On Aug. 16, 1951, in the height of The Cold War, the idyllic town Pont-Saint-Espirit in southern France was stuck by instantaneous insanity.
At this time the village population was about 5,000 and folks flocked to the streets in paranoia and violence. A post man falls off his bike, a hospital patient jumps out the window claiming to be a dragonfly, and a boy tries to strangle his mother. Seven people died and several dozen were sent to psychiatric hospitals. Hundreds of others were also affected to varying degrees by this mystery illness.
For years, the town baker is blamed for using contaminated rye flour.
Roch Briand was known for having the best bread in the village and was investigated and even accused of poising people with a fungus (ergot) containing the qualities of synthetic LSD. The legendary baker was dethroned and defamed, the family’s generations of work basically slandered over what became a huge government conspiracy. Years later the whole idea was widely disproved, and the general consensus became that of mercury poising, which was also ruled out not long afterward.
But then came journalist Hank Albarelli’s book, “A Terrible Mistake,” a 12-year long research project outlining details of CIA espionage, which focused on the 1953 murder of Frank Olson, an Army biochemist who worked on the CIA’s secret Cold War mind-control experiments. But what Albarelli accidentally uncovered, was that Olson was allegedly murdered after he was loose with his lips about CIA involvement in Pont-Sain-Espirit.
“When researching my book, I came across numerous references to Pont-Saint-Esprit. There were references in CIA documents and even White House documents. And after thorough research, I discovered that the village was the target of a CIA experiment and that it was also part of the motive as to why Frank Olson was murdered,”says Albarelli. Olson’s family later sued the CIA for involvement with his death.
“The CIA was trying to use hallucinogenic drugs and LSD as an offensive weapon at that time. There had been reports written by the Army in 1949 specifically recommending the use of LSD and recommending that field experiments be engaged as quickly as possible,” he said.
This was promoted by intelligence that the Soviet Union was also experimenting with similar drugs and it is thought that hallucinogenic drugs were used in the late 1940’s to elicit confessions during the war. Concerns about the Soviet and North Korean usage of drugs for brainwashing continued in into the 1950s.
Another declassified document Albarelli obtained by Albarelli outlines a conversation at dinner in New York between a CIA agent and a Swiss scientist from Sandoz lab. Sandoz was the lab where Albert Hoffman, the chemist who is widely known and credited for discovering LSD, conducted his research.
“The two page document said that after dinner, the scientist started talking about Pont-Saint-Esprit. He knew it was not the ergot (that was the cause of the illness). He knew the real secret of Pont-Saint-Esprit and that it was an experiment,” says Albarelli.
And the textbook conspiracy story continues.
After the village was poisoned, the scientists that came to investigate the incident came from the Sandoz chemical company. They concluded that the explanation was ergot poisoning.
“But what they did not tell anybody in 1951 was that the Sandoz chemical company was selling and providing the U.S. army and the CIA with LSD for its research purposes,” says Albarelli.
But even after these revelations, the absolute truth as to what really went down in August in 1951 remains hazy. That town is still haunted by the apocalyptic imagery and crazed energy of that day. It is unlikely the CIA will confirm involvement in an official capacity because well, it’s not a good look for the government to be behind the murder Olson, and the manipulation of an innocent town as their military guinea pigs. More than 250 people were involved in the forced experiment, 50 people were sent to asylums and eight people died for various reasons surrounding the event.
There are academic sources that accept the theory of ergot poising to be the explanation. Other theories include mercury, mycotoxins, or nitrogen trichloride as the catalyst for the poisonous outbreak. Most of these have been disproven and the public remains agnostic.
The truth behind the “pain maudit,” or cursed bread incident may never be known says a local man who lived through the incident, “Village elders like myself all agree to say that we will never know exactly what happened in August 1951 in Pont-Saint-Esprit. But it is disturbing if the CIA is involved,” says Paul Pages.
In Albarelli’s book, he suggests that Olson administered this unsuspecting study from Fort Detrick, Maryland. Which really isn’t that far-out considering that it is now widely known that the CIA has administered secret LSD testing to unsuspecting Americans in covert experiments involving college students, drug addicts, veterans, soldiers and mental patients.
LSD can be used safely and Hoffman himself is an advocate for the drug to be used therapeutically when correctly supervised. But the medical and spiritual benefits are removed from the dangerous potential the drug has when the individual is unaware.
Now imagine an entire town, unaware they are being dosed, and you’ll understand the magnitude of August 16, 1951
(Read more on this story on abcnews.)