The Curious Case of the Town that went Insane


The summer of 1951 was like any other in the small French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit in the Rhone valley, that is, until August 15th when some 300 residents of the town collectively went insane, experiencing mass hallucinations to the extent that a number committed suicide and some fifty were interned in asylums. The severity of the hallucinations became clear when a man, declaring he was an aeroplane, jumped from a third-floor window, another tried to drown himself because he believed his stomach was full of snails, yet another danced naked in the town square.


The phenomena had begun with doctors being overwhelmed by patients complaining of upset stomachs, vomiting, and diarrhoea, so many they concluded this was a case of food poisoning. After a few days, instead of improving, other symptoms developed, including insomnia. It was then that the madness took hold, affecting somewhere between three and five hundred, (estimates vary,) residents in all. There were scenes of chaos, people running from imaginary flames, tigers, monsters. Pandemonium. A lucky few stood in a state of serenity listening to celestial choruses and revelling in the display of vibrant colours only they could see. Three days later when this hysteria passed, (and again estimates vary,) there may have been as many as seventeen deaths. As calm was restored it was time to ask the question, what just happened? When the investigation took place, there appeared to be one common factor. All those affected had eaten bread purchased from a particular bakery. Doctors concluded that the flour had become contaminated by ergot, a poisonous fungus that grows on rye, which was common in the middle-ages. It produces alkaloids that are structurally similar to the hallucinogenic drug LSD. (It is believed by some researchers that this fungus was responsible for the collective insanity which resulted in the Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century.) However, there had been no cases of ergot poisoning in France since 1816. Other suspected contaminants included mercury, mycotoxins and nitrogen trichloride. The judge appointed to examine the affair suggested the bread had been contaminated by a “very harmful form of synthetic ergot.” The vast majority of credible scientists that examined the outbreak considered the cause to be an unsolved mystery. However, this conclusion was based almost solely upon the findings of biochemists dispatched to the scene from the nearby Sandoz Chemical Company, sole manufacturers of LSD, in Basle, Switzerland. Included in the contingent from Sandoz was Dr. Albert Hofmann, the man who had first synthesized LSD by isolating compounds found in ergot on November 16, 1938. Sandoz was both supplying the CIA with ample amounts of the drug, and consulting with the agency on possible defensive and offensive uses for it.


This conclusion would remain largely unchallenged until 2009 when American investigative journalist, Hank Albarelli presented a new theory in his book ‘A Terrible Mistake’, after some twelve years of research.


Alberelli had been writing about what some believed was the suspicious suicide of American biochemist Frank Olson, who plunged to his death from the thirteenth floor of a New York hotel at 2 am.on November 28th 1953. The night manager was to recall, “In all my years in the hotel business, I never encountered a case where someone ran across a dark room in his underwear, avoiding two beds, and dove through a closed window with the shade and curtains drawn.” According to the BBC, Olson was a CIA biological warfare scientist researching LSD. The Guardian (September 6th 2019) relates how Olson, who had been thinking of quitting as he was appalled at the LSD experiments he witnessed on ‘expendable’ subjects, was, a week before his death lured by the CIA ‘Poisoner-in-chief’ Sidney Gottlieb, to a meeting where unknowingly, he was fed a large amount of LSD. He returned to his family a changed man. A week later he was dead.


Albarelli followed the trail, and it led to the events at Pont-Saint-Esprit. The author suggested that the two were linked, the madness induced by LSD, not a form of ergot. Now, it is not this book’s intent to consider deeply or at length conspiracy theories, merely to, ‘question everything’, allowing the reader to decide for themselves. There are those who believe the contents of Albarelli’s book, and those who point out the flaws, but perhaps, should we encounter further examples, we should define just how the term, ‘conspiracy theory’ arose.