That Time an Entire French Town Went Insane
The town of Pont-Saint-Esprit lies 30 kilometres northwest of Avignon, in the Gard department of Southern France. Founded in the fifth century, the town, site of a famous famous bridge over the Rhône river built in 1309, has had a long and eventful history. In the 9th Century legendary Frankish ruler Charles Martel defeated an army of Moors nearby, while in 13th Century the town was sacked by Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse. During the Nazi occupation of 1940-1945, the German SS established an interrogation centre in the town citadel where they tortured and executed thousands of members of the French Resistance, dumping their bodies in the river. The town was bombed by Allied aircraft in August 1944 and partially destroyed as American troops fought their way through Southern France. By the early 1950s, however, peace had returned to Pont-Saint-Esprit, and life in the sleepy medieval town of 4,500 carried on much as it had for centuries, the townsfolk working in the nearby vineyards or enjoying a game of boules or a glass of pastis liqueur in their time off. But one August day in 1951, this idyllic calm was shattered as the town was struck by one of the strangest and most disturbing medical incidents in modern history, a near-apocalyptic event that continues to baffle experts to this day and spawn endless conspiracy theories. This is the story of how an entire French town suddenly went mad.
Thursday, August 15, 1951 was a day like any other in Pont-Saint-Esprit, with the townsfolk enjoying the warm summer weather and looking forward to the upcoming September holiday. The only major disturbance that morning was a strike by the workers of the local bottle factory, which produced bottles for the famous Perrier brand of mineral water. But then, around 10AM, a farmer staggered into the office of local physician Dr. Hadar Gabbai, frantically waving his arms and screaming that he was being attacked by a swarm of bees. Soon more people burst through the door, complaining of equally bizarre afflictions like being covered in venomous snakes. By nightfall the office had been inundated by no fewer than 75 frantic patients, whom Dr. Gabbai and his staff rushed off to the local hospital. When this quickly filled up, Gabbai and his staff were forced to lock up 22 patients in a nearby barn. But the worst was yet to come.
The next morning the streets of Pont-Saint-Esprit were like a scene out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Postman Leon Armunier was doing his daily rounds when he was suddenly struck by violent nausea and hallucinations:
“It was terrible. I had the sensation of shrinking and shrinking, and the fire and the serpents coiling around my arms.”
Elsewhere, a man sprinted down the street, screaming that he was being chased by bandits with donkey ears. Another man, convinced he was a circus tightrope walker, proceeded to walk along the cables of a nearby suspension bridge. Another jumped into the Rhône river to escape the snakes he believed were gnawing his brain and guts, while yet another, convinced he was a dragonfly, leaped from a window, broke both legs, and kept running. The madness seemed to affect everyone – young and old, men and women, adults and children, rich and poor – alike. As the New York Times later reported:
“The villagers went into convulsions aggravated in many cases by hallucinations. A little girl thought she was being eaten by tigers. A powerful vineyard worker had the same delusion! He fought wildly, flinging crockery at the imaginary beast, smashing chairs against the wall…One woman believed that her children had been slaughtered by the butcher to be made into sausage. Another saw the repeated vision of a doctor whose head was a grinning skull…”
Not even animals were spared, with one dog chewing stones until all its teeth were broken. But not everyone’s experience was so frightening. Some townsfolk reported hearing heavenly choruses or brilliant colours, while the head of the local farmers’ co-op began composing hundreds of pages of poetry. Many others suffered milder but equally puzzling symptoms including nausea, vomiting, extreme insomnia, hot and cold flashes, tetanus-like spasms, coldness in the hands and feet, widened pupils, and a strange musty odour likened to the smell of dead mice.
Meanwhile, local doctors scrambled to deal with the deluge of psychotic patients literally breaking down their doors. Postman Leon Armunier was thrown in a straitjacket, while other patients were lashed to beds with ropes, bedsheets, and – when these ran out – horse bridles. However, any attempt at restraint simply worsened the patients’ agitation, and many managed to break loose and escape, as Leon Armunier later recalled:
“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.”
For many of the afflicted these symptoms persisted for over a week. By the time the dust had settled, nearly 300 villagers had been struck down by this mysterious plague, with 30 being committed to asylums long-term and at least 5 dying. Leon Armunier spent ten days in a coma, then another four months recovering in a hospice. But even then he was unable to continue working and suffered violent panic attacks in confined spaces.
The events of August 15, 1951 left a lasting impression on the town of Pont-Saint-Esprit, and few who witnessed the frightening scenes that day ever forgot them. Dr Gabbai later stated it was as if the apocalypse had struck the town. But what on earth could have caused a sleepy French town to suddenly go stark-raving mad? A government inquiry was launched soon after the outbreak, and the investigators quickly determined the culprit to be an old enemy which had not been seen in France for more than a century: Saint Anthony’s Fire.
Better known as ergotism, Saint Anthony’s Fire is caused by Claviceps purpurea or ergot fungus, a black mould that grows on the head of cereals like wheat, barley, and rye. Ergot contains a variety of potent alkaloids including ergotamine, a close relative of the drug Lysergic Acid Diethylamide or LSD. Indeed, it was from ergot fungus that Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman first purified LSD in 1938. In addition to being powerful hallucinogens, ergotamine and similar compounds found in ergot can induce violent convulsions and constrict blood flow to the extremities, leading to coldness and numbness in the hands and feet and – in extreme cases – gangrene. Known since biblical times, periodic outbreaks of ergotism have plagued agrarian communities throughout recorded history – especially following wet summers – and are believed to be at least partially responsible for many of the witchcraft panics of the early modern period. During the Middle Ages the condition was given the name Saint Anthony’s Fire after the Monks of Saint Anthony, who proved especially successful at treating the affliction. In France, however, the phenomenon is more commonly known as pain maudit or “cursed bread.”
But while the summer of 1951 had been unusually wet and the symptoms witnessed in Pont-Saint-Esprit seemed to line up with those of ergotism, the government investigators were still perplexed. Ergotism belonged to a more primitive age of subsistence farming, the last outbreak in France having struck all the way back in 1816. How could such an old disease have returned in an industrialized 20th Century nation? Ironically, it was soon discovered that France’s supposedly modern grain distribution system was largely responsible for allowing the outbreak to occur. During the Second World War, the collaborationist Vichy Government which administered the South of France created the Union Meuniere, a socialist-style central grain board that controlled the production and distribution of flour throughout the country. While intended to ensure that all regions of the country received a guaranteed supply of flour, the Union was widely disliked by bakers, who now no longer had any control over the source and quality of the flour they received. The distribution system also meant that bad wheat crops which would previously have triggered localized outbreaks could now cause trouble much further afield.
Tracing the path of the contaminated flour from the distribution centre in Nimes to Pont-Saint-Esprit, investigators discovered that a smaller outbreak had struck the nearby town of Conneaux a week before. On August 9, several bakeries in Conneaux and surrounding villages received their allotted shipment of flour from the Union Meuniere. While this flour was often of poor quality, consisting largely of surplus from more grain-rich regions, this particular batch was worse than most, forming a grey, slimy dough that smelled vaguely of fuel oil. Worse still, customers who ate the bread began falling violently ill, suffering from nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, cold and numbness in the extremities, and insomnia. The bakers immediately complained to distribution centre in Nimes, while the mayor of the village of Saint-Génies-de-Comolas forbade all bakeries from using the tainted flour and filed his own complaint with the Union. The local Union distributor, Jean Bousquet [“Zhah Boo-skay”], explained that the batch had come from the bottom of farmers’ silos and that better flour would be coming once the summer crops had been collected. But no further action was forthcoming, and both Bousquet and the Union ultimately proved powerless to prevent the events of August 15. Bags from the same tainted batch reached Pont-Saint-Esprit the next week, with most cases of poisoning being traced to the high street bakery owned by one Monsieur Roche Briand.
But while the case for ergotism seemed cut-and-dry and the Government quickly wrapped up its investigation, not all were convinced by this explanation. The Union Meuniere, for example, vehemently denied that ergot fungus was to blame, arguing that French flour always contained some ergot and that this problem had never cropped up before. Union president Pierre Jacob even volunteered to eat ergot-tainted flour in front of a panel of experts – though it is not known whether he ever followed through on this promise. However, an American laboratory did feed a group of volunteers ergot-tainted bread and found that their symptoms did not match those seen in Pont-Saint-Esprit. Indeed, according to American Professor Steven Kaplan, an expert on French food history, the Pont-Saint-Esprit outbreak does not fit the profile of ergotism. A batch of contaminated flour, he argues, would have affected far more than just a handful of local bakeries.
Such doubts regarding the official government explanation led to widespread speculation as to the real cause of the outbreak. The townsfolk variously theorized the police had poisoned their food and drink to put down the bottle factory strike or curb political unrest, or that a local priest had placed a curse on the town. More serious theories pointed to contamination by a mercury-based pesticide called Panogen used on rye crops or by solvents used to clean rail cars. While these latter theories were later disproven, the French Government nonetheless used them to divert blame away from the Union Meunieure and onto the privately-owned rail transport system. According to Kaplan, the most likely culprit is bleaching agents used to whiten the flour. At the time American-style white bread was just starting to become popular in France, and the bleaching process was relatively new and unregulated. In the end, subsequent government investigations failed to turn up any conclusive evidence, and in 1978 all inquiries into the incident were dropped. While Kaplan criticizes the French government for botching its investigation, former Post-Saint-Esprit mayor Roger Castillon points out the very different conditions in 1950s France:
“Anyone who says that the investigation was not serious is unable to imagine what things were like in 1951. The procedures weren’t orderly, and what today seems to be negligence was then accepted practice. It’s true that today we don’t have the possibility to check the findings, but I want to think that no malice was involved. It’s also true that if something like that were to happen today, at least one cabinet minister would come here. The mayor didn’t get any help at the time; I think that even the governor of the province didn’t show up. There was a feeling of isolation and avoidance. There was no Facebook or Twitter then, so it was easier to ignore certain topics, if not to silence them altogether.”
Unfortunately, the air of uncertainty surrounding Pont-Saint-Esprit has made the mass poisoning a magnet for conspiracy theories, and some now believe that the incident was not, in fact, a natural phenomenon but rather the result of a top-secret CIA experiment.
In 2009, American investigative journalist Hank Albarelli was researching the mysterious death of Frank Olson, a bacteriological warfare expert at Fort Detrick, Maryland, who was involved in the CIA’s top-secret Project Artichoke – later known as MKULTRA. MKULTRA was an effort to develop advanced methods for mind control and interrogation using techniques such as electroshock therapy and drugs like heroin, mescaline, and LSD. Suspected of being a security risk, on November 17, 1953 Olson was secretly drugged by his colleagues at an MKULTRA retreat at Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. In the wake of the drugging, Olson became agitated and paranoid, attempting to resign from his post at Fort Detrick and confessing to his family “I’ve made a terrible mistake.” 10 days later, Olson plummeted to his death from his 10th-storey room at the Statler Hotel in New York City. Whether he committed suicide or was murdered remains a mystery to this day.
In the course of his research, Hank Albarelli claimed to have stumbled upon a CIA document bearing the following heading:
“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.”
Here, “Belin” refers to David Belin, head of the Rockefeller Commission formed by the White House in 1975 to investigate alleged abuses carried out by the CIA. Albarelli also claimed to have uncovered a 1949 Army report from Edgewood Arsenal revealing that field experiments on LSD as a potential chemical weapon were being actively planned, as well as a classified CIA report from 1954. In this document, an unnamed CIA agent recounts a conversation with a representative from the Swiss chemical company Sandoz, one of the only firms at the time synthesizing LSD. According to the agent, after a few drinks the representative suddenly blurted:
“The Pont-Saint-Esprit ‘secret’ is that it was not the bread at all… It was not grain ergot.”
More disturbing still, most of the scientists who carried out the investigation of the Pont-Saint-Esprit poisoning were from Sandoz, and it was they who eventually fingered ergotism as the culprit. Based on this evidence, Alberelli concluded that the Pont-Saint-Esprit incident was the result of a CIA field experiment on the effectiveness of LSD as a chemical warfare agent. According to Albarelli, the test was code-named “Operation Span” – a reference to the bridge which gives the town its name – and began with an attempt to dust the town from the air with LSD powder. When this proved ineffective, the CIA moved on to slipping the drug into local foodstuffs – including bread. Similar experiments, Albarelli claims, were conducted on unsuspecting civilians around the world, including in Canada, the UK, Morocco, Iraq, Vietnam, the Belgian Congo, Haiti, and British Guiana. In his bestselling 2009 A Terrible Mistake, Albarelli further makes the connection between the Pont-Saint-Esprit incident and the mysterious death of Frank Olson:
“Olson wanted out, he wanted to sever his employment with the army and the CIA. And he started to open his mouth a bit too much. One of the experiments he talked about was Pont-Saint-Esprit and the fact that he had participated in the experiment.”
But not everyone is convinced by Albarelli’s arguments. Steve Kaplan, for instance, has called the CIA experiment theory “harebrained” and entirely lacking in credible evidence. For one thing, the symptoms experienced by the Pont-Saint-Esprit residents do not match those of LSD poisoning. Whereas refined LSD takes effect within minutes, for most of the afflicted there was a 6-48 hour delay between the consumption of the contaminated bread and the onset of symptoms. Nor does LSD produce the digestive disturbances so characteristic of the outbreak. Furthermore, the technology to produce vast quantities of aerosolized LSD did not exist at the time, nor could LSD have survived the extreme temperatures of a baker’s oven – though Albarelli counters that the drug could have been added after the bread was baked. Kaplan’s most compelling counter-argument, however, is:
“…why would they choose the town of Pont-Saint-Esprit to conduct these tests? It was half-destroyed by the US Army during fighting with the Germans in the Second World War. It makes no sense.”
Albarelli’s claims notwithstanding, the most likely explanation for Pont-Saint-Esprit being mentioned in MKULTRA documents is as a natural example of a mass hallucinogenic poisoning that could serve as a model for a deliberate chemical warfare attack.
Today Pont-Saint-Esprit is at peace once again, the town of 10,000 people little changed save for the nearby nuclear power station which now employs most of its residents. But deep scars run beneath its idyllic facade, and while we may never know just what caused the 1951 outbreak, so long as there are those living who remember it, the townsfolk will continue to be haunted by the day the apocalypse came to Pont-Saint-Esprit.
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Thomson, Mike, Pont-Saint-Esprit Poisoning: Did the CIA Spread LSD? BBC News, August 23, 2010, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-10996838
Gabbai, Lisbonne, Pourquier, Ergot Poisoning at Pont St. Esprit, British Medical Journal, September 15, 1951, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2069953/?page=2
CIA Spiked Baguettes With LSD, New Evidence Suggests, Radio France Internationale, March 13, 2010, https://www.rfi.fr/en/americas/20100312-cia-spiked-baguettes-lsd-new-evidence-suggests
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Reilly, Lucas, When the Village of Pont-Saint-Esprit Went Temporarily Mad, Mental Floss, September 24, 2018, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/558020/pont-saint-esprit-france-1951-bread-poisoning-mass-hallucinations
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Fuller, John, The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire, Signet, 1968, https://www.samorini.it/doc1/alt_aut/ek/fuller.pdf
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