Author. René Belbenoît received notoriety as a French-born American author, who spent nine years in the notorious Devil's Island, a penal colony in French Guiana before escaping to the United States. Born Jules René Lucien Belbenoît, he was abandoned as an infant by his mother, Christine Louise Daumiere, who became a school teacher for the Russian Czar's children. His father, Louis Belbenoit, had a busy life away from home as the chief engineer for a Paris to Orleans railroad. As a toddler, Belbenoit was sent to live with his grandparents until they died, and at the age of twelve, he was sent to Paris to live with an uncle, who ran a night club, the Dead Rat. Nothing is documented about his formal education. During World War I, he served bravely for one year in the French Army, surviving the 10-month-long Battle of Verdum in 1916. After the war, he moved from one menial job to another and stealing from his employer, until he was caught in 1921 by the Paris police, taken to jail, found guilty of being a petty thief and in June of 1923 sent to Devil's Island, a penal colony in French Guiana. Some sources state the sentence was life while others say eight to fifteen years. He was looking at a future of harsh conditions, dangerous animals from the surrounding jungle, little to no medical care, bullying guards, and hard labor, from which many of the prisoners died. Fortunately, he was not given the hardest of labor since he was a veteran of World War I. The conditions at this prison was ghastly with him being shackled at night and often placed in isolation. Over the years, he attempted to escape four times but failed each time. In 1926 he met at the prison an American author Blair Niles , who later published her 1928 book, “Condemned to Devil's Island: The biography of an Unknown Convict.” Her book was the second of three written about him but the first one in English. In 1930 he was given a one-year work release to be a gardener in the Panama Canal Zone. After the year, he did not return to the prison but escaped for the fifth time to France to plea for an appeal in the courts, but instead of getting the appeal, he was arrested and sent back to prison with a sentence of one-year solitary confinement. On November 3, 1934 he was officially released from prison but was not allowed to return to France and no formal papers to enter other countries. For the next 22 months, he roamed on foot through the snake-infested jungles of the Caribbean islands and Central and South America, often in conflict with police. In 1937 while in El Salvador, he became a stowaway on a Chinese merchant boat, which took him to Los Angeles, California. For years, he had written a journal about his prison life. In 1938 he compiled his account into a book, “Dry Guillotine.” Since he wrote it in French, the book was translated into English before publication. The book was a success, being republished fourteen times in the first year. On September 22, 1939 in Virginia, he married Marion Melot, a French divorcee. He published a second book, “Hell on Trial” in 1940. With the publicity of the books, the United States Immigration became aware of his undocumented status. He was given a visitor's visa but in 1941, he was asked to leave the United States, but did not leave, but migrated to Texas, and finally was arrested spending 15 months in jail. After his release, he got a valid passport and obtained employment as a consultant with Warner Brothers Studios in Hollywood. The studio was starting the 1941 film, “Passage to Marseille,” which contained scenes about the penal colony in French Guiana. In 1951 he opened René's Ranch Store in Lucerne Valley, California near the Mojove Desert. Once again, he was questioned by the United States Immigration, but this time employees from Warner Brothers Studios came to this author's rescue, plus the support of newspaper reporters. He became a naturalized United States citizen on January 18, 1955. Even after becoming a citizen, he had hopes of returning to France for an appeal. After seven years of living in peace in the desert, he was found dead of a heart attack at the age of 59, while sitting in a chair in his store. The lack of medical care while in prison may have seriously impacted his health as he retained his small, thin frame with sallow coloring from years of poor nutrition, had a scar on his face from a prison fight, had an acquired pulmonary problem, and lost all his teeth while imprisoned. His obituary appeared in many newspapers including the Los Angeles “Mirror,” which stated the location of his burial.
Bio by: Linda Davis