René Belbenoît

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René Belbenoît (French pronunciation: ​[ʁəne bɛlbənwa]; April 4, 1899 – February 26, 1959) was a French prisoner on Devil's Island who successfully escaped to the United States. He later published the memoirs, Dry Guillotine (1938)[1] and Hell on Trial (1940),[2] about his exploits.

Early life[edit]

Belbenoît in 1938

Jules René Lucien Belbenoît was born in Paris and abandoned by his mother, Louise Daumiere,[3] as an infant, while she went on to work as a teacher for the children of the Czar of Russia. Belbenoît's father, Louis Belbenoît,[4] who was Chief Conductor of the Paris-Orleans Express and seldom home, was unable to raise young René himself, so the boy was sent to live with his grandparents while a toddler. When Belbenoît was 12, his grandparents died suddenly and he, again in need of a parental figure, went to Paris where he lived with, and worked for, his uncle at a popular nightclub, the Café du Rat Mort (the Dead Rat Café) in the Place Pigalle.

During World War I, Belbenoît served with distinction in the French Army from 1916 – 1917 and survived the Battle of Verdun. After the war, he began working in a restaurant in Besançon as a dishwasher, for eight francs a day with room and board. After working there just 11 days, he seized a moment to steal a wallet containing 4000 francs and a motorcycle, and left Besançon for Nantes.

In Nantes, Belbenoit quickly found work as a valet in the Chateau Ben Ali, owned by the Countess d'Entremeuse. Despite the graciousness of his employer, Belbenoît again, seizing an opportunity, stole the Countess' pearls and some money from her dressing table, after only working at the Chateau for a month. He then escaped on a train for Paris.

After being in Paris but two days, he was promptly arrested by two policemen for the theft of the pearls. This theft would be the crime that would send him to the French Penal Colony in French Guiana, also incorrectly known as Devil's Island. (While he served time in French Guiana, Belbenoît never served any time on Devil's Island.)[citation needed]


In 1920, Belbenoît was sentenced to eight years of hard labor in the penal colony of French Guiana. The fact that Belbenoît had had a veteran's pension let him avoid the harshest work. Two weeks after his arrival, Belbenoît tried to escape for the first time with another man. They took a raft to Suriname, but were captured and shipped back to the penal colony. During his incarceration, Belbenoît begun to write his memoirs, which he kept in a bundle of wax cloth. He earned some money by selling roasted chestnuts and capturing butterflies. He also met a writer, Blair Niles, and sold her one of his manuscripts. The next Christmas, Belbenoît again attempted escape with nine others who had stolen a log canoe. The canoe capsized on the Maroni River, on the Surinam side, and they had to escape to the jungle. After three days they decided to return. During the trip, three of the men were violently murdered. Eventually local Indians who sheltered them gave them to Dutch authorities, who sent the escapees back to the French.

In the following years, Belbenoît tried to escape two more times and was transferred from island to island.

In 1930, when Belbenoît sent a copy of his writings about the prison conditions to a new governor, Bernard Siadous, he was transferred to the prison archive. Before Siadous was transferred back to France, he gave Belbenoît a one-year permit to leave the penal colony. Belbenoît spent most of this year working in the Panama Canal Zone as a gardener. However, with the one year permit soon to expire he decided to go back to France in order to argue his case.

Upon entry into France at Le Havre, he was arrested and then sent back to the penal colony yet again. For the crime of returning to France, he was sent to the island of Royale and put into solitary confinement for almost one year.


On November 3, 1934 Belbenoît was officially released - but that just meant he became a libéré, a free prisoner who was still not allowed to return to France. He made a living by capturing and selling butterflies and making items out of natural rubber and selling them. During the years of his imprisonment he had lost all his teeth.

When a visiting moviemaker gave him $200, Belbenoît decided to try to escape once more. On March 2, 1935, he and five others took to the sea with a boat they had bought. When after three days at sea, his companions began to argue, he pulled a gun to force them to continue. On the same day they reached Trinidad, which had a policy of helping French Guiana escapees until 1938. The escapees could stay on the island for three weeks and were given new supplies, and even a new boat. On June 10, they continued their trip. Sixteen days later they ran aground on a beach in Colombia, and locals stole their clothing. They reached Santa Marta, Colombia, where a local general fed them, but he also notified the French consul and took them to the local military prison.

However, some of the local authorities separated Belbenoît from the others and, with the cooperation of local prison authorities, a sympathetic local newspaperman helped him to escape in exchange for writing about prison conditions. Belbenoît traveled slowly north and stole a number of native canoes to continue his journey. In Panama he spent about seven months with the Kuna tribe and later sold a large collection of butterflies in Panama City. In La Libertad, El Salvador, he hid in a ship that took him to Los Angeles in 1937.

In 1938, his account, Dry Guillotine, was published in United States. Belbenoît had written it in French, and Preston Rambo translated it into English. The memoir went through 14 printings in less than a year.

The book attracted the attention of the U.S. immigration authorities, and Belbenoît was arrested. He received a visitor's visa but in 1941 was told to leave the country. Belbenoît then traveled to Mexico, and a year later tried to slip back into the United States. However, he was arrested in Brownsville, Texas and sentenced to 15 months in prison. After his release, Belbenoît acquired a valid passport and went to Los Angeles to work for Warner Bros. as a technical advisor for the film Passage to Marseille (1944).

In 1951, Belbenoît moved to Lucerne Valley, California and founded the René's Ranch Store, where he also lived. Neighbors knew who he was. His new book, Hell on Trial (1940), again attracted the attention of immigration authorities, and in May 1951 he was summoned to Los Angeles. His former movie co-workers spoke on his behalf, and he received US citizenship in 1956.

Personal life[edit]

Belbenoît married in 1956[5] and had a son in 1957.[citation needed]


René Belbenoît died of cardiac arrest in his store in Lucerne Valley, California, on February 26, 1959, aged 59.[6]


Books by René Belbenoît[edit]

  • Belbenoit, René & LaVarre, William (Introduction) (1938). Dry Guillotine.
  • Belbenoit, René & Rambo, Preston (Translator) (1940). Hell on Trial. New York: EP. Dutton & Co. (The sequel to Dry Guillotine.)

Books about René Belbenoît[edit]




  1. ^ Belbenoit, René & LaVarre, William (Introduction) (1938). Dry Guillotine.
  2. ^ Belbenoit, René & Rambo, Preston (Translator) (1940). Hell on Trial. New York: EP. Dutton & Co. (The sequel to Dry Guillotine.)
  3. ^ Virginia Department of Health, Richmond, Virginia (September 22, 1939). "Marriage Certificate for René Lucien Belbenoît and Marion Mathilde Menot, Manassas, VA". Virginia, Marriage Records, 1936-2014 [database on-line].
  4. ^ Virginia Department of Health, Richmond, Virginia (September 22, 1939). "Marriage Certificate for René Lucien Belbenoît and Marion Mathilde Menot, Manassas, VA". Virginia, Marriage Records, 1936-2014 [database on-line].
  5. ^ Virginia Department of Health, Richmond, Virginia (September 22, 1939). "Marriage Certificate for René Lucien Belbenoît and Marion Mathilde Menot, Manassas, VA". Virginia, Marriage Records, 1936-2014 [database on-line].
  6. ^ Weinstock, Matt (March 3, 2009). "Matt Weinstock -- March 3, 1959". Los Angeles Times.

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