The 1951 Pont Saint Esprit mass hallucinogenic event – ergot poisoning or did the CIA secretly dose an entire town with LSD
It began in August 1951 in a small, quiet village on the banks of the River Rhône in southern France after an outbreak of food poisoning, upset stomachs, vomiting and diarrhea soon gave way to mass folly and collective delusions. Dozens of Pont Saint Esprit (or Pont St. Esprit) villagers developed fever-like symptoms, suffering hallucinations and exhibiting bizarre mannerisms. Then it quickly spread to hundreds more. One man tried to drown himself, screaming that he was being eaten from the inside – by snakes. Another man believed he could fly and flung himself from the third-story window, breaking both of his legs. Then he stood up and carried on for fifty more yards. Time magazine reported:
“Among the stricken, delirium rose: patients thrashed wildly on their beds, screaming that red flowers were blossoming from their bodies, that their heads had turned to molten lead.”
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 Pont Saint Esprit postman, Leoon Armunier, gives us a first-hand account of what he experienced. Armunier was making his rounds on August 16, 1951 when he was suddenly overwhelmed by nausea and wild hallucinations. He said:
“It was terrible. I had the sensation of shrinking and shrinking, and the fire and the serpents coiling around my arms.”
Armunier fell from his bike and was rushed to the hospital in nearby Avignon where he was placed in a ward with dozens of other patients suffering from the same symptoms. Baffled doctors worked feverishly to determine what was causing the mysterious outbreak.
During the three days that Pont Saint Esprit citizens were mysteriously struck down with mass insanity and hallucinations, patients were interned in asylums and strapped into straitjackets – chained to their beds. In all, almost 300 people fell seriously ill with over 30 being hospitalized with life-threatening conditions. By the time it ended, five people had died.
Doctors suggest ergot poisoning from tainted bread
After the collective insanity and hallucinations came to an end, doctors sought answers for what had caused the mass outbreak. It was assumed that bread from a local vendor, the Roch Briand bakery where many of the victims had eaten prior to the event, had been unwittingly poisoned with a parasitic psychedelic fungus/mold – ergot, a hallucinogenic mold that had been known to naturally contaminate rye grain. This was first proposed by local physician Dr Gabbaï in the highly respected British Medical Journal.
Gabbai’s findings were confirmed by Dr. Albert Hofmann, an ergot expert who first synthesized LSD-25 from ergot in 1938. Dr. Hofmann travelled to Pont-Saint-Esprit to examine the evidence and was quick to confirm Gabbai’s ergot theory (years later Hofmann reversed his stance and rejected the ergot connection). At the time, Hofmann was employed by Sandoz Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company whose name would come up time and time again during later investigations into the true cause of the mysterious hallucinogenic event.
The ergot poisoning theory is questioned
The theory that the sickness resulted from an outbreak of ergotism however, was not blindly accepted by everyone. For one, the theory failed to take into account that ergot poisoning was believed to have died out completely during the 18th century. Furthermore, academics were quick to point out that the symptoms displayed by the Pont Saint Esprit villagers did not quite match the symptoms expected from ergot poisoning and besides, wouldn’t the high heat from a baker’s oven have snuffed out the ergot mold in the first place? Even the judge responsible for the official inquiry into the villager deaths questioned the ergot theory. He suggested a criminal connection and oddly, hinted to contamination by a very toxic form of “synthetic ergot”.
For decades the ergot poisoning theory was widely accepted, despite pleas from many scientists and academics to consider other alternative answers. In 2008, American historian Steven Kaplan sought those answers. Kaplan, a professor at Cornell University and expert on the history of bread, examined all the possible explanations for the cursed bread: ergotism, infected water or contamination by fungicides or other toxins. None, he concluded in his 1,000-page tome Le Pain Maudit, published in 2008, could adequately explain the events of Pont-Saint-Esprit in the summer of 1951. Kaplan’s findings triggered a chain of events that would soon lead to a very interesting, and disturbing, conclusion.
The suspicious death of Frank Olson
A year after Kaplan published his findings that contradicted the widely accepted ergot poisoning theory, investigative journalist H.P. Albarelli Jr., broke the news that the outbreak resulted from a covert experiment directed by the CIA and the US Army’s Special Operations Division (SOD). Albarelli based his conclusion on secret CIA documents that he uncovered while investigating the suspicious death of Frank Olson, a biological weapons researcher working for the Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company, the company which, at the time, was supplying the CIA and Army with a new chemical drug – LSD. Olson had “fallen” from the tenth-floor hotel room, which he had been sharing with CIA agent Robert Lashbrook at the Hotel Pennsylvania. His death took place two years after the Pont Saint Esprit incident – and only one week after being “asked”, and refusing, to leave the top-secret biological weapons program at Sandoz. His death was ruled a suicide.
The “smoking gun” in Albarelli’s investigation was a White House document sent to members of the Rockefeller Commission, which had been formed in 1975 to investigate CIA abuses. The document contained the names of a number of French nationals who had been secretly employed by the CIA and oddly out of context, made direct reference to the “Pont Saint Esprit incident”. The year the document had been sent, the government quietly admitted that Olson had been dosed a week before his death with LSD without his knowledge. The government claimed the secret poisoning did not directly contribute to his death but still, offered his family an out-of-court settlement of $750,000, which they accepted.
“Dr. Frank A. Olson, a bio-chemist, was a civilian employee of the Army working at Fort Detrick in a cooperative effort with the CIA. On November 19, 1953, at one of the periodic meetings of Ft. Detrick and CIA personnel, a dosage of LSD was placed by CIA personnel in drinks consumed by Dr. Olson and others, all of whom were members of the group. Prior to receiving the LSD, Dr. Olson had participated in discussions where the testing of such substances on unsuspecting subjects was agreed to in principle. However, neither Dr. Olson, nor any of the others was made aware that they had been given LSD…”
Many years later, after Olson’s family learned about the activities of the government’s top-secret MKULTRA project, they had Olson’s body exhumed for additional autopsies. Based on the autopsy findings, in 1996 the Manhattan District Attorney opened a homicide investigation into Olson’s death, but was unable to find enough evidence to bring charges.
Although Albarelli was satisfied that the truth regarding the assassination of Frank Olson had been revealed, he could not shake the troubling finding of CIA involvement in the historical Pont Saint Esprit event. He once told a reporter on national television:
“The most shocking thing to me was the CIA experiment in France. I didn’t want to believe that my government could do that.”
The truth comes forth
The “smoking gun” CIA document that Albarelli found during his investigation into Frank Olson’s death contained instructions regarding Pont-Saint-Esprit and Frank Olson. In those instructions, it was made clear that all files surrounding the case were to be destroyed. It read:
“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.”
At the time (two years before his death), Frank Olson was the CIA scientist that led research for the agency into the drug LSD. Biological warfare scientists around the world had begun experimenting with LSD and the Sandoz lab was the only place in the world where LSD was being produced at the time. The lab was located only a few hundred miles from Pont-Saint-Esprit. Albarelli recognized that the Pont Saint Esprit incident had all the hallmarks of a government cover-up.
Albarelli dug deeper into the CIA records and found another file containing a conversation between a CIA agent and a representative of the Sandoz Chemical Company. The report stated that after several drinks, the Sandoz representative abruptly loudly proclaimed:
“The Pont-Saint-Esprit ‘secret’ is that it was not the bread at all… It was not grain ergot.”
After still more research, Albarelli found additional sources who confirmed his findings – and added additional horrifying details to the story. An earlier 1949 document issued by LSD research director instructed the army to do everything possible to launch “field operations” using the drug.
According to Albarelli’, the Pont-Saint-Esprit incident resulted from intentional diethylamine poisoning – the “D” in LSD – that had been placed in local foods (likely the bread) by the US Army’s Special Operations Division. To his horror, Albarelli discovered evidence that as part of the ultra-secret Project MKULTRA program, the CIA tested LSD and other drugs on foreign civilians in Germany and Russia, as well as in France, and on 5,700 US servicemen between 1953 and 1965. In addition, he noted the Pont Saint Esprit incident was intended as a precursor to a similar secret experiment scheduled to take place in the New York City subway system. The purpose “field operations”? To gauge the effects of the newly synthesized drug and determine if LSD could be used in combat to produce mass hallucinations and acts of madness in the enemy. In short, it was to be used to confuse and disorient the enemy during warfare.
It is now known that after the Korean War the Americans launched a vast research program into the mental manipulation of prisoners and enemy troops. Scientists at Fort Detrick, where the US Army’s Special Operations Division is based, have admitted that special agents had sprayed LSD into the air and also contaminated “local foot products”.
On November 28, 2012, Frank Olson’s sons Eric and Nils Olson filed suit in the US district court in Washington, D.C., seeking unspecified compensatory damages. They also want to see documents related to their father’s death and other matters that they say the CIA has withheld from them.
The mystery of Le Pain Maudit (Cursed Bread) still haunts the inhabitants of Pont-Saint-Esprit, in the Gard, southeast France.
You can view several supporting government documents here (PDF).
Check out the photo gallery of the Pont Saint Esprit mass hallucination event, many photos derived from original news footage of the event.