The Prison Cell Of "The Man Who Lived Through Doomsday"

On May 8, 1902, Mt. Pelee in Martinique erupted, destroying the city of St. Pierre and instantaneously killing more than 30,000 people. The city's sole survivor was Ludger Sylbaris, a felonious drunk who was rotting in this cell.


On the night of May 7, Sylbaris was arrested for fighting and was thrown in the pokey. His cell was tiny, stone, partially underground, and contained only a tiny slit for air. Sylbaris had picked a prime night to act rowdy, as hell would come to St. Pierre the next morning. Via Atlas Obscura:

Mt. Pelee exploded and a cloud of smoke darkened the sky for fifty miles around. A cloud of superheated volcanic gas and dust rolled out of the volcano at hundreds of miles per hour destroying everything in an eight mile radius. Within a single minute the 1,075 degree pressure wave had flattened every building in the city of St. Pierre and anyone unlucky enough to be in its way instantly caught fire and burned to death. Even those in shelter were suffocated as the wave of gas, hotter than fire, burned up the oxygen and replaced it was deadly gases. People's lungs were burnt to a crisp from taking a single breath, and after the eruption the city burned for day. The explosion instantly killed the over 30,000 residents of the island.

Except that it didn't, not quite. Ludger couldn't have been more lucky. He was found four days after the eruption by a rescue team who heard his calls. Despite being in the safest place on the island he was horribly burned as the air in his room had flash heated to over 1000 degrees. Ludger described the experience of seeing the light coming through the slit grow dark, and then the superheated ash flying in. He peed on his clothes and stuffed them in the slit, but it didn't stop the heat.

Sylbaris was one of three survivors of the Mt. Pelee blast. Havivra Da Ifrile, a young girl, escaped the pyroclastic cloud by taking a boat out to sea, and Léon Compère-Léandre, a shoemaker, was likely knocked into the ocean from his home. Sylbaris was pardoned for his boozy loutishness and later achieved minor fame with Barnum and Bailey's Circus as "the man who lived through Doomsday," thus beginning the only celebrity career spring-boarded by a catastrophic volcano and a drinking problem.


[Read more at Atlas Obscura. Circus poster via San Diego State University.]


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