The Day the World Ended: The Mount Pelée Disaster: May 7, 1902

The Day the World Ended: The Mount Pelée Disaster: May 7, 1902

by Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan-Witts

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The true story of a horrifying natural disaster—and the corruption that made it worse—by the New York Times–bestselling authors of Voyage of the Damned.

In late April 1902, Mount Pelée, a volcano on the Caribbean island Martinique, began to wake up. It emitted clouds of ash and smoke for two weeks until violently erupting on May 8. Over 30,000 residents of St. Pierre were killed; they burned to death under rivers of hot lava and suffocated under pounds of hot ash. Only three people managed to survive: a prisoner trapped in a dungeon-like jail cell, a man on the outskirts of town, and a young girl found floating unconscious in a boat days later.
So how did a town of thousands not heed the warnings of nature and local scientists, instead staying behind to perish in the onslaught of volcanic ash? Why did the newspapers publish articles assuring readers that the volcano was harmless? And why did the authorities refuse to allow the American Consul to contact Washington about the conditions? The answer lies in politics: With an election on the horizon, the political leaders of Martinique ignored the welfare of their people in order to consolidate the votes they needed to win.
A gripping and informative book on the disastrous effects of a natural disaster coupled with corruption, The Day the World Ended reveals the story of a city engulfed in flames and the political leaders that chose to kill their people rather than give up their political power.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497658806
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 07/01/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 308
Sales rank: 134,445
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts are authors of four previous books, all highly successful in bookstores and book clubs, all acclaimed in the United States and abroad. The Day the World Ended and Voyage of the Damned were made into major motion pictures; Shipwreck won the Edgar Award in 1973; and The San Francisco Earthquake has been hailed as a major achievement of reporting and writing. 
Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts are authors of four previous books, all highly successful in bookstores and book clubs, all acclaimed in the United States and abroad. The Day the World Ended and Voyage of the Damned were made into major motion pictures; Shipwreck won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1973; and The San Francisco Earthquake has been hailed as a major achievement of reporting and writing. 

Read an Excerpt

The Day the World Ended

By Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan-Witts


Copyright © 1969 Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-5880-6


The First Victim

He was always punctual. Each morning when Fernand Clerc rose from his brass bedstead—which like the cotton nightshirt he wore had been imported from France—and pushed open the stout shutters of his bedroom, the inhabitants of St. Pierre knew it was six o'clock. As he walked out on the balcony which ran around the house, the distant toll of the bell of the Cathedral of Saint Pierre carried across the awakening city and up to the hillside where he stood.

A remarkable sight greeted him. The entire town, the sea beyond, and the thick hinterland appeared to be coated with a heavy fall of hoarfrost. Yet the sun was hot on his skin. Nearer at hand, inside the estate wall, on the branches of the lime trees, Clerc noticed that the frost appeared to be like crude cement powder; below him, in the paved courtyard, it lay thick and even. The powder completely hid the waxed floorboards of the balcony. Where it had been caught by the wind that blew all year over and around the island, the powder had drifted to form conical shapes that were not unlike volcanoes.

Clerc stooped down and pinched the tip of one of the mounds between finger and thumb, rose to his feet, and carefully sniffed the powder. It had a bitter aroma about it that he instantly recognized.

He had last sniffed it a month before. Then, he had gone with his family to the L'Étang des Palmistes, a lake in the crater basin of Mount Pelée, the island's largest volcano. They had gone together, on a Sunday afternoon, for a picnic by the lake. As they had sat there, inside the rim basin of the volcano, watching the clear light casting giant shadows on the pumice rocks, Clerc had noticed a wisp of smoke rising from a corner of the lake.

With his two children, he had walked across the gritty pumice soil to investigate. As they approached, a breeze sent the wisp curling toward them. The smoke had made their eyes smart, and stung the backs of their throats. Then, as they stood there, coughing and spitting, the water had bubbled, and a black jet had fountained into the air. It fell in a lazy arc across the branches of a tree overhanging the lake. They looked, smarting and rasping temporarily forgotten, at the now seared and withered branches. Without waiting to investigate further, Clerc had hurried his family away from the crater.

Three weeks ago, alone this time, he had returned to the volcano. From a distance, Mount Pelée—the "bald mountain"—was the classical volcanic shape: a circular cone culminating in a single summit peak that sloped on three sides down to the sea. Closer, the bold strokes of Nature's erosive carving were revealed in numerous canyons and gorges.

To reach the crest Clerc had to pick his way over piles of pumice. The top resembled a truncated loaf surrounded by a circle of pointed hills. The highest, Morne de la Croix, stood about two hundred feet above the lake. Clerc picked his way up its slope to gain the maximum vantage point. For a man approaching middle age, he showed little sign of his exertions. He paused to gain his breath, and then looked down into the crater.

For a long time he stood there, unable to believe his eyes. The placid surface of the lake was now a black mixture of bituminous appearance, bubbling and boiling, rising and puffing. From time to time jets of white vapor and scalding water escaped, and then fell back brusquely into the cauldron.

Mount Pelée, asleep for fifty-one years, was almost fully awake. He had hurried back to the estate, bathed to remove the smell of sulphur from his body, and then sat down in his study to write a report on what he had seen. He had sealed the report in an envelope and addressed it to the island's Governor, Louis Marius Mouttet. He had summoned a houseboy and ordered him to go on horseback to Fort-de-France, fifteen miles down the coast, deliver the report to the Governor's office, and await a reply. When it came, it turned out to be no more than a polite formal acknowledgement with the rider that if the situation worsened, the Governor should be informed. Clerc had not been surprised by this lack of reaction on the part of the Governor; for some time their relationship had been strained.

Now, standing on the balcony three weeks after the Governor's reply, and sniffing the sulphur ash that during the night had been ejected by Pelée's crater, Clerc realized that the situation had definitely worsened.

He turned and looked away up the steep slopes to where Pelée's cone brooded in the still morning. Nothing disturbed the air around the crater. But the slopes were shrouded in ash that at a distance of two miles looked like icing on some giant Christmas tree decoration.

Clerc shook his head. Then he continued with the ritual he had followed every morning since he had moved his family from the town to this hillside home a mile outside St. Pierre. For the past ten years, every morning including Sundays, he had arisen before his family and walked on to this balcony to look down on the town whose foundations generations of Clercs had helped to strengthen. A Clerc had been among the first shipload of French who had settled the island of Martinique in 1635.

The island is part of a group known as the Lesser Antilles, stretching—"like piers of a bridge across the Seine," wrote an early settler—across the entrance to the Caribbean Sea. In the shape of an arc bowed out toward the Atlantic Ocean, they extend for 450 miles from the Anegada Passage, near the Virgin Islands, southward almost to the coast of South America. The northern part of the group are called the Leeward Islands; the southern half are called the Windward Islands. All of them are the result of volcanic eruptions forcing the ocean bed up 10,000 or more feet. From prehistoric times this string of islands has stretched across the throat of the Caribbean like a chain of smoldering furnaces about to burst into flame.

Those first settlers had come ashore at a great bay that had been named Fort-de-France, a name that had a comforting, secure ring about it to those seventeenth-century men, women, and children who had sailed halfway across the world to find a new home. Fort-de-France had become the island's political capital; later, when St. Pierre had been built, the commercial center of the island had found its home in the new town.

The settlers could not have known it, but they had chosen to settle on an island that was a dormant time bomb. The fuse was buried deep inside Mount Pelée, named by the colonists after the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, Pele. But only twice in three hundred years had the time bomb started to tick. Once, in 1792, it had spluttered a thin scattering of ash over the crater's immediate slopes; in 1851, the volcano had erupted after a week of rumbling, throwing out a column of ash which had drifted down to coat St. Pierre in a mantle of white. The eruption had lasted only a short time. It was followed by a severe rainstorm that washed all the ash away. Few had been frightened.

Now, on this quiet morning of Friday, May 2, 1902, Clerc saw that this night's fall of sulphuric ash also appeared to have caused little concern in the town. He could make out a few early risers standing in the streets, looking toward the silent cone of Mount Pelée, towering two miles inland. From his vantage point Clerc observed no panic. Probably the towns-people had lived with the volcano for so long that they had long ceased to look upon it as a threat, he mused, and understandably so, for the town had been built on a beach at the base of a great natural amphitheater of rocks which rose to end at the summit of Mount Pelée.

St. Pierre had become the island's social as well as commercial center. It was known, as far away as Puerto Rico in the north and Trinidad in the south, as the Paris of the West Indies. It strove hard to live up to its reputation, importing cabaret acts from Paris, fleecing the sailors in the waterfront bordellos, and living at a pace that staid Fort-de-France thought positively indecent.

Clerc himself, a devout family man, had little time for the night life of the town. One of the reasons he had moved out from its precincts was to escape from the late-night carousing; another reason was that he felt it more in keeping with his standing in the community to live apart from it, to view it, as he did every morning, from a distance. His vantage point enabled him to feel both dispassionate and paternal toward the city below.

This morning, even with its shroud of ash, St. Pierre offered Clerc a view he could take much pride in. From his eyrie, he had a clear view of the rum distilleries and furniture factories that were the spine of the island's economic framework, a spine whose very nerve ends he controlled. He was the largest planter on the island, a millionaire, undisputed commercial overlord of the island's population of 189,500. Next to Governor Mouttet, Clerc was the accepted social leader of the French-born colony who effectively administered the island for France. Most of them worked and lived in the streets leading off the Rue Victor Hugo, the town's main street, which ran in a gentle crescent along the sea front. Bisecting it was a series of shorter streets, leading back from the waterfront, and petering out against the slopes of the sharply rising amphitheater of rock. The cathedral, the military hospital, the town hall, and the island's two leading banks—the Bank of Martinique and the English Colonial Bank—were all clustered on the Rue Victor Hugo; but for the most part the town consisted of two- and three-story buildings, made of stone, with red tile roofs. Many of these were clustered along the side of the Roxelane, a river that ran through the town and emptied itself into the sea. Except in the rainy season it was little more than a sluggish stream; when the rains came, it became a raging torrent, swirling fish and debris from the hinterland out to sea. The bulk of the town's middle-class Creole population lived beside it. Below the Roxelane was the harbor, a natural, curving basin through which the entire commercial, financial, and social life of the island funneled itself.

That morning, Clerc counted eight ships anchored in the roadstead. Five flew the American flag. They brought from the United States the supplies essential to the island's survival. The ships' holds were filled with flour, dried vegetables, salted and smoked meats, and leaf tobacco, as well as crates containing clothes, clocks, oil lamps, and sewing machines.

The other three ships flew the British flag. Their holds were empty, waiting to be filled with the island's raw materials—sugar, rum, cocoa, and coffee—waiting to be filled with the produce of Clerc's estates that dotted the island's 380 square miles, estates that helped guarantee Martinique's economic standing in the world.

Particularly dependent on that economic standing were the bulk of St. Pierre's population of 26,011 men, women, and children who lived downtown, away from the houses of the French-born colons. They were the propriets vivriers, smallholders, vari-colored from a century and more of breeding with the sailors of the world who came to the island. Healthy exports meant a regular supply of ships calling at Martinique; ships meant customers, in one form or another, for the propriets vivriers. Few of them had as much as spoken to the man who lived on the hillside outside the town, but all knew their debt to his enterprise.

As the bell of the Cathedral of Saint Pierre ceased its tolling, Clerc reached for a telescope standing in a rack on the balcony. Adjusting the eyepiece, he brought into sharp focus a section of the area where the smallholders lived. Each holding appeared to be the same: a tin-roofed house surrounded by trees bearing ripening avocados, mangos, star apples, oranges, limes, and grapefruit. Studded between the trees were tufts of sugar cane, breadfruit plants, and tunnels of bamboo that sheltered root vegetables from the midday sun. Tethered around the tunnels were goats, cows, and small Creole horses. Like the rest of the town, the mulatto quarter appeared calm under its coat of ashes.

Clerc lowered his telescope and walked to a corner of the balcony. This was a new departure in his morning routine; it was one that he had started after returning from his second visit to the crater. The day after he had returned, he had secured a barometer to one of the supporting pillars of the balcony. Now, as he had done every day since then, he carefully studied the needle. It was twitching a little more than it had done the previous morning when he had inspected it. He turned again and looked up toward the mountain crater. As he did so, there was a deafening crash—"like a broadside of cannon," he was to remember—and a fresh column of ash shot into the sky.

Clerc watched it soar heavenward. Then, caught by the wind, it started to dissipate, spreading across the sky and blotting out the sun. In a minute the ash was falling silently on St. Pierre.

Mount Pelée, fifty miles square at its base, had stirred a stage further, emitting yet another warning.

Clerc turned at a noise close behind him. It was his wife, Véronique. She padded out to the balcony in her nightdress. In her hand she held a crucifix. The statue of Christ on the Cross had been carved from a piece of pumice stone taken from an upper slope of the volcano.

Together, the Clercs knelt and prayed on the balcony. Fifty-one years before, to the day, the last time Mount Pelée had awakened, Fernand Clerc's grandfather had also prayed. Then, the volcano's activity had been short-lived, and there were many on the island who had said this was due to the intervention of God in answer to the prayers of Jean Marc Clerc.

Now, his grandson and wife prayed for similar intervention.

Sitting on the doorstep of his house in the Mouillage quarter of the town on the quayside that ran along the entire water front, Léon Compère-Léandre watched the ash falling on the three British ships riding at anchor in the roadstead. The air reeked of sulphur, bringing tears to his eyes and a dry retching feeling in his throat. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and tied it over his nose and mouth. It offered a little relief against the acrid fallout.

Léon, aged twenty-eight, was a shoemaker. He was descended from one of the penal laborers who had originally been transported from France to carry out heavy manual work on the island. Intermarriage with Creole and Negro factions of the island's population in previous generations had now given Léon's skin a light coffee pigmentation. At a distance he could pass for a colon: a useful asset when it came to drinking in the water-front taverns, where tempers often ran high and the descendant of a convict was still regarded as byplay for practicing knife-fighting by many of the sailors.

Intermarriage, though, had done little to remove the basic superstitions that had been handed down to him from his father, and from his father's father—superstitions that still ruled his life. They included a belief in the Devil and that Mount Pelée was an air vent through which the Devil could breathe fumes from Hell.

Now, as the ash settled everywhere, carpeting everything in sight a dull grayish-white, Léon was convinced that Evil was afoot.

He also felt, this time instinctively, that he would not be safe in his waterfront home. He decided instead to seek shelter in his basement cobbler's shop in the town's main square, Place Bertin. Holding his handkerchief over his mouth and using the other hand to wipe the tears from his eyes, he set off for his shelter.

From sea level, St. Pierre appeared to back on to the very edge of the southern foot of Mount Pelée, rising in tiers from the open roadstead which formed its harbor. At this level, too, the streets seemed much narrower than they had appeared from Clerc's vantage point. The houses, all stone-built and stone-flagged, crowded in on each other, each with its wooden or zinc awning casting a permanent shadow over the cobbles.

Léon's sandaled feet made no sound as they scuffed over the ash. The only sound was that of running water pouring through the deep gutters of the twisting, climbing streets. This morning the water, usually clear, was stained and sluggish. The ash had already started its corrosive course of discoloration and clogging.

As he approached the Place Bertin, Léon had still seen no one; St. Pierre, it seemed to him, through either choice, force of habit, or unawareness, had decided to ignore the falling ash.

Just short of the entrance to the main square, Léon came upon a young horse tethered to a wall-ring of a house. Like all the other dwellings in the street, the shutters of this house were tightly closed beneath the traditional gable dormers. As he approached, the horse, already well coated with ash, started to snort and pant in pain. Suddenly it buckled at the knees, making a dreadful, choking sound as it did so. It rolled its eyes in terror, struggled to regain its footing, found it was too far gone for the effort, and slumped down on its side. Léon stooped beside it. One of the other superstitions that governed his life was a belief that being kind to animals would insure him a place in Heaven. He looked around for some means of giving the horse practical assistance. Nearby, at the entrance to the Place Bertin, was a water trough with a tin bucket attached to it by a slim chain. The bucket and trough were used to replenish water supplies for caravans of mules that journeyed into the hinterland. Léon tugged at the chain, exerting pressure in sharp pulls. The chain snapped, freeing the bucket.


Excerpted from The Day the World Ended by Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan-Witts. Copyright © 1969 Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Contents
  • Author’s Note
  • Prologue
  • Friday - MAY 2, 1902
    • Chapter One - The First Victim
    • Chapter Two - The Anxious Bridegroom
    • Chapter Three - A Cell with a View
  • Saturday - MAY 3, 1902
    • Chapter Four - Tumbled from Bed
    • Chapter Five - Lava in the Throat
    • Chapter Six - The Whole World in Flood
  • Sunday - MAY 4, 1902
    • Chapter Seven - Special Powers
    • Chapter Eight - A Black Mass
    • Chapter Nine - The Prison Riot
    • Chapter Ten - Released to the Living
  • Monday - MAY 5, 1902
    • Chapter Eleven - The Pavement Slaughterhouse 133
    • Chapter Twelve - A Mountain on the March 145
    • Chapter Thirteen - The Great Wave
    • Chapter Fourteen - A Shortage of Coffins
  • Tuesday - MAY 6, 1902
    • Chapter Fifteen - The Sympathy of the Government
    • Chapter Sixteen - A Handful of Francs
    • Chapter Seventeen - The Deepening Crisis
    • Chapter Eighteen - A Fateful Reprieve
    • Chapter Nineteen - Stars and Stripes
  • Wednesday - MAY 7, 1902
    • Chapter Twenty - Gabriel’s Angel
    • Chapter Twenty-One - The End of the Affair
  • Thursday - MAY 8, 1902
    • Chapter Twenty-Two - “Allez”
    • Chapter Twenty-Three - Requiem for the Living
  • Epilogue
  • Acknowledgments
  • Bibliography
  • Copyright

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The Day the World Ended: The Mount Pelée Disaster: May 7, 1902 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous 22 days ago
Should be read especially if you live anywhere near a volcano, as I do.