Ludger Sylbaris (born circa 1875 - died circa 1929), born either August Cyparis or Louis-Auguste Cyparis, was an Afro-Caribbean man who travelled with the Barnum & Bailey circus. He had become something of an early 20th-century celebrity for being the only survivor in the town itself of the devastating volcanic eruption of Mt. Pelée on the French-Caribbean island of Martinique on the 8 May 1902. This same eruption completely flattened an entire city, the "Paris of the West Indies", St. Pierre, and killed an estimated 30-40,000 people.
Saint-Pierre and the eruption
Ludger Sylbaris was actually the stage name he adopted in later life; Sylbaris was born either August Cyparis or Louis-Auguste Cyparis, according to varying reports, on the Caribbean island of Martinique. He was born around 1875, as he is said to have been around 27 years old at the time of the volcanic eruption in 1902. At this time, Sylbaris worked as a common labourer in the capital city, St. Pierre, in the shadow of the volcano Mount Pelée.
On the night of 7 May 1902, the day before the eruption, Sylbaris got involved in either a bar fight or street brawl, according to various sources, and was thrown into jail overnight for assault. Some accounts claim that Sylbaris actually killed a man and was thrown into jail for murder, although it is unknown if this is the correct version of events. Many sources indicate Sylbaris was frequently in trouble with the authorities, so it is possible he was a violent man. Some fictional accounts state that he had had a precognitive dream and was locked up as a drunk after causing a riot.
Whatever the cause of his arrest, Sylbaris was ordered to be put into solitary confinement and locked in a single-cell, partially underground, bomb-proof magazine with stone walls. His cell was without windows, ventilated only through a narrow grating in the door facing away from the volcano. His prison was the most sheltered building in the city, and it was this fact that saved his life. The cell in which he survived still stands today.
At 7:52 the next morning, the upper mountainside of Mt. Pelée ripped open and a dense black cloud shot out horizontally. A second black cloud rolled upwards, forming a gigantic mushroom cloud and darkening the sky within a fifty-mile radius. The initial speed of both clouds was later calculated at more than 670 kilometers per hour. The area devastated by the pyroclastic cloud covered about 8 square miles (21 km2), with the city of St. Pierre taking its brunt. The cloud consisted of superheated steam and volcanic gases and dust, with temperatures reaching over 1,000 °C (1,830 °F). All of the buildings in the city were flattened and the entire population burned or suffocated to death. Various reports say Sylbaris was the only survivor, while others say up to three people survived.
Four days after the eruption, a rescue team heard his cries from the rubble of the prison. Although horribly burned, he survived and was able to provide an account of the event. According to his account, at about breakfast time on the day of the eruption, it grew very dark. Hot air mixed with fine ashes entered his cell through the door grating, despite his efforts in urinating on his clothing and stuffing it in the door. The heat lasted only a short moment, enough to cause deep burns on Sylbaris' hands, arms, legs, and back, but his clothes did not ignite, and he avoided breathing the searing-hot air.
The only other survivor in the town was Léon Compère-Léandre, a shoemaker whose house was on the very edge of the pyroclastic flow. A young girl called Havivra Da Ifrile, who ran from the lava, got into a boat and survived when it was washed out to sea.
With the circus
Sylbaris was pardoned of his crimes and found fame when he joined Barnum & Bailey's circus, touring America recounting the horrors of the explosion, and becoming a minor celebrity, "the man who lived through Doomsday" or "the Most Marvelous Man in the World". As part of the Barnum and Bailey's "Greatest Show on Earth", he was the first black man ever to star in the segregated show. He could be seen in a replica of his cell in St. Pierre.
Sylbaris died of natural causes in 1929.
- Dorfman, Leo. "The Yawning Mouth of Hell." Comic strip. DC Special Blue Ribbon Digest No.6 - reprinted from Ghosts. Vol. 2. New York, NY: DC Comics Inc, 1981. 26-29.
- Thomas, Lately (August 1961). "Prelude to Doomsday". American Heritage Magazine 12 (5). Archived from the original on 10 July 2006.
- Texas Hiking article[dead link] for ASIN 1582341990