The Story of Henri Charrière, Author of Papillon

The notorious petty thief attempted to escape from prison eight times

Henri Charrière on the set of the 1973 film Papillon.
Henri Charrière on the set of the 1973 film Papillon.

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Henri Charrière (1906 – 1973) was a French petty criminal who was incarcerated for murder in a penal colony in French Guiana. He famously escaped the brutal prison by building a raft, and in 1970 he published the book Papillon, detailing his experiences as a prisoner. Although Charrière claimed the book was autobiographical, it is believed that many of the experiences he described were in fact those of other inmates, and so Papillon is considered a work of fiction.

Key Takeaways: Henri Charrière

  • Henri Charrière was a small-time French criminal who was convicted of murder, possibly unjustly, and sentenced to ten year of hard labor in a penal colony.
  • Following his successful escape, Charrière settled in Venezuela and wrote the famous semi-biographical novel Papillon, detailing (and embellishing) his time in prison.
  • After the book's publication, controversy arose around whether Charrière had attributed events involving other inmates to himself.

Arrest and Incarceration

Charrière, who was orphaned at the age of ten, enlisted in the French Navy as a teenager and served two years. Upon returning home to Paris, he immersed himself in the French criminal underworld and soon made a career for himself as a petty thief and safecracker. By some accounts, he may have made money as a pimp as well.

In 1932, a low-level gangster from Montmartre named Roland Legrand–some reports list his surname as Lepetit–was killed, and Charrière was arrested for his murder. Although Charrière maintained his innocence, he was nevertheless convicted of killing Legrand. He was sentenced to ten years of hard labor in the St. Laurent du Maroni penal colony on French Guiana, and was transported there from Caen in 1933. 

The conditions at the penal colony were brutal, and Charrière struck up a tenuous friendship with two of his fellow inmates, Joanes Clousiot and Andre Maturette. In November 1933, the three men escaped from St. Laurent in a small, open boat. After sailing nearly two thousand miles over the next five weeks, they were shipwrecked near a Colombian village. They were recaptured, but Charrière managed to slip away once more, evading his guards in a storm. 

In his semi-biographical novel published later, Charrière claimed that he made his way to the Guajira Peninsula in Northern Colombia, and then spent several months living with a local indigenous tribe in the jungle. Eventually, Charrière decided it was time to leave, but once he came out of the jungle he was recaptured almost immediately, and was sentenced to two years in solitary confinement.

Escape and Literary Success

Over the course of the next 11 years in which Charrière was imprisoned, he made numerous escape attempts; it is believed that he tried as many as eight times to escape prison. He later said that he was sent to Devil’s Island, a prison camp known both for being completely inescapable and for having a prisoner death rate of an astonishing 25%. 

In 1944, Charrière made his final attempt, escaping on a raft, and landing on the coast of Guyana. Imprisoned there for a year, he was ultimately released and granted citizenship, and eventually he made his way to Venezuela. Burton Lindheim of The New York Times wrote in 1973,

“[Charrière] tried to escape seven times and succeeded on his eighth attempt—a paddle over a shark‐filled sea on a raft of dried coconuts. He found refuge in Venezuela, worked as a gold digger, oil prospector and pearl merchant and did other odd jobs before settling down in Caracas, marrying, opening a restaurant and becoming a prosperous Venezuelan citizen.”

In 1969, he published Papillon, which became hugely successful. The book's title comes from the tattoo that Charrière had on his chest; papillon is the French word for butterfly. In 1970, the French government pardoned Charrière for Legrand's murder, and René Pleven, the French Minister of Justice, removed restrictions on Charrière's return to Paris to promote the book.

Charrière died of throat cancer in 1973, the same year that a film adaptation of his story was released. The film starred Steve McQueen as the title character and Dustin Hoffman as a forger named Louis Dega. A 2018 version features Rami Malek as Dega and stars Charlie Hunnam as Charrière.

Later Controversy

Georges Ménager’s Les Quatre Vérités de Papillon (“The Four Truths of Papillon”) and Gérard de Villiers’ Papillon épinglé (“Butterfly Pinned”) both went into depth about inconsistencies in Charrière’s tale. For instance, Charrière claimed he rescued a guard’s daughter from a shark attack, but the child was in fact saved by another inmate who lost both of his legs and died as a result of the incident. He also claimed that he was imprisoned on Devil’s Island, but French penal colony records do not indicate that Charrière was ever sent to this particular prison.

In 2005, Charles Brunier, who was 104 years old, said that it was his story that Charrière told in Papillon. Brunier, who was imprisoned at the same penal colony as Charrière during the same time period, told a French newspaper that he inspired Charrière to write the book. Brunier even had a tattoo of a butterfly.