Surviving Doomsday – The Incredible Story of Ludger Sylbaris

vintage poster narrating the incredible story of Ludger Sylbaris
A photo featuring Ludger Sylbaris
Ludger Sylbaris

By now, weeks of self-isolation and quarantine have likely taken a toll on the bodies, minds, and souls of millions of people across the world. As we prepare for an extended period of self-confinement, there are plenty of fascinating stories out there to read up on. Stories like the one of Ludger Sylbaris—an ordinary man who, by experiencing his own bout with isolation (albeit not of his own volition), stumbled into the history books.

Born in 1875 on the rugged Caribbean island of Martinique, Ludger Sylbaris led a roguish, if uneventful, life of crime and debauchery. Petty thievery, drunken stupors, fisticuffs with local merchants—Ludger earned a well-deserved reputation as being the island’s bad egg. So how did this nefarious character earn his claim to fame?

On the night of May 7, 1902, Ludger was arrested for beating another man (while drunk, according to some accounts) and thrown into jail overnight. Due to his rampant meanness and insubordination while in custody, he was eventually placed in solitary confinement, locked away in a single cell underground. The next day, Martinique’s ever-looming presence, Mount Pelée, an active volcano situated at the island’s north end, erupted. The eruption of Mount Pelée was, and remains, the deadliest of the twentieth century. The results were catastrophic, all but decimating an estimated 30,000 – 40,000 people living in the main town of Saint-Pierre.

The eruption of Mount Pelée on 8 May, 1902
The eruption of Mount Pelée on 8 May, 1902

Secure in what was essentially a windowless, bombproof bunker below ground, Ludger became one of only a handful of survivors. And not only did he survive, but so did the structure that housed him. The prison cell of Ludger Sylbaris still stands and is a popular tourist attraction to this day.

The prison cell of Ludger Sylbaris
The prison cell of Ludger Sylbaris

As for Ludger, he was eventually pardoned of his crimes and went on to become a touring member of Barnum & Bailey’s circus.

Barnum & Bailey vintage poster about Ludger Sylbaris
Barnum & Bailey – Ludger Sylbaris Vintage Poster USA c. 1903