Expedition to a Modern Pompeii

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In May 1902, Museum geologist Edmund Otis Hovey traveled to the Caribbean to investigate volcanic eruptions that had killed nearly 30,000 people in less than 24 hours.

Edmund Hovey
Edmund Hovey, seated second from right in the front row, at Mt. Soufrière volcano in 1902. 
©AMNH Library/ 25129 

On May 7, Mt. Soufrière had erupted on the island of St. Vincent, killing 1,565 people. The next day and again on May 20, Mt. Pelée exploded on Martinique in a cloud of ash, gas, and rock that blew down the mountain at 300 miles an hour, killing 27,000 people within two minutes and leveling the port city of Saint-Pierre, then known as the “Paris of the Caribbean.”  The once-bustling hub of trade in rum, sugar, cocoa, and coffee became a smoldering ruin, with barely a brick left standing.

Rubble in Street
Rubble covers a side street in northern Saint-Pierre in 1902.
©AMNH Library/24620

 “The devastation wrought by the eruption cannot be appreciated from a verbal description,” wrote Hovey in The American Museum Journal of 1902, “and even photographs do not convey an adequate idea of what has happened.” Lying in a cul-de-sac in the path of incandescent volcanic discharge, Saint-Pierre and its residents had been “as helpless as an animal in a trap.”

The 1902 eruptions were of a type called nuée ardente, French 
for “glowing cloud,” the same type as those at Vesuvius in AD 79, which killed some 20,000 people in the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and at Mount St. Helens in 1980.

During the expedition, Hovey collected
and sent back to the Museum invaluable specimens, molten household objects, pulverized street signs, and lumps of half-melted lava—called “bread-crust bombs” for their cracked tops—which had been thrown out of Mt. Pelée during the eruption.

A number of these telling artifacts will be on view in the Museum’s special exhibition Nature’s Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters, which opens November 15.

Cafe Glasses
Café Glasses, catalog no. MPA 18

This stack of café glasses were fused together by the heat of the deadly volcanic cloud.

Bottom half of a champagne bottle which has been broken and warped by heat into curved shape.
Champagne Bottle, catalog no. MPA 17
Denis Finnin/© AMNH

This Champagne bottle was softened and twisted by heat and pressure.

Dark and shiny door knob, melted on the left and shaped like two rounded ends around a middle ring.
Door knob, catalog no. MPA 19

This glass doorknob was melted on one side, just as trees observed by Hovey were scorched on one side and, on the other, “green as if no eruption had occurred.” 

Lava specimen.
Lava “bread-crust bomb,” catalog no. MP143.

This “bread-crust bomb” was formed when a partly-molten mass of lava cooled and contracted causing the solid exterior to crack.

The full story appears in the Fall issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.