The year was 1951 – the height of the Cold War – and in the sleepy, scenic town of Pont-Saint-Esprit in southern France, a beautiful summer’s morning was about to get ugly. On that fateful day, the townsfolk were without warning mysteriously stricken with mass insanity in the form of horrifying hallucinations. As a result of the outbreak, at least five people died and 50 were admitted to asylums, while hundreds more were afflicted. Who was responsible? Say recent allegations: the CIA.
According to an article in The Telegraph: “Inhabitants were suddenly racked with frightful hallucinations of terrifying beasts and fire. One man tried to drown himself, screaming that his belly was being eaten by snakes. An 11-year-old tried to strangle his grandmother. Another man shouted: “I am a plane”, before jumping out of a second-floor window, breaking his legs. He then got up and carried on for 50 yards. Another saw his heart escaping through his feet and begged a doctor to put it back.”
For decades, it was thought the strange and disturbing case of the Le Pain Maudit ('The Cursed Bread’) transpired because the bread of a local baker had either been unwittingly contaminated with the hallucinogenic mould, ergot, or according to another theory, poisoned with organic mercury. Now, however, new evidence points the finger of blame at the CIA, which stands accused of spiking local food with LSD as part of the covert mind control experiments of project: MKULTRA.
The revelations were made by investigative journalist Hank Albarelli in his 2009 book, A Terrible Mistake. Albarelli claims that the very same scientists who offered the widely believed explanations for the acute psychotic episodes were working for the Swiss pharmaceutical company, Sandoz, which secretly supplied the CIA and US Army Special Operations Division (SOD) with LSD. In other words, ergot and mercury were simply red herrings designed to deflect attention from the truth.
The Telegraph explains that Albarelli discovered CIA documents as he was investigating the suspicious suicide of biochemist Frank Olson, who fell from a 13th floor window while working for the SOD two years after the ‘Cursed Bread’ incident. In the documents, Albarelli found transcriptions of a conversation between a CIA agent and a Sandoz official who mentions the “secret of Pont-Saint-Esprit” – that the cursed bread had nothing to do with mould, but with diethylamide – the D in LSD.
Albarelli also spoke to SOD scientists who confirmed knowledge of the incident’s position in a vast research programme that manipulated the minds of prisoners and enemy troops, as well as US, Canadian – and now it seems French – citizens. Other official US government documents also support the story that agents sprayed LSD both into the air and in local foot products in Pont-Saint-Esprit, naming a number of French nationals who had secretly been employed by the CIA.
However, many are unconvinced by Albarelli’s and the Telegraph’s version of events. Steven Kaplan, a French historian and professor at Cornell University, published a 2008 book called Le Pain Maudit, which focuses on the lives of the people affected by the events at Pont-Saint-Esprit and includes interviews with those who suffered hallucinations and were institutionalised at the time. Kaplan has already dismissed Albarelli’s CIA story; commenting in France 24, he said:
“I have numerous objections to this paltry evidence against the CIA. First of all, it’s clinically incoherent: LSD takes effects in just a few hours, whereas the inhabitants showed symptoms only after 36 hours or more. Furthermore, LSD does not cause the digestive ailments or the vegetative effects described by the townspeople…”
“It is absurd, this idea of transmitting a very toxic drug by putting it in bread. As for pulverising it [for ingestion through the air], that technology was not even possible at that time. Most compellingly, 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.”
Now parts of Kaplan’s counter arguments themselves do not hold up. For one, LSD is not “very toxic” as he states – it is categorically non-toxic – and moreover there is nothing “absurd” about bread being used to hold a liquid suspension of the drug, as the blog Reason has identified. However, where Kaplan does make a salient point against the CIA dosing theory is in his observation that the supposedly laced bread did not take effect for some time, whereas LSD would kick in far sooner.
One of Reason’s readers has also critiqued the conspiracy theory. The anonymous commenter concurs with Kaplan’s contention about the too-long time delay in symptoms appearing, and adds that “people haven't died from even massive overdoses of LSD, unlike a number of people who died of convulsions from the mass-poisoning in Pont-Saint-Esprit. There has never been an unambiguous recorded human death from LSD overdose... Physiologically speaking, it's extremely safe.”
The Reason commenter also recaps that the poisoning was traced back exclusively to the bread of a local baker, and therefore "Albarelli’s claim that the poisoning was due to 'a covert LSD aerosol experiment directed by the US Army's top-secret Special Operations Division at Fort Detrick, Maryland' can be definitely ruled out.”
The more reactions you read to The Telegraph article, the harder it becomes to believe. Chemist Derik Lowe has taken issue with the idea that the Sandoz scientist said the outbreak was due to “diethylamide – the D in LSD”, which he derides because diethylamide "isn't a separate compound," and "LSD isn't some sort of three-component mixture.” Moreover, says Lowe, “diethylamides have no particular hallucinogenic properties... It’s like saying that the secret of TNT is a compound called 'Tri'. Nonsense.”
Ultimately, bigger questions like why the CIA would single out a small town in the south of France to test LSD as a war weapon are most puzzling. And what of the knowledge of the Cursed Bread inside France? If French officials or secret services were aware of what was about to happen, why did they do nothing to prevent it, and if they weren’t, why were they so ill informed? The mystery of the Cursed Bread shows little sign of being solved, but the notion of a CIA plot starts to seem suspect.