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Henri Charrière (French pronunciation: ​[ɑ̃ʁi ʃaʁjɛʁ]; 16 November 1906  – 29 July 1973) was a French writer, convicted as a murderer by the French courts. He wrote the novel Papillon, a memoir of his incarceration in and escape from a penal colony in French Guiana. While Charrière claimed that Papillon was largely true, modern researchers believe that much of the book’s material came from other inmates, rather than Charrière himself. Charrière denied committing the murder, although he freely admitted to having committed various other petty crimes prior to his incarceration.

Henri Charriere
Born(1906-11-16)16 November 1906
Died29 July 1973(1973-07-29) (aged 66)
Madrid, Spain
later Venezuelan
Other namesPapillon
Known forPapillon



Early lifeEdit

Charrière was born at Saint-Étienne-de-Lugdarès, Ardèche, France. He had two older sisters. His mother died when he was 10. At 17 in 1923, he enlisted in the French Navy and served for two years. After that, he became a member of the Paris underworld. He later married and had a daughter.


The version of his life presented in his semi-biographical novel, Papillon, claimed that Charrière was convicted on 26 October 1931 of the murder of a pimp named Roland Le Petit, a charge that he strenuously denied. He was sentenced to life in prison and ten years of hard labour. After a brief imprisonment at the transit prison of Beaulieu in Caen, France, he was transported in 1933 to the prison of St-Laurent-du-Maroni on the Maroni River, in the penal settlement of mainland French Guiana.

According to the book, he made his first escape on 28 November 1933[1] and was joined by fellow prisoners André Maturette and Joanes Clousiot, who would accompany him throughout much of his time on the run. Thirty-seven days later, the trio were captured by Colombian police near the village of Riohacha, northern Caribbean Region of Colombia, and were imprisoned. Charrière subsequently escaped during a rainy night and fled to the La Guajira Peninsula, where he was adopted by an Indian tribe. He spent several months living with the natives, but felt that he had to move on, which was a decision he would ultimately regret. After leaving, he was quickly recaptured and sent back to French Guiana to be put into solitary confinement for the next two years.

After his release from solitary confinement, he spent another 7 years in prison. During this period he attempted to escape several more times, resulting in increasingly brutal responses from his captors. He stated that he was then confined to Devil's Island, a labour camp (Devil's Island was not a labour camp so much as an internment camp) that, at the time, was notorious for being inescapable. (French authorities later released penal colony records that contradicted this; amongst other details, Charrière had never been imprisoned on Devil's Island.) However, he finally achieved his permanent liberation in 1941, by using a bag of coconuts as a makeshift raft and riding the tide out from the island. He sailed for miles and eventually arrived in Venezuela, where he was imprisoned for one year and then released as a Venezuelan citizen.[2]

Later lifeEdit

After Charrière's final release in 1945, he settled in Venezuela where he married a Venezuelan woman identified only as Rita. He opened restaurants in Caracas and Maracaibo. He was subsequently treated as a minor celebrity, even being invited frequently to appear on local television programmes. He finally returned to France, visiting Paris in conjunction with the publication of his memoir Papillon (1969). The book sold over 1.5 million copies in France,[3] prompting a French minister to attribute "the moral decline of France" to miniskirts and Papillon.[4]

Charrière was pardoned of murder in 1970.[5]

Papillon was first published in the United Kingdom in 1970, in a translation by the novelist Patrick O'Brian. Charrière played the part of a jewel thief in a 1970 film called The Butterfly Affair. He also wrote a sequel to Papillon entitled Banco, in which he describes his life after being released from prison.

On 29 July 1973, Charrière died of throat cancer in Madrid, Spain.[6]


Charrière's best-selling book Papillon (1970), which he said was "75 percent true",[7] details his alleged numerous escapes, attempted escapes, adventures, and recaptures, from his imprisonment in 1932 to his final escape to Venezuela. The book's title is Charrière's nickname, derived from a butterfly tattoo on his chest (papillon being French for butterfly). Modern researchers, however, believe that Charrière got much of his story material from other inmates, and so see the work as more of a work of fiction than a true autobiography.[citation needed]

In his book Les quatre vérités de Papillon ("The Four Truths of Papillon"), Georges Ménager, a former Paris Match reporter, claims that Charrière was in fact a police informer and a pimp before his incarceration, and lived off the proceeds of his girlfriend's prostitution, and that he later tried to blame her for the murder of Roland Legrande. Charrière claims to have been incarcerated in Saint Laurent and may have escaped from there, but according to French officials, he never served any time on Devil's Island.[citation needed]

The book and movie both present Devil's Island as having rocky cliffs, when, in fact, although the entire island is rocky, it gently slopes into the surrounding sea. A French justice ministry report said Charrière's book included episodes that were imagined or involved others and "should be divided by at least 10 to get near the truth".[8]

In 2005, a 104-year-old man in Paris, Charles Brunier, claimed to be the real Papillon.[9] He also had a butterfly tattoo, on his left arm.[citation needed]

Critics tend to agree that Charrière's depictions included events that happened to others and that Brunier was at the prison at the same time. Critics claim that the heroic rescue of a guard's young daughter from sharks, which Charrière describes graphically in his book, was in fact carried out by another convict named Alfred Steffen who lost both legs and subsequently died.[10] When some critics questioned the veracity of his story and said he erred on some of the dates, Charrière replied: "I didn't have a typewriter with me."[11] French journalist Gerard de Villiers, author of Papillon Épinglé (Butterfly Pinned), maintains: "Only about 10 percent of Charrière's book represents the truth."[12]

Film adaptationsEdit

Papillon was adapted into the film Papillon (1973), directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and starring Steve McQueen as Henri Charrière. Dalton Trumbo was the screenwriter, and Charrière himself acted as a consultant on location. The film has scenes not mentioned in the book, such as when Papillon and his friend Louis Dega (played by Dustin Hoffman) are forced by the guards to catch a crocodile.[citation needed]

A 12-minute documentary, The Magnificent Rebel (1973), covers the making of the film, and includes an interview with Charrière.[citation needed]

On 24 August 2018, a second film adaptation of the novel, also called Papillon (2017), was released. It was directed by Michael Noer, and Charrière was played by Charlie Hunnam.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Charrière, Henri (1970). Papillon. London: Hart-Davis. ISBN 978-0-24663-987-5.
  2. ^ "Henri Charriere". Everything2. 19 September 2001. Retrieved 15 September 2018.
  3. ^ Foote, Timothy (14 September 1979). "Travels with Papi". TIME. Vol. 96 no. 11. p. 92.
  4. ^ Charrière, Henri (2005). "Introduction". Papillon. Translated by O'Brian, Patrick. London: Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-00-717996-0.
  5. ^ "'Papillon' Author Pardoned". The New York Times. 29 October 1970. Retrieved 29 August 2018.
  6. ^ Hoyle, Ben (31 July 1973). "Obituary: Henri Charrière". The Times. p. 14. Retrieved 13 March 2011.
  7. ^ "Henri Charriere, Author of 'Papillon' Dies at 66". The Lewiston Daily Sun. 28 July 1973. Retrieved 2018-09-15.
  8. ^ Randall, Colin (27 June 2005). "Ex-convict aged 104 claims to be Papillon". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2018-09-15.
  9. ^ Schofield, Hugh (26 June 2005). "Papillon alive and well in a Paris retirement home". Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 2018-09-15.
  10. ^ Wreen, Marie-Claude (13 November 1970). "The Fabulous Escapes of Papillon: An ex-con from Devil's Island strikes it rich with a great yarn - but how true is it?". LIFE. p. 52. Retrieved 2018-09-15.
  11. ^ "Devil's Isle author dies after surgery". Eugene Register-Guard. 30 July 1973. Retrieved 2018-09-15.
  12. ^ "Small-time Paris thief writes a bestseller". Boca Raton News. 5 November 1970. Retrieved 2018-09-15.

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