You may not have heard the name Ludger Sylbaris before, but his story is astonishing and so unbelievable that you would only expect to have come from a Hollywood film maker’s imagination.
Born in 1875 on the island of Martinique, Ludger was notorious for being a trouble maker and a previously convicted felon. The only thing that he liked better than drinking was fighting. With this in mind it is no surprise to learn that on May 7th 1902 he was arrested for the severe beating of another man. Being known as a regular offender, the police decided to teach him a lesson and threw him into solitary confinement. This unpleasant hole was tiny and half-underground with no windows apart from one very narrow slit in the door. No one knew it at the time, but the unforgiving actions of the police had just saved his life.
The Mt. Pelée volcano was incredibly close to the town of Saint-Pierre and had had been threatening to erupt for over a week. Some ash had started to gradually emit from its peak and this worrying warning sign made thousands of people leave the countryside and take shelter in the town. This was a big mistake.
Mt. Pelée exploded, bringing with it an apocalyptic cloud of smoke that blotted out the sun for over fifty miles around. Everything within a ten mile radius was flattened as superheated gas and burning dust charged out of the volcano at hundreds of mph. Within one brief moment the pressure wave that was over 1,000 degrees in temperature had flattened every building in the town. The people that were not killed by the buildings collapsing onto them instantly caught fire and were burned to death. Those in shelters that were strong enough to withstand the initial shock were suffocated in the most gruesome way. The wave of super-heated gas burned up the oxygen and replaced it with volcanic ash that burned the lungs from the inside out of anyone who took even the slightest breath. The towns’ people were obliterated in one moment and what was left burnt to nothing over the coming days.
Four days after the eruption by a rescue team heard Ludgers' cries for help. His prison cell had become the safest place on the island. He didn’t escape unscathed however as he was horribly burned as the air in his room had flash heated to over 1,000 degrees. Ludger told the tale of seeing the superheated ash heading towards his cell so he urinated on his clothes and stuffed them in the slit of the doorway by means of protection. It didn't stop the heat and his body was horribly mutilated as a result.
After surviving the volcano Ludger became famous for being the only survivor of such a terrible disaster. He was subsequently pardoned for his crimes, and hired to tour with the Barnum & Bailey circus where he was advertised as being a “living relic” and “the man who lived through Doomsday”. The act was staged for him to be able to tell the story of the horrific events he'd experienced and end with the grand finale of showing his scars to the excited crowd.
The town never recovered from this fateful day, the population is still incredibly low in comparison to 1902. The cell which saved Ludgers life has become a tourist attraction and can still be visited in St. Pierre. Head there at your own risk though as Pelée is still one of the most active volcanoes in the West Indies, and it will erupt again.