Did the CIA spike a bakery in France with hallucinogens?

Written by: Captain Skellett // August 27th, 2010 // Drugs, Poisons, Sex and Reproduction, The Realm of Bizzare, Unethics

On August 15, 1951 a small town in southern France called Pont-Saint-Esprit briefly entered the twilight zone. Hundreds of people reported acute psychotic episodes and physical symptoms such as nausea. They experienced traumatic hallucinations, and 50 of those affected were put in asylums. Five died. The event was later traced back to pain maudit – cursed bread.

In 2009 American journalist Hank Albarelli cited evidence that it was actually caused by CIA experiments into LSD. His book A Terrible Mistakesuggests the mass hallucinations experienced that day was a government funded field experiment into the newly found drug.

There would be potential for LSD to be used as chemical warfare – sprayed onto an army it would turn soldiers into… well… I don’t know but with guns involved I think it would be bad. I’m not sure if his conclusion is correct, but his article makes a compelling argument.

I have to say, conspiracy theories really do it for me. I think they’re great. Nothing like a little paranoia to keep you on your toes. There are, however, other opinions on what caused the Pont-Saint-Esprit madness.

One explanation is ergotism. Ergot is a group of fungi (most prominently Claviceps purpurea) which grow on rye, wheat and related grain-producing when-I-grow-up-I-want-to-be-bread plants. The fungus produces a neat little cocktail of alkaloid drugs which cause spasms, diarrhea, nausea and hallucinations – similar to those experienced at Pont-Saint-Esprit that fateful day.

In fact, the psychosis could have been caused by ergot or LSD, both have similar symptoms. LSD was first derived from the ergot alkaloid ergotamine. Controlled doses of ergot poisons have been used to treat migraine headaches and control bleeding after childbirth. Accidental, and dangerous, ingestion of ergot was known as Saint Anthony’s Fire (not to be confused with Saint Elmo’s Fire) for the monks of Saint Anthony who were really good at treating it. Ergotism was also blamed for Agent Scully’s hallucinations in the episode Never Again, where she gets a badass tattoo with some red ink that could have been coloured with ergot.

Greek myth time! In Ancient Greece annual initiation ceremonies were held for the cult of Persephone and Demeter. Demeter was the goddess of grain, farming and plenty, a bit of an Earth mother goddess with rich wheat coloured hair and a flowing dress. She guaranteed a good harvest. She had a daughter called Persephone, who loved the flowers. One day when Persephone was looking at some flowers in a field, Hades the god of the underworld noticed her, opened up the ground and abducted her. When Demeter noticed her daughter was gone, she was stricken with grief and refused to bring the harvest.

Persephone was trapped in the underworld for months on end. Desperate for her hand in marriage, Hades would offer her food, but Persephone know not to eat the food of the dead or she would never be able to leave. However one day Hades offered her a pomegranate, her favourite dish, and she ate six seeds.

Up in the mortal world, the land was dying. People were starving, having never experienced such famine. No matter how they prayed to the goddess she would not bring the harvest. Seeing the despair of the people, Zeus the king of the gods went down to his brother Hades and asked if he could bring Persephone back to her mother. Awkward conversation ensued.

Hades finally agreed, but oh noes! Persephone had eaten the food of the dead! The six pomegranate seeds meant that she had to spend six months of the year in the underworld as Hades wife. The other six months she would live with Demeter her mother. That’s why we have the seasons – autumn and winter when Demeter mourns, spring and summer when Demeter is reunited with her daughter.

Anyhoo, to be initiated into the Demeter and Persephone cult was called the Eleusinian Mysteries, some mysteries including this myth with added details. I think some of the mysteries included the use of pomegranate as a contraceptive (the link between fertility and death, perhaps.) You also had to fast during the initiation, and afterwards you would drink a barley drink called Kykeon and great revelations would be revealed.

Kykeon, made of barley, quite possibly tainted with ergot. Revelation or hallucination, you tell me.

Captain Skellett

I be Captain Skellett. Me blog started in April 2009 when I was working full time and didn’t get a chance to talk science. Now I have changed jobs and talk science all the time, but that doesn’t stop me blogging. More About Captain Skellett   Google

   

6 Responses to “Did the CIA spike a bakery in France with hallucinogens?”

  1. Karl L says:

    I would be hesitant to put this event down to intentional covert LSD poisoning – not to say that the CIA has never done such a thing (on the contrary I know they have) – but rather that this story parallels those of ergot poisoning that have been occurring for centuries throughout Europe. Thye ergot fungi germinates due to onset of Spring or a rain period and infects grain and hay.

    The ergot fungi contain sometimes contain lysergic acid and all contain hallucinogenic alkaloids that are precursors LSD, such as ergotamine. When this is mixed into the bread the implications are obvious.

    “The neurotropic activities of the ergot alkaloids may (sic) cause hallucinations and attendant irrational behaviour, convulsions, and even death.”

    From Wiki:

    “Human poisoning due to the consumption of rye bread made from ergot-infected grain was common in Europe in the Middle Ages. The epidemic was known as Saint Anthony’s fire[9], or ignis sacer, and some historical events, such as the Great Fear in France during the Revolution have been linked to ergot poisoning.[16] Linnda R. Caporael posited in 1976 that the hysterical symptoms of young women that had spurred the Salem witch trials had been the result of consuming ergot-tainted rye.[17] However, her conclusions were later disputed by Nicholas P. Spanos and Jack Gottlieb, after a review of the historical and medical evidence.[18] Other authors have likewise cast doubt on ergotism having been the cause of the Salem witch trials.”

  2. Karl L says:

    Should have read the whole article as I see you have already addressed this in its entirety 🙂 It does sound like ergot poisoning, and one fact confirms it: ergotism can be fatal, but no matter how much LSD a human consumes it will not be fatal (technically it can be but the LD50 is ridiculous, it is quite a safe substance, but ergot has physioloical effects such as vasoconstriction that can be very dangerous in excess).

    I thought of that myself, that LSD is quite safe and probably wouldn’t cause death. The things I read about the event didn’t specify how those people died. Maybe they died from reacting to a hallucination (like, by jumping off a building.) Maybe they had a pre-existing condition, started freaking out and had a heart attack. Who knows.

  3. Orun says:

    I wrote a blog post on the topic also ^-^
    http://www.cynicologist.com/2011/02/cia-drugs-french-towns-bread-with-lsd-in-1950/

    Your picture on that post is amazing, how did you do that?

  4. Orun says:

    Thanks! Feel free to use it if you like. I animated the .gif in photoshop, playing with each frame using the liquify tool 🙂






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