Catastrophe (part 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 army, had cared for the wounded collected on the shore at Saint-Pierre and Carbet, brought by the Suchet and Pouyer-Quertier on the 8th and 9th to the hospital at Fort-de-France. He was then made part of the Commission of Hygiene, convened to advise on measures, with more than thirty thousand dead in the carnage of Saint-Pierre, for the safety of the living on the rest of the island.
I saw Dr. Lherminier at Fort-de-France, and made the crossing with him aboard the Canada.
Of what appearance had the wounded, the dead; of what injuries allowed 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, the notes of experts, of medical practitioners, are those we must believe. The doctor has the expertise to see, and what he sees is what is there to be seen—
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 were among the sailors surprised by the eruption; yet having time, had flung themselves to the bottoms of their ships. They died, nearly all, within twenty-four hours. They had internal burns, for having breathed the fire. Their anguish was extreme. Fire had taken the larynx and the bronchia. The victims wanted air, but air could come only painfully to their lungs. They made raking noises in the throat. They suffocated. And yet, they drank. They asked constantly for water, water. They were burning inside. When, for trying to relieve them, we passed through the nose cotton swabs soaked in glycerin, these brought out remains of mucous membranes, white and cooked; all the superior part of the respiratory canal was covered in blisters.
“The unfortunates were in horrible agonies.”
Why were those who received general burns less burned internally?
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.
These wounded, all, were collected from the limits of the volcanic action. Those within the zone died at a blow, by asphyxiation. The conflagration did not come until after.
On the 16th of May, Dr. Lherminier went to Saint-Pierre and saw the corpses observed on the 9th by M. Rozé. On the report of M. Rozé, Dr. Lidin, chief of sanitary services, had reminded the administration of some measures to preserve public hygiene, but the administration…like everyone else today…has no sense of hygiene, other than vague notions, and confounds science-based methods of disinfection, with I don’t know what fetishistic affectations.
In such cases, I’ve often noted that either they mock the dangers of contamination, or dwell on them to exaggeration.* And I note, too, that for their reassurance they comfort themselves with the most absurd travesties. In the special case of Martinique, I am persuaded that the swab of cotton soaked in carbolic acid and held under the nose, like a bottle of English salts, acts to many as a gris-gris, of the sort their forefathers imported from Africa, and which is still in use…with a few Catholic variants.
Always, this good administration denies the risk of contamination, and believes the bit of cotton, treated with carbolic acid, enough to equip the gravediggers’ daily excursions to Saint-Pierre, and proof against typhoid, which can be transported to Fort-de-France. Now, note that with the three thousand corpses abandoned to the free air, despite (no doubt also because of) the carbonization of superficial muscles, 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 might give birth to an epidemic. And that, among these hordes of refugees, depressed in body and soul, would accomplish ravages terrible as those of the volcano…
But this the administration does not comprehend. These are matters of science, not of administration…there have been 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 that for the medical functionary, administrative secrecy is also imperative.
As the rendering of corpses unhazardous is what brings Dr. Lherminier to the ruins of Saint-Pierre, his view on their condition is what we seek above all.
“The mass of debris that covered the dead, under the rubble of their houses, made a perfect burial, an inhumation that spared nothing. Putrid gasses could escape by numerous flues, and as this gas must flow to the sea, where winds from the east would disperse it in a fortnight, there was nothing to fear. That made the first category of corpses, those which could not be seen. They were placed beyond worry. They could abide where they lay…their homes become their tombs. And so be untouched.
“Then there those the volcano had killed in the street, some completely in open air. Others partly covered in ashes. These corpses must be destroyed or buried. The incineration? M. Cappa pretends to have destroyed them…under pyres of a few twigs, with a sprinkling of kerosene. We know how much heat incineration of a corpse requires. M. Cappa’s pyres were not enough. We found 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, and burning carefully maintained…cremation is not possible. In these conditions, as practiced, it was a joke…
“The conclusion we came to was that we had to cover the bodies in a layer of lime, then earth and ashes, to form a superficial tomb, on which, to prevent the rain exposing them, we placed sheets of corrugated iron, easy to find in quantity about the rubble. They had been roofs.”
“How many corpses were there, to be rid of…?”
“Around three thousand. Maybe more, maybe less. It was a simple evaluation…no one counting with the same care as with precious objects…as under the Bank, for example…
“The state of the corpses?”
“Burned. Blackened. But at the limits of the volcanic action, intact. The victims died by asphyxiation. The corpses I saw in the Mouillage were partly carbonized, and beyond recognition. Without studying the skull, I could not tell if they were black or white. This action of the fire, so destructive to certain parts, is exceedingly curious, for in other areas they were simply scorched, the sexes distinguishable. 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’ve said. To a few corpses, the shoes remained. I saw a young woman’s body where the feet were blackened, without stockings, but still fitted with pumps, whose varnish had simply cracked.
*A mayor of Guadeloupe issued a decree on measures to be taken so his island would 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)