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Dry Guillotine is the English translation of the French phrase la guillotine sèche, which was prisoner slang for the Devil's Island penal colony at French Guiana. It is also the title of several articles by various authors and most notably, a very influential and successful book by former prisoner #46,635, René Belbenoît.
Examples of usage
The earliest work in the United States making use of the term "Dry Guillotine" appears as a 14 page article in Harper's Magazine titled Cayenne-the Dry Guillotine Vol.CXXVII No.DCCLVII and dated JUNE, 1913 by Charles W. Furlong, FRGS. The article carefully details the cruel and often intentionally lethal conditions of life for bagnards (prisoners) in French Guiana and lists, by name, several specific examples of young men doomed to live out their lives at one of the many camps or prisons which comprised the prison colony commonly but incorrectly referred to today as Devil's Island.
The best known work by this name is the autobiographical work, Dry Guillotine, Fifteen Years Among The Living Dead by René Belbenoit. Dry Guillotine chronicles Belbenoit's childhood, the commission of two non-violent and relatively minor thefts from employers, his subsequent capture, conviction, and transportation to French Guiana.
Belbenoit actually wrote the manuscript for Dry Guillotine while in prison and carried the work wrapped in oilskins to protect it from the elements. Protected in this manner, the manuscript survived countless rainstorms and unexpected dunkings in the ocean and rivers between Cayenne and California where Belbenoit finally managed to reach the United States and freedom in 1937.
While a prisoner at Cayenne, Belbenoit was introduced to the American author Blair Niles who bought several works from Belbenoit for use in her book titled Condemned to Devil's Island. Mrs. Niles paid Belbenoit handsomely for his work and it was this money which financed the next two escape attempts Belbenoit made.
Dry Guillotine, Fifteen years among the Living Dead was first published in 1938, copyright E.F. Dutton & Co and was so popularly received that 14 further printings were made in the first year of publication. Additional printings were made by Blue Ribbon Books in 1940 and the book remained incredibly popular for many years.
- Devil's Island
- Hell on Trial, René Belbenoit (1951)
- Papillon, Henri Charrière (1970)
- Banco, Henri Charrière (1973)
- Bagnards, Marion F. Godfroy, éditions du Chêne, Paris, septembre 2002, 216 pages. (A coffee table book on the question. See http://www.sissco.it/rassegne/rassegna1080.html)
- "C'était le bagne" - interview at L'express by the French historian Marion Godfroy http://www.lexpress.fr/info/france/dossier/domtom/dossier.asp?ida=427523