How Solitary Confinement Saved Ludger Sylbaris From The Deadliest Volcanic Eruption

Nov 13, 2018 0 comments

At the northern end of Martinique, a French overseas island in the eastern Caribbean sea, stands Mount Pelée, a volcano that famously erupted on 8 May 1902 and totally destroyed the city of Saint-Pierre, that was once known as the “Paris of the West Indies.”

Only two out of an estimated 30,000 people that lay in the direct path of the eruption’s pyroclastic flow survived that day. One was a shoemaker living on the edge of the city who escaped with severe burns. The other was Ludger Sylbaris, a convicted felon, who survived because he was locked up in a poorly ventilated dungeon.

Ludger Sylbaris’s story was so incredible that Barnum & Bailey's circus took him in, and together they toured America recounting the horrors of the eruption, presenting him as “the man who lived through Doomsday.” He became a minor celebrity as a result.


Saint Pierre, Martinique today. The volcanic cone of Mount Pelée can be seen in the background. Photo credit: Crobard/

Ludger Sylbaris, born Louis-Auguste Cyparis, was not always that lucky or nice. He used to get into fights frequently and was a known troublemaker. In early April, Sylbaris, or “Samson” as his buddies used to call him, was arrested for getting into a drunken brawl and wounding one of his friends with a cutlass. Towards the end of his sentence, he escaped from a laboring job in town, danced all night, and in the following morning, when he got sober, turned himself in to the authorities. Sylbaris was sentenced to one week of solitary confinement in the prison's dungeon. His cell was built of stone and partially buried underground. It did not have windows and was ventilated only through a narrow grating in the door facing away from the volcano through which prisoners received their food. It was the single most sheltered building in the entire city.

Meanwhile, Mount Pelée was rumbling. In fact, the mountain had been showing signs of activity since early April with sulfurous vapors and light rain of cinders and ash, accompanied by earthquakes. These activities became progressively more frequent and more violent as the weeks passed. There were loud explosions, earthquakes and massive amounts of dense black smoke that rained ashes and fine-grained pumice down from the sky contaminating food and water sources. Animals started dying from hunger and thirst.

Even the sea started behaving strangely. On May 5, in the afternoon, the sea suddenly receded about 100 meters and then rushed back, flooding parts of the city. The wall of the volcano’s crater had collapsed, propelling a mass of boiling mud and water into Blanche River which flooded a sugar mill and buried more than a one hundred fifty victims under mud. That night, the electric grid gave out sinking the entire city into darkness.


Saint-Pierre, Martinique, before the eruption. Photo credit: Royal Commonwealth Society Library

In the midst of all this confusion, the city was preparing for the all important general election, with socialists poised to take control from right-wing politicians. St Pierre was the main center of conservative votes, and so the governor, anxious to keep his right-wing colleagues in power, put off evacuation until voters could cast their ballots on polling day on 11 May. Governor Louis Mouttet convinced the conservative editor of the daily newspaper Les Colonies to downplay the danger of the volcano and encourage people to remain. He even sent troops to patrol the road to Fort-de-France, with orders to turn back refugees who were trying to leave. To those who had already departed, the editor of Les Colonies lectured that Fort-de-France wasn’t any safer than St. Pierre because it was prone to earthquakes. “Where better off could one be than in St. Pierre?”, he asked.

Another writer for the newspaper described walking through the deep layers of ash that covered the stricken countryside as “walking delightfully through fine flour.”

Aside from the soothing articles that appeared on the newspaper, the phenomenon of pyroclastic flow was not fully understood. People believed the danger would be from lava flows, which they thought would be stopped by the two valleys between the volcano and the city.

All around the city the populace waited for the angry volcano to subside, but they did not flee.


The eruption of Mount PeléeMount Pelée on 8 May 1902 was the third most catastrophic eruption in history, by death count.

In the early morning hours of May 8, the volcano started to rumble again and began shooting upward a dark column of ash. On the heights around the city, residents stood in awe of the stupendous spectacle. A few minutes before eight, the volcano finally erupted with full might. A large black cloud composed of superheated gases and fine debris, with searing temperatures of over 1,000 degree centigrade rose up to the sky, while pyroclastic surge raced towards the city at over 100 miles per hour. The entire city was flattened, and everyone who stood on its way was either burned or was suffocated to death.

CyparisThree days after the disaster, rescue workers heard the cries of Ludger Sylbaris, who was still locked inside his underground cell and dug him out. Although horribly burned, he was alive and was able to give an account of his ordeal.

On the morning of the eruption, Sylbaris said he was waiting for his breakfast to be brought, when suddenly his cell grew very dark, followed by a gust of hot air mixed with fine ashes that entered the tiny cell through the door grating and burned him. Sylbaris cried for help, but of course, no one heard him. The excruciating heat lasted only a moment, but it was hot enough to burn his flesh. His wounds were so deep that blood began to ooze out of it. Incredibly, his clothes were intact although his hands, arms, legs, and back all had deep burns. Sylbaris had the presence of mind to breathe as little as possible, thus avoiding burning his air passages and lungs. For the next three days he waited inside what would have eventually become his tomb, had he not been rescued.


The cell which saved Ludger Sylbaris’s life. Photo credit: Gaël Chardon/Flickr

Ludger Sylbaris wasn’t the only person to survive the eruption of Mount Pelée. A young shoemaker, Léon Compere-Léandre, also escaped death despite being severely burnt. He remembers sitting on the doorstep of his house when the ground began to tremble and the sky became dark. His account is chilling:

I turned to go into the house, with great difficulty climbed the three or four steps that separated me from my room, and felt my arms and legs burning, also my body. I dropped upon a table. At this moment four others sought refuge in my room, crying and writhing with pain, although their garments showed no sign of having been touched by flame. At the end of 10 minutes one of these, the young Delavaud girl, aged about 10 years, fell dead; the others left. I got up and went to another room, where I found the father Delavaud, still clothed and lying on the bed, dead. He was purple and inflated, but the clothing was intact. Crazed and almost overcome, I threw myself on a bed, inert and awaiting death. My senses returned to me in perhaps an hour, when I beheld the roof burning. With sufficient strength left, my legs bleeding and covered with burns, I ran to Fonds-Saint-Denis, six kilometers from St. Pierre.

The volcano destroyed about eight square miles of area centered around St. Pierre. Inside this area, the destruction of life and property was total. Houses were pulverized and landmarks made unrecognizable. And just like clocks and watches in Hiroshima were frozen stopped at 8:15 AM, the exact time the atom bomb exploded, the clock on the shattered front wall of St. Pierre’s military hospital had its hands frozen at 7:52 AM—the time when the lahar from the volcano hit.

A second eruption of equal intensity on May 20 completed the obliteration of St. Pierre, leveling whatever buildings that were still standing, including the wall of the military hospital with the clock. The city never recovered after that. It was rebuilt in patches, but even after a hundred years after the devastation it never grew to its former entirety.

The cell which saved Ludgers’s life is one of the few structures that still stand, and can be visited to this date.


View of the smoldering city taken from the bay. Photo credit: Royal Commonwealth Society Library


Destroyed Rue Victor Hugo looking north. Photo credit: Royal Commonwealth Society Library


Rubble lies on principal cross street in Saint-Pierre, Martinique, after the eruption. Photo credit: Royal Commonwealth Society Library

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