La Catastrophe de la Martinique: forty-two
Warning! Today’s Catastrophe contains a graphic photo that may disturb some readers.
Interview with Doctor Lherminier
The wounded and their care. Their burns. The state of the corpses in the ruins. Macabre scenes. The instant death. The causes of death.
Dr. Lherminier, of the colonial soldiers, had cared for the wounded collected on the shore at Saint-Pierre, and at the Carbet, by the Suchet, the Pouyer-Quertier; brought on the 8th, the 9th, to the hospital at Fort-de-France. Then, he was made part of the Commission of Hygiene, constituted to advise on measures which the presence of more than thirty thousand dead in the carnage of Saint-Pierre made necessary, for the preservation of the living on the rest of the island.
I saw Dr. Lherminier at Fort-de-France, and I made the crossing with him aboard the Canada.
Of what aspect were the wounded, what the cadavers, what lesions observed to allow the establishing of a cause of death, it is M. Lherminier, and after him, Dr. Saint-Maurice, and M. Rozé who will tell us. And if their notes contradict those of other witnesses, it is the notes of experts, of medical practitioners, that we must believe. The doctor has the expertise to see, and what he has seen is what was there to be seen, what was…on the condition always that the doctor is not an “imaginative” of the old school…
“There were,” (Dr. Lherminier told me) “two categories of wounded. The first, had general burns. It was these who healed.
“The others had burns localized to the face. Nearly all these latter were among the sailors who were surprised by the phenomenon, yet having time, however, had precipitated themselves into the bottoms of their ships. They died, nearly all, in twenty-four hours. They had internal burns. They had breathed the fire. Their anguish was extreme. It had taken the larynx and the bronchia. They wanted air, and the air could not come but painfully to their lungs. They had raking noises in the throat. They suffocated. And yet, they drank. They asked constantly for water…for water… They were burning inside. When, for trying to relieve them, were passed through the nose swabs of cotton soaked in glycerin, these brought out remnants of white mucous membranes, cooked; all the superior part of the respiratory canal was covered in blisters.
“These unfortunates were in horrible agonies.”
Why were those who had received general burns less burned on the inside?
Dr. Lherminier doesn’t know. He simply states it. The feet, the legs, the forearms, the hands, the parts uncovered were most profoundly burned. A woman had gangrene of the feet and died of tetanus. All the wounded lay curled up, their limbs in flexion. Their burns were of the second degree. By the 30th of May, they were healed.
All the wounded were collected from the limits of the zone of volcanic action. All those who were within the zone died at a blow, from asphyxiation. The fire did not come until after.
On the 16th of May, Dr. Lherminier went to Saint-Pierre and could see the corpses observed on the 9th by M. Rozé. On the report of this last, Dr. Lidin, chief of sanitary services, had reminded the administration of a few measures to preserve hygiene that public health requires. But the administration…like, however, everyone else even today…has not hygiene, but very vague notions, and confounds scientific measures of disinfection with I don’t know what fetishistic affectations.
In such cases, I have often noted that, either they mock the dangers of contamination, or they dwell on them to exaggeration.* And I have often noted also that, for their reassurance, they content themselves with the most absurd travesties. In the special case of Martinique, I am well persuaded that the little swab of cotton-wool soaked in carbolic acid and held under the nose, as a bottle of English salts, appears to many of the people a gris-gris, of the kind their forefathers imported from Africa, and which is still in use…with a few variants…Catholic…
Always this good administration denies all danger of contamination, and believes that having in their pocket the wad of cotton, treated with carbolic acid, is sufficient to equip the grave-diggers’ daily excursions to Saint-Pierre, making a shelter against all contamination of typhoid, which may be transported to Fort-de-France. Now, note that with the three thousand corpses abandoned to the free air, despite carbonization of the superficial muscles, and no doubt, also because of this carbonization, the intestines protruded intact—so many intestinal bundles, so many entryways for the culture of infectious germs, of which a single one returned to Fort-de-France is capable of giving birth to an epidemic, which, in these agglomerations of refugees, these depressed persons, would accomplish ravages terrible as those of the volcano…
But this, the administration does not comprehend. For it is of science. It is not of administration…there have been, concerning this, meetings of the commission that were epic…of which I heard some echoes… I could not ask for details from Dr. Lherminier. Not that it enters into medical secrecy…but administrative secrecy is also imperative for the medical functionary.
As this question of making the corpses of Saint-Pierre’s victims inoffensive, is what brings Dr. Lherminier to the ruins of the city, it is the state of the corpses, considered from his point of view, of which we speak above all.
“Under the rubble of the houses, a perfect burial, an inhumation sparing nothing…the mass of debris, of bricks and plaster, that covered [the dead], offered a flow of air, numerous chimneys by which putrid gasses could escape, and as, by the very configuration of the city, this gas must flow to the sea, where the winds from the east would disperse it in a fortnight, there was nothing to fear on that side. This constituted the first category of corpses, those that could not be seen; those that were placed beyond worry. They might reside where they lay…their home transformed into a sepulcher. And so untouched.
“Then there was another category. These were people the volcano had killed in the street. Some were found completely in open air. Others were partly covered in ashes. Those, necessarily, must be destroyed or buried. The destruction by incineration? as M. Cappa pretends to have destroyed them…under pyres of a few branchlets, with a sprinkling of kerosene…
“We know,” (Dr. Lherminier goes on) “how the incineration of a corpse requires heat… The pyres of M. Cappa were not enough. We saw that they had burned nothing at all. As to those where only ash remained, I would like to see what type of corpse they had been given to destroy…
“No, no. Cremation, unless with the construction of immense pyres, whose burning is carefully maintained…cremation is not possible. And in these conditions, where they had practiced it, it was a joke…
“The conclusion we came to was that we had to first cover the bodies in a layer of lime, then of earth and ashes, to form thus a superficial tomb on which, to prevent the rain exposing them, it was easy to place the sheets of corrugated iron that were found in great quantity about the rubble. What had been roofs…”
“How many were there, of corpses made to disappear…?”
“Around three thousand. Maybe more, maybe less. It is a simple evaluation…for no one counts with the same care as with objects precious to save, those under the Bank, for example…
“The state of the corpses?”
“Burned. Blackened. But those one saw at the limits of the zone of volcanic action were intact. The victims were killed by asphyxiation. The corpses I saw in the quarter of the Mouillage were partly carbonized. They were past recognition. Without studying attentively the form of the skull, one could not tell if they were black or white. This action of the fire which profoundly destroyed certain parts, is exceedingly curious, for, in other areas, they were simply scorched. Thus the sexes were respected. There was the rigidity in certain male corpses. But not all. It was rather the exception. Many women, those that were young, had their breasts intact.
“All the corpses were naked, scalped, hairless. And the intestines protruded unburned. They were of a purplish color, as wine. There was no trace of clothing, as I have said; to a few corpses, the shoes remained. I have seen a young woman’s body where the feet were blackened by the fire, without stockings, yet still fitted with pumps, whose varnish had simply cracked.
*A mayor of Guadeloupe issued a decree on measures to be taken, that his island not be poisoned by corpses brought in on the waves.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)