Was a shadowy the Counter-Espionage American Force Behind the Bizarre Events of 1951?
Over a week-long period almost 62 years, the peaceful existence of the little Provençal town of Pont-Saint-Esprit in the Gard department was shattered by a catastrophic series of events where the entire settlement seemed to be overcome by insanity.
The final tally was a grim: 5 people dead and more than 30 hospitalised, with over 300 sick people. What started as a seemingly normal but severe series of cases of mass food poisoning ended a few days later with a night of pure madness and scenes of hallucination worthy of Bosch’s painting “Night of the Apocalypse”, to paraphrase the report of one of the local doctors Dr Gabbaï.
The theory that seemed to at least partially explain what happened was based on a consignment of rye flour from Poitiers (650km away) having been contaminated by a fungus, but that theory never quite satisfactorily explained the story and exhaustive investigative efforts by American historian Steven Kaplan in a 2008 book called “Le Pain Maudit” (the Damned Bread) expressed such doubts but was unable to find a satisfactory counter-theory for the biblical scenes of craziness.
A year later, however, another American came up with what he says is the answer to the mystery of Pont-Saint-Esprit: It was the work of a joint American army/CIA operative experiment to test the effects of the hallucinogenic drug LSD.
The unforgettable week of the Pain Maudit began on the 17th of August 1951. The waiting rooms of the town’s three doctors were full. About 20 patients in total had presented themselves with what appeared to be digestive symptoms: nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea.
In the days that followed, more symptoms were added to the original ones: extreme tiredness and insomnia. For some patients, the symptoms subsided completely for 48 hours, only to return again much worse than before, culminating in vivid hallucinatory episodes involving fire and multi-coloured animals.A number of journalists noted the increasingly bizarre episodes that gripped the townspeople: One worker Gabriel Validire shouted to his room-mates “I’m dead! My head is made of copper and I have snakes in my stomach!” One young girl believe that she was being attacked by tigers. An 11-year-old boy Charles Granjhon tried to strangle his mother.
On the 24th of August, the situation becomes unmanageable. A man jumps from the second floor of the hospital shouting “I’m an aeroplane!” Even though he broke his leg, he got up again and ran another 50 metres to the main road before hospital staff caught up with him. Several of those hospitalised were seized by unbearable hallucinations. Others could hear celestial harmonies in their heads.
Pretty soon, all fingers began to point to the master baker in the village. The hapless boulanger Roch Briand was blamed. In an article published by the British Medical Journal less than a month later, Dr Gabbaï wrote that the frequency of the mental symptoms pointed towards ergot poisoning – a fungus that is almost identical to LSD and which was common in the Middle Ages. Indeed, it has been blamed for various historical incidences of madness in the past, such as the infamous Salem Witch Trials in the USA in the 17th century. However, there had been no case of ergot poisoning in France since the 18th century.
But even the theory of ergot poisoning barely explains the clinical symptoms present during that awful week in 1951. Dr Gabbaï and Father Giraud were called to the rescue and were quick to find parallels between the case of Pont-St-Esprit and studies carried out around the same time in Sandoz laboratories in Switzerland by Albert Hofmann, who discovered LSD, synthesised from the ergot fungus.
The judge of instruction in the affair suggested that there was some criminal involvement in the contamination of the bread by a “very harmful form of synthetic ergot.”
Hofmann first considered that the synthetic drug poisoning was a possibility but he rejected the theory once he got back to Basel. Meanwhile, an American laboratory carried out tests on bread deliberately tainted with ergot but noted that volunteers who ingested it “had none of the symptoms reported by victims in Pont-Saint-Esprit.”The mystery was not investigated any further and the verdict of a case of bad bread was as close as survivors and relatives of the victims got to a full explanation.
Two years later, an American biochemist working on top-secret programmes for the American military committed suicide. It was sudden and unexpected. According to the official story, he threw himself out of a window from the thirteenth floor of a New York hotel. It was by investigating this suspicious death that American journalist Hank Albarelli obtained documents from the CIA and the White House which threw a sinister new light on the events of Pont-Saint-Esprit.
These were dark Cold War years in America; an era of heightened paranoia during which they American military believed that soldiers taken as prisoners of war in Korea had been subject to brain-washing. Believing that they were fighting a war on a psychological and mental front, many often hair-brained offensive and defensive programmes were launched.
Frank Olson was working on such programmes in the Special Operations Department (SOD) in Fort Detrick. Amongst the documents obtained by Albarelli was a transcript of a conversation between a CIA agent and the American representative of Sandoz laboratories.
This latter person makes strong mention of the “secret of Pont-Saint-Estprit” and explains to the CIA agent that it wasn’t ergot poisoning but “diethylamide” (the D in LSD).
After some further investigation, Albarelli finally found someone within the CIA who, under promise of anonymity, tells him that the Saint-Pont-Esprit incident was a joint operation between the SOD and the CIA. Scientists from Fort Detrick also explain to Albarelli that there were indeed operations using a mixture based on LSD and that this was used both for contaminating areas from the air and for contaminating “local food produce”. The air drug bombardment was, he was told “a total failure.”
The “Pont-Saint-Esprit incident” was mentioned in further official CIA documentation in a 1975 report from a commission of enquiry that was looking into “unethical practices” by the CIA.
Kaplan wondered about the validity of a theory where a secret American operation in the middle of the Cold War would choose as a guinea pig a town in the heart of a left-voting part of the country.
“At the time, people talked about the possibility of an experiment of some sort that was due to control a revolt from the population,” remembers Charles Granjhon. He’s now 73 and still lives in Pont-Saint-Esprit. “I almost kicked the bucket. I’d really like to know the reason why.” He’s not the only one who wants to know the truth.The truth, it seems, was that the Pont-Saint-Esprit “incident” was the work of a renegade secret operative by the name of Sidney Gottlieb. Gottlieb was a military chemist who was obsessed with the potential of LSD and wanted to poison Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the hope of driving him mad.
Although there’s no direct evidence to support the theory that Gottlieb’s mission involved poisoning a whole French village to see what would happen, it is clear, according to Albarelli, that he was involved in renegade operations and that one of those operations was referred to in CIA documentation as “the Pont-Saint-Esprit incident”. Gottlieb would have had no moral qualms about such an operation and had tested the drug on prostitutes, students and Vietnamese prisoners of war and Albarelli believes that his laboratory partner Frank Olson was killed because he knew too much.
After his book was published, Albarelli learned from one of his contacts in the DGSE that the French secret service had contacted their American colleagues to find out about what they knew – a fact that appeared to rule out any French government involvement in the affair.