 
Saint Laurent, and that he had consistently refused. I now 
wrote a long letter to Leonce, thinking he might be able to 
influence the Director in my behalf, in some way or another. I 
sent it to him by a turnkey, and in a few days he answered me: 

'7 am going to write to the Director and ask him to em flay me 
in his house again*' he wrote. c 7 promise you I will do everything 
to get you out, and I think 1 will succeed." 

Before a month had gone by, Leonce left for Saint Laurent 
to be cook for the Director. A few weeks later, I received the 

"Rene— I can do nothing with the Director. You have too many 
evasions against you, and, in addition, he remembers only too 
well that manuscript you wrote forjuvanon. But there is a possi- 
ble help for you from another source, which is unexpected: an 
officer of the Salvation Army who has been visiting the penal 
colony and making an investigation of the conditions here, lived 
here at the Directors for a week, and I cooked for him; I told 
him all about your case, and obtained his interest in your behalf. 
He has talked to the President of the T. M. S. and to the Prose- 
cutor, and he took your side very strongly. They promised him to 
treat your case with due consideration, and I feel sure they will, 
for they are in touch with him and wish to please him, because 
he is an important personage, sent here by the Ministry to see 
what can be done to better the conditions for the liberes in the 
colony. I think that what he said to them about you will be of 
great importance in helping you out when you go up for trial, for 
I explained to him how your Attempt lasted only six hours, that 
you did not steal any money or food or a boat in order to escape. 
I told him how yosi had money of your own which you had 
earned. Leonce' 9 


Dry Guillotine 

This letter reassured me. 

After a long detention of seven months in the Cayenne 
blockhouse, I was taken to Saint Laurent to appear before the 
T. M. S. The public prosecutor at Cayenne had predicted to 
me that I would not get less than three years in solitary con- 
finement, at best. He was one man who did not have the 
slightest use for me! 

I appeared before the T. M. S. on the third day it sat, in 
November of 1928. From the punishments which had been 
inflicted by the court during the previous days I had reached the 
conclusion that the President was not an unreasonably hard 
individual, for he had given the minimum punishment to most 
of the convicts who had appeared ahead of me. 

I was given six months in prison, only! When I might have 
been given five years in solitary confinement. I had gotten out 
of the dangerous situation better than I had ever hoped. 

In a few weeks, they sent me to Saint Joseph to do my term 
of imprisonment there. I kept myself under strict control, and 
did nothing which could be put down against me as bad con- 
duct, for I hoped to obtain a conditional liberation from my 
term of imprisonment by the middle of my punishment. 

One day I was called over to Royale. I was wanted in the 
office of the Commandant. 

'Tve just received a letter from the new Governor," the Com- 
mandant said to me as I stood at attention before him. "He 
wants to know if you have a copy of the manuscript you wrote 
for Governor Juvanon, Belbenoit?" 

"No, sir," I answered. "But in a few weeks I could make him 
one, sir." 

"Good!" replied the Commandant. "I am going to give you 
paper and writing material, and I will instruct the chief guard 
at Saint Joseph. You will start on this immediately for the 
Governor. Apparently, he expects the matter to be attended 


Dry Guillotine 

to with haste, and you must do it as quickly as you can for he 
is very exacting in his demands." 

The new administrator was Governor Siadous. I got to work 
on the manuscript the veiy next day, hoping earnestly that it 
was going to help me obtain the conditional liberation which I 
was so anxious to get. 

While I worked feverishly at this manuscript in the barracks 
on Saint Joseph, racking my memory and thoughts for the 
least details which could interest or be of use to the new Gov- 
ernor, the chief guard there, aware of what I was engaged in, 
began to look unfavorably on what I was doing. He got it into 
his head that I would use this opportunity to expose the ways 
of the Island Administration to the new Governor — and, if 
I did that, both he, as well as all the other guards, would be 
represented as cutthroats to the new head of the colony. This 
was exactly what I wanted to do, and was doing; and this was 
exactly what Governor Siadous expected me to do, for he had 
read, I learned, parts of the manuscript I had sent to Governor 
Juvanon, and he wanted complete information to help him see 
through and combat the corrupt ways of the Penal Administra- 
tion, from the Director right down to the turnkeys! 

At this time on the Islands laxness and immorality were 
rampant. The doctor was an insatiable pervert and slept with 
convicts who were his patients in the wards — he would keep 
his favorites in the hospital for weeks, when space was needed 
for other men who were dying and needed attention. When he 
made his rounds of the solitary confinement cells on Saint 
Joseph he would pick out the young convicts who seemed to 
him likely ones, and would have them sent over to the hospital. 
Matters on the Islands were a scandalous mess: the guards, who 
despised the doctor because of his partiality for the convicts 
who were his favorites, were at constant war with him; and they 
were also united in a deep enmity against the Commandant, 


Dry Guillotine 

who was trying to please and gain the favor of the new Gov- 
ernor, and bore down on their laxness and underhand practices 
with both fists. They finally won in their struggle against him, 
and were instrumental in having him recalled to France. 

I worked at the manuscript like a demon. The chief guard 
persisted in his attitude of disapproval: he decided he would do 
;what he could to get even with me, and gave orders that I was 
not to be given my breakfast coffee in the morning, under the 
pretext that, since I did not go to work, I had no right to it! 
I lost no time in complaining to the Commandant. In a few 
days I had my coffee in the morning. After that, the chief guard 
insisted on examining what I was writing. But I refused to let 
him look at it; it was a private work, I said, asked for by the 
Governor. He then refused to allow my writings to go off the 
island sealed, under the pretext that in the envelope there 
might be letters being sent to the Governor by convicts, for the 
Governor seemed to be taking his task seriously and to wish to 
suppress the abuses of the guards of the Administration. At 
last, one day, I succeeded in sending my manuscript without 
the knowledge of the chief guard; it reached the Governor, 
and the results were felt very quickly. Without warning, an 
order came for the chief guard to be demoted from his position 
on Saint Joseph and sent to Devil's Island! The other guards on 
Saint Joseph clubbed against me, and wrote to the Governor, 
saying that his action had been unjust. But he did not even 
answer them. What he did was to send a dispatch to the Direc- 
tor of the Administration, instructing him to have me taken 
from the Islands and sent immediately to Cayenne. In the 
meantime, the Governor gave me my conditional release, as 
his thanks for the revelations I had made to him in the manu- 
script, and I was transferred to Royale, where I waited with 
relief for the next boat from Saint Laurent, which woukt take 
me off the Islands and again to Cayenne. 



I HAD a well-stuffed sack of clean fresh clothes, my supposi- 
tory was full of money, my health had been improved by the 
salt air and breezes, and the dysentery and fever had worked put 
of my system. As I watched the Islands fall away behind me, 
from the deck of the Mana, I was overflowing with courage 
and decision. 

I arrived on the mainland as night fell. I walked up to the 
penitentiary and was put in the barracks reserved for convicts 
of the Third Class, and there I found most of the convicts with 
whom I had been confined the previous»year. They were aston- 
ished to see me off the Islands so soon; I had quantities of notes 
for them from their comrades on Royale and Saint Joseph, and 
these I distributed around as soon as I was locked in. Most of 
that night I played at belotte (one of the favorite gambling 
games of the condemned), while I drank a stiff measure of 
rum which the keeper of the barrack gave me by way of cele- 
brating my return. I was at Cayenne, where most of the con- 
victs manage to get what they need and have enough money 
for tobacco and rum! 

The next morning I answered the roll tall with the others. 
The chief guard told me that I was to go to the office of the 
Commandant. So I remained in the barrack, and at eight 
o'clock I left the camp alone and proceeded to the Comman- 
dant's office, which is at the other side of town. As I passed 
through the Place des Palmistes I stopped in at the Sisters of 
Charity, and the Mother Superior had a letter for me from the* 
French writer, Francis Carco; he enclosed 300 francs for some 
articles I had sent him which he had published in Gringoire. 
"Good morning, Belbenoit!" the Commandant greeted me 
affably. "So here you are, back in Cayenne!" 


Dry Guillotine 

'Tes, Monsieur the Commandant," I answered. 
"Well, I hope you will conduct yourself properly this time. 
No more evasions, understand! Governor Siadous has taken an 
interest in you. He wishes to talk to you." The Commandant 
looked at me quizzically. He then took the receiver from his 
phone and rang Government House. After a brief interchange 
of words he turned to me and said: "Governor Siadous will see 
you now. Go immediately to Government House. I am going 
to see what I can do to find you a good job here in Cayenne," 
he added, smiling at me benignly. 

"Thank you, Monsieur the Commandant," I said quietly. 
Then I left his office. This time I was in a hurry. I got to the 
Government House in a state of profuse perspiration. It may 
have been the warmth of the morning, but I think it was really 
due to my excitement. The Governor's messenger boy went 
upstairs to announce me. Finally, he came back to where I 
stood by the door, holding my wide straw hat in my hands, 
and said the Governor was ready to see me. 

I climbed the steps, wiping my face on my sleeve so I would 
look my best. The door of the Governor's office was open, and 
I held myself at attention as I stood in it. 
"Come in, Belbenoit," said a sharp voice. 

I dropped my straw; hat in the hallway and went in. 

The Governor was busy with some papers, and merely 
looked at me for a split second. "Sit down," he said. 

The Governor was a middle-aged man, with gray hair about 
his temples. One could read on his face that he was an energetic 
man as well as a serious thinker, and that he was an individual 
who had tremendous will-power. 

After a few minutes, he pushed the papers on his desk aside 
and turned to me. Before he spoke, his penetrating eyes studied 
me from head to foot. 
"I wish to thank you for the manuscript you sent me from 

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Dry Guillotine 

the Islands," he said. "What you wrote interests me very much 
because it seems written with frankness and, I believe, im- 
partiality. How much more is there left for you to do of your 
term, Belbenoit?" 

"Only ten months, your Excellency," I replied. 

"You are not going to attempt to escape again?" he asked 
looking at me sharply. 

"No, your Excellency!" I replied. Two minutes earlier that 
would have been the last thing I would have said. For, when I 
set foot on the mainland and proceeded to the penitentiary at 
Cayenne a quick escape was the thing uppermost in my mind! 

"What kind of work can you do, Belbenoit?" 

"Any sort of job will do, your Excellency," I replied, "So 
long as the guards will leave me alone and not molest me." 

"I understand that, readily," Governor Siadous replied 

He got the Commandant on the phone. There was a slight 
pause while he listened, then I heard him say, "Very well! 
That will be all right." He hung up the receiver. 

"Well, Belbenoit, you will try that," he said. "You will go 
to work with the Antares, the gunboat which is here to map the 
coast. You will sleep on the pier. The work is very light. How 
is that?" It was thus that I now became connected with the 
hydrographical work which the gunboat, Antares, was doing 
along the coast. My job was very simple: it consisted in measur- 
ing the height of the tide, every fifteen minutes, in the port of 
Cayenne. A marked scale had been set in the water and, at the 
specified minute, I would read off the depth and write it on the 
chart. I worked with Bayard, an old convict, and with another 
prisoner; between the three of us we read the soundings for the 
twenty-four hours, in eight-hour shifts. 

One night a boatload of sailors from the gunboat, who were 
working far up-shore, did not come back until late in the night. 

2 55 

Dry Guillotine 

They were lodged in the soldiers' barrack-house, which was 
situated at some distance from the pier, and that night they were 
all so tired when they landed that they put the sail and rudder 
in our little hut by the water and went off to sleep. Usually they 
took everything along with them, but this night they waved 
aside the precaution; they had become accustomed to us, seeing 
us every day on the pier and talking with us frequently there, 
and that, I imagine, had given them a certain amount of con- 
fidence in us. 

About ten in the night Bayard said suddenly: "This is a 
chance we'll never get again, comrade." And he looked at me: 
"Rene, are you coming?" 

"Coming . . . where?" 

"Why, with the boat of the AntaresI Everything's right here 
in our hut." Bayard's sunken eyes; blazed, overflowing with 
excitement. "All we need is food!" 

"No," I replied. There was no hesitation in my voice. "I'm 
going to be liberated soon, and I promised the Governor I would 
not; try to escape." 

"Eh bien, comrade, we are on our way!" the old convict 
replied, jerking his head at the other. His yoke trembled, such 
{was his emotion. 

"You have only to give the alarm tomorrow morning at 
reveille. Say that you were asleep and heard nothing. When 
you awoke we were gone, and the boat too ! " 

In a few minutes they had filled five empty cans with fresh 
;water. It took them no time to adjust the rudder and the sail. 
Without a sound they pushed off into the quiet water and, 
jyhile I watched, the night engulfed them. 

Alone by the water's edge, I turned this suddenly arisen 
departure over in my mind while I smoked several cigarettes. 
The darkness ;was a velvet stillness, and in it I felt dismally 
lonely. What I yearned for with heart and soul was to be in 


Dry Guillotine 

that boat. It was such a good one for escape. But my common 
sense had said, "No! " Perhaps it wasn't my common sense — 
perhaps it was a vestige of honor which I still had in me. I had 
never once dreamed of a beautiful opportunity such as this 
when I told Governor Siadous that I would not try to escape! 
Had I said it to the double-dealing Commandant, I would now 
have been in that boat — and free in twelve days! But with 
Governor Siadous it was, somehow, different. For the first time 
in years a man had asked me a question and made me feel that 
he wpuld accept my answer as the truth. 

Dawn came. Nervously, I paced back and forth waiting for 
the guards to get out of their houses and for the life of the 
prison to start stirring. I went to the camp and told the guards 
that I had awakened to find my two comrades and the boat 

There was a big stir. The sailors were immediately sum- 
moned to the gunboat to explain their carelessness. In less than 
an hour one of the vessel's high-speed launches had left in pur- 
suit; but it came back that night without having sighted the 

Just as I expected, I was summoned to the Government 
House. Governor Siadous looked at me — through me — 
with that same penetration. "And so, now tell me what hap- 
pened, Belbenoit," he said, his fingers rapping the desk. 

I told him the truth; exactly what had taken place, giving 
him each detail. 

"I'm glad to know that you, you did not go also," he said, 
"You are dismissed." 

That was all. I left the Governor's office not quite decided 
in my mind just how I stood with him; whether I was pro- 
moted or demoted in his estimation. 

But I remained on the job just as though nothing had hap- 
pened, except that now I was doing the job of three. But I 


Dry Guillotine 

didn't mind this; it was more work and an alarm clock woke 
me up every hour during the night, but to me this was not a 
rebuke for having been an accomplice in an evasion — I felt 
I was being trusted that much more in being left alone to do the 
job. It is hard to convey how much that feeling meant to me. 
For, in the degeneration of the penal colony I had at last found 
an official in whose sincerity I could have faith. 

The work, however, in the long run proved too much for 
me. I needed to sleep, at least for a few hours, but I couldn't on 
that job where the height of the tide had to be set down on a 
chart so frequently. I did my best to stick it out, for, in addi- 
tion to having the Governor's confidence, I was getting the pay 
of the other two convicts, and for me that was a valuable little 
fortune which I meant to add to my hoard against the day 
when I became a libere. At the end of a week the gunboat 
finished its work, slipped anchor and went on to Saint Laurent. 
I had stuck to the end, fighting blindly against exhaustion, 
but my frail body had been so taxed by fatigue that I developed 
carbuncles and had to go to the hospital where the doctor lanced 
them for me. 

The morning after my operation I was put on the outgoing 
list of the hospital. The bandages were still fresh and blood- 
stained and when I left my bed I was very tired, and was suf- 
fering with pain. But the Governor had phoned the camp and 
given orders that I be sent immediately to work at Government 
House, not knowing that I was in the hospital and having an 
operation. And the stupid chief guard phoned the hospital, 
saying I was to be sent out as soon as I could walk — adding 
that the orders came from the Governor. 

The Governor had sent for me, I discovered, to set me at 
a task which was a very special one and full of interest to me* 
The archives of the colony were in a great disorder; they were 
in a state of abandon and needed straightening out, for the 


Solitary Confinement 


Liba'e going into the jungle 


Dry Guillotine 

papers and records had been stacked in piles for years and were 
moldering where they lay. Many of the files were unnumbered, 
and there were many documents which needed to be classified 
and filed away. It was impossible to find anything in the 
archives of the colony without spending hours rummaging 
around, and it was this lack of system and order which irked 
the Governor and* gave him the idea that here was a useful job 
for me. And so, with his characteristic energy and impatience, 
he had called the camp as soon as the thought came to him 
and had instructed the chief guard to send me over immedi- 
ately. I took up my duties that same day, without letting the 
Governor know I was suffering pain from an operation. This 
was a position I had never dreamed I would ever get! And, 
from the very first day, my task as archivist became the most 
interesting thing I ever did as a convict. For, also in the same 
rooms, were the complete archives of the Administration and 
I was free to read them as much as I chose! 

Sometimes the Governor would come see how my work was 
progressing. He would usually find something to say to me, 
and would talk with me for a few minutes. And more often 
than not I would have some question to ask him about how to 
classify or arrange this and that; he realized I took an interest 
in my task and was always ready to give me helpful suggestions. 

I admired Governor Siadous very much. His face was hard, 
but he was fair and kind. He was a strong man, the very spirit 
of energy. He was a conscientious person with a keen insight 
into things, and saw them just as they were. He investigated 
a problem thoroughly before he came to a decision; he was a 
man of action, whose working hours would have broken the 
health of the average man in that climate. I remember occasions 
when he slaved eighteen hours a day, working incessantly in 
the interests of the colony, when he could have accepted, philo- 
sophically, the (existing conditions, as others before him had 

2 59 

Dry Guillotine 

done, and taken no action to try to remedy them. But he had 
no support whatsoever; and throughout his entire term in office 
he met with no cooperation from either the Administration or 
the civil population of the colony. He was particularly impressed 
by the miserable lot of the liberes and tried to do something 
about it. He saw how the civilians took the convicts for their 
yarious house jobs because they could get them from the Ad- 
ministration for next to nothing. Realizing this was one of the 
principal causes behind the helpless misery of the liberes, he 
passed a decree saying that convicts were not to be let out to 
civilians for work, except for cultivation jobs, when large num- 
bers of condemned men might be used to advantage in ex- 
ploiting the agricultural possibilities of the colony. His purpose 
was to force the civilians to employ the liberes in their houses 
as cooks, servants, paying them enough to live on, instead of 
the pittance which they had paid the convicts who had their 
food and quarters provided by the Administration. The first 
diing the Governor knew, the civilians came to him asking per- 
mission to hire a convict here, two there, to do the jobs he had 
reserved for the liberes. He stuck to his idea for rehabilitating 
the liberes but soon he realized that in Cayenne there was no 
such thing as a social sense or desire for progress and' organiza- 
tion; for the civilians laid their complaints before the General 
Council of the colony, and went so far as to pepper the Min- 
istry in Paris with petitions demanding that the Governor be 

In the two years he was in office, Governor Siadous tried 
first one thing then another in an effort to better conditions in 
the colony. His efforts did not stop with the civilian element; 
the convicts absorbed his interest and were just as much his par- 
ticular concern. But the corrupt Penal Administration, instead 
of putting into effect the improvements he proposed, refused to 
cooperate with him and met his constructive energy with 


Dry Guillotine 

the force of inertia. The officials of the Administration more 
than hated him; they actually feared him, for he took a delight 
in uncovering their abuses and laxness and in showing up their 
inefficiency. One of his favorite tricks was to order a convict in 
his employ to snip the main telephone wire late at night; the 
next morning, bright and early, he would be off down the 
road to the camps; as he came to one camp, there was no way 
to pass the word along that the Governor was out on an inspec- 
tion, and at each camp he came to he saw things just as they 
jvould be on any ordinary day! The first time he did this out 
of a clear sky the officials had a fit. The chief guard was missing 
from one camp; in another, he found a guard drunk, lying in 
his house in his hammock after an orgy of rum which had 
begun the night before and lasted on until noon; he found con- 
victs working naked in the blistering sun, their tongues were 
hanging out for water which they couldn't have because the 
gang had done something which had angered a guard. He was 
good at catching the officials in their finer shades of cruelty, 
also; and it did not take him long to make himself familiar 
with the many forms of graft and with the rackets they prac- 
tised continuously, bleeding the treasury and preying on the 
helpless prisoners in their hands. And it was from the convicts 
yvhom he picked and used in his employ, like myself, that he 
gained most of his information and thorough knowledge of the 
ways of things in the penal colony! He revoked the appoint- 
ments of many officials and sent them back to France; among 
these was the Commandant of the Islands. Several guards were 
guilty of gross murders and he saw to it that they paid for their 
barbarity. The Administration joined in with the civilian pop- 
ulace, and sent demands of its own to have a better Governor 
sent out. But he remained to the end of his term, and by the 
time he came to the end of it he had dug up so much dirt in 
the colony that, back in France, they were constantly on edge 


Dry Guillotine 

lest he should bring to light some deadly scandal which would 
give the colony an even worse reputation than it already had. 

One day, as he stood thumbing some documents in the 
archives he asked me, "What are you going to do wheal you're 
liberated, Belbenoit?" 

I gave him the true answer — the only one there could be: 
"I'm going to attempt to escape," I said, "for it's the only jvay 
I can remake my life. Here in Guiana it is impossible/ ' 

He was silent for a few moments, then he said: "You won't 
have to escape! I will give you your passport to leave the 

Such a thing had never been done in the history of the penal 
colony. Tears filled my eyes at the sound of his words, and I 
could only say, hoarsely, in a choked murmur: "Thank you, 
sir, thank you!" 

After that I spent many months arranging and working on 
the archives of the colony. Governor Siadous never spoke again 
on the subject, but I was as sure of his word as I was of the sun, 
and I knew that when the day of my liberation came I would 
be free to go. I could work at the task he; had assigned to me all 
day long as long as I pleased; there were days when I remained 
in the archives all morning and afternoon, stopping only to 
eat; at night I returned to the barrack when I pleased, as late 
as ten o'clock some nights, for I always had the good excuse 
that the Governor had kept me working late. I accomplished 
much in arranging and putting into working order the material 
I had been entrusted with; but at least half of the time I spent 
in the archives was devoted to my own particular interests and 
investigations. In those musty and moldy old rooms, where I 
sat at a desk alone all day long, I combed the shelves and stacks 
of papers for the things which interested me to read. The reports 
and files of the Administration, from the day the penal colony 


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began, were there; also, I found in the archives all the books 
<and articles which had been written in many languages about 
the notorious prison, all sent in — often with notes or letters 
attached — by the diplomats and consuls of France from many 
parts of the world; I read there the first book ever written about 
the horrors of the penal colony — by General Pichegru who, 
after winning the battle of Jemmapes, betrayed the Revolution 
and was sent to Guiana from which he finally escaped to the 
United States. I read and examined everything: books, articles, 
reports on convicts, accounts of the Administration, lists of 
food, supplies, clothing, materials. I took down notes and 
figures. And it was during these many long months when I 
sat doing this in those dingy rooms that I got the knowledge 
and documentation, and the facts and figures, which have 
enabled me since then to fight efficiently for the abolition p£ 
that hell and expose irrefutably the corruptness of its Adminis- 
tration. Many of these chapters were first written at that desk, 
in the heart of that criminal colony and while I was still clothed 
in the infamous red and white stripes. For once, after so many 
years of stagnation, I had found something which absorbed my 
[whole being; for once I had found something to do. 

Then, one morning, Governor Siadous called me into his 
office and said: "I am sending you back to the barrack, Belbe- 
noit. I find it's necessary for me to economize as much as I can 
on the budget, but I'll arrange for you to have a good job for 
the last months that remain of your term." 

I was amazed. However, there was nothing for me to say 
one way or the other. "There's something else here," I told 
myself. "It's not because of any economy on the budget that the 
Governor is sending me back to the barrack." 

When I appeared in the office of the Commandant, the latter 
exclaimed jestingly, "So, you have left the Government, 


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"Governor Siadous has sent me back to camp," I replied 
levelly, "and I suspect, sir, that the Administration is mixed 
up in all this." 

"How? Now, now — you're always imagining the Adminis- 
tration has it in for you, Belbenoit!" The Commandant pre- 
tended to be innocently amused. 

"But I think I can prove it this time, sir," I retorted. My 
smouldering anger had mounted to my head, and was fast 
doing away with my caution and good sense. "It's been six 
months now that I've been in Cayenne," I said to the Com- 
mandant, "six months of good conduct, for I have not been 
given one punishment. But nevertheless, during these six 
months, Fve had the lowest marks in the whole penitentiary; 
I'm the only convict here who's been given a mark of O for six 
consecutive months." The convicts are marked or graded by 
the chief guard of each barrack from O to i o according to the 
guard's report of their conduct, and my last eighteen marks 
had been eighteen O's. I was the only convict in the whole 
colony to have such a set of marks! " 

The Commandant was at a loss what to answer. But he said, 
waiving the matter aside: "Well here! You're going to the bar- 
racks to take over the bookkeeping for the penitentiary, as the 
present bookkeeper is making a quantity of errors and his books 
are a jumble. It'll be lots of work for you, but you'll also have 
a great deal of freedom. I'm going to let you go into the town 
whenever you wish; also, you will sleep in the office, by the 
gate of the camp. You can earn some money, and I don't think 
the job will be too hard for your strength." 

"Well, that's that!" I said to myself as I made my way to 
Government House to collect my few belongings and fetch 
them all to the barrack. 

The Governor saw me when I w;ent by the door of his office 


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and called me over to him. It was to tell me that he had sent a 
note over to the barrack, instructing the chief guard that he 
had designated me a convict of the Second Class. 

I thanked him. But I was still disappointed and bitter over 
the turn of events which had taken me away from my all- 
absorbing work in the archives, and I said: "Not once in the 
years I've been a convict, Monsieur the Governor, have I been 
able to get to the second class, and I believe I might just as well 
have ended my term in the third." 

The Governor saw what I meant — he knew that he was 
the only thing that stood between me and the Administration. 
"But I know it will be of use to you," he said. "Now go, and 
mind what you do and watch your step!" he exclaimed as a 
parting admonition. 

I learned later that I had been removed from the archives 
because of statements made by the Commandant about the 
serious risks which existed in my being at the task, since he 
had proof that I knew people in the United States and might 
send information ;which, if published, would do harm to the 
prestige of France abroad. Governor Siadous hadn't known I 
had these contacts; and the Commandant, by pressing the issue 
to the Governor, had been keen enough to take advantage of 
the latter' s conscientiousness and sense of duty as a servant of 
his country. What really interested the Administration was to 
get me away from its records. But I had worked double time 
and had remained in the archives enough months to find out 
far more than the Administration ever imagined. 

Not long after I assumed my duties as bookkeeper in the 
barrack I got my comeback at the Commandant. There had 
been, in connection with the hydrographical work which the 
gunboat Antares had been doing along the coast of the colony, 
a party of six convicts sent off to an island near Cayenne to do 
some part or other of the survey; they were accompanied by a 


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guard and were gone two weeks. This guard, being in absolute 
charge of the group, made out the list of food they would 
require to take along, but once they had set out, he gave the 
six men only a third of the food supplies to eat, and he brought 
the rest back and later $old it to the negroes in Cayenne. When 
I assumed the bookkeeper and accountant job for the peniten- 
tiary, these convicts, knowing I stood well with the Governor, 
came to me with their complaint; I took the matter to the 
Commandant, who in turn called the guard in and reprimanded 
him for his action. The Commandant decided that the guard 
had done the Administration out of 1 5 francs. At the time he 
was conducting his investigation and bawling out the guard, 
I, as bookkeeper, was in the office. Now, the Commandant at 
the time owed me 1 5 francs for an inlay box I had made for 
him; so he calmly told the guard to pay the 1 5 francs over to 
me! Instead of paying me out of his own pocket, he decided 
he would just let it come out of the Administration's budget. 

Here was my chance. In less than an hour's time I was in 
the Government House. I knew the Governor would be inter- 
ested in the incident, for it was just the sort of thing which was 
a constant chip on his shoulder. He was! The Commandant 
was heavily fined. 

Before long I had another altercation with the Penal Ad- 
ministration. It was rather humorous in some ways. 

At this time I had a little cat. I was very fond of it! One 
day the captain-at-arms caught sight of my cat chasing his 
chickens, and he warned me if he saw; my cat after his chickens 
again he would kill it. I answered him that if he killed my cat 
it would cost him several thousand francs. But, he merely 
laughed at my words. 

Well, a week later my cat disappeared. There was no doubt 
in my mind where it had gone, so I found the captain and 
said to him "I told you if you killed my cat it would cost you 


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several thousand francs. You'll see, two or three days from now, 
if what I say isn't true!" 

I then went back to the bookkeeping office at the camp and 
wrote two reports, one for the Governor and the other for the 
Prosecutor General of the colony. This is what they contained: 
"For more than three years the cook for the guards' mess has 
figured in the accounts of the penitentiary of Cayenne under 
the entry of messenger-boy. On the budget, the guards have 
no right to cooks; if they use a convict as such, they must pay 
the Administration 4 francs a day to employ him. The cook 
for the mess at Cayenne, being entered as messenger-boy in the 
books, has not been paid for; in the three years the guards eat- 
ing there have mulcted the treasury in a sum which approaches 
4,000 francs. An investigation should be made into this." 

The next morning the Governor sent his secretary to the 
penitentiary to look into the truth of my report. The chief 
guard had been at the camp only three months, so the situation 
put him very ill at ease, although he had nothing to do with 
it. He came to me and demanded why I had taken it upon 
myself to do what I had done. 

"This has nothing to do with you," I said to him, "for you 
have been here just a short time. It is not meant for you. It's 
to punish the captain-at-arms for killing my cat!" 

"But this is going to call for a tremendous amount of work! " 
replied the chief guard. And he went on to tell me how my 
meddling had caused the Governor to order all the names of 
the guards who had eaten at the mess in the last three years 
to be listed, with the number of months they had eaten there, 
and a bill was to be made out for each of them, which they 
ivere to pay as a refund for the money owing by them. 

Every word the chief guard said filled me with exultation. 
"I will do all the work at night," I replied. "Leave the whole 
job up to me!" 


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And every time I saw that captain-at-arms I would repeat 
in answer to his sallies: "When I told you my cat would cost 
you dear, I meant it!' ' 

After that he left me alone and never troubled himself to 
meddle with anything I did. In that merciless penal colony* 
one has to use all his wits in order to get the treatment due a 
human being and to be shown a shadow of respect. 

I enjoyed a great many advantages as bookkeeper and ac- 
countant of the penitentiary at Cayenne. The guards were 
afraid I'd report something else. It is, in every penitentiary 
and camp in the jungle, a position of much favor, for the book- 
keeper is the man, really, who directs the camp and he has his 
fingers in everything. If he knows how to work his job he can 
make a lot of money through the endless forms of debrouille 
which fall within his sphere of activities. 

It is far more valuable to the condemned to have the favor of 
the bookkeeper than that of ten of the chief guards. It is the 
bookkeeper's job to set down names, to fill out vacancies here 
and there, to send men to this camp or that when the names are 
turned in to the Commandant on the lists; and to him fall 
countless other matters which are of vital concern in the exist- 
ence of the convicts from day to day. 

The bookkeepers principal source of income lies in the sale 
of the various jobs which are to be had in the camp. When a 
convict wants some particular job or favor, that is, one which 
gives him a chance to make some money for himself, he goes to 
the bookkeeper and offers him a substantial consideration; if he 
can offer more than anyone else has few the job, he may be sure of 
getting it. 

The bookkeeper of the penitentiary at Cayenne has to work 
an average of sixteen hours a day. That is a lot of work, but for 
it the Administration only gives him a gratification, or tip, of 
several quarts of coffee every week. The chief guard at the camp 


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doesn't (examine and verify the correctness of the books and 
accounts, which are complicated and would absorb an enormous 
number of his hours which he would rather spend in his 
hammock or drinking rum with his colleagues; but, however, 
it is he who is responsible for everything the bookkeeper does. 
He has to sign all the reports and accounts rendered, and all the 
other lists and papers which are written up by the bookkeeper, 
and if anything goes wrong he has to answer for it. So it is very 
important and even vital to his ease of body and mind to have 
a convict on the job who does the work efficiently. But, if the 
bookkeeper is getting nothing out of this exacting task for 
himself, he would much prefer to work eight hours a day in 
some other job than twice that long in an office where he makes 
nothing for himself; and if he is intelligent enough to hold 
down the hard job of accounting and bookkeeping he will have 
no trouble at all getting some other job where he can make a 
little money for himself. Since the chief guard, of course, has 
no desire to tip him put of his own pocket he allows him a great 
amount of latitude. The bookkeeper, therefore, has no end of 
chances to make up through favors to the convicts for the long 
hours he has to slave at his task. If a convict, for instance, wants 
to be assigned to work in some gang, he goes to the bookkeeper 
and promises him ten francs. At the first vacancy in the gang 
he will get in — unless another convict in the meanwhile should 
offer the bookkeeper 1 5 francs for the same place. 

In the larger penitentiaries, like the one at Cayenne and 
Saint Laurent, this dehrouitte or graft of the bookkeeper nets 
him a substantial sum; so the chief guard exacts a share of these 
profits for himself as a tribute for leaving the bookkeepers 
hands free! 

The most successful debrouillard or grafter-bookkeeper I 
knew in the long years I was in Guiana was a certain Bebert 
Abavent, who handled the barracks at Saint Laurent for many 


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years. Once when he and I were on Saint Joseph he told me 
he used to average 50 francs a day; sometimes this was more, 
particularly at the time when Vilsouet was captain-at-arms at 
the camp. This Vilsouet was a rare character. Bebert told trie 
that he gave him his bottle of rum every morning in order to 
have a free hand with the books I If a convict wanted to go to 
some camp, or come to Saint Laurent from a camp in the jungle, 
Bebert's charge was ten francs. If one of the men wanted to 
change barracks, that was two francs. The job as street-sweeper 
in the town cost five francs. The position of keeper of the bar- 
racks was worth 50 francs. Whenever the captain-at-arms, 
Vilsouet, was in need of several hundred francs he would resort 
to any one of various rackets. 

One fine morning he came to Bebert's office with a list of 
some thirty names and instructed him to change those; convicts 
to other barracks that same afternoon. After the captain had left 
the office, Bebert, who knew every man in the camp, perceived 
that all the ones on the list were young convicts. He thought 
at first to himself some new regulation must have been passed 
to check the dissolute homosexuality abounding in every bar- 
racks; but before long he saw that this was just another new 
racket the captain had invented. He followed the captain's 
orders and that afternoon he instructed the men whose names 
were on the list that they were to change barracks, and told 
them which they were to move to that very afternoon. The 
next morning there was a regular waiting line outside the door 
of Bebert's office! The older men were all there; to ask him 
:why their young momes had been taken out of their barracks, 
and each offered him something if he would have the transfer 
cancelled. Bebert couldn't do anything in the face of the cap- 
tain's orders, so he went to him and told him how things were, 
hoping he would allow him to juggle things properly. "That's 
good! " the captain replied when he heard the news. "You send 


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diem all back to the barracks, but you know the tariff! And," 
he added, "make allowance for my share!" That little racket 
brought 300 francs. 

Bebert told me; another little trick of the captain's. When 
jthe end of the month arrived he had invariably spent his pay, 
so he would come to the office and tell Bebert, "Tomorrow con- 
yict X will go to Camp des Malgaches. Put him on the list." 
Invariably convict X would be a man who had a good and lucra- 
tive job, such as keeper of a barracks or a man who held the 
money-box for the nightly game of la marseillaise. Bebert would 
tell the man he was going off to slave or die in that horrible 
camp, and the other, amazed at this sudden piece of news, 
jvould want to know why. "The captain's orders," Bebert 
would say. "Go see him if you like!" So the convict would go 
to Vilsouet and arrange the matter with him — » that is to say, 
he would hand him 50 or 75 francs! And the next morning 
the captain would come to Bebert and tell him to cross put 
convict X and send an Arab to Malgaches in his place. 

In all the camps and barracks that sort of thing went on 

One afternoon the chief guard sent me to the hospital to 
register a death. Boppe, the dead man, had been one of the 
celebrities of the penal colony. The previous afternoon he had 
drowned while taking a swim. He had been in Guiana only a 
few months, where he had arrived on the La Martiniere con- 
demned to five years of hard labor for attempting to poison his 
wife in his beautiful chateau in the neighborhood ot the town 
of Nancy, where he lived luxuriously as Inspector General of 
Forests and Streams for the East of France; a family council 
gathered in one of the lavish saloons of the chateau to decide 
what measures were to be taken. Should he be turned over to the 
authorities? If that ware done the honor of one; of the greatest 
writers of the nation would be spoiled and his career might be 


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affected. The family decided the matter should not be made 

public; but this would be done only on one condition — that 

i Boppe provide a suitable income for his wife, who refused to 

f live with him any more. Boppe was told that unless he agreed 

| to this condition he would be turned over to the law, and would 

{ receive no protection or support from the family; and he readily 

acquiesced. But he failed to carry out what they demanded; for 

he was certain in his mind the family would not dare bring a 

scandal to light which would cast a shadow on their name. 

Seeing he had his mind made up not to keep the agreement, 

however, they exposed him, and the courts gave him five years 

in Guiana. 

When he; got to Guiana, Boppe decided that hed spend all 
the money necessary to get an easy life. He had become fasci- 
nated by the jungle; he determined to devote himself for a while 
to the study of tropical flora. Possessing a substantial fortune, 
he had no trouble in winning all sorts of favors from the Penal 
(Administration. They had even gone to the absurdity of ap- 
pointing him "convict botanist" of the colony! He caused all 
his scientific apparatus to be sent out from France, as well as 
twelve fine hunting dogs. 

But death robbed him of his purchased advantages. Less 
than a fortnight later, a full pardon for him arrived from France. 
It had been signed by the President, at the request undoubtedly 
of influential Parisian friends, eight days before he drowned. 
But it came too late! 

My term drew tranquilly to a close. The eve of my liberatioft 
had now arrived — the twenty-first of September, 1930!! had 
had to do two punishments of six months each which had added 
a year to my eight-year sentence. Yet I had been lucky: luck, 
added to my keeping of my wits about me, kept me alive 
through those nine endless years of suffering and restlessness. 
For many had been given two or three years for their first 


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evasion and five for their next, while I, with my four desperate 
attempts to escape, had only had to do an extra six months. 
I knew full well that ;with my nervous temperament and bad 
health I would never have been alive on the twenty-first of 
September of 1930 had I been made to stay three straight 
years in the cells of horror on Saint Joseph! 



I PLAYED at la marseillaise with my comrades in the barrack 
until past midnight. I would have played all night long until 
reveille, just to greet wide awake my happiest dawn, if they 
had not been top tired and left me to get some sleep. For they 
?vere not, as I, going to be set free the next morning; their 
prison grind would begin again at six. 

The moths flitted about the regulation lamp; criss-crossing 
under the dim pale light: mosquitoes hummed and bit inces- 
santly. In the breathless stagnation of the rain-drenched night 
the gloomy barracks seemed like a weird vault, in which the 
only sound was that of men snoring, moaning, and mumbling 
in their restless sleep. That dim regulation lamp flickering un- 
certainly was to me a symbol of Guiana, where men live pale 
and half extinguished. 

Five A. M. The reveille! The keeper of the barracks handed 
me a cup with the remark: "You have no right to it, and 
tomorrow you'll have to earn this coffee! " 

My comrades in the barracks gathered around me for a 
moment to say good-bye! 

For the last time I watched the line of gangs go out to labor, 
and then I went to the clothes commissary to turn in my con- 
vict suit. I was given the customary package which is handed 
to all convicts when they become liberes. It contained a blue 
suit of coarse material, a black felt hat, a white shirt, and a pair 
of wooden shoes. The suit was too large and hung on me. As 
for the regulation shoes, I hated the feel and weight of them, 
so I sold them on the spot to one of the kitchen men for 
forty sous. 

The captain-at-arms gave me a paper to take to the cashier 
of the Administration to claim my convict pay. 

I entered the town and took my pay slip round. The cashier 


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counted out eighty-five francs and ten sous and handed them 
to me. Noticing the look of stunned amazement on my face, 
he proffered me a sheet of paper which bore the following 

769 days of labor at 0.50 francs a day . . . . f . 384.50 
stamps f. 12.50 

Charge, Dept. of Justice . . . . f. 30.00 
I held againstyoyage back to France f. 256.50 

f. 299.00 f. 299.00 

Balance f. 85.50 

"Three fourths held against voyage back!" I cried. "I was 
sentenced to eight years — that means perpetual exile! . . . 
They'll never let me go back to France! " 

"I know it ," he said. "But it's the regulation. Three fourths 
of every prisoner's pay must be held out." 

There was nothing I could do about it. Again, even in the 
last instant of my convict life, injustice was to assert itself — 
to rob me of two hundred fifty-six and a half francs! I pocketed 
the money with an oath and went to the Commissary of Police 
to obtain my fireed-convict Libere certificate. 

There I was officially informed that, by law, I would have to 
remain in French Guiana for the rest of my life. If I tried to es- 
cape I would be sentenced to the Islands for five years. 

After he had announced the above regulation to me, the 
Police Commissioner added: "Furthermore, for ten years, you 
will not be permitted to reside in Cayenne, you must leave the 
city limits by tomorrow morning or you will be arrested and 
punished! " I had hardly been freed an hour when I found my- 
self threatened with being locked up again! 

Eighty-five francs and ten sous! That was all I had coming 

2 75 

Dry Guillotine 

to me, after I had been kept like an animal and worked like 
an animal for nine years. And an ordinary pair of shoes would 
cost all of one hundred and twenty francs! I bought a cheap pair 
to cover my bare feet. I also bought a pair of socks. My food for 
the day ... a room ... a few little purchases, and by the next 
morning the entire sum had disappeared. I went to the Govern- 
ment House to see Governor Siadous in his private office. 

He greeted me with a smile. ' 'Belbenoit, you are now a libere, 

"Yes, your Excellency!" I replied, my voice tense with emo- 
tion. "But the penal authorities say I must get out of Cayenne 
immediately. I must live in the jungle like a baboon! " 

"Good! I am very glad. And now — have you by any chance 
enough money — enough cash to buy a passage away from 
Guiana?" he asked. 

"Yes, your Excellency," I said, remembering his promise and 
trembling in uncertainty as to whether now he would keep 
it or not. "I've received money from Mrs. Blair Niles. But the 
penal authorities say that if I try to leave the colony they'll ar- 
rest me — and give me five years solitary confinement in the 

He scowled and searched in a drawer of his desk for a few 
seconds. Then he drew; put a typewritten sheet which he hand- 
ed to me. "Here," he said, "take this. You will address me a 
formal petition to leave the colony for one year, basing your de- 
mand on what you read on this sheet. Send it to me as quickly 
as possible. You can leave on the next boat! " 

"You mean . . . really, on the next boat, Sir?" I repeated. 

"Yes, Belbenoit. I am presenting you with this year of free- 
dom no matter what the penal authorities say!" the Governor 
replied with a gleam of humor in his eye. "Petition me formally 
that, since there is no way for a self-respecting man to earn a liv- 
ing aszlibere in Guiana you want to be allowed to go somewhere 


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else for a year where you can find a job and save up some 
money/ ' 

That same night I wrote put my petition. Two days later 
Governor Siadous called together his colonial Privy Council to 
submit my request to its members, which formality was readily 
granted, since it was the personal wish of the chief of the colony. 
On the following Saturday the decision of the Council appeared 
in the official publication of French Guiana as follows:; 

The Governor of Guiana and the Privy Council of the Colony, 
in the session of the 2jth of September, 1930, Decided: That 
libere Rene Belbenoit, Libere Num her 1 6,^/f., is authorized and 
given a passport to leave the colony for one year. 

Given in Cayenne on the 2jth day of September * 1930. 

SIADOUS Governor 

I needed, however, a visa from the consul of Venezuela, to 
yvhich I planned to go, so I now went to see him to ask him to 
visa my passport papers. To my great disappointment, he re- 
fused to do this. He told me he had strict orders from his gov- 
ernment, which in the past year had arrested all the men es- 
caped from the penal colony found in the country, and was 
determined not to have any French convicts or liberes in the 
country. He told me that, furthermore, he had received just that 
morning a report from the penal Administration which did not 
seem commendable or a recommendation in any sense. Upon 
my asking to see it, he let me read this paper, which read: 

Belbenoit, Rene: 46,635. Libere: 16,444 

1. Condemned to eight years at hard labor for theft in 1921 

2. Condemned to six months of prison for insult in 1925 

3. Condemned to six months of prison for escape in 1928 

4. Classed as Incorrigible 101925 


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5. Classed as Incorrigible in 1927 

6. Interned on the Islands as a measure of precaution in 1925, 
1927 and 1928. Conduct Mark, when liberated, Zero. 

Although it was the last one it could possibly make, this was 
in every sense a truly typical back-slap of the Penal Adminis- 
tration! It could not prevent the Governor from doing what he 
wanted to do, but it took this underhanded method of getting 
back at me — and foiling my chance of actually leaving the 
colony. It was actually a stalemate of the Governor's decree. 

I now told the representative of the Venezuelan nation that 
it wasn't my intention to reside in the country, and that I [wish- 
ed to go to Panama; but since that republic had no representa- 
tive in the colony, I had come; to him to give me a visa to pass 
through Venezuela en route, and in that way I could get my 
Panamanian visa at the port of last call. To support what I said 
to him, I showed him a letter I had from Mrs. Blair Niles in 
which she wrote advising me to go to Panama, where she would 
help me find work in the American Canal Zone. 

This he; now consented to do, and stamped on my passport: 
"In transit for Panama." This was all I needed! Now I was free 
to go! The penal authorities were furious. 

It was a double day of celebration and joy for me; for, in addi- 
tion to the fact that at last I was going away from that land of 
torture and torment, it was the day of my saint, Saint Rene. 

The Biskra was scheduled to leave at two o'clock in the after- 
noon on November 12th. I was dressed for the occasion, and 
my small amount of baggage was ready. My ticket was safely 
tucked away in the bottom of my pocket! 

I went to the Government House. I wanted to thank the 
Governor again for what he had done for me. Would that 
Guiana had had other Governors like him! 

He took my hand and wished me good luck. He exacted a 


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promise that I would present myself to the French Consul in 
Panama, that I would not overstep the time of the leave he had 
given me, and above all that I would not write anything that 
could affect the prestige of France. At this final opportunity of 
speaking with Governor Siadous, I was able to do a favor for one 
of the few friends I had in the penal colony. Richard was his 
name and he was interned on the Islands: He had sent me a pe- 
tition of release from the Islands which he asked me to put in the 
hands of the Governor with a good word for him. The moment 
to do the favor had come. 

"You have confidence in my word, sir," I said to Governor 
Siadous, "and I feel that now, before going away, I'd like to do 
something for another convict who I know is unjustly treated/ * 
And I handed him the petition Richard had sent to me. 

When he had read it he asked me, "Is this true, Belbenoit?" 
"Yes, your Excellency," I said, "I know the man well, and 
you can be sure of that." 

"Very well, then," he replied. "You can write him that his 
release from the Islands has been granted and that he'll be 
brought to the mainland within a month's time." 

I thanked Governor Siadous again, but this time for an- 
other man. And my heart was glad as I left the Government 

At two o'clock the Biskra s whistle sounded. I was off! Go- 
ing into the future, into the great world — Free at least for one 
whole year! I was the first liber e in the history of the penal 
colony ever to be given such a furlough. Many convicts and 
liberes heard the whistle blow and must have watched us go 
and thought of me — and — envied my opportunity of going 
away for a year with a legal status in the wide open world. 

When we stopped off the Islands, Richard was among the 
oarsmen in the Island boat. I called down to him and gaye him 
the good news of his own transfer to the mainland. 

2 79 


Dry Guillotine 

"But I want your word that you won't try to escape while 
Governor Siadous is still in office," I said to him. "He s being 
recalled to France soon, so you haven't long to wait! ' ' 

Richard promised. And he added "Once he's gone though, 
I'll join you in Panama, comrade! " 

We arrived at the long per at Saint Laurent. This time I 
k walked at ease and happy, not worrying at all about the evil- 
eyed Corsican guards. I mailed some letters Richard had en- 
trusted to me. I met some of my libere acquaintances. I treated 
them to a meal at the best Chinaman's store. They were glad of 
my good luck, but sad because of their own unyielding fate. 

In a few hours the Biskra was on its way down the Maroni 
River. From the rail I watched the jungle slip by. When we 
reached the mouth of the river night had come. Soon the coast 
had faded in the stern, lost in darkness. I stood at the rail look- 
ing out over the dark sea thinking of the future, where I knew 
there would be another struggle for me — but this time the 
struggle would be for life and success and not just a struggle 
against death. 




AS though I suddenly saw the world through a kaleidoscope, 
as the ship turned over the horizon of the earth after my years 
of captivity, Paramaribo the capital of Dutch Guiana, George- 
town the capital of British Guiana, and Port of Spain, the capi- 
tal of Trinidad came up out of the sea — and went down into 
the sea behind me. Then Guadeloupe and Martinique, the 
French islands, were left to sink in my wake. I was, at last, a 
free soul on a boat carrying me farther and farther away from 
French Guiana. 

I paced the deck all day long. I felt constantly in my pocket 
to make sure my passport was still there. I talked to the passen- 
gers. With them I sang songs and played games. At night I 
left my cabin after only a few hours of sleep and paced the deck 
to greet the new dawn. Each day I saw bom, from black night 
into a golden-hued sunrise. I was free! 

/ 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. After a few hours I secured a job at the Gorgas Me- 
morial Hospital as a gardener. For eight months I worked and 
lived happily. I put some savings into establishing a small hand 
laundry with a native partner. I was now a man busily earning 
a living — • and respect. One thing only began preying on my 
mind: Time was fleeing behind me. Month % after month was 
expiring — and leaving me with less and less of the year of 
freedom which Governor Siadous had presented to me. I sent 
a cable to him, followed it with a letter excellent 
conduct and earnings card of the Canal Commission, and ask- 
ing him to grant me permanent freedom. But I learned that he 
had left the prison colony. Another Governor had takeai his 


Dry Guillotine 

Though free physically I now became a mental prisoner — 
fighting daily against the thought of returning to Guiana for 
life. As the days and weeks and months went by I became fran- 
tic. I didn't want to break my promise to Governor Siadous — 
but I didn't want to return to French Guiana. I counted my 
savings. I had enough money to buy a steerage passage to Paris. 
Suddenly I made up my mind to go to France as quickly as 
possible, find some authority who would grant me a permanent 
passport. My leave of absence would expire on November i 2, 

i93 J . 

On October 1 9th, a month before my year of freedom was 

up, I took passage on a ship to France. On November 2nd the 
police of Havre, on coming out to the ship in a launch of the 
Public Health Service, looked at my papers and placed me 
under arrest. I was kept incommunicado in a jail during the 
entire months of November and December, I spent Christmas 
Day and New Year's Day in jail. The little money I had left 
went in an attempt to get messages delivered to people who 
might help me, but I never received any answers. It seemed as 
though some unusually stringent orders had gone out from 
the seats of the mighty to keep me locked up — my jailer al- 
most told me this by the way he looked at me — . and by his 
unctuous politeness. But no one came to see me and day after 
day passed, until, on January fifteenth, I was suddenly taken 
from the jail late at night and sent, in an automobile guarded 
by three gendarmes, td the embarkation wharf for the Island of 

There I was placed in a solitary cell to await the convict ship. 
For eight months I stayed on the Island of Re, while prisoners 
were collected from various parts of the French empire. Then, 
on September 20th, the Guiana prison guards marched into 
the fortress to escort the condemned to the anchored vessel. 
"Well, Belbenoit!" a big Corsican said when he came to my 


Dry Guillotine 

cell door to take me from the jailer, "A round-trip ticket, eh? 
We've been talking about you I " 

He shoved me along the alleyway with his bayonet, only 
taking it from my back when we came put into the open court- 
yard and I took my place with the other men. Down the wharf, 
across the intervening water, up the gangplank of the; convict 
ship they marched us. To me it was an old, dim story. A voyage 
to Hell, to be sure, but I had already made that trip. The cages 
in the filthy hold were familiar. I had already suffered in them. I 
was better off than the men who were shoved for the first time 
like frightened rats through the narrow grill. 

We stopped six times during the fifteen days to drop corpses 
overboard with a mock funeral. On October 7th we anchored 
in the mouth of the Maroni River to await high tide. The men 
in the cage with me strained to get their heads to the portholes 
to look at the moonlit jungle, but I sat far back. That jungle 
was something I had gazed at many a time and much too long. 
My mind was ablaze with anger — an anger so intense that 
it was silent and inactive. Nowhere on French soil had I found 
any justice save from one lone man — and he had gone to the 
other side of the world. Tomorrow I would step ashore and be 
under the heel of the Guiana Penal Administration again! Gov- 
ernor Siadous could do nothing for me. Nobody could do any- 
thing for me — except myself. 

All night long I did not sleep. The mosquitoes from shore 
came out and tormented the prisoners, but my thoughts tor- 
mented me so much more that I didn't notice the physical pain. 
At dawn we were landed on the wharf of Saint Laurent. I had 
but one thought in my head. It pulsed as though it were an 
animated heart deep in my brain. No matter what was in store 
for me, I would bide my time. Now I had no more promises to 
keep. Now I was a man at bay. I'd promise nothing to anyone. 
Fd await my time — and I would escape. 


Dry Guillotine 

I k was singled out by a corporal of the blockhouse guards, 
jtaken from the other seven hundred convicts and locked up in 
a solitary cell. 

Thus went my year of freedom. Now again I was just an- 
other man in the battalion of the condemned. I had tried very 
hard to orient myself, to work, to behave, to break no law, no 
rule. I had lived frugally. I had won, from the Americans in 
the Canal Zone, an excellent behavior certificate. ' Work . . # 
Excellent. Deportment . . . Excellent,". the pay-off card stated. 
But I had gone to France to seek justice, an extension of my pass- 
port and perhaps a pardon; that was my real mistake. I should 
have; stayed in Panama. I would have stayed — had I not prom- 
ised Governor Siadous that I would honor his parole and report 
to the French authorities before the year he had granted me was 
up. All right! I had kept my word. Now let the prison authori- 
ties do what they wanted to. I owed nobody anything now;. I'd 
take whatever punishment they gave me and, as soon as I be- 
came a libere again, I'd escape. 

I was sent to Royale. The island had not changed a bit in 
four years. But the guards were meaner and the men fought 
bade at them more madly than ever before. But I managed to 
hold my peace week after week. One month passed, then two, 
then three, then four. The cell in which I paced all day long, 
and sometimes for many hours in the dark night, was like a 
living tomb. Food was shoved through a hole to me. I had no 
money to buy cigarettes from the guards. They completely ig- 
nored me. I walked back and forth, back and forth. I jumped 
up, gripped the overhead bars and chinned myself — to keepi 
the muscles in my arms alive. Day after day I fought there alone 
just to keep from rotting, rotting in mind and body. Five 
months, six months, and in long-drawn-out loneliness finally 
a year closed in back of me. September, 1934, passed — I mark- 
ed each day with my fingernail on the wall — and then on No- 


Dry Guillotine 

vember 3rd, three years after I had been taken from the ship at 
Havre, a key turned in the lock of the rusty door, the door open- 
ed and a guard handed me a paper. My eyes were dimmed by 
so much twilight and I had to squint to read the document. It 
said that, having served three years for entering France while a 
libere I was now, again, a libere. I could go to the mainland of 
Guiana, and take up where I left off — a free convict! 

A free convict! I burst out laughing. Free to live like a home- 
less, mongrel dog. Free to live in the jungles around Cayenne 
or Saint Laurent like a monkey, but prohibited from making a 
living in the town. Free to live -^- but nothing to live with, or 
on. Free to be a prisoner for life, in Guiana! But the poor dumb 
guard thought I was laughing only because I was so happy to 
be liberated from my solitary cell! He escorted me down to the 
wharf. The little coastal steamer was there, but the sunlight 
;was so bright that I could hardly open my eyes. I stumbled 
over the rough dock and climbed on board. 

I had stayed alive. That was the song that sang in my mind, 
as the little boat ploughed through the coastal waves toward 
Saint Laurent. I had stayed alive. I had continued to exist, not 
died, not gone stark raving crazy. I felt my body. None of it was 
numb. I was as thin as a skeleton, but my body was all there. 
No part of me was gangrened, no part paralyzed from confine- 
ment. I thanked God that I had had the strength of mind to 
inake myself walk back and forth each day, to exercise in the 
darkness, just to keep my body in working condition. It had, 
yerily, been a battle of mind over matter — and it seemed that 
I had won. 

The guards all saluted me, as I walked off the wharf at Saint 
Laurent, with wty faces and cat-calls. It was evident that all 
through the colony word had passed that, having been be- 
friended by the old Governor, I was to be — I had been, and 
jvas to be at every opportunity — tormented. Yes, that was 


Dry Guillotine 

evident. I was now a libere, — a libere marked out for special 
meannesses, I no longer had to stay behind bars. I could forage 
for myself. I could eat garbage or whatever other food I could ob- 
tain. I could sleep in the jungle, like hundreds of other Liberes. 
I could die, the sooner the better. No guard missed a chance to 
snicker at me. 

I hunted up a libere I had known four years before, miracu- 
lously found him still alive. Friends in France had sent him a 
few francs a month. He had a small grass hut and offered to 
share it with me. 

"You're in wrong with the administration, Belbenoit," he said. 
"They say you made it possible for Governor Siadous to close 
down their profitable grafts. The penal authorities have it in for 
you! They'll take it out on me when they find I've befriended 
you. But to hell with them. I won't be alive much longer for 
the beasts to play with! " 

"Eat!" he exclaimed setting down a gourd bowl of coconut 
meat boiled with rice and sugar cane in front of me. 

Let me repeat once more what it means to be a libere in 
French Guiana. It means that you have served your time. You 
have stayed in the prisons for the sentence that was imposed 
upon you. You have served three years, five years, or ten years 
in the Camp of Death, or in the Crimson Barrack, or in the dark 
cells, and now, still alive, you are free. Free, but free only to stay 
in Guiana. Not free to go where you want, to take up human 
life again, to see your friends, to start all over again to build 
something from the wreckage. Not free to pull yourself up out 
of the mud and disgrace and begin a new life. Free only of the 
cells, of the punishment camps, of the vile barracks. Free to live 
in Guiana — . where there is no means of living! 

A man can't climb through the trees, like the sloths do, and 
live on leaves. He can't fly over the jungle, as the parrots do, 
and live on nuts. He can't swim in the muddy rivers, as the 


Dry Guillotine 

fish do, and live on weeds and molluscs. He has no fur or feath- 
ers; he must have clothes. 

A man needs work to do, a job to accomplish each day, a 
task of some sort which repays him with cash. With cash he 
lives. But in the whole of Guiana there is no way for a libere to 
earn honest cash. He cannot get a job sweeping the streets, for 
that is done by convicts. It costs nothing. He cannot get a job 
sweeping out private homes, for that is also done by convicts 
rented out by grafting guards for practically nothing. He can- 
not even get a job cleaning up the garbage, for that job must 
be bought from the administration. There is only one honest 
chance for a libere who has no friends to keep him in funds. 
He can catch butterflies and sell the wings to the officials at a 
bargain, or he can make various objects by hand and sell them at 
minute prices. Both butterflies and these hand-made articles 
fetch high prices in France and in the West Indian tourist 
hotels — but the libere doesn't get more than ten per cent of 
their price. 

I caught butterflies, I made odds and ends and toys out of 
rubber which I collected in the forest. I managed to have a par- 
rot to roast for Christmas — shot with a bow and arrow. I cele- 
brated New Year's Eve over a boiled armadillo, dug out of its 
hole with a broken pickaxe which I had salvaged from an old 
dump. I celebrated Easter with a stew made from boiling the 
cores of palms and adding lizards. I bought a package of the 
cheapest cigarettes, tore them up and made three new cigarettes 
out of each original wad of tobacco. I hauled water out of the 
river. Unlike most liberes I boiled it before drinking. I picked 
ticks out of my body, worms out of my toes. I had no teeth 
left but that did not bother me, for I had nothing that needed 

Other liberes fared a little better. At night they crept into 
the town and stole things. But I did not want to steal anything. 


Dry Guillotine 

I tried to use my wits, to concoct things out o£ the jungle, but 
the jungle does not give to man — man has to take whatever 
he can, with expensive tools and organization. I searched my 
mind for some way to get together enough money to finance an- 
other escape, but I had nothing to grab hold of. I was like a man 
summing in a turbulent, sucking whirlpool, searching the 
water for a rock to catch hold of, or a floating log. But nothing 
came my way. Several times I thought that I would walk up to 
some penal official in broad daylight and hit him in the face. 
That would bring about my arrest. That would cause me to be 
sentenced to another six months or a year in the barrack or cells, 
where the authorities would have to feed me and give me prison 

Money! Money was what I needed, needed more than any 
man ever needed it before — to buy an escape from a living 
Hell. A hundred francs would buy an old Indian canoe. Fifty 
francs would buy food for a fortnight at sea. Another fifty francs 
would buy the material to patch together a makeshift sail. Sud- 
denly I made up my mind that I'd go and visit an aged liber e 
whom the years had made so wily he was almost like a human 
fox. He had a small canoe. On dark nights he paddled across 
the Maroni River to the Dutch bank and smuggled back things, 
free of duty, for the penal guards. Often he brought packages 
of cocaine, sometimes a new girl, a young mulatto, for the 
bachelors of the administration. 

Yes, drive a man into the deep corner of despair, and he may 
do anything! 



I LIMPED down the hot roadway along the outskirts o£ Saint 
Laurent, the village of the condemned, thinking that I would 
have to do something quickly to get funds to finance an escape 
before I went crazy. To escape through the jungle, I had learned 
by three terrible experiences, was impossible. To escape by sea 
required the assistance of seamen partners. I would have to 
obtain a boat. I would have to seek companions who, like my- 
self, preferred death at sea to life in Cayenne ■ — ■ men whom I 
could trust not to whisper my plan to any Corsican guard. To 
escape by sea required, in addition to a good boat and good 
companions, a substantial amount of food and supplies. It 
would require at least ten days of favorable weather and wind 
before we could reach a safe landing place?. These three require- 
ments seemed impossible to satisfy. 

A man in freshly washed and ironed linens and a white sun 
helmet, which marked him immediately as being some sort of 
a tourist, stopping for a moment or passing through the penal 
colony, crossed the sunbaked roadway and beckoned to me. 

* 'Where can I find a prisoner who speaks English?" he asked 
in schoolboy French. 

"I speak a little English," I said. Perhaps this stranger would 
give me a tip for some chore. 

"I want to find a prisoner named Belbenoit," he said in Eng- 
lish. "The man about whom Blair Niles wrote her book, Con- 
demned. I want to talk to him. Guide me to him, or bring him 
to me and I will give you 'five dollars! 

I looked around hastily. No guard was in sight. "Give me 
the money/' I said. He peeled a bill from a fat bundle of big 
notes and handed it to me. * Which way?" he asked. 

"Right here!" I said laughing for the first time in years* "I 
am Belbenoit!" 


Dry Guillotine 

"You!" he asked looking down at me disparagingly. "Are 
you the prisoner who has escaped four times ?" 

"Who are you?" I asked. 
He seemed a little taken back, but finally announced that 
he was an executive of an American motion picture company. 
His company, he explained, was going to make a motion pic- 
ture based on Blair Niles' book — a film story about Devil's 
Island — one that would feature a dramatic escape. He had 
flown down to French Guiana to study the convict colony at first 
hand. He wanted the picture to be accurate, he said, a true-to- 
life portrayal of a man's sufferings in the worst prison in the 
;world. Would I be interested in giving him information, sup- 
plying him with additional factual material which could be 
used in his forthcoming picture? If a prisoner tried to escape, 
how would he do it? 

"He'd escape by the sea — in a sailing boat," I said, voicing 
the thought which had been racing through my head for many 
long days. "He'd . . ." 

"No," he interrupted me. "This must be an escape through 
the jungles . . . combat with fierce animals, snakes, swamps. ..." 

"Nobody has ever escaped through the jungles!" I insisted. 
"I tried it three times. I ought to know! " 

"Maybe so!" he said. "But it makes a better picture. In our 
picture the hero has to escape through the jungle. I've heard 
that you've had more dramatic escapes than any other convict," 
he added. "If you answer all my questions I'll make it worth 
your while!" 

Well, Fate for the first time in my life was offering me a 
helping hand. It was not for me to quibble over a motion pic- 
ture hero's ability to escape through the jungle! I spent the 
whole night sitting at a table answering his questions, making 
rough drawings of prison cells, punishment racks, describing 
in detail my three attempts to escape through the jungle, giv- 



\ - '- .' ' 

What every prisoner things of 

Dry Guillotine 

ing him details of horrible backgrounds, answering every ques- 
tion while he took a bookful of notes. By dawn he said that 
he had enough. He peeled sortie bills from his money roll and 
handed them, to me. The aeroplane in which he had arrived 
soon was but a speck in the Caribbean sky. I would have given 
my soul to have been so free as he — privileged to soar through 
the heavens to pleasant lands. A lump was in my throat as I 
realized how casually this man had landed, asked questions, 
and flown away •■ — » as though he hadn't a moment's thought 
to waste on me as a brother man. To him I was but an informa- 
tion bureau, something he could pump dry, transmit profitably 
into continuity and impersonal celluloid. 

But in my hands he had left two hundred dollars! With so 
much money — I knew; a Chinaman who would get me a boat 
and package together food — and with such an outfit I knew I 
could find other penniless liberes yvho would join me. I made 
up my mind that this time I must not fail. There was to be no 
recapture. I must make my way first to temporary freedom, 
some West Indian island that would give us temporary sanc- 
tuary, and then to the United States. Thousands of miles lay. 
between French Guiana and New York, but with each mile 
gained I felt that I should escape that much farther from in- 
human, atrocious existence and should gain that much toward 
civilization « — - and Liberty. The people of the United States, 
Td heard, would not deport a libere who had gained its shores 
. — from Devil's Island. 

"This time I'll make it! " I whispered over and over again to 
myself as I set about organizing my expedition. 

I searched through the penal colony like a hawk * — • for men 
whose plight was most terrible, for companions I thought 
would be of greatest physical aid for my escape. At last I 
selected four convicts;] Dadar, a young libere whom I had 
known f&r a year, jyhp had served a five-year sentence for a 


Dry Guillotine 

first offense robbery; Casquette, who had served fifteen years 
for killing his mistress; Bebert, who had struck a cruel Corsi- 
can guard in the face and nearly had his head blown off by a 
blast from the guard's gun — after release from the hospital 
he had served an additional four years of solitary confinement; 
and ' Panama," a convict whose name none of us knew, but who 
had once escaped and lived happily for twelve years in Colombia 
only to be apprehended at last by a new French consul and 
returned for Devil's Island punishment. Four men who prom- 
ised me that they preferred freedom or death. 

But none of us had any knowledge of navigation. None of 
us were seamen. So I looked farther and finally selected Chif- 
flot, who had been sentenced to five years at hard labor for 
killing, in self-defense, the son of a powerful negro chief of a 
Congo protectorate tribe, who, subjected to the influences of 
modern civilization, had become a procurer of white women in 
Montmartre. ChifHot had been a sailor. If I furnished the boat 
and food, all he'd need, he promised, was the sun and the stars 
to guide us to safety over the horizon of the Caribbean Sea. 

"We are going to Trinidad first," I said. The people of that 
British island I knew: loathed the existence of the French Hell, 
and would allow escaped men a safe resting place. 

At six o'clock on the night of May 2,1935, we six men met 
stealthily at a Chinaman's shop in the penal colony village of 
Saint Laurent. The night grew black. Noiselessly we glided 
into the forest and made our way to Serpent Creek. The boat 
which the Chinaman had promised to hide for us proved to 
be only half the size of the craft bargained for — a dugout 
canoe barely three feet wide. In disgust I examined the packages 
of provisions, found them to be less than half of the things 
agreed upon before I had passed my cash to him. I had a ter- 
rible sinking feeling as though my escape had failed before 
it had begun. My companions talked about postponing the 


Dry Guillotine 

attempt. Even a little shark, they said, could overturn such a 
craft — we would all die at sea. 

But something told me not to let myself turn back. I got 
into the canoe, urged them to take their places — and soon 
we were out of the creek and paddling noiselessly down the 
center of the night-shrouded Maroni River. The tide was with 
us, and we moved swiftly. Now and then we passed a canoe 
manned by t wild blacks or Indians. They called to us but we did 
not answer. The; Chinaman had supplied us with a water keg, 
but to make sure? the water hadn't been poisoned we stopped 
at a fresh water creek and filled it with water that I knew would 
be safe. 

At the mouth of the Maroni we hoisted our patchwork sail. 
Chifflot took the home-made tiller. The long slender canoe 
began to dance upon the water, like an eighteen-foot cigar. 
Chifflot pointed out a star ;which he said would guide us due 
north. Waves began coming over the side of the canoe. Two 
men sat close to Chifflot, to keep him company at the tiller — 
and to make sure he didn't fall asleep. Others began bailing. 

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. The night 
passed all too quickly as we looked over our shoulders con- 
stantly to make sure that a power boat was not coming out into 
the night after us. When the dawn came we were far out at 
sea, and there was nothing save a querulous gull to spy on us. 

We complimented Chifflot, and Casquette took his place at 
the tiller. I volunteered to be the expedition's cook. Charcoal 
was lighted in a kerosene tin, and strong tea soon revived us. 
The Chinaman had cheated me thoroughly on the food supply 
— I would have to stretch it out very thin during the coming 
days. But no one, during the first day, grumbled, ]We all 


Dry Guillotine 

talked with nervous gaiety — we were, at last, free of French 
Guiana! The fiery red of the setting sun made us work carefully 
to tie down all our supplies, Chifflot warned us that following 
such a sunset we could expect rough weather. 

At eight o'clock the wind began to blow, helping us forward 
as it- came from the continent behind us. The stars disappeared. 
I crept to the stern and sat beside Chifflot, with a little compass 
in my hand. The canoe went faster and faster over the; waves. 
I judged that we must be racing over the sea at about 1 5 miles 
an hour. The other men became frightened as waves wet us — 
but to me every mile we gained ahead of the growing storm took 
us that much nearer freedom. Casquette was supposed to relieve 
Chifflot at the tiller, but to do this would have been too danger- 
ous. We were precariously riding foaming waves — the least 
false move with the tiller would have caused us to capsize. 
Chifflot sang songs all night, his voice rising louder and louder in 
competition with wind. Then, shortly before dawn the wind 
miraculously died down, the brassy sun rose over the horizon 
— and we set about removing our clothes and hanging them 
up on paddles to dry. 

We had to repair the sail. A ! mattress cover and several old 
shirts had been used to make it. The cloth was so old that many 
of the patches had been torn apart. Not a sign of a ship was 
seen all day. The sun and glare of the sea burnt our flesh. The 
wounds on our legs, inflicted first by the iron bands that were 
welded about our bare ankles during our early prison days, and 
aggravated by constant rubbing of our shackles, began to open 
and run — and burn under die intermittent soaking of salt 

The third night found us not such good friends. Each of the 
six men, cramped for fifty long hours against his neighbor, had 
first talked himself out of joviality — and then everyone began 
to find fault with something or someone. Chifflot's hands were 


Dry Guillotine 

so blistered with holding on to the tiller that Casquette had to 
relieve him. Clinging desperately to the tiller in the darkness, 
and on a sea more turbulent than it had been the previous night, 
Casquette had all he could do to keep us from being swamped 
in the deep sea troughs. We did not attempt to keep a course. 
The sea washed the compass from: my hands in one mighty 
wave, and not a single star was to be seen. 

When dawn came at last we were drenched, stiff, hungty, 
thirsty, and sick at heart. I dipped some water out of the water 
keg — and discovered that the sea water had got in and turned 
it salty. I inixed it with condensed milk and passed it around 
to my companions, they said it tasted terrible. 

"We'd better turn and tty to reach the mainland!" said 
Berbert. * We'll get fresh drinking water and put out again." 

"We are probably off Demarara," Dadar guessed. "That's less 
than half ,way to Trinidad. I'd rather take a chance on the jungle 
— there's at least plenty of water to drink ! " 

"We've only been gone three days!" I said, "and you speak 
already of turning in toward the coast. I told you when ;we 
started that I would not turn back. If we reach Trinidad we are 
safe. If we land anywhere on the mainland coast we will be 
turned over to a French consul. I know! I've tried it!" Thus 
jve quarrelled all day long. 

The fourth night was increasingly cruel. The fifth, sixth, 
seventh, eighth nights were nightmares, we became like six 
Jbeasts. Eight more days we lived — how I do not know. Many 
jtimes I thought the canoe would be buried in a black wave but, 
as jthough some; kind power lent it at the last moment a charm, 
the frail craft magically came up over the foaming crests, 
quivered for a moment and then plunged into another wave. 

"Trinidad! Bah!" Dadar growled. "We'll never make it! 
And if we do — what surety have you, Belbenoit, that we 


Dry Guillotine 

won't be arrested? There's a French Consul in Trinidad, isn't 

"Yes, but the British people, I believe, won't turn us over 
to him," I insisted. "They'll allow us to rest a few days, re- 
plenish our food; those Britishers -*- they're sportsmen. They'll 
grant us a few days' refuge! Stop worrying and I'll show you! " 
I was at the tiller, and kept the bow pointed steadily northwest. 

"Bah!" Berbert in the bow of the canoe snarled. "Change 
the course! I've had enough of this. I'm going to land on the 
coast and take my chance — - with my feet on the ground!" 

"Stop!" I yelled at Dadar who began crawling toward the 
sheet of the sail. I reached into my shirt and drew out a small 
pistol which I carried next to my skin, wrapped in oil cloth. 
I aimed the pistol at Berbert and then at Dadar. I am a very 
little man. I should have been no match for any of my com- 
panions in physical strength. But I had made up my mind to 
turn neither to the right nor left — but keep heading toward 
the British island of real security. The five big men glowered 
at me but even a mouse can become brave when his freedom 
is at stake. 

"Rush me if you like," I said, looking over the muzzle at my 
companions. "Here are six bullets «— and I will kill each one 
of you if you insist! " 



I DID not want to kill my five companions. As I looked at 
them over the barrel of my stubby pistol 1 realized that, like 
myself, they had swallowed much salt water from the angry 
sea; that they were hungry, and scared of the shark-infested 
.water. Their insistence on my shifting the tiller, altering our 
course, and heading in for land was bom of desperation and not 
of personal animosity. y 

"You are mad!" I said to them. "The coast is Venezuelan 
territory. You will surely be arrested and returned to Devil's 
Island. We cannot be far from Trinidad. There we'll be safe. 
I promise you, in Trinidad we will be safe to rest, eat good food, 
revive our strength, before taking to the sea again." 

"Put the sail over!" Berbert shouted to Chifflot. I aimed my 
pistol at Chifflot, but at the same instant Dadar jumped up, 
tried to spring past him and snatch my gun. Before I could 
fire Dadar had slipped and fallen against Chifflot, and both 
of them tumbled against the half-submerged gunwale. 

"Beasts!" yelled Casquette. "You're going to capsize us all!" 
He seized Dadar by the ankle, hit him behind the ear with 
his bony fist. 

"Better tie him up!" Panama cautioned, throwing Casquette 
some wet cord. The unconscious man was securely tied, hands 
and feet together so he couldn't move. Then Casquette put 
his hand to his forehead and looked over the horizon. 

"Look over there!" he yelled. "It's land!" 
The others stood up and looked, but I, thinking it was a 
trick to get me away from the tiller and off my guard, didn't 

"It's Trinidad!" shouted Chifflot. "Come, Belbenok, and 
see for yourself!" The sail obscured my vision of the horizon 
to which they pointed. Cautiously I tried to get a clear view 

2 97 

Dry Guillotine 

without risking a sudden onslaught. I turned the tiller sharply 
to swing the bow over a big wave, and as we crested the foam- 
ing whitecap I saw that they ;were not trying to outwit me. 
There, against the horizon, ;yvere high, green mountains put- 
lined against the blue sky. 

The sight of those mountains wiped out all animosity, all evil 
talk, all quarrelling, from our minds and voices. We all shouted 
joyously, smiles replaced anger-drawn scowls. I pulled the tiller 
back and set the course again. The wind grew stronger behind 
us. We had been at sea fourteen days in a canoe that needed 
constant bailing, but now each of my companions except Dadar 
bailed happily as the sail bulged under the pressure of the 

A few hours later we were riding the swells off shore. A 
thatched house set in a grove of coconut palms seemed deserted. 
I turned the tiller and steered the bow through the waves until 
the canoe, like a surf board, was shot up on the glistening white 
beach. My companions tried to leap ashore eagerly, but they 
;were so weak that they stumbled and fell sprawled out on the 
dry sand like men suddenly robbed of all strength. 

"Now do as you please!" I said. And I cast my pistol far put 
into the sea. 

Some negroes, fishing along the beach with nets, passed us, 
circling us warily; but I called to them, begged them to climb 
the trees and get us some water coconuts to drink and eat. 
They put down their nets, climbed the trees, and secured the 
nuts. But they would not approach nearer than fifty feet. They 
tolled the nuts down the beach to us and then went off hurriedly. 

I hacked off the tops of five nuts, passed one to each of my 
Companions. I cut the cords that bound Dadar and lifted him 
out of the slimy canoe, held the cool sweet liquid to his mouth as 
he drank. We draqk the water of two nuts apiece, ate the white 
meat, then started to wobble across the sand like drunken scare- 


Dry Guillotine 

crows. The earth seemed to dance under my feet — to ebb and 
flow as the sea for such long terrible nights and days had done. 
In the hut there was a big black kettle full of rice and salt fish. 
We dug our hands into it and ate like wolves until, stuffed and 
drugged ;with relief, we rolled oyer on the floor of the hut and 
fell into a drunken sleep. 

When we awoke I suggested that we go immediately to the 
nearest town and announce our arrival. At first my companions 
didn't like the idea at all. They insisted that we'd probably be 
arrested. It would be better, they said, to spend a few days 
here, eating coconuts and foraging for other food and supplies 
;without the authorities knowing about us. But I insisted that 
this ;would not be as good for us as going to the authorities 
immediately •■ — > before they had heard indirectly of our arrival. 

"I'm going to report myself!" I said, starting into the coco- 
nut grove — "You can stay here if you like." But they fell in 
behind me and soon we were walking over a narrow road. We 
saw; no one but negroes — very black and big negroes speaking 
English in broad accents, who looked, suspiciously at us with 
big eycs^ and gave us most of the road when they passed. 
After two hours we reached the little hamlet of Moruga, which, 
I learned, was the administrative center for the southeast coast 
of Trinidad. 

I went directly to the police station. The constable of Moruga 
sat behind an old table. He was a tremendous negro with the 
face and neck of an ape. He was dressed in a military uniform 
spotlessly clean. We stood before him while he summoned two 
policemen who towered over us like ebony giants. 

"Where do you come from ? " 

"From French Guiana," I said. 

"Where are you going?" 

"To the United States." 

"For ;what reason have you landed in Trinidad.?" he asked 

2 99. 

Dry Guillotine 

as soon as he had laboriously penciled the: previous informa- 
tion on his blotter. 

"Because we have been at sea in a canoe for fourteen days. 
We were half-drowned. We had no fresh water. No food." 

The constable stood up, went to the telephone nailed on the 
wall above our heads, turned the handle. "Six French fugitives 
landed here last night," he said. He listened to instructions 
from some superior, then hung up the earpiece. 

"Get eighteen loaves of bread," he said to his policeman. "Get 
six pounds of rice, six pounds of sugar, six pounds of coffee, 
six pounds of codfish, twelve packages of cigarettes.' * He made 
out an order of some kind and signed it with a rubber stamp. 
"Give this to the storekeeper," he ordered, and when the two 
policemen had left he turned to us and began reading from a 

"Hear ye the law of Trinidad and be guided accordingly!" 
he said. "No French convict escaping from Devil's Island and 
reaching the shore of Trinidad will be arrested by any author- 
ity — unless after landing on Trinidad he breaks a law, regula- 
tion, or disturbs the peace. If the fugitive arrives by a boat which 
is still seaworthy he will be given food and allowed to embark 
again. If the boat is not seaworthy he will be given transporta- 
tion to Port of Spain, accompanied by a police officer who will 
escort him directly to the Controller of the Port. Is your boat 
seaworthy?" he asked. 

"No ! " I almost shouted. 

"I will have to inspect it and make sure," the Constable said. 
When the food had arrived he took us down the road in an old 
car, then we walked down the path to the sea. He looked at 
the canoe. 

"Would you like to go to sea in a thing like that?" I asked. 
"Look, the hull is already splitting open!" 

The giant Negro scratched his head, looked for a few 


Dry Guillotine 

moments out over the wave-chopped sea and then shook his 
head. 'Til take you to Port of Spain!" he said. 

Back at the police station he gave us each a bottle of beer. 
A Negro woman prepared a meal for us — rice and baked 
plantains, fresh fish, steaming coffee, preserved mangoes, salt 
beef. She would accept no payment. 

We drove during the afternoon through the island, passing 
a constant stream of Negroes and donkeys, until we reached 
Port of Spain. Here we were taken to the military prison. Our 
things were searched, our names taken, and we were locked up 
in one of the guard rooms. 

"This is to notify you," said the sergeant in charge, "that you 
are not under arrest. But you must stay here — where the 
French Consul can't get you — until the Controller looks into 
your case." A large meal was served to us in the guard room 
and after eating it we fell asleep, and slept soundly until nine 
o'clock next morning. 

Shortly after ten o'clock a man in civilian clothes was 
admitted to the guard room. 

I nicknamed this man, after a short while, "My Friend." 

"Where are you going, my friend. . . . What can we do for 
you, my friend. ... I will see what I can do for you, my friend," 
he said, asking endless questions all of which I answered 

"Follow me, my friend," he said at last, knocking on the door. 
It was opened immediately. He led us out of the military prison, 
walked with us down the street until we came to a place where 
a sign with "Salvation Army" painted on it hung over the 
sidewalk. We apparently had been expected, because a dining- 
room table had been set with six plates. A Captain Heap and his 
wife introduced themselves to us. Mrs. Heap, in spite of our 
insistence that she should not do so, began waiting on us, serv- 
ing us ;with better food than we had tasted in many cruel years. 


Dry Guillotine 

Neither Casquette nor Bebert had eaten at a table for fifteen 
years, and all of us, accustomed to being treated like beasts, had 
tears in our eyes. 

* This is where you will stay, my friend/ ' said the plain clothes 
officer. * 'I will return to talk with you tomorrow, my friend," 
he added as he took his departure. Captain Heap told us that 
he was an intelligence officer assigned to the special supervision 
of administering to the needs and fate of fugitives from Devil's 
Island. Before 1 93 1 , he said, fugitives were not allowed free- 
dom on Trinidad. Up to that time Venezuela welcomed escaped 
prisoners, and let them live in freedom. But now Venezuela had 
passed a law; ordering the arrest and imprisonment — at hard 
labor — of all French Guiana fugitives, and Trinidad and its 
people, who had continually criticized the existence of the 
French penal colony and the methods used there, had passed a 
law under which French Guiana fugitives would be given a 
twenty-four day permission to reside, and a rneans of continuing 
their flight to some other country . 

We lived in the Salvation Army's depot, now, without a 
care in the world for our present safety, free to come and go as 
;we pleased, to visit the cinemas or any other place which we 
desired. Several people visited the depot and left food, cigar- 
ettes, and clothing for us. But after the first day of excitedly 
sampling our freedom, yve went to work writing letters to 
friends and acquaintances — . seeking funds for buying passages 
on a friendly steamer to another port. Panama wrote to a friend 
in Colombia; Dadar, Bebert and Casquette hadn't any friends 
and expected nothing. 

ChifHot, I discovered, had 2|.,ooo francs in a suppository! 
He said he ^vpuld buy a passage on a German ship and go to 
Europe to see his mother before she died. But to do that he 
needed a passport. iWe went to the Spanish quarter to see if 
we could get one. As usual in such matters, it proved to be| 


Dry Guillotine 

simply a matter of price. A Venezuelan barber gave us the 
address of a former Venezuelan General, now in exile from his 
own country, but apparently still having some friends across 
the Gulf. The General had his headquarters over a drug store. 
He told us to come back in three days. 

In three days Chifflot had a Venezuelan passport jvith all 
the necessary yisas; he was now a Venezuelan citizen named 

"My mother will be glad to see me — no matter what name I 
arrive under I" he said. "Better a live Venezuelan than a dead 

A ;week after our arrival he boarded a ship for Hamburg. I 
saw him off at the pier, hoping that I too would receive some 
money — » from my cables and airmailed letters — and be able 
to embark like a human being and not a slinking beast. 

I went to the bank every day. "Nothing, sorty!" said the 
teller each time. My companions begged me to stay jvith them 
and with them seek a better boat in which to continue our 
flight. I waited until June 6th and then went to the office of 
the Inspector General of Police. "My Friend," to whom I had 
talked, made the appointment and accompanied me. 

The Inspector General, an elderly British Army Officer, 
;who spoke beautiful French, talked with me for half an hour. 

"Two things about the French I cannot understand — or 
stomach!" he said with a twist of his mustache. "One is their 
French Foreign Legion ■ — » and the other is Devil's Island l" 

Then he asked me to wait in an antechamber while he talked 
with "My Friend." When he came out I stood stiffly at 

"We are going to give you a boat. Go through the harbor 
and see if you can find a boat, such as you will need, for sale." 
Then turning to "My Friend" he said: "There ought to be 
some fisherman's boat that would serve admirably." 


Dry Guillotine" 

At eleven o'clock the next day we had a boat. Casquette had 
spied it a few feet off the dock where several police launches 
were tied. It was a life-boat, rigged with a mast and sail. "With" 
such a boat," Casquette laughed happily, ";we can go to 

A naval officer inspected the boat with us. He authorized its 
purchase by the government from its owner, then ordered a 
government carpenter to be put at our disposal. 

' 'Tell the carpenter what you want done with the boat and he 
will do it," he said. Then he asked me to make a list of materials 
and supplies which would be needed for the trip. A policeman 
would buy them for us from the wharf-front stores. 

On a dining-room table at the Salvation Army depot I spread 
out a marine chart which a man had given us. 

"We must not let ourselves be swept on a beach in either 
Venezuela or Colombia," I said. "We can reach the United 
States by skirting the West Indies, putting in now and then 
on a British island for rest and supplies, and continuing through 
the Caribbean until we reach Miami." 

I picked out the islands on the chart — Tobago, i oo miles 
north of Trinidad, then Grenada, seventy-five miles farther, 
then Saint Vincent, then Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts. The Salva- 
tion Army Captain said that he would write the depots in these 
islands to be on the lookout for us - — to help us. 

"We'll have to keep clear of Martinique and Guadeloupe!" 
Casquette warned. "If we land in the French Islands we'll get 
a quick ticket back to Devil's Island." 

"Puerto Rico is Americah!" I said. "Nothing to fear there. 
Haiti will be safe. Cuba we'd better skirt until, off Havana, 
we head north for Key West. All the journey," I said, "will 
be in frequent sight of land. When we lose sight of one island 
another will appear ahead of us! It's not top bad a road to 


Dry Guillotine 

In two days the boat was ready for sea. The bow had been 
decked over, the gunwales raised on both sides. Captain Heap 
had brought provisions. Compass, cookstove, charcoal, pots, 
hurricane lamp, had been donated by other well-wishers. We 
asked the Inspector General for a document stating that the boat 
and equipment had been given us, that it was ours and that 
;we had not stolen it. The Inspector replied that he couldn't 
issue such a document. 

"Many of you fugitives whom we help end up in Venezuela 
and we have received so many notes from Venezuela and Col- 
ombia, accusing us of aiding illegal entry into their countries, 
that we have to stop issuing papers of any kind. But the boat 
is yours — - and good luck!" 

On June i oth, a British navy launch towed us out to sea. 
"Don't be afraid to steer for the east," the pilot said. "There 
are veiy strong currents. Pass to the east of the Antillas!" 

He towed us for more than an hour, got us safely through 
the turbulent water of the Dragon's Mouth, took us ten miles 
off shore and then let go the tow line. The sea was rough, but 
;we had a good boat. We hoisted the neW sail. 
"Due east! " I said to Casquette. 

He looked at his compass. "But if I steer east I'm going to 
throw the boat ashore ! " he; said. 

"Make it slightly north of east then," I suggested, "until 
we pass Trinidad." 

"North of east steering, in these currents, will land us in 
Colombia," growled Bebert. 

Casquette hesitated at the steering wheel. I looked at my 
four companions. Was the same thing going to happen, the 
same old controversy, anger, quarrelling going to descend 
upon us again? Hadn't we quarrelled enough during the ter- 
rible voyage from Devil's Island to Trinidad? I felt suddenly 
very angry. 


Dry Guillotine 

"Steer as I tell you to ^— . or put me ashore and leave me 
behind 1" I said. 




THE BRITISH people of Trinidad Island had been very kinH 
to us. For the first time in fifteen terrible years I was treated 
as a man — an unfortunate man, perhaps — but not an animal. 
The sturdy life-boat with a stout mast and strong sail rode the 
Caribbean waves easily. We were well stocked with food. No^ 
there ;were only five of us — Chifflot was on his way to Ger- 
many. Casquette, Panama, Dadar, Bebert: and I looked oyer 
our shoulders at the island that had given us sanctuary. 

Ahead of us lay Grenada, Saint Vincent, Saint Lucia, Saint 
Kitts and the other islands of the British West Indies — step- 
ping-stones to freedom, as we headed northward for Miami. 
I'd have to watch only the winds and currents — and steer 
clear of Martinique and Guadeloupe, the French Islands. 

The breeze from Trinidad and the Venezuelan coast blew us 
northward, the miles between Trinidad and Tobago passing 
uneventfully. We had finally agreed among ourselves that I was 
to steer for Grenada and pass by Tobago. At Grenada we would 
secure new; supplies from the Salvation Army. 

As the sun set we were? at ease in the boat. Bebert and Cas- 
quette relieved me at the tiller. Under the stars I curled ufi 
on a wad of canvas and went to sleep. "Steer due northwest," 
I told them. "It's only seventy-five miles before you'll see 
Grenada's light." 

I slept the sleep of exhaustion. When I awoke, suddenly, four 
hours later the stars had disappeared, the sea around us was as 
black as ink. Here and there streaks of phosphorescent light 
cut the water and splashed green sparks oyer the sides of pur 
boat. Two giant sharks were encircling us. 

The sail hung listless, spasmodically flapped impotently this 
;way and that as changing winds played with us, I hastened to 
the tiller, but we lay on the sea aimlessly in spite of all my 


Dry Guillotine 

exertions. When the day dawned at last, we could see no island, 
no land anywhere. At dawn a wind began blowing over us; the 
sail puffed out. I consulted the compass and the map. I steered 
in the direction I thought Grenada would be. But at the end 
of that day we still had not seen land. 

The second night was windy, with a choppy sea. I did not 
sleep at all. At dawn there was still no sign of Grenada. 

"We've surely passed that island !" said Casquette. "We 
passed it during the night.' ' 

That might have happened, I agreed, but Saint Vincent 
should have loomed up on the horizon. All day long we searched 
for it but saw; no land. Another night passed, then another day. 
We seemed to be making good headway, before favoring winds, 
but mile after mile we searched the horizon and saw no island 
at all. Six days finally passed before we admitted we were lost 
upon a mystifying sea. 

"I'll keep her going due north anyway!" I said. "That's 
where Puerto Rico, Haiti and Cuba lie." But my companions 
complained. They thought we were too far east of the British 
islands, that if we continued north we'd run into the French 
islands and be captured. They insisted on my heading west. 
I did not know whether they or I were right. I shifted the tiller, 
reset the sail. A gale started to blow, but in the boat which the 
British authorities had given us I feared nothing. Six more days 
passed. Twelve days had come and gone, since leaving Trini- 
dad, without sight of land. 

Then at dawn Casquette suddenly cried, "A ship! There! 
a ship! " On the horizon smoke rose above the waves. Little by 
little a steamer was revealed. It was a tanker. I went to the bow 
and waved my pants. The ship changed her course and ap- 
proached us. At her stern waved the German flag. A Jacob's 
ladder was lowered and we drew alongside. I climbed to the 
deck and faced the captain. 

3 o8 

Dry Guillotine 

"Fugitives from Devil's Island, eh?" he said, rubbing his 
bearded chin. He took me to his chart room and showed me 
where we were — 200 miles directlv north of the Dutch Island 
of Curasao! 

"You'll never get to Miami from here!" the; captain told me. 
Our boat, without an engine, would never be able to navigate 
the Gulf Stream's current. He offered to take us on board, for 
Curasao, but I refused. My companions thought the Dutch 
on that island, like the Dutch in the colony next to French 
Guiana, would turn us over to a French consul for deportation. 
Back in the sailboat again — with an armful of food and 
many packages of tobacco — my companions decided to head 
yvest for Panama. If we could reach the American zone, they 
said, we'd be safe. Panama took the tiller; we were fighting 
strong currents, but the wind held all night and all the next 
day. Sixteen days after leaving Trinidad we saw land. The 
sea calmed and we approached the coast, a long barren stretch 
of sand, slowly, at first, and then with greater speed. Hastily 
we dropped the sail, but we were already being sucked into 
the rollers that were breaking over the shore. Before we could 
get out oars and try to pull away we were being carried with 
express-train speed through the surf. Five minutes later we lay 
bruised and water-soaked on the beach with our boat smashed 
and water-swamped fifteen yards from shore. We had worked 
furiously not only to save ourselves, but to rescue our remaining 
food and our knapsacks of personal effects. 

We built a fire on the beach and prepared dinner. Before we 
had time to eat it we saw that Indians were looking at us — 
wild-looking natives, naked and with big spears. They stuck 
their heads up over surrounding sand dunes. I called to them in 
Spanish, but they ducked back and disappeared. Half an hour 
later they returned with a savage assortment of spears, bows 
and arrows, and approached our camp fire. When only a few 


Dry Guillotine 

feet away they stopped and began talking to us. But none of 
us could understand a thing they said, and none of them could 
understand Spanish. 

Then they began inspecting our kits and the rescued sup- 
plies. We tried to stop them, but they became so menacing that 
I cautioned my companions to go easy. One of the savages got 
hold of an oilcloth package containing my Devil's Island 
journals, my papers which I had .written during fifteen years 
of imprisonment. I grabbed the package from him and opened 
it hastily to show him that it contained only papers; nothing 
;which would be of any use to him. An Indian at his side gave 
me a painful jab with a spear that caused blood to spurt from 
my thigh, but the other Indian handed me back the package of 
papers with a humorous grimace. I suppose to him it was a 
joke that a white man should lugg around such useless stuff. 

These savages took our blankets, lamp, all personal effects, 
the cans of food that remained and all our clothing. They were, 
I found out later, the Cactus Eaters, wild savages of the La 
Guajira coastal desert of Colombia — we had been wrecked on 
Gallinas Point. They giggled among themselves as they sud- 
denly turned and marched up the beach, soon disappearing 
behind the dunes. 

"A fine lot of brave men we are! " I said as soon as they were 
out of sight. 

"The devils!" Bebert exclaimed as soon as he caught his 
breath, from holding it so long in sheer fright, 'Til slit their 


"With whfltl" I asked him. "They took your knife away 
from you." 

Casquette; suddenly turned and ran into the surf, ploughed 
through the rollers and waves to the place where the ruined 
hull of our boat lay upside; down. He began diving under the 


Dry Guillotine 

water, disappearing for a long time. Then with one hand he 
swam ashore — and held up a machete. 

"I remembered that I stuck it in the boat ribs," he said 

So we five naked white men, with only a machete to protect 
us from whatever dangers we might walk into, started hurriedly 
over the hot sand. We discovered that the sand was a stretch 
of playa made by the currents, and now exposed by the Carib- 
bean low tide. In two hours we had reached the narrower beach 
that skirted a desolate shore. At night we made a fire, after work- 
ing for more than an hour rubbing two dried sticks. Any boy 
scout could have done it in a few seconds, but somehow we 
couldn't get the thing to work until all of us had blistered hands 
and aching arms and backs. 

We had nothing to eat all night, but at dawn Casquette 
threw his machete at a big lizard and cut its head off. He 
shared it with us — two mouthfuls for each. For a day and a 
half we had no water, crossed no rivers. We hunted for fresh 
water and at last found a stream and bathed in it to relieve the 
pain of many insect bites. Then the desert of sand dunes 
changed into jungle. 

"What'll we do if we do reach a town?" Dadar said. "We 
can't go into even an Indian village like this ! ' ' 

For four days we saw no human being, as we kept skirting 
the jungle shore. We caught some fish by spearing them with 
sharply pointed sticks. We ate frogs which we killed with 
pointed bamboo spears. In a large sea shell we carried coals 
along with us from which, whenever we wanted, we easily 
started a new fire. We were all covered with festering insect 
bites. Our feet, softened by being so long at sea, were cut and 
ycry sore. But happily we had not, as I feared, started to quarrel 
among ourselves. Naked, we kept together put of pure fright 
and anxiety. 



Dry Guillotine 

At sunset o£ the third day we came to a lone grass hut, in 
front of which some very old nets, much patched, were drying. 
The fisherman was away, but we saw a large; sea turtle and 
immediately began hacking it open with an ax which leaned 
against a corner of the hut. We cooked and ate chunks of fat 
meat and then climbed up into the rafters where we had seen 
a big tin canister. We opened the; canister, eagerly hoping to 
find pants or shirts. 

"Curses!" Panama exclaimed as he pulled some gaudy cloth 

"out of the box. "There's only dresses — for women !" We 

pulled the garments out — seven old Mother Hubbards made 

of cheap printed calico. There was not a single pair of pants, 

or a shirt. 

"Well! a dress is better than nothing!" Bebert said as he 
began to twist into one. 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. 

Ten miles farther up the beach we came to a small hamlet. 
We hid in the jungle until it was dark and then went through 
the village at night, stopping frequently to hide until barking 
dogs quieted down, pausing often to look for clothing which 
some native, we hoped, might have left out all night. But we 
were not so lucky. We hastened on, once we passed through 
the town, and did not stop until dawn came. Then we curled up 
to sleep in what seemed to be a fisherman's deserted house. 

"Why are you wearing women's clothes?" 
Those were the words, spoken in angry Spanish, which I 
heard as I awoke. A man in the uniform of a soldier of some sort 
;was speaking to Panama. Three other men, holding the reins 
of four nervous horses, outside the hut door, looked at us skepti- 
cally, but could not quite suppress their smiles. 

I stood up. The soldiers outside the door burst out laugh- 


Dr? Guillotine 

ing. "We must take them to show the General!" one of them 
said. "Nothing so funny has happened for a long time." 

We were told to come out and march ahead of the armed 
men. Their horses seemed also to think we were fantastic for 
they began prancing and shying, and balked at approaching too 
near our backs and flapping skirts. 

In an hour we reached a little town — the Colombian coast 
town of Santa Marta. We were taken directly to the barracks 
which served both as police and army station. A great crowd 
of children, laughing women and joking men, to say nothing 
of several score barking dogs, followed us through the streets. 
The General didn't have his tunic on when we entered the 
barrack-room but an orderly hastily brought it, and soon, wear- 
ing epaulets, he gazed at us from across his wide mahogany 
desk. He asked for our passports. We had none. 

"Profugos de Cayenne!" he said to the soldiers gathered about. 
"Fugitives from French Guiana! " 

Casquette began shivering, not with fear, but with a sudden 
spasm of fever. His face was flushed. The General dug into his 
pocket, produced a wallet, took several one-peso bills from it. 
He gave them to an orderly. Soon a doctor arrived. We were 
all given quinine. Another orderly brought us some old uni- 
forms and we got out of our dresses as quickly as possible. Food 
was brought to us by native women. The General picked up 
the telephone and asked to be put through to Barranquilla. 

"Cinco profugos de Cayenne!" he said when the connection 
was completed. "You will notify the French Consul!" 

Panama, Casquette, Dadar, Bebert and I looked at each 
other in disgust and sadness. At last, after two fearful experi- 
ences with the sea, we were going to be at the mercy of a far 
more dangerous foe — a French Consul! 

"It is no pleasure for me," the General said. "But it is the 
law, and I must obey it. You will be sent to Barranquilla. There 


Dry Guillotine 

you will have a chance to talk your way out of deportation, if 
you can." 

The next day we were behind the bars of the "Carcel 
National," the high-walled military and civil prison of eastern 
Colombia, The Warden, on receiving us, said that we were 
lucky. If we had arrived two days earlier we would have been 
put on board the French Mail steamer which had just sailed; 
there wouldn't be another French vessel for a month, 

"But don't try to escape, gentlemen/ ' he said, pointing to the 
rifle-armed guards who patrolled the wall of the cared. "My 
men are crack shots — and the rifles are not the old blunder- 
busses they use in Cayenne! You wouldn't have a chance!" 

But as I looked later in the afternoon out of the thick bars 
of my cell and saw the dense green jungle which was like a 
sea stretching to the north in mountainous waves, I told my- 
self that indeed I would try to escape. In the month's wait for 
a French boat I'd try every day to escape! It would be better to 
be shot in Colombia than to return alive to Cayenne, 

3. r 4 


LOOKING out from behind the heavy steel bars of the Na- 
tional prison at Barranquilk I could see twenty miles of jungle 
stretching into the north Colombian horizon. My fugitive com- 
panions sat in the damp cell and refused to look through the 
bars. They were worn out and pessimistic. They cursed their 
fate. In another month, they swore, we'd all be on board a 
French steamer en route to French Guiana — and to the dark- 
cell punishment which is the fate of all who attempt to escape. 

But I knew something they didn't. The Colombians hate the 
French penal system and individually are often ready to help 
runaways. The day after our capture and imprisonment, under 
orders of the French Minister, a long article appeared in La 
Prensa, the Colombian paper, about our adventure — and mis- 
adventure. The editor himself came to the prison; if I would 
write a series of articles for him on the French penal colony, 
he said, he would pay me generously. He talked with Governor 
Blanco of the prison and things were immediately made more 
comfortable for us. He interceded with the French Minister in 
Bogota, but the Minister was adamant. We were to be placed, 
he insisted, on the first French steamer. Two policemen from 
the Paris Surete, he advised, were catching the ship in order 
to take us into custody. 

My four companions were very gloomy and quarrelsome, 
each finding some fault with the others, blaming the predica- 
ment on first one, then the other. They began swearing at me, 
and soon we were embroiled in a bloody fight. At first I thought 
I would surely succumb in that cell to their blows, but then 
Padar took my part and with his strength we soon had the 
other three cowering in a far corner. He had broken a leg off 
the table and threatened to mash in the skull of any man who 
stepped from the shadows. 


Dry Guillotine 

The noise o£ our combat brought guards. In a manner at 
first mysterious I was picked out, taken from the large cell and 
then locked up in a solitary cell. Then, and this is hard to be- 
lieve unless you know the South Americans, the prison Ad- 
jutant came to my cell with some paper and pencils and said: 
"Belbenoit, we are going to let you escape. Your friends are a 
different type of fugitive; they were convicted of far more 
serious crimes. Weve checked up on you. Spend the day writ- 
ing articles for La Prensa. The editor will pay you for them to- 
morrow afternoon. Tomorrow night you will find your cell door 
open. Bon Voyage!'* He turned and left me before I had a 
chance to say a word. 

All day long I wrote — seven articles altogether about dif- 
ferent phases of the French penal administration. In the late 
afternoon, don Paez Reyna, the editor, came into my cell. He 
read the articles and handed me a roll of bills. Excitedly I ate 
the generous supper that was brought in to me. The key 
turned in the lock of my cell. I sat close to the bars of the win- 
dow watching the moon come up from the eastern horizon. 
One hour, two hours, three hours, four hours I sat so and then 
I heard a key grating against the lock. I heard the lock snap. 
I heard the key being removed. Then nothing but silence. I 
stood up, went to the door and cautiously turned the door knob, 
pushed slightly — and the door opened. Not a soul was to be 
seen in the corridor. At the end of the building I saw that an 
outside gate was ajar— a door that would allow me to step 
right out into the open behind the prison's walled fortress. 

Two minutes later I was in the side streets of Barranquilla. 
I twisted through the streets to the northern section of the 
town and then struck off hastily into the open country road that 
led to the sea coast. I knew that I was in danger as long as I 
stayed in Colombia, not from the Colombians but because of 
the hard-boiled French Minister at Bogota, so I decided that I 


Dry Guillotine 

would try to reach the Panama Canal Zone as soon as possible. 
The Americans I knew would not deport me to French Guiana. 
Between Barranquilla and Panama, however, lay many tribes 
of very wild Indians, but I would take my chances with them 
— no matter what they did they would not turn me over to 
any French Consul ! 

The long night was fully moonlit. I stopped once at a 
shadowy little cross-road shop and bought a small machete, 
some food, some cigarettes and matches. I did not know one 
road or path from another, and there were no signposts. But I 
judged my direction by the stars and kept going until I reached 
the Caribbean shore. At dawn a small automobile came along 
the road behind me, a jitney bus, bound for Cartagena. Four 
hours later I was in Cartegena. I had heard that there were 
many smugglers working out of the Colombian city, and I 
went to the waterfront to find some of them. But after two 
hours investigation I found that each one wanted forty pesos 
($20.00) to take me to the islands of San Andres and Provi- 
dencia, belonging to Colombia but lying only a short swim- 
ming distance off the coast of the Republic of Panama. I had 
only forty-three pesos in my pocket — so I decided to hurry on 
out of the Colombian town and try to make the journey on foot. 
Between Cartagena and Panamanian frontier I knew that there 
was another fugitive from French Guiana, Chariot Gautier, 
who had escaped in a boat with nine companions, eight of 
whom had been caught and sent back. An ex-Ensign in the 
French Navy, he had received a large amount of money from 
relatives, and, so I understood, had built a lonely retreat in the 
jungles, and was spending his time catching butterflies. 

Gautier was very surprised when I knocked on his door; the 
last thing he expected was a visiting Frenchman. "Je viens de 
la-bas!" I said the password and only introduction needed be- 
tween evades j "I come from over there I" I explained my sit- 

3 X 7 

Dry Guillotine 

uation and he invited me to become his guest. "Where there 
is enough food for one," he said, "there's enough for two!" 

In the forest surrounding his home there were hundreds of 
Blue Morpho butterflies, and with a home-made net I suc- 
ceeded in getting several beautiful collections which Gautier 
sent to Cartagena and had sold to tourists. They brought me a 
total of one hundred dollars — for four months' work. I ob- 
tained a good map of the Colombian coast and Panamanian 
frontier, and began studying it. 

To reach Panama would require walking some four hundred 
miles along the uninhabited coast around the Gulf of Darien, 
but I decided to push on. I purchased the bare necessities of 
life, made them; up in a back pack into which I stuck my butter- 
fly net, and said good-bye to Gautier. But before I had left the 
clearing in which his home was situated a native arrived yvith 
his mail. In the copy of La Prensa I read that my four com- 
panions had been shipped on the S. S. De La Salle for Martin- 
ique — and thence to Devil's Island. One fugitive the paper 
said had mysteriously escaped! Also, in a copy of the French 
newspaper, Excelsior, which had been sent to him from; Paris, I 
read that my fifth companion, Chifflot, who had obtained 
money and secured a forged passport and passage from Trinidad 
to Europe on a German boat, had tried to re-enter France, and 
had been arrested and sent to the prison depot at La Rochelle 
tx> await the next convict ship back to French Guiana. 

So, as I struck off alone through the Colombian shore jungles 
and swamps I knew that all of the men who had escaped with 
me were en route back to the Dry Guillotine; I alone was free! I 
made up my mind more firmly than ever to guard this free- 
dom and not allow myself to be caught, no matter what the odds 

might be against me. At my back now was civilization 

and the long arm of French injustice. Ahead of me lay a territory 
inhabited only by savages. 


Dry Guillotine 

For five days I walked uneventfully except for haying to 
find my way through a number of swamps. Then the ground 
became higher and firmer — and suddenly I came to a clearing 
full of neat thatched huts. Indians, clad only in loin cloths, saw 
me and hastily grabbed spears and bows. Five men came to 
meet me as I continued walking. Their faces were spotted with 
bright red paint and their hands and legs were painted black. 
One of them spoke Spanish — and with relief I asked to be 
taken to their chief . 

Through the interpreter the chief questioned me. I told him 
that I was trying to go to Colon, on the Panama Canal. But 
the chief said that I could not continue. I would have to turn 
back 1 . The territory ahead of me, he said, was "closed country" 
— no white man could enter it. 

Indians had gathered around my pack, and were examining 
my butterfly net with special interest. I caught sight of a daz- 
zling blue Morpho and took the net quickly from them: and 
chased it until I caught the beautiful insect. The Indians laugh- 
ed and thought it was very funny. Thai I explained that I 
;wanted butterflies — that I was on an expedition hunting 
them, and would pay as much as two pesos a piece for any which 
the tribesmen caught. The chiefs eyes lighted up, and sud- 
denly he announced that I could stay in the village all night — 
that in the morning some of the children might catch plenty 
of butterflies for me. He had a hut set aside for me. Alone I 
cooked a chunk of wild pig meat which he sent me, brewed 
some coffee. After night fell I strolled down to the beach — 
where I had seen many canoes — and then went back to my 
hut and lay in a hammock which he had loaned me. 

I lay silently until almost midnight. Not an Indian stirred. 
The fires had gone out. Quietly I crept out of my hut and went 
to the beach. I selected a sixteen-foot canoe which had a sail 
wrapped around a small mast, and putting several paddles into 


Dry Guillotine 

the hull I noiselessly slid the boat down the sand and into the 
water. When the water reached my waist I pulled myself into 
the boat and started paddling as hard as I could. I knew noth- 
ing about paddling a canoe at sea all by myself, and found it 
yety difficult to get the boat away from shore but at last I 
managed to get one hundred fifty yards or so between me and 
the shadowy coast. I then kept paddling for almost three hours. 
I tried once to untie and raise the sail but couldn't make it; 
the boat was too small for me, inexperienced as I was, to move 
about in it without capsizing. So at last I determined to land 
for a few minutes and put the sail up. There was a cross-yard 
on the mast which I did not know how to use, and it was an 
hour before I had the sail properly set and the canoe out again 
in the open water. One tiling I knew quite definitely. I cer- 
tainly was not a sailor! 

My hands were blistered from paddling, and now I had all 
I could do to hold the helm and guide the narrow craft safely 
over the waves. The wind seemed to play tricks on me and there 
wasn't a moment that didn't seem to challenge all my strength 
and ingenuity. I covered only about thirty miles during the 
night, and when the sun came up I put in to shore. I was afraid 
to travel during the day for fear that the Indians who by this 
time had undoubtedly discovered that I, as well as their canoe, 
was imssing, would sight me. The shore was lined with coconut 
trees and with my machete I opened ten big nuts, drank the juice. 

I scanned the horizon continually and stayed in hiding all 
day. Ahead of me I saw; many off-shore islands — the San Bias 
Keys — and at night when I took to the water again I found 
that I had to negotiate many shoals and reefs over which heavy 
rollers rushed. Waves roaring over boulders warned me to keep 
farther and farther out, and a shark that started to follow and en- 
circle me didn't add anything to my comfort or ease of mind. 
After an all-night struggle I decided to give up and beach the 


Dry Guillotine 

canoe. I was so tired I fell asleep in the vine-matted jungle and 
did not wake up until noon. The water along the shore was now 
full of massive boulders and dashing waves. I knew I could never 
negotiate the stretch of sea ahead of me. I hid the canoe in the 
bushes and started along on foot. 

I walked for three hours and then saw two Indians on the 
beach. They came at me the instant they saw that I was a white 
man, and with many scowls began questioning me. But I un- 
derstood nothing of their jargon. Again I opened my butterfly 
net. The butterfly net had acted as a passport for me on the 
previous occasion. I'd try it again. I showed them the blue 
Morpho butterfly. They stopped scowling and murmured the 
word "momorro" several times. They waved me to get into 
their canoe and I was taken in state to a primitive village — a 
big settlement at the mouth of a coastal creek. Several hundred 
Indians, seeing that a stranger was arriving in the canoe, came 
down to the water's edge to look at me. Many children came, 
touched me as I stepped ashore, and then fled howling to their 

The chief's hut was immense, [i 30 feet long by 1 00 wide. 
I opened my pack and showed everything to him. Through an- 
other Indian who spoke Spanish I said that I was a butterfly 
collector. Again I spoke of being willing to pay two pesos for 
any blue Morphos the villagers would care to catch. Women at 
the chief's command brought me big gourds of food and fruit. 
They were the handsomest primitive women I'd ever seen. The 
men dressed in loin cloths only, but the women wore a nose ring 
and all had earrings of pure gold in various sizes. About fifty 
men gathered around me in the chief's house, many of them 
talking to me in Spanish. They seemed greatly interested in my 
statement that butterflies were valuable — could be caught and 
traded for two pesos each. 

Toward midnight, when all was (juiet in the village I again 


Dry Guillotine 

;went down to the waterside, selected a good boat and pushed 
off. I followed the coastline all night and landed next morning 
on a strip of land that jutted far out into the sea. I hadn't the 
strength to paddle far out to sea and go around it — I'd leave 
the canoe and cut across the peninsula on foot. The going was 
yeiy difficult, wading creeks and swamps, cutting myself con- 
stantly free of vines and thorns. I had to stop frequently and 
sharpen my machete on a rock. When night came and it yraa 
too dark to see I camped. AH the next day I cut through the 
jungle. I saw three jaguars and over fifty wild boars, but didn't 
dare get in their way with only my machete for a weapon. I 
listened constantly for sound of the sea surf, but could hear 
nothing. Again at night I camped. I killed a large land turtle 
and ate it with the last of my hoarded coconut meat. 

On the fifth day of cutting through the forest I again heard 
the sound of the surf, and an hour later I came put into the sun- 
light on a broad sandy beach. Several hundred yards put in the 
blue water there was a large island full of Indian huts. The San 
Bias Indians were watchful guardians of their coastal domain; 
as soon as I stepped put of the jungle they saw; me, set up a great 
amount of shouting and running about •■ — • and within two 
minutes five large canoes loaded with furiously paddling men 
and with other men standing in the bow, with spears and guns, 
jvere on the water and coming rapidly toward me. 

Again I was taken %o the chief's house. Again I showed my 
butterfly net and my blue Morpho. The big insect now was 
almost useless as a specimen for it had been handled so much 
by previous Indians. Again my butterfly net gained me free- 
dom and a place to sleep — and plenty of food. If I had not had 
it I know that I never would have gained a mile of the San Bias 
coast, for over a period of many years the San Bias Indians have 
learned to hate the Spaniards — * both the Panamanians and the 
Colombians. My net set me apart from; all white men the^ had 


Dry Guillotine 

ever known. I jvas, clearly, not a gold prospector or a slave 

In the next six days I stole six more Indian canoes. It seems 
almost as if some protecting hand of Fate watched over me and 
made that feat possible. I know that I could never repeat it. I 
kept paddling all day, struggling with currents and waves. 
Then at night I would land on the coast, hide the canoe and 
walk until I encountered some more Indians. The Indians 
habitually worked during the day in their coconut, banana, 
and potato plantations on the coast where the land was fertile, 
and my technique was always the same. I'd land about two 
hours before sunset and start walking. In an hour or so I'd en- 
counter some Indians of another island. They would take me to 
the chief. I would explain that I was hunting butterflies — on 
my way to the Panama Canal. I would again offer two pesos for 
insects which the village would catch for me in the coastal 
jungles the n.ext day — and 'then at night I would sneak to the 
canoes, select one and paddle off into the darkness. I had but 
one single thought the whole time: Colon. Behind me, I knew, 
I Was building up an accumulating number of hostile villagers. 
[Whether they were now combining and coming along behind 
me to capture me I did not know, but, as though they were 
right at my heels, I never wasted a moment. 

For twenty days I worked along the Panama coast, being 
challenged each night and having to explain my presence to an 
island chief. Twenty canoes I had stolen — • and then, on the 
morning of the twenty-first day, I reached the coast opposite the 
island of Porvenir. On that island there was a garrison of Pana- 
manian soldiers. I dared not be seen by any of them, for as I was 
without a passport they would have been certain to send me 
back to Colombia. I cut into the forest and walked all day, 
screened from the sea, until I came to a small village of Pana- 
manian natives engaged in fishing and in cutting mahogany. 

•3 2 3 

Dry Guillotine 

A woodcutter gave me some food and was amazed when I told 
him I had come through from Colombia. He said that no other 
man ever accomplished that before. Colon, he said, was seventy- 
five miles away. But the currents and tides, he yarned, were 
very bad. A lone canoeist would have a very dangerous time. 

I continued on a trail which he said would take me to a vil- 
lage of half-caste Indians. I needed another boat. If I were lucky 
it would be my last night of toil. I did not enter the Indian vil- 
lage but stopped in the forest. After dark I walked along the 
beach, selected a canoe with sail, pushed it down into the waves 
and after much struggling managed to get into the hull. I un- 
tied the sail and began making good speed over waves bigger 
than those I had to fight before. Water splashed over me, and 
I had to bail almost constantly to keep the frail craft from being 
swamped. After several hours I saw the flash of a lighthouse, 
and then in a little while the lights of several steamers gleamed 
on the horizon. On my left the sky glowed as though lit up by 
a multitude of searchlights. My heart throbbed with excite- 
ment. Those would be the lights of the Panama Canal. 

Night passed and day came, and still I sat struggling ;with 
tiller, sail, and gourd-bailer far out at sea. The wind died and left 
me to the mercy of currents. All day long I tried to get the 
canoe under steady headway but it was not until night that the 
little sail puffed out again and the canoe's bow began cutting 
the waves. The lights grew brighter, the guardian city of the 
Canal Zone appeared above the horizon, steamers passed me, 
several times almost capsizing me in their wake. Cautiously I 
drew nearer and nearer the shore. I did not want to be stopped 
or questioned. I headed for a piece of beach some little distance 
from the town, but the ;waves and currents were too strong. 

One hundred yards from shore I saw that the canoe would be 
dashed bodily into a jetty. I made up my mind in an instant. 
Leaning over the side I swamped the canoe with inrushing 

3 2 4 

Dry Guillotine 

water and as it went down under me I began swimming, sav- 
ing only my bundle o£ manuscript in oil cloth. I had had a ter- 
rible adventure. I was famished and my throat and mouth 
were aching from thirst. But as I gained the jetty and climbed 
out of the water I saw silhouetted against the sky the fortresses 
of the United States Government. When the sun rose again I 
would be able to look up and see — at last — the Stars and 



MIND often wins over matter. As I climbed out of tHe salt 
water, pulled myself up the slippery steps of the jetty, and 
slumped in the dawn shadows of a new day, I knew that only one 
thing had brought me through the terrible adventure. It was not 
my muscles, for I am very weak. It was not my knowledge of the 
jungle, or of the sea, for I had none. It was not my experience 
in dealing with primitive, possibly savage, natives, for they 
were as strange to me as they would have been to you. The one 
thing which had brought me through was just this: I kept 
repeating over and over to myself the sentence "I will reach the 
Panama Canal! I will reach the Panama Canal! " 

Food hadn't mattered. My days of struggle with the coastal 
waves hadn't mattered. Nothing had mattered en route — but 
now that I was, at last, under the big American guns, could 
look up and see the flag mast on which, at dawn, the Stars and 
Stripes would unfurl, I gave way completely. I shook as though 
a terrible physical convulsion had overtaken me. My mind 
seemed to swim. I remember looking up at the morning stars 
and saying a prayer of thanks — and then I remember nothing. 

How long I lay there, huddled under the eaves of the wharf 
storehouse, I do not know. Groggily I awoke in the broad sun- 
light. A man in uniform was jabbing his toe against my hip. 

"Come, Buddy!" he kept repeating. "Come, Buddy, You 
can't sleep it off here. Get amove on! " 

I got to my feet. I swayed as though, as he thought, I had 
spent the night in a grog-shop. Dizzily I began finding my 
way through the tin warehouses past many Zone policemen 
who looked at me and smiled knowingly. Gradually I realized, 
by the lack of laborers, that it must be Sunday morning — that 
all the American police thought I was just coming out of a big 


Dry Guillotine 

Saturday payday celebration. I made my way to the French 
quarter of Colon. 

The French quarter of Colon harbors many outcasts of the 
world. I was fed hot stew and hot coffee as soon as I spoke a 
few words. A woman took up a collection of clothing from 
near-by houses and soon I had changed from the sea-ruined pants 
and shirt, had shaved, and made myself presentable. The 
Canal train for Panama City left at seven o'clock. Many times 
during the afternoon I repeated my story to Frenchmen and ob- 
tained a few more coins. It was the first time in my life that I 
had ever begged, but there is no way to get from one side of the 
Canal to the other save by riding on the American train. I was 
warned against trying, as I planned, to walk the tracks and 
bridges. I t would be arrested for trespassing on government 

IWhen I reached Panama City, on the Pacific side, I went to 
]the address of a Frenchman whose name I had memorized — 
;who was a writer and surely would befriend me. But I found that 
he was away. His servant let me sleep in the storeroom of his 
house, and fed me generously. I learned that it would be danger- 
ous, if not impossible, for me to continue my way north through 
Central America immediately. The Costa Rica border, and the 
jwestern portion of Panama, was being very closely watched due 
tx> the fear of an uprising in that part of the Republic over the 
coming Presidential election. The servant, who was from a 
ayestern state of the Republic, warned me against trying to go 
on until the elections were over. 

"The Boss," he said, "has a banana plantation in the jungles 
of Darien. Why don't you go on the boat which leaves tomor- 
row and rest up there for a while. It's well stocked with food and 
I'll give you a letter to the foreman." 

Thus it was that with only two days of rest in civilization 
I jvas again in the jungle. The boat was a shallow-draft barge- 

3 2 7 

Dry Guillotine 

like vessel that went out into the Pacific and then up the Yape 
River, twisting deeper and deeper into the jungle. In the bow 
a man began blowing on a giant sea shell, I asked why he did 
so, and was told that he was notifying all the Indians in the 
yillages back from the river that the monthly banana boat had 
arrived — warning them to have their bananas cut and at the 
waterside when the yessel came back down the river. 

Here and there a painted brown face looked out at us from 
the jungle foliage, as a primitive Indian waved to the captain 
in the pilot house and signalled, by raised fingers, the number 
of bunches of fruit he had ready for market. In the late after- 
noon I transferred to a canoe with outboard motor attached 
aod, amidst a great noise, we skimmed die twisting river. At 
sunset we turned in to a high' jungle bank and after walking 
through jungles for ten minutes came to a clearing. Three 
sm&li houses stood on stilts in the fading sunlight. In back of 
them were acre after acre of banana palms. 

This secluded banana grove was just such a place as I might, 
at other times, have liked very much. It seemed far away from 
trouble, and the foreman made things comfortable for me. But 
at sunset many half-breed fruit cutters came in and, resting up 
from their all-day labors, began drinking raw alcohol made 
from; distilled sugar cane. They argued wildly, fought among 
themselves, gambled — and, as I sat oyer in my dim corner, 
I couldn't help but feel that here, far away from Devil's Island, 
I was in the midst, again, of uncongenial people ... of rift-raff, 
of the dregs of human society. The banana workers and the 
prisoners of French Guiana might have been interchanged and 
no one would have known the difference. Two men were badly 
cut in knife fights over the cards, just as they often were in 
French Guiana. In the early morning I realized that I had come 
a long way only to get out of a kettle into a frying pan. 

But the Indians who came to the clearing were soft-voiced, 


Dry Guillotine 

They smiled .when I talked with them and seemed very much 
interested in my butterfly net. Three of them accompanied me 
on a hunt in the jungles, and when I caught a giant Morpho 
they told me, in Spanish, that in their country — in their moun- 
tain villages — there were butterflies of even larger size. 

They were very primitive, clad only in loin cloth and paint 
but suddenly I decided that I would much rather stay with them 
than in the half-breed camp of the noisy, foul-mouthed banana 
cutters. I just kept on walking with them until, on reaching the 
river, they agreed to take me in their long canoe to the Indian 
village at the headwaters of a shallow creek. 

Thus began for me a seven-month adventure of sheer tran- 
quillity, peace, and I suppose you could even call it happiness. 
The Kuna and Chakoi Indians are called savages. They have 
killed many white men. They hate the Spaniards, because of 
their early cruelties and gold thefts. But I passed from one village 
deeper and deeper into the Indian country and no one raised a 
hand against me. The fact that I chased butterflies, that I cared 
nothing for their gold ornaments, that I was not a patrone ac- 
companied by an armed band looking for slave labor, gave me, 
uniquely, an open path into the wild Kuna country. Each vil- 
lage became mpre primitive-looking as I drew; deeper and deeper 
away from the civilized fringe. Finally after six days of follow- 
ing Kuna trails, being escorted from one village to the other by 
a dozen or more men, I arrived at the biggest yillage of the tribe, 
the village; therein lived the chief. Here every man, and many 
womten, jjvore heaxy gold ornaments, many of fiheru shaped like 
small human skeletons. 

Many of the Indians talked to me in Spanish, but among 
themselves they spoke in a guttural tongue of yvhich I knew no 

The cacique, ox chief, was a very large, tremendously mus- 
cular savage who eyed me coldly when I held out my hand. I 


Dry Guillotine 

had been told that if I wanted to live in any Kuna village I would 
have to get his permission. 

"Are you willing that I live in your city?," I asked. "I would 
like to do so." 

The Indians who accompanied me began talking, and from 
the expressions of their faces I knew; that they were giving a 
friendly report of my behavior in the earlier villages. The chief 
listened to them, then asked me to show him my momorros — 
my butterflies. I opened up the package of dried wings and he 
gazed at them with long interest and amazement. Then he 
looked up at me and frowned. 

"Why do you kill the momorros?" he asked. He said some- 
thing to a small boy who ran off and returned with a tiny cage 
made of palm ribs. The chief held up the cage and showed me 
the little bird held captive behind the woven palm. It was bril- 
liantly feathered, almost as iridescent as a Morpho's wings. 
"See! " the chief said. "We catch pretty things too. But we put 
them in cages. Why don't you catch butterflies alive and put 
them in cages also?" 

I explained to him that Morphos had no value alive. It was 
only after their blue wings were carefully dried that they be- 
came valuable for ornamental purposes. This seemed to amaze 
him at first. Then he shrugged, talked with many of the village 
Indians for a few moments and said that I could settle down in 
the Kuna country as long as my behavior was satisfactory. He 
itemized the things I could not do; I couldn't walk in the forest 
alone, I must always be accompanied by some man or a youth 
on my butterfly hunts; I could not dig anywhere for gold; I 
could not possess gold in any form — or take any kind of gold 
out of the jungle when I left; I could not bathe in the river 
naked at the same time that the villagers did. I would have to 
keep away from the river then and take my bath alone before or 


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afterwards. If I stayed in the village longer than two moons, he 
said, I must have an Indian wife. 

"But a jvife is a thing of permanence," I said. "I cannot do 

"Then you can stay less than two months. r A man without 
a wife is always looking at other men's wives," the cacique 
grunted. "Do you want to stay home all day and do your own 
work?. Without a good wife how ;will you have time for catch- 
ing butterflies?" 

A soft-eyed woman, barely out of her teens, came up and 
quite coyly gazed at me. She left the group for a moment and 
then returned with a gourd of rice and a bunch of bananas. 
When she held them out to me all the Indians began laughing. 
Children ran up and began laughing also. 

"Yes," the cacique said. "This one would be a good woman 
for you. She's an excellent worker." 

The girl was attractive. In that tribe, where women wore only 
narrow strips of cloth wrapped tightly about their hips, it was 
not hard to pick out many young women who would be able to 
chop plenty of wood to keep the home fires burning. But there 
was no sense in my continuing to quibble. I would very prob- 
ably need someone to keep house for me, to help me in my new 
use of purely primitive things. 

"By giving you food she agrees to become your wife," the 
chief said impatiently. ' What is your decision? ' ' 

"I will take her," I said. 

"Good! " the cacique grunted. "Buenol Buenol" many of the 
other natives chimed in. 

"Eat some of the food the woman has brought you," the chief 
directed me. "That is according to custom. That is the public 
sign that you take her for your wife." I peeled a banana and ate 
it, much to the amusement of the villagers. Then the chief 
spoke to the girl in his own language. She stood yety straight 


Dry Guillotine 

and res^ctfully while she listened. Then when he was finished 
she said a few jyords, turned and started through the crowd of 
natives who immediately made room for her. 

"Follow the woman," the chief said. "She will take you to 
the house which we give you for a home." 

I caught up with her. She walked through the entire village 
to a large thatch dwelling raised above the ground on eight-foot 
posts — with a notched log stairway leading up to the flooring 
from the ground. The ground under the house was neatly 
swept. A small dog that stood looking down at us appeared to 
be well cared for and unusually clean. The girl stopped and 
stood away from the steps. I stopped also. She shook her head, 
as though I had done the wrong thing. She pointed to the raised 
floor and motioned me to climb up ahead of her. I was, I must 
admit, somewhat a creature of confusion — because of this sud- 
den and unexpected wife-taking — ^ and I didn't watch where 
I put my foot. I slipped, fell to die ground. With a merry little 
laugh she began helping me up. 

It may well be, for all I know, the first time in the history 
of the world that a husband was assisted over the doorsill of a 
new Home by the bride! 

But that incongruity was to continue for hours and, as I 
found out, for days and weeks and months. Whose house it had 
been I did not know. I could not speak a word with her. She blew 
on the embers that lay on flat slabs of rock until they caught fire 
again and then started cooking. She had plenty of wild rice. 
A leg of venison hung from: a rafter. In baskets there were casava 
roots, sweet potatoes, squash, corn. There was a big gourd of 
thick sugar syrup. Several bunches of bananas hung under the 
eaves. It was apparent that I was going to have plenty to eat. 
But, only as I saw in a moment, if I did the cooking myself. She 
seemed to think that the way to prepare dinner was just to toss 
everything she could get her hands on into a big pot and throw 


Dry Guillotine 

water on top. I reached her before ske could drop five big red 
hot peppers/into the concoction. I emptied out the pot and de- 
cided to cook the dinner myself. The sweet potatoes I put beside 
some coals to roast. The venison I cut into two steaks and 
stretching them over forked sticks, set them against the coals 
to broil. The rice I put in a small pot to boil. 

"You go cut some more wood!" I said with pantocrine ac- 
complishment. 'Til do the cooking!" 

Many of the; village women came up and peeked at me and 
began giggling. It was a strange sight, to than, to see a man 
doing his own cooking. I could tell that they were making a big 
joke of it. They set up so much noise that finally the chief and a 
dozen or more Kuna hunters came over to see what was going 
on. The cacique, on finding me bent over the fire, seemed very 
much disturbed. 
"What is this?" he said. "Won't the woman work?" 
"Very eagerly!" I said. "But she doesn't know much about 

The chief and his men discussed this with apparent amaze- 
ment. It was a week later that I learned that she was considered 
the best cook in the entire village; at all the great feasts, when 
hunters and chiefs came from outlying villages, she had cooked 
the ceremonial banquet! 

The Kuna Indians are one of the few primitive tribes left in 
Central America. Although their villages were pillaged repeat* 
edly by the early Spaniards they never bowed under the yoke 
of the conqueror. Many of them, in order to revenge the wreck- 
ing of their settlements by Balboa and Pizarro, the Kunas, as 
;well as the San Bias Indians, joined many later English privateer 
expeditions, notably those; of Morgan against the Caribbean 
colonies of Spain. And even today, had I been a Spaniard, or a 
Latin-American, I never could have won their permission to 
live in Kuna country. 


Dry .Guillotine 

"Nikat-chipul" a woman's yoke called shrilly from the 
jungle in back of my new home. "Nikat-cbipul" So busy had I 
been with my cooking that I did not notice my "wife's" dis- 

"It's your woman!" the chief said. "She is calling for you!" 
I left the fire and went toward the calling voice. Twenty 
paces in the forest I found the girl. She was sitting on the ground 
holding a bleeding foot in her hands — gripping it with all her 
might to keep the blood from spurting from an ugly wound. A 
blood-smeared cutlass lay beside her. Splitting firewood by 
holding it on end with her toe, as most Indians do, the cutlass 
had glanced off a hardwood knot and sliced her foot. Hastily I 
tore a limber vine from nearby bushes and made a tourniquet. 
Then I picked her up in my arms and staggered back through 
the forest to my jungle home. The cacique and the other vil- 
lagers had gone back to their thatched homes. "Nikat-chipu!" 
the girl whimpered, nestling her head against my neck, "Nikat- 

I had no idea what Nikat-chipu meant. But evidently it was 
the name the Kunas had given me. I suddenly realized, as I 
carried the wounded girl up the steps of our home, that here I 
was, far, very far away from Devil's Island — far from all civili- 
zation, far from all worries, punishments, and the need for es- 
cape, with a primitive wife with whom I couldn't exchange a 
single word — whose name I didn't even know! 



THE white man who takes up his life, suddenly, among prim- 
itive people ■ — -who goes the whole way, lives as they do, sits 
at their tribal ceremonials, hunts in the forest with bow and 
arrow, shares a home with a tribal daughter — comes to feel very 
quickly that life when undressed of all unessentials becomes ex- 
ceptionally peaceful. Not in fifteen long years had my days 
dawned so pleasantly or ended so satisfactorily. The Kuna River 
was full of fish. In the forest there was an abundance of game. 
The small burnt clearings produced a large variety of vegetable 
sustenance. Cotton grew sufficient for all cloth requirements. 
Tobacco hung drying from the rafters. 

Pays dawned and came to a close in almost unbelievable 
jpeace. It was the first time in my life that I had been really free. 
I feared nothing. I needed nothing. At last I was a man engaged 
in merely the pleasure of living. The first ;week flowed evenly 
into the second, the second into the third. 

At the end of the first week I knew my wife's name. It was 
Rachi-ti. In the Kuna language I learned that it iiieant "The- 
Flower-that-Sleeps." IWord after word I learned by pointing to 
some object about our home and then listening to her repeat 
its Kuna name until I could master it. By the end of the first 
month we could talk together quite a little. I added to my vo- 
cabulary by sitting for hours ;with some of the Kuna men who 
knew Spanish. 

Rachi-ti cut the firewood, kept the house neat, washed my 
few; clothes, brought in food from the plantations. I fished and 
hunted, did the cooking, and sewed some new clothes out of 
the cloth which she wove. I spent many hours in the forest with 
my butterfly net and my collection of rare wings grew, larger 
each day. One month flowed into another, and MorpKo wings 
mounted up to a fortune of several hundred dollars — if there had 


Dry Guillotine 

been a market available in which to sell them. I was invited to the 
tribal conferences and ceremonials and sat next to the cacique. 
Like them I painted my face, my chest, and my arms* I wore, 
as the only sign of my civilization, a pair of pants, the legs of 
.which I had chopped off short above the worn-out knees. I wore 
a necklace of wild boar's teeth which Rachi-ti made for me. The 
chief's ruling that I could possess no gold evidently did not ap- 
ply to silver, and many of the tribesmen presented me with 
silver ornaments, silver wrist bands, rings, and hair ornaments. 
With toy flesh deeply sunburned it would have been difficult 
for a stranger to recognize me as a white man. 

But as the months passed I began to get restless again. I had 
made a calendar. The elections for the new President of the Re- 
public of Panama were drawing near. As soon as things quieted 
down it would be safe for me to continue my flight to the United 

For hours I debated whether or not to continue. What more 
peace would I ever find than I had now in this primitive sanctu- 
ary? What more freedom would I ever have than to live without 
fear or wprry day after day? If I continued I would take on again 
the trials and tribulations of a life Jong struggle with civilization 
— and against the long arm of French injustice. Thus day after 
day I debated giving up the thought of trying to reach the 
.United States. But on my thirty-eighth birthday I realized that 
life in a primitive doldrum was not what I wanted. My past life 
had been ruined. There was no doubt about that. But ahead of 
me lay, perhaps, thirty-eight more years. If I could reach the 
jUnited States I felt that I would be safe. It was the land of the 
free. They ;would not send me, who had so much overpaid 
any debt I owed society, back to Devil's Island. Free of the fear 
of arrest and deportation I might plead my cause effectively, get 
back my French citizenship or at least papers that would permit 
me to live freely and in peace somewhere else. Then I could start 

33 6 

Dry Guillotine 

building a life for myself — the kind of a life I would like; to 

Between my jungle refuge and the borders of jthe United 
States lay thousands of miles of jungles and mountains, and 
many Central American frontiers. I had no passport of any 
kind. I would have only the money I could get for my butterfly 
collection. But one night, as we sat swinging in the firelight 
in our hammocks, I turned to Rachi-ti and told her that when 
the moon became full again I was going away. 

"Do you go far?" she asked. 

"Very far," I said. "I may return — * and I may not." 

"Do you go so that you can catch many more butterflies?" 
she asked. "There are plenty of butterflies in the mountains 
near by — and I will go there jvith you and help you catch 
them if you like." 

"It is not butterflies," I said after a long silence. "I am not a 
Kuna, Rachi-ti, I am of another country." 

That was all that was said. She didn't question me further. 
The next morning I talked with the chief, told him, that I'd 
like some men to paddle me down the river to the trading 
station on the Paya. He said he would arrange it. There was 
no word of regret at my going, nor was there any sign that the 
tribe was upset about the future of Rachi-ti. I had nothing to 
leave behind as a present for her except the household things 
which I had made with my own hands. I packed my manuscript 
and a small bale of Morpho wings carefully. 

Rachi-ti told me that she would wait twelve moons, to see 
if I came back. If I did not return by the thirteenth moon she 
would become the wife of another husband, she said. Senti- 
ment, I had often seen, was not a part of Kuna temperament •■ — 
and I was happy now that there would be no tears to bring me 
dark hours of regret later on. 

The entire yillage gathered on the river bank to see jne 


Dry Guillotine 

depart. The water was very swift. Five muscular paddlers sat 
in the slender dugout canoe. I took my place amidships. 

"Ati Nikat-chiptt!" the natives called and waved at liie. 
"Ati Nikat-chi-pu! — Good-bye, White Man!" 

Swiftly the current sucked us downstream. The Indians 
paddled hard to set the bow straight in the middle current. 
Then we turned a sharp bend and Rachi-ti, the cacique and all 
my pittmitive hosts were shut from view. The river twisted 
like a great serpent. We shot small waterfalls, negotiated many 
rapids. Five times we had to portage the canoe over rocks. We 
camped at night under tremendous trees. The next afternoon 
we reached the Yape River and found that, luckily, the monthly 
fruit boat was there, waiting to start down stream ladened with 
green bananas for the Canal Zone. 

Four days later I arrived in Panama City. There I found a 
curio shop run by an American. He bought my butterflies. On 
May second, exactly two years from the day of my escape from 
French Guiana, I left Panama City in an automobile truck 1 
which distributes newspapers throughout the interior province 
of Chiriqui. I slept that night at David, the capital of the gold 
mining territory, only a few miles from the border of Costa Rica. 
In the morning I took a train to Potrero, the border town. Un- 
obtrusively I embarked with other passengers. I singled out a 
native who looked hungry and made a deal with him. For 
five dollars he would guide me, over infrequently used trails, 
across the border to the Costa Rican town of Buenos Aires. We 
started walking. But passing through an outpost settlement 
we were stopped by two mounted policemen on guard against 
smugglers. They noted the pack on my back and asked for my 
identification papers. I had none, so they took me to jail at La 
Cuesta. The next morning they escorted me back across the 
Panama border and turned me over to the Panama police who 

33 8 

Dry Guillotine 

arrested trie and took me to the jail at David. The next morning 
I was brought before the Governor of the province. 

I was very frightened. It might be that I would be sent back 
to Panama City, and turned over to the French Minister. Like 
thq five companions who escaped with me I might quickly find 
myself back in French Guiana again. I decided to take a chance. 
I spoke frankly of my desire to reach the United States. The 
Governor after a ;while signed a release. 

"I <bn't see how you can get across the border again after 
having been arrested/' he said, "but if you' can, good luck!" 

His assistant pulled me aside and advised me to go to the 
port of: Armuelles where I would find some Costa Rican 
smugglers who, for a small sum, would take me on one of their 
nightly trips up the coast. Before nightfall I was in a dingy 
cafe on the Pacific coast, talking with three contrabandists who 
were about to leave to smuggle into Costa Rica a quantity of 
Japanese silk shirts. For ten dollars they said they would include 
me in their illicit cargo. By nine o'clock I was at sea and going 
along the Costa Rican coast, bound for Punta Arenas, a 
hundred miles to the north. 

Some ten miles south of the port the little boat put in to a 
sandy beach and the merchandise was hastily unloaded before 
dawn. En route I had talked with the smugglers, asked their 
advice about the best way to cross the Nicaraguan border. They 
told me to engage a horse and attendant and ride four days to 
the north through the province of Guanacaste, crossing the 
border at the San Juan del Sur River. It was the first time in my 
life I was ever on a horse. I rode for four days and then my 
guide collected his thirty colones, approximately six dollars, 
and told me I would have to go the rest of the way on foot. 
He pointed out a mountain. "Nicaragua," he said, "is all the 
other side of that hill." 

All the next day I walked without seeing a soul. Looking for 


Dry Guillotine 

a place to sleep, I continued until sunset and walked right into 
a camp of frontier bandits. They were uncouth-looking crea- 
tures, armed to the teeth. I raised my hands as soon as I saw 
they had so many guns pointed at me. They began frisking my 
clothes, looking for money. They took every cent I had and then 
waved me to go on. I went a little ways along the trail and then 
stopped. For an hour in the darkness I debated the idea of 
sneaking back over the trail and trying to get my money back. 
But I had no weapon of any kind so I curled up between the 
great buttressed roots of a jungle tree and went to sleep. 

All the next day and the next I walked, and at sunset came 
into' the town of Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. I sent some 
collect telegrams from there to Panama City: I explained to the 
curio dealer that bandits had stolen all my money and asked 
him to send me fifty dollars against butterflies which I would 
collect and send to him. Happily within four hours I had money 
again in my pocket. I bought a few yards of mosquito netting 
and then started for Corinto by narrow-gauge railroad. Between 
Corinto and the Honduran border there were many little towns* 
I got off the back platform of the train, as at each stop police 
boarded it at the front car on a tour of passport and identification 
inspection. Then I walked through the station crowd up to the 
first car and took a seat there. This I repeated eight times before 
reaching Honduras. Thus I crossed another frontier. Now I 
;was in Spanish Honduras. For eighteen days I walked, over 
steep mule roads, climbed mountains, went down into deep 
ravines, passed interminable banana plantations* Everywhere 
I stopped and asked for a place to sleep, such hospitality 
as the poor people had was generously given me. Crossing 
from Honduras into Salvador was easy. I spent practically noth- 
ing. A few cents for native cigars. I stopped and picked bananas 
whenever I felt hungry. But I was continually warned not to try 
to cross the Guatemalan border. The new regime in that coun- 


Dry Guillotine 

try, under a yery stria Dictator, had tightened up on both the 
entry and exit of strangers. Many passports and special permits 
t were necessary both to enter and to leave that country. Police- 
men stopped all strangers, even in the city, and asked to see 
their papers. 

A Frenchman ;with whom I talked advised me to go to La 
Libertad. He was sending some merchandise there by truck 
and offered to give me a ride all the way to the Pacific coast. 
My shoes were beginning to pull apart at the seams. The soles 
were already worn through. The long ride through the moun- 
tains and the frequent stops to let the old engine cool off were 
no luxury, but I was deeply grateful that, at least, I did not have 
ito walk. I arrived at the port of La Libertad on June 4th. 

How was I going to get, by way of the sea, around Guate- 
mala? If I could get past Guatemala, the Mexican authorities, 
I heard, were lenient. I could go the whole length of Mexico 
.without worrying. I spoke Spanish fluently, and very few Mex- 
icans had any identification papers. I went down to the water- 
front to look for smugglers, but found none. There was a 
freighter, though, at one of the docks loading cargo. It was 
bound, I was told, for Canada. I decided to attempt to stow 
away. I went to a native restaurant and ate all the food I could 
hold. I bought a few cans of sardines. As soon as it was dark I 
jwent on board and joined the men who, returning from dinner, 
yvere loading the ship. When I thought it was safe I left the 
group of laborers and walked all the way aft. Back of the room 
;which contained the steering engine I saw a trap door. I raised 
it and saw below a lighted room packed with coils of hawsers 
iand wire cables. I climbed down into the room and hid behind 
a big coil of rope. Two hours later some sailors entered the room 
to coil additional rope which was being lowered to them through 
the trap door. Then they put out the light, climbed the ladder 
and shut the door over my head. I was in absolute darkness. The 


Dry Guillotine 

ship's engines started turning and soon I felt the sea-sickish 
mptiori of the iron hull as it went up over the waves. 

In the darkness I carefully took off my clothes. I knew that 
if I kept them on I would be filthy later on and that my dirty 
appearance might give me away. Naked, I spent hour after hour 
in the black hold until I thought at least two days must have 
passed. My sardines were finished. I was very thirsty. I decided 
to go on deck, if it were night, and look for food and water. I 
climbed the ladder and raised the trap door. It was night. Only 
two yards in front of me was a big dish of food — collected and 
left for a dog. Beside it was a tin pan of water. The dog was 
playing with a ball which a sailor tossed him far down the deck. 
I crept out, drank the water and took the pan of food back into 
the hawser room. 

I did not know; how many days went by, for I lived in com- 
plete darkness. Twice I was hungry enough to sneak up to the 
deck and steal the dog's food and water. Then I heard the ship's 
whistle blow. We were arriving somewhere — but where? I 
felt my way to the place where I had hidden my clothes. I took 
my razor out of my coat and began shaving off my beard. The 
ship stopped. I heard the sound of winches. I dressed carefully 
and ascended the ladder. I pushed up the trapdoor and climbed 
out into broad daylight. We were alongside a dock. The land- 
scape against the horizon was marvelous. Great rocky moun- 
tains of a yellowish color were piled up into magnificent shapes. 
I thought we must be at some small Mexican port. I crept to the 
rail and looked down. At the foot of the gangplank two men 
in uniform stopped each sailor who left the ship. I couldn't 
tell what kind of uniforms they were but the men were too big 
and light-skinned for Guatemalans. I felt certain that I was 
either at a Mexican or American port. I noticed that the guards 
only questioned the sailors and frisked .them. They didn't a$k 
anyone for identifying papers. 

34 2 

Dry Guillotine 

I decided to risk everything on one play. An officer was 
going ashore. Two sailors were on the bottom of the gangplank. 
I hurried along the deck and started down the steps. The uni- 
formed men greeted the officer cordially — in English, much 
to my happiness. I stepped down, opened my only possession, 
the bundle of papers, and manuscript, as a signal for them to 
freely search me. One of them mechanically frisked me, felt 
my pockets and motioned me to pass on without saying a single 
word. With my heart in my throat, I walked a few hundred 
yards up the jvharf and then came to a grilled gate. On the 
other side there was another man in uniform. I passed through 
the gate and again I had my clothes rapidly searched. Then 
I walked on, free at last on the soil and under the clear blue; sky 
of the United States. 

In what state I was, what was the nearest city, how many 
days I had been at sea, I did not know. I came to railroad tracks. 
Every now and then an electric car passed me. I kept on walk- 
ing. A group of laborers were working to put up a telegraph 
pole. I stopped for a moment. I wanted to ask them where I 
was but I realized that such an inquiry would sound very silly. 
Finally I said, "Will you tell me where the car tracks go?" 

"What?" one of them said, and all the others put down their 
tools and looked at me. "What you want?" 

"Where do these tracks go?" I repeated. 

"To Los Angeles ! " the man nearest me said, ' To Los Angeles, 
you dope!" 

To Los Angeles! Then I was in California! With a song in 
my heart I started down the tracks as fast as I could. Two 
workmen were walking toward me. I decided to ask another 
question. When they drew abreast I stopped. "Can you tell 
me what day this is?" I asked them. 

"Tuesday!" one of them said. "Tuesday, you dope!" 
Tuesday! Then I had been in that hawser room seven whole 


Dry Guillotine 

days and nights! But? they had ushered pie far up the latitudes 
— and right into the open air of the land of proverbial freedom. 
I didn't mind that the workmen called me a dope! I guess the 
questions I asked did seem, to them, those of a lunatic. But 
now after twenty-two months of almost unbelievable trials as 
a fugitive I had come from Devil's Island up through the length 
of Central America into the United States, alone, and travelling 
always under my own name. Down through the history of 
the French penal settlement thousands of men had dreamed 
of being able to accomplish that feat. In over seventy-five years 
not one man had been able to do itl Some had died in the 
South American jungles. Some had died in the shark-infested 
sea. Some took root, perforce, in a Central American Republic 
and changed their names. Not one other man had made good 
an escape through the whole of northern South America and 
the Central American isthmus. 

I walked with a springing step. I was terribly emaciated. I 
had no teeth. I had one pair of cotton pants. One cotton shirt. 
One handmade cotton coat. A pair of ragged shoes. That was 
all I possessed. But I was no longer afraid. I entered the outskirts 
of Los Angeles — the City of die Angels —r> as happy as a lark. 

The End. 



(French original of song on Page 86) 

Le bronze a retentit. Debout! il est cinq heures; 
Les voiles de la nuit couvrent encore l'Oraput, 
Les vampires affreux regagnent leurs demeures 
Ivres de sang humain dont ils sont repus. 
Pour beaucoup d'entre nous reveil epouvantable; 
Notre esprit vagabond plane sous d'autres cieux, 
Mais la cloche a sonne l'appel impitoyable 
Pour nous dire a nouveau de souffrir en ces lieux! 

Chacun pour le travail s'arme dune bricole 

Et dans le foret sombre avance en trebuchant; 

L'on dirait des demons, la sarabande folle, 

Car Tenfer est au bagne, et non pas chez Satan! 

On passe les rouleaux, on tombe, on se releve; 

La vase et les chicots, rien ne peut nous lasser; 

On ne connait pour nous que ces mots: Marche ou creve, 

Le bateau menera de quoi vous remplacer! 

Le soleil cherche en vain a montrer son visage, 

Mais un nuage epais le cache a nos yeux; 

II pleut, il pleut toujours dans ce pays sauvage, 

France, en ces instants nous regrettons tes cieux! 

Allons vite au biseau, que la corde se place, 

Et chantez, malheureux, pour rechauffer vos coeurs: 

Hourrah! hourrah! gar^ons, la piece se deplace, 

Et glisse sous les yeux des surveillants moqueurs! 

Enfin vers le degrad Ton arrive, et sans treve I 

Ils nous f aut retourner au second numero 

De douleur, de degout notre coeur se souleve, 

Car la voix d'un arabe a crie: Roumi ro/ # 

Ce supplice sans nom chaque jour se repete: 

Enfants des vieux gaulois, qu'etes vous done Hevenus? 

Les plus forts d'entre nous marchent en courbant la tete, 

Pleurez, pleurez formats, vos coeurs ne battent plus! 

* Derogatory r Arab word meaning: "Get moving, white man!? 


- ■ w^ i ^ w kM F r jw S wi™^"jy* > v* v **'fi**«ii'i'& f WA* ' \ > J"