You won’t find the name Ludger Sylbaris in many history books. A common labourer in the city of St. Pierre, Martinique, the first 27 years of his life went largely unrecorded.
But everything changed on the night of May 7 1902 with the beginnings of a series of events that would end in death, destruction and the dubbing of Sylbaris as “the man who lived through Doomsday.”
Details remain scarce but it would appear that on that barmy summer night, Sylbaris landed himself in serious trouble. Some accounts claim he was involved in a bar fight, others suggest it was more of a street brawl while there are also rumours he actually killed a man.
In some texts, Sylbaris is cast as a violent individual, constantly in trouble with the law. Other sources have him down as something of a mystic though, capable of experiencing precognitive dreams predicting the future. Whatever the case and for whatever reason, on that particular night Sylbaris found himself behind bars.
This was no ordinary prison cell either. A single-cell designed for solitary confinement, the partially underground structure was bomb-proof and windowless, with a narrow grate close to the door providing ventilation.
What Sylbaris could never have realised though was that these hellish prison conditions would prove to be the difference between life and death.
The capital of Martinique, St Pierre was famous for two things: being known as the “Paris of the West Indies” and for its close proximity to Mt. Pelee. But that was about to change. At around 7:52 on the morning of May 8 1902, a dense black cloud erupted from the nearby Mt Pelée with a second black cloud following soon after.
The entire sky turned black for fifty miles in every direction as pyroclastic cloud engulfed the city. Moving at around 670km an hour and consisting of a mixture of superheated steam, ash and volcanic gas, it carried a peak temperature of 1,000 C. The city’s population of some 30,000 to 40,000 people either burned or suffocated to death while all of the once-breathtaking buildings in the city were flattened in an instant.
It took four days before a rescue team braved the city, searching for survivors. Searching through the remaining rubble they began to hear the screams of a single man – it was Sylbaris. Badly burned but able to speak, he recounted his tale of survival.
It had begun on the day of the eruption, when at around breakfast time, he recalled everything growing very dark. Despite his cell door facing away from the volcano – something that was crucial to his survival – hot air and ashes had entered his cell through the door grating.
Sylbaris was badly burned on his arms, legs and back but, crucially, his clothes failed to ignite while he was able to avoid breathing in the noxious gases and hot air.
One of only three recorded survivors, Sylbaris received a pardon for his crimes in the immediate aftermath and, in the years that followed, joined the famous Barnum & Bailey’s Circus. Something of a celebrity with his heavily scarred body, Sylbaris was dubbed “the Most Marvelous Man in the World” and formed a part of the circus’s “Greatest Show on Earth” regaling audiences with tales of his once-in-a-lifetime experience.
He lived on, eventually passing away from natural causes at the age of around 54 in 1929. It’s now over a century since Sylbaris’ incredible story of fate and survival was discovered. In the 100 years since, though, there’s never been anything quite like it.