Field of Science

May 8, 1902: La Pelée

"My Dear Sister: This morning the whole population of the city is on the alert and every eye is directed toward Mont Pelee, an extinct volcano. Everybody is afraid that the volcano has taken into its heart to burst forth and destroy the whole island."
Mrs. Thomas T. Prentis, wife of the United States Consul at St. Pierre, to her sister in Melrose (Boston). After May 8, rescuers would find the charred corpses of both the consul and his wife, sitting in chairs in front of a window that faced Pelée. The bodies of their children would never be found.

Despite recognized as volcano, Mount Pelée, - the bald headed mountain - owning possibly its name to the devastation of an eruption occurred in 1635 before the European colonization, on the island of Martinique was considered extinct since an eruption in 1767 that killed more than 16.000 people living on its slope. In 1856 the mountain however gave signs of activity
with minor eruptions of steam and single mudflows descending the slopes, however the rich city of St. Pierre was not affected.

Fig.1. A relief map of Mount Pelée showing the area affected by the eruptions of 8 May and 3 August, 1902, after Lacrox 1904. Note on the summit of the volcano two depressions - L´Etang Sec, a temporary lake, and the Lac de Palmistes.

In April 1902 the old father - as the mountain was referred by the locals- awoke again with violent explosions and on the summit a depression became filed with boiling water - the L'Etang Sec (the dry lake). End of April ash fall on St. Pierre were reported by the local newspaper "Les Colonies":

"The rain of ashes never ceases. At about half-past nine the sun shone forth timidly. The passing of carriages in the streets is no longer heard. The wheels are muffled [in the ashes]. Puffs of wind sweep the ashes from the roofs and awnings, and blow them into rooms of which the windows have imprudently been left open."

The population of St. Pierre became anxious, many of the residents left the city, but they became immediately replaced by refugees from the area surrounding the volcano and many non-residents coming to town for the election of the new island governor on May 10.

On May 5, heavy rain occurred and the dam holding back the boiling water of L´Etang Sec collapsed, a gigantic mudflow rushed down the slopes of Pelée and buried completely a sugar mill on the base of the mountain
, 150 people were killed, the waves generated in the sea reached even the harbour of St. Pierre - people begun to panic.
In an effort to tranquillize the public and hold the voters in the city the French governor appointed a commission to investigate the danger from the volcano. "Les Colonies" stated:

"[Professor Landes of the Lycée concludes that] Mt. Pelée presents no more danger to the inhabitants of Saint Pierre than does Vesuvius to those of Naples."

Fig. 2. The newspaper "Les Colonies" May 7, 1902 with the statement that La Pelée "presents no danger", 24 hours later all journalists and editor were dead.

Ironically the Italian Marino Leboffe, Capitan of the freighter Orsolina anchoring in the harbour, complained on May 2, to the local authorities:

"I know nothing about Mount Pelée, but if Vesuvius were looking the way your volcano looks this morning, I'd get out of Naples."

On May 7, the volcano La Soufriére on the island of St. Vincent, 145 km distant, exploded, people hoped that the violent eruption released enough pressure of the earth to prevent the eruption of old father, the residents settled down.

May 8, would became a sunny day, a column of steam was rising above the old father, but otherwise the activity of the volcano seemed unchanged.
At 7:50 in the morning the Pelée blew itself to pieces. For hours after the four explosions the city burned, and for days it was unapproachable by the great heat emanating from the ruins.
Estimated 28.000 to 40.000 people died, only three survivors wer
e reported. The young shoemaker Léon Compère-Léandre (1874-1936) escaped from the border of St. Pierre into the village of Fonds-Saint-Denis, the girl Havivra Da Ifrile tried to escape to a cave near the coast and was washed onto the sea, where she was rescued days later. To Da Ifrile we owe one or the rare eyewitnesses accounts of the eruption:

"But before I got there, I looked back-and the whole side of the mountain which was near the town seemed to open and boil down on the screaming people. I was burned a good deal by the stones and ashes that came flying about the boat, but I got to the cave,…"

One of the most well-know survivor was the 25-year-old stevedore Lou
is-Auguste Cyparis (1875-1929), who survived in his small prison cell and became known as the "Samson of St. Pierre" in the Barnum & Bailey Circus where he worked and told his story after his rescue.

Fig.3. The "Samson of St. Pierre".

Fig.4. and 5. Photograph of St. Pierre, Martinique, in the 19th century long before the eruption, and photograph by Angelo Heilprin of St. Pierre after the eruption of Mount Pelée on May 8, 1902. The monstrous blast and subsequent pyroclastic flows wiped out the entire city, only four locals survived this day of the final eruption, one was staying outside the city, the other three escaped or survived by mere chance.

On May 20, Pelée exploded again investing the ruins of the city and killing 2.000 rescuers, engineers, and mariners bringing relief supplies to the island.

The devastation experienced in St. Pierre was unexplainable at the time when volcanology was still regarded only as a minor branch of geology. However May 21, the first scientists arrived to the island to study the volcano. They noted the signs of an unknown and deadly phenomenon - the "nueé ardente" or pyroclastic flows, a dense "cloud" of ash, hot gases, fragments of magma and superheated steam moving downhill generated by the collapse of volcanic domes.

Fig.6. Pyroclastic flows December 16, 1902 at La Pelée documented by Lacroix 1904. Lacroux will propose the first modern classification of volcanic activity - one explosive type will be known as Pelean type.

This particular kind of eruption was first studied at Pelée and gave since then its name to this kind of volcanic activity: the Pelean type is common on convergent plate margins and characterized by its explosive character and dangerous pyroclastic density currents.

Fig.7. From October 1902 to September 1903 (when it collapsed) a 300m high obelisk like dome of lava grow from the crater of L´Etang Sec, the American scientist Angel Heilprin noted that is seemed as if ". . . nature's monument dedicated to the 30,000 dead who lay in the silent city below."


DAVIS, L. (2008): Natural Disasters. Facts on File Sience Library. Infobase Publishing: 464
HEILPRIN, A.(1903): Mont Pelée and the Tragedy of Martinique. J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and London: 335.

LACROIX, A. (1904) : La Montagne Pelée et ses éruptions. Masson et Cie, Paris.

MORRIS, C. (2006): The San Francisco Calamity by Earthquake and Fire. Librivox.

Online Resources:

ALEAN, J. ; CARNIEL, R. & FULLE, M. (15.05.2007): La Montagne Pelée und Saint Pierre - September 2005. (Accessed 08.05.2011)
Cerimes (01.01.1974): Eruption de la montagne Pelée - 8 mai 1902.
(Accessed 08.05.2011)

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