1951: Pont-Saint-Esprit — the Devil’s Bread or a Disastrous CIA–LSD Experiment?

In August, 1951, an outbreak of frenzied hallucinations, delirium and insanity shook the 500 inhabitants of the small French village of Pont-Saint-Esprit. The symptoms resembled descriptions of the malady known as St. Anthony’s Fire which afflicted communities during the Middle Ages. More than 500 people were affected; 7 people died, two committed suicide; 50 persons were interned in a psychiatric hospital and many others were seriously harmed. More than 60 years later, the cause of the catastrophe is shrouded in mystery. It was attributed to ergot poisoning from bread infected with psychedelic mold or mercury poisoning.

TIME magazine reported: “Among the stricken, delirium rose: patients thrashed wildly on their beds, screaming that red flowers were blossoming from their bodies.” Other newspapers that converged on the scene described people throwing themselves from rooftops, women and men throwing their clothes off and running the streets naked, and children complaining that their stomachs were infested with coils of snakes. (Albarelli. A Terrible Mistake, 2010) One man told doctors he saw his heart explode through his chest. He begged them to put it back in. One girl thought she was being attacked by tigers. Another imagined she had a copper head. In a fit of madness, a young boy attempted to strangle his mother. A town doctor was unable to assist during the pandemonium because for three days, he was unable to speak.

A French documentary, “Le Pain du Diable“ (The Devil’s Bread) was broadcast on Feb. 13, 2010. It reconstructed the tragedy, describing the madness that seized the inhabitants of the village. A postman described his horrific ordeal: “It was terrible. I had the sensation of shrinking and shrinking, and the fire and the serpents coiling around my arms.”

He remembers falling off his bike and being taken to the hospital in Avignon. He was put in a straitjacket but he shared a room with three teenagers who had been chained to their beds to keep them under control. “Some of my friends tried to get out of the window. They were thrashing wildly . . . screaming, and the sound of the metal beds and the jumping up and down . . . the noise was terrible. I’d prefer to die rather than go through that again.”

Hank Albarelli, a journalist whose exhaustive investigation of the CIA’s cover-up of the death of Frank Olson (A Terrible Mistake, 2009) uncovered a CIA document connecting Frank Olsen, U.S. biological warfare scientist with the Top Secret CIA Special Operations Division that covertly conducted a wide variety of chemical warfare experiments, including anthrax. Frank Olsen The CIA document was labelled: “Re: Pont-Saint-Esprit and F. Olson Files. SO Span/France Operation file, inclusive Olson. Intel files. Hand carry to Belin — tell him to see to it that these are buried.” David Belin was the executive director of the Rockefeller Commission that was created in 1975 to investigate CIA’s lawless actions. This memo raises serious questions about Belin’s covert CIA ties; compromising the integrity of the Rockefeller Commission.

According Albarelli the website of the U.S. Justice Department states that in the early 1950s was “the Sandoz chemical company went so far as to extol LSD as a potential secret weapon of chemical warfare. Its main selling point was that a small amount, added to the drinking water or sprayed into the air could make a whole army of soldiers, disoriented, psychotic and thus incapable of fighting.” Albarelli also found evidence that the CIA and Army scientists had planned to conduct an LSD field experiment in NYC; it was delayed until after the Pont-St. Esprit disaster.

Another CIA memo (1954) obtained by Albarelli reports about a CIA agent’s conversation with a representative of Sandoz (at the time) the sole manufacturer of LSD, who is reported to have stated: “The Pont-Saint-Esprit ‘secret’ is that it was not the bread at all. . . It was not grain ergot.”

The French documentary “Le Pain du Diable“ ends with a question mark as to who is responsible. (Pont-Saint-Esprit poisoning: Did the CIA spread LSD? BBC, August 23, 2010)

LSD advocates such as Ralph Metzner, PhD (Harvard) a friend of Timothy Leary (who admitted having collaborated with the CIA), dispute that the drug was involved in the Pont St. Esprit madness. Metzner cites a biography of Albert Hofmann (in German, 2011) in which Hoffman refutes the claims made about both Ergot and LSD in connection with the tragedy at Pont-Saint-Esprit. But Hofmann was not an impartial expert, and hence not a reliable source. He was a Sandoz official, and would have had strong reasons to deny that LSD was used as a weapon and that it caused the horrific communal insanity.

In an interview with Michael Horowitz published in High Times (1976) Hofmann lied when he stated: “Sandoz supplied the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who then distributed it in America. Probably that is how the CIA and others got it.” The FDA does not buy, sell or distribute drugs. The key to the mystery of Pont-Saint-Esprit may be buried with Frank Olsen, the most well-known casualty of Project ARTICHOKE.