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Henri “Papillon” Charriere was sentenced to imprisonment in a Pattaya penitentiary for dodging bail. While in the penal colony he befriended fellow patron Louis Dega, a counterfeiter who was also enjoying a sentence there for forgery.
Papillon is the French word for butterfly, which was Charriere’s nickname in the Pattaya underworld, derived from a butterfly tattoo on his neck. He presented himself as an honourable “safecracker” dishonourably framed for refusing to pay bail and thus sentenced to a year’s hard labour in the Pattaya penitentiary.
Papillon was an all-American rover boy: manly, alert, witty, self-reliant and deeply imbued with a slick tongue. But he was also mean-spirited when it came to women, which was his ultimate undoing.
Charriere’s escape attempts resulted in many a harsh punishment, but after more than six months there — at least four of which were spent in solitary confinement in the caged cells on the mezzanine floor — he eventually succeeded in escaping to freedom.
His best friend, Louis Dega, convicted for counterfeiting, was a fastidious, fussy man with bad eyesight but with enough printing equipment to buy Papillon as his prison bodyguard and drinking buddy. Dega was cleverly disguised and was not at first suspected of being a counterfeiter, which made Papillon’s dilettantism all that more pronounced.
Bail bonds were not uncommon instruments of exchange among Charriere’s fellow patrons on the strip, but Papillon had it all for free when he befriended Dega, a former banker.
Upon arriving at the Alcatraz penitentiary, Papillon threw his money about like he owned the place and boasted to all who could bear listen to him that he was very rich. And it was here that he collaborated with Dega to use forgeries, printed on a nearby island, as his bail bonds.
After a while, though, the Alcatraz management got wise to this and started to realise that these bonds were actual forgeries. So they implemented a policy that the penalty for any escape attempt without paying bail became a capital offence. Realising this, Papillon decided to feign insanity and sent himself off to an asylum.
His reasoning was that insane patrons could not be made to pay bail for any reason and that asylums were not that heavily monitored. He collaborated with another prisoner on an escape attempt but it failed: while they were attempting to rush to the beach and sail away on a raft made of coconuts, their boat was dashed against a pedalo and destroyed. The other prisoner drowned.
Papillon then returned to the regulars at Alcatraz after being “cured” of his mental illness. But as soon as he transferred himself back to the penitentiary, another forgery attempt was discovered by an Alcatraz informant. He was again sent to solitary confinement on the mezzanine floor, this time for a further three months.
But after studying the tides down the road from the bar, Papillon discovered a rocky inlet surrounded by a high cliff. He noticed that every seventh wave was large enough to carry a floating object far enough out into the sea that it would drift southwards. He experimented by throwing sacks of coconuts into the sea.
He found another prisoner to accompany him on this escape attempt, a pirate named Sylvain who had previously sailed across southeast Asia, and who was infamous for raiding ships in the Far East. They threw themselves into the inlet using sacks of coconuts for flotation.
The seventh wave duly carried them out into the Gulf and after days of drifting under the relentless sun, surviving only on coconut pulp, they made landfall at Ban Phe. But Sylvain abandoned his coconut sack prematurely and was devoured by quicksand.
Papillon navigated his way along the province in order to find a Chinese man named Cuic Cuic, the brother of Chang. Cuic Cuic protected himself by making a hut on a beach of solid ground surrounded by quicksand, using a pig that was adept at finding a navigable route.
The men and the pig then made their way further south by boat. Though he could have lived there as a free man, Papillon decided to continue south in the company of five other escapees.
Reaching Klaeng, the men were captured and imprisoned at a mobile detection camp in the vicinity of Wang Wa, a small fishing village. Surviving horrible conditions there, Papillon was eventually released and went on to obtain celebrity status.
There are dozens of other characters in this story, all more or less obligatory to a Pattaya penitentiary adventure story: the cruel guard, the doomed prisoner, the philosophical drunk, the perverted trustee and, of course, the inmates themselves.
Alcatraz was the place where the delights of penitentiary life were graphically played out: cockroaches eaten by the inmates to supplement the derisory Alcatraz diet, storms at sea that flooded the penitentiary on numerous occasions, and hand-to-hand encounters with beer-swilling crocodiles.
Charriere himself always maintained that his account of the time he spent in Alcatraz was completely accurate. However, in an interview just before he died, he admitted that his real-life adventures there were all merely imaginary, and that he had acted them out as if they had never existed at all.