W. (William) Harding.

Dreyfus: the prisoner of Devil's Island, a full story of the most remarkable military trial and scandal of the age online

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founded when the latter told them he had spent his $5,000 in paying his
debts, and that in order to settle the matter they would have to contribute
that amount from their own pockets in order to make up the 100,000
francs ; and this was done also !

Some of the papers insisted that an inquiry should be made into the
matter, and it seems at least one of the seven conspirators was himself
asked to sit in judgment upon the affair, while the man appointed presi-
dent of the committee of inquiry was described as occupying a prominent
position upon a Paris newspaper which was inscribed upon the Panama
Canal lobbying list as having received 1,500,000 francs. As the com-
mittee had no power to investigate or authority to search for evidence
against the guilty parties, those in possession of the facts refused to appear
before the tribunal.

Finally, it is charged that the committee was purposely constructed so
as to frustrate the object it was intended to accomplish ; and the inquiry
of course collapsed.


Chapter XI.


Shortly after his degradation, Dreyfus was taken to the fortress of
lie de R^, off the coast of France, preparatory to being shipped to the
French penal settlement of Cayenne, French Guiana, off which place lay
the lies du Salut (Salvation Islands), of which lie du Diable (Devil's
Island), which was to be his permanent prison, formed a part.

Thus, for four years, disappeared from view the degraded officer, the
man denounced as a traitor from one end of France to the other, but be-
loved and believed in by those who knew him best.

Before he was put on board the ship which took him to Devil's Island,
Dreyfus was allowed to have a probably last interview with his faithful
wife. In this interview he broke down and talked of suicide. But the
noble woman arose to the occasion and pointed him out the path of duty.
She told him that, for the sake of his children and for her sake, as well as
for the sake of his loyal friends, he must put up with everything and trust
to them to prove his innocence in due course of time.

Just before leaving France Dreyfus wrote a letter to his wife which
contained the following words :

" In promising you to live, to keep firm until my name is rehabilitated,
I have made you the greatest sacrifice that a man of feeling — a man of
honor — from whom they have torn his honor, can make. Provided only
that God help me, that my physical strength does not leave me. The
will is there, and my conscience, which reproaches me with nothing, bears
me up. So, then, my darling, do all in the world you can to find the true
culprit; never relax your efforts for a moment. It is my only hope."

Madame Dreyfus was faithful to her husband's solemn charge. From
that time on she devoted herself to the rehabilitation of her husband. The
brothers of Dreyfus and her relatives spared no trouble and no money in
seeking for enlightenment. The brothers freely offered their whole fortune


in the efforts made, and a systematic campaign was opened in behalf of
the prisoner. Madame Dreyfus made superhuman efforts to touch the
hearts of the great army chiefs, but they were obdurate, saying they were
firmly convinced of the guilt of the prisoner. In fact, the War Office
authorities seemed to think they had done a very clever piece of work, and
Du Paty de Clam was promoted for his share in the affair.

Dreyfus, on his way to his island prison, was treated with the greatest
harshness and contempt. Nobody has any sympathy or respect for a
traitor; and Frenchmen less than any other people. He arrived at his
destination, however, in fairly good health, though much depressed in
spirits and still vainly protesting his innocence.

In this manner two years passed, and this gives us an opportunity to
glance at the Salvation Islands.

The Salvation Islands comprise three small islands off the coast of
French Guiana, a few degrees north of the equator, and, except by a
narrow sea frontage, is covered with tropical forests. The climate is simply
murderous, certain death being the result of standing bareheaded in the
sun even for a short time. From November to June is the wet season,
during which the average rainfall is 180 inches; yet the temperature is
never less than 85°, and rises to 115° during the four dry months. Con-
vict ships bound for these " Islands of the Cursed " generally sail either
from the lie de E^, in the Bay of Biscay, or the lie d'Aix, in the Medi-
terranean. A month is occupied by the voyage, the horrors of which are
a fit prelude to those yet to come.

Dressed in their convict garb, the prisoners are confined in batches of
fifty in great iron cages on the spar deck. Benches are placed around
the sides of the cage, and hammocks are slung at night. But day and
night they are watched by guards standing beside loaded mitrailleuses,
(rapid-firing guns), ready to fire at the first sign of mutiny. Sometimes,
indeed, such outbreaks do occur; but they are invariably quelled with
remorseless severity. The horrors of the passage are too repulsive for
description, the scenes resembling rather those observable a century or
two ago than what one would expect in the present times.

On the arrival of the prisoners at the lies du Salut they are taken to
the "camp," a clearing occupied by strongly built iron-barred huts, fur-
nished with double rows of hammocks. But at night the fetid atmosphere


within, combined with the noisome vapors of the outer air and the ever-
present swarms of stinging insects, render any but the sleep of exhaustion
impossible. From the moment of his arrival the convict has no name.
He is known only by the number of his hammock. The new arrivals are
put to the most severe tasks — draining marshes and clearing ground — " to
break their spirits." They are conducted to their work by armed guards,
who are ordered to fire at the least attempt at flight. Hardly any try to
escape, for they know that, if they evade the bullets of the guards and
their pursuit, it will be necessary to traverse the virgin forest and the sea.
At every step will lie in wait of them death by hunger, by fatigue, by
disease, or by the poisoned arrows of the natives, who receive a reward
for every convict they bring back, dead or alive. Meanwhile, with their
bodies broken by their awful toil in a climate where a walk of a hundred
yards is a formidable task, they labor in the blazing sun with spades and
picks. About their heads hang clouds of stinging insects. Great red
ants cover their bare legs, and sometimes poisonous serpents twist about
their ankles and inflict mortal wounds. They stand in trenches up to
their knees in water and mire, and the exhalations rising from the earth
consume them with fever, or set their teeth chattering as with cold, while
the sweat rolls from their foreheads.

Occasionally, in their despair, some of the convicts revolt, in the
hope, which is seldom disappointed, of finding in the bullets of their cus-
todians a relief from this living torture. Others again go mad, or end
their lives by deliberately exposing themselves to the sun, while very
few ever succeed in escaping. Indeed, only once have any fugitives
reached civilized countries again, and even then their period of freedom
was comparatively brief.


Chapter XII.

Only a week previous to Dreyfus 's arrival his particular island (Dev-
il's Island) was used as a hospital for lepers, all of whom, however, had
been removed, and their huts burnt down.

The island on which the man convicted of betraying his country was
seemingly destined to pass the rest of his days is a very small one, shaded
by a few cocoanut trees, and, small though it be, he was not allowed to set
foot on more than a part of it, the only point from which he could by any
possibility escape being prohibited to him. His modem hut, measuring
four yards square, comprised but one room, in which a couple of guards
were ever with the prisoner, who at night was shut in his den, which was
constantly lighted up, a hole in the door enabling the watchman to keep
an eye on his every movement.

With regard to food Dreyfus was treated at first, it appears, in the
same way as French soldiers in the colonies, and on that score he had
nothing to complain of.


Naturally the view was a distant one ; for on the He du Diable (Dev-
il's Island) no one debarks. But from either of the other islands — from
the lie St. Joseph, where the bulk of the convicts are confined, and where


the executioner has his habitat, or from the He Eoyale, where the marines
who constitute the garrison are quartered — the prisoner on the interme-
diate rock could be made out distinctly enough through an opera-glass, and
the more readily that he alone was privileged to wear white clothes. The
one white-clad figure, bearded now, and bent and listless, among the blue
uniforms — that is surely he.

Dreyfus's movements in 1896 were under less restraint than was at
first the case. The length and breadth of the rock was his exercise dur-
ing certain hours. He was master of his dreary time. He could employ
it as he pleased, and he seemed to have mapped it out with the idea of


getting through as much of it as possible. He read steadily and smoked
as steadily, walked much, ate little, drank no stimulants, and slept seven
hours out of the twenty-four. His health under this regime held out,
perhaps, as well as could be expected against a climatic dispensation of
tropical rain and torrid sun, by no means conducive to longevity.

His literature was as ample as his friends could make it. He had
books of all sorts, and periodicals by the bale, but never a newspaper.
Yet somehow he heard of the Cauvin case, and laid considerable stress on
that rehabilitation of an unjustly condemned man in one of the many
memorials he addressed to the powers at home.

The burden of all the prisoners was the same. Dreyfus admitted ap-
pearances were against him, but he maintained that he was the victim of
a ghastly judicial error. For fear of diplomatic complications, the court
that tried him sat with closed doors; it was those closed doors, he
averred, that shut out the truth. But the time, he never ceased to
declare, was bound to come when his innocence would appear clear as the
sun at noonday. And there was always the same calm assurance of this,
and no heat, or anger, or acrimony.

The prisoner's attitude was as disquieting as were his more passionate
protests that January morning in the square of the Ecole Militaire.

Certainly it disquieted M. Chautemps, Minister for the Colonies in
the Ribot Cabinet. He was moved to wire to the governor of French
Guiana to know if it were not possible for the prisoner to have his wife
with him. But the governor had his own responsibility to consider, and
opposed so formal a negative that M. Chautemps's efforts ended there.

In a house opposite the prisoner's lived his bodyguard. It consisted
of six picked ex-noncommissioned officers under a sergeant. The men
were on duty two at a time for four-hour stretches, from dawn to dark.
At dark one man entered a sort of cage in the prisoner's house, whence he
commanded a view of the prisoner's bedroom. That man remained on
duty all night and never sat down.

One man took this watch every night for a whole year. He so nearly
went mad over it that the system had to be altered, and afterward only
one night watch for each guard per week was exacted.

But, by night or by day, no matter what happened, no word could be
addressed to the captive.


The total cost of keeping Dreyfus where he was may be put down at
something like S10,000 a year. This included the cost of the periodical
cablegram from Cayenne (which is in telephonic communication with the
island) at $2.50 per word, to the Colonial Ofhce, Paris, to inform the min-
ister that "no change has taken place in the prisoner's situation."


Chapter XIII.


Dr. VeugmON, the physician who had Dreyfus in charge while the
prisoner was on Devil's Island, in an interview at Cayenne, in March of
the year 1899, said:

" Dreyfus is a neuropathic subject, and the regime to which he has
been submitted has made him more so; isolation, idleness, boredom, and
discouragement irritate his nervous system. His malady displayed itself
about a year after his imprisonment had commenced, and took the form
of cerebral depression. He was beset by unconquerable sadness; he
clenched his teeth; he complained of dyspepsia, exhaustion, and prolonged
insomnia, caused by moral preoccupations, more particularly by the ' fixed
idea ' of disculpating himself from the charge of treason. Next came
headaches and pains in the neck, and finall}'-, last year, I was called in to
treat him for fainting fits of considerable duration, which I put a stop to by
subcutaneous injections of morphia. In my presence Dreyfus was always

" Under his strength of will one could detect, however, stormy symp-
toms, and his jailers said that often, when first awaking of a morning, he
would break out into furious passion, bursting into tears, gesticulating
like a madman, and shouting unintelligible words. These violent rages
usually resulted in utter exhaustion and general torpor, and sometimes in
syncope, when, of course, I was sent for. Unfortunately, I could only put
him through an illusory sort of treatment, prescribing good nourishment,
tonics, work in his little garden, and plenty of walking exercise, to fatigue
his body and distract his mind. But the only palliative remedies for acute
neurasthenia — which I consider incurable — are bracing air, amusement,
active life — a treatment, in short, not to be dreamed of in his case.

" The irritability of Dreyfus's character has increased since he has been
told of the application to revise his trial. This proceeding haunts him ;


he is a prey to feverish restlessness ; a thousand conjectures torment his
fancy, ignorant as he is of the evidence advanced by his defenders to ob-
tain a new trial."

"Do you believe," the doctor was asked, "that if the application for
revision be rejected, Dreyfus is strong enough to get over his disappoint-

Dr. Veugnon smiled, hesitated, and then replied :

" I think we had better not consider such an eventuality. Dreyfus
has repeatedly expressed his intention to put an end to his life. His
words have been reported to the authorities, and even M. Deniel, fearing
an attempt at suicide, has ordered Dreyfus's jailers not to lose sight of
him for a second. After carefully searching his habitation they carried
off even perfectly harmless objects, such as kitchen utensils."

"Was Dreyfus in earnest? "

" I can mention a characteristic circumstance which took place early
in 1898, and justified the belief that he meant what he had said. He
sent for me one day, complaining of violent headache, and besought me
to give him a quantity of antipyrin, the only drug, he said, that gave
him relief. Struck by a sudden suspicion, I acquiesced in his request,
but, observing that a portable medicine case did not contain what he
wanted, I left him, and soon returned with a dozen perfectly harmless
cachets. These I recommended him to use very cautiously, not more
than two per diem. Next day I visited him again. His headache had
disappeared, and when I asked him to give back the balance of the
cachets I had handed to him, he pretended to look for them, and pres-
ently told me that he could not remember where he had put them. I
dropped the subject, and never thereafter even alluded to the incident,
which I consider conclusive. My instructions were to converse with him
exclusively about his health, and he never mentioned the offence he was
expiating except to protest his innocence.

" At the present time I do not think that Dreyfus will try to kill him-
self, for the possibility of 'revision' has shed a ray of hope upon his
tortured soul. But should he be disappointed, and hurled back into a
slough of despond, I should not be surprised were he to carry out his
sinister projects and commit an act of desperation."

The head keeper of the Cayenne penal settlement, at about the same


time, was questioned contidentially as to whether Dreyfus knew of the
efforts being made in France. He said :

" I can positively assert that Dreyfus is ignorant of what has taken
place in France since his incarceration, except what has been written to
him by members of his family, for every imaginable measure has been
taken to preclude indiscretion. Before his arrival here it had been
arranged to isolate him completely and cut him off from all external com-
munication. It may be said with truth that a tomb closed upon him as
soon as he came hither. In the bureaux a special service was organized
under the control of a chief inspector to supervise his food and all his
appurtenances, of which he himself drew up a list that was handed to a
Cayenne storekeeper. They were all minutely examined before being for-
warded to the island. All the clothes sent to Dreyfus are unsewn and
turned inside out to make sure that no written matter is hidden under the
seams or in the lining. His provisions are rigorously searched ; meat cans
and other tins are opened and resoldered ; his cigars — he smokes a good
(leal — are unrolled and made up again, as they might contain slips of
paper. Even the labels on the wine bottles are removed to make certain
that nothing is written on them. His letters are read ; whatever allusion
they contain to his case is pitilessly suppressed, and before delivery to
him they are subjected to great heat, in order to detect any sympathetic
or other special ink.

"If you take into consideration that Dreyfus is in the custody of
incorruptible warders, always in fear of dismissal and punishment at the
least infraction of standing rules, you will recognize, as I do, the impos-
sibility that outside rumors should ever reach the former captain. It is
not so in the penitentiary, where the convicts enjoy relative freedom ; but
the situation of Dreyfus and of these common malefactors has absolutely
nothing in common."


Chapter XIV.


Dreyfus, while iu the prison of Cherche Midi, the prison of La Sant^,
on the lie de E^, and on Devil's Island, wrote a number of touching let-
ters to his wife which were afterward published by Harper & Brothers.
Therefore we shaU only touch upon them briefly, referring more particu-
larly to the letters written from Devil's Island, as they furnish links in
the chain which we now attempt to construct. The following is one of
the letters referred to:

Tuesday, March 12, 1895.
My Deak Lucie :

Thursday, February 21st, some hours after your departure, I was taken
to Eochefort and put on shipboard.

I shall not speak to you of my voyage ; I was transported in the man-
ner in which the vile scoundrel whom I represent deserved to be trans-
ported. It was only just. They could not accord any pity to a traitor,
the lowest of blackguards ; and as long as I represent this wretch I can
only approve their conduct.

My life here must drag itself out under the same conditions.

But your heart can tell you all that I have suffered — all that I suffer.
I live only through the hope in my soul of soon seeing the triumphant
light of my rehabilitation. That is the only thing that gives me strength
to live. Without honor a man is not worthy of life.

On the day of my departure you assured me that tlie truth would
surely come soon to light. I have lived during that awful voyage, I am
living now, only on that word of yours — remember it well. I have been
disembarked but a few minutes, and I have obtained permission to send
you a cablegram.

I write in haste these few words, which will leave on the loth by the
English mail. It solaces me to have a talk with you, whom I love so
profoundly. There are two mails a month for France — the 1 5th the Eng-
lish, and the 3d the French mail.


And in the same way there are two mails a month for the lies — the
English mail and the French mail. Find out the days of their departure
and write to me by both of them.

All that I can tell you more is that if you want me to live, have my
honor given back to me. Convictions, whatever they may be, do noth-
ing for me; do not change my lot. What is necessary is a decision
which will reinstate me.

I made for your sake the greatest sacrifice a man can make, in resign-
ing myself to live after my tragic fate was decided. I did this because
you had inculcated in me the conviction that the truth must always
come to light. In your turn, my darling, do all that is humanly possible
to discover the truth. A wife and a mother yourself, try to move the
hearts of wives and mothers, so that they may give to you the key of this
dreadful mystery. I must have my honor if you want me to live. I
must have it for our dear children. Do not reason with your heart; that
does no good. I have been convicted. Nothing can be changed in our
tragic situation until the decision shall have been reversed. Eeflect,
then, and pursue the solution of this enigma. That will be worth more
than coming here to share my horrible life. It will be the best, the only
means of saving my life. Say to yourself that it is a question of life or
death for me, for our children.

I am incapable of writing to you all. My brain will bear no more ;
my despair is too great. My nervous system is in a deplorable condition,
and it is full time that this horrible tragedy should end.

Now my spirit alone is above water.

Oh, for God's sake, hurry, work with all your might!

Tell them all to write to me.

Embrace them all for me ; our poor darlings, too.

And for you a thousand tender kisses from your devoted husband,


March 28, 1895.

I was hoping to receive news of you at about this time ; as yet I have
heard nothing. I have already written you two letters.

I know nothing as yet beyond the four walls of my chamber. As for
my health, it could not be very brilliant. Aside from my physical mis-
eries, of which I speak only to cite them, the cause of this condition of
my health lies chiefly in the disorder of my nervous system, produced by
an uninterrupted succession of moral shocks.

You know that no matter how severe they might be at times, physical


sufi'erings never wrung a groan from nie, and that I could look death
coolly in the face if only my mental sufferings did not darken my thoughts.

My mind cannot extricate itself for an instant from the horrible drama
of which I am the victim, a tragedy which has struck a blow not only at
my life — that is the least of evils, and truly it would have been better had
the wretch who committed the crime killed me instead of wounding me
as he has — but [he struck] at my honor, the honor of my children, the
honor of you all.

This piercing thought of my honor torn from me leaves me no rest
either by day or by night. My nights, alas ! you can imagine what they
are ! Formerly it was only sleeplessness ; now the greater part of the night
is passed in such a state of hallucination and of fever that I ask myself
each morning how my brain still resists. This is one of the most cruel
of all my sufferings. Add to this the long hours of the day passed in
solitary communion with my thoughts, in the most absolute isolation.

Is it possible to rise above such preoccupation of the mind? Is it
possible to force the mind to turn aside to other subjects of thought? I
do not believe it; at least I cannot. When one is in this, the most agi-
tating, the most tragic plight that can possibly be conceived for a man
whose honor has never failed him, nothing can turn the mind from the
idea which dominates it.

Then when I think of you, of our dear children, my grief is unuttera-
ble; for the weight of the crime which some wretch has committed
weighs heavily upon you also. You must, therefore, for our children's
sake, pursue without truce, without rest, the work you have undertaken,
and you must make my innocence burst forth in such a way that no doubt
can be left in the mind of any human being. Whoever may be the per-

Online LibraryW. (William) HardingDreyfus: the prisoner of Devil's Island, a full story of the most remarkable military trial and scandal of the age → online text (page 4 of 35)