I n 1951, a quiet, picturesque village in southern France was suddenly and mysteriously struck down with mass insanity and hallucinations. At least five people died, dozens were committed to asylums and hundreds afflicted.
For decades it was assumed that the local bread had been unwittingly poisoned with a psychedelic mould. Now an even more extraordinary explanation has emerged, with evidence suggesting the CIA peppered local food with the hallucinogenic drug LSD as part of a mind-control experiment at the height of the Cold War.
The mystery of Le Pain Maudit (The Cursed Bread) still haunts Pont-Saint-Esprit, in the Gard, southeast France. On August 16, 1951, the inhabitants suddenly suffered frightful hallucinations of terrifying beasts and fire.
One man tried to drown himself, screaming that his belly was being eaten by snakes. Another man shouted "I am a plane" before jumping out of a second-floor window, breaking his legs. Many were taken to the asylum in straitjackets.
Eventually, it was determined that a local baker had unwittingly contaminated his flour with ergot, a hallucinogenic mould that infects rye grain. Another theory was that the bread had been poisoned with organic mercury.
However, H.P. Albarelli Jr., an investigative journalist, says the outbreak resulted from a covert experiment directed by the CIA and the U.S. army's top-secret Special Operations Division at Fort Detrick, Md.
The scientists who produced both the theories of accidental poisoning, he writes, worked for the Swiss-based Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company, which was then secretly supplying the U.S. army and the CIA with LSD.
Albarelli came across CIA documents while investigating the suspicious suicide of Frank Olson, a biochemist working for the Special Operations Division who fell from a 13th floor window two years after the Cursed Bread incident.