War & Peace
‘On This Day’ 1951: Secret C.I.A. L.S.D. Experiment Creates Mass Insanity in French Village; 5 Die
During the early days of the Cold War, the U.S. military and the C.I.A. carried out hundreds of secret experiments with a newly-developed Swiss drug called lysergic acid diethylamide. By the middle of the next decade, LSD would be widely used recreationally by a whole generation of rebellious youth looking to expand their consciousness. But in 1951, the drug was confined to the laboratory and the secret experimental arsenal of the U.S. military and intelligence services.
On August 15, 1951, many of the residents of the quaint southern French village of Pont-Saint-Esprit suddenly found themselves stricken with a baffling case of mass insanity. Villagers suffered horrific hallucinations and hysteria gripped the normally sleepy hamlet. According to The Telegraph:
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. Many were taken to the local asylum in straitjackets. Time magazine wrote at the time: ‘Among the stricken, delirium rose: patients thrashed wildly on their beds, screaming that red flowers were blossoming from their bodies, that their heads had turned to molten lead.’
At least five people died during the madness, hundreds were affected and dozens were locked up in insane asylums.
The incident came to be known as ‘Le Pain Maudit’– ‘the Cursed Bread.’ Two scientists came up with two different explanations for the mysterious madness that swept over Pont-Saint-Esprit that day. One blamed the lunacy on bread contaminated with ergot, a hallucinogenic mould. The other determined that the bread was tainted with organic mercury.
It turns out that both scientists worked for Sandoz, the Swiss pharmaceutical company that was covertly supplying the U.S. Army and the C.I.A. with LSD.
Investigative journalist H.P. Albarelli Jr. discovered the link between Pont-Saint-Esprit and the C.I.A. while researching the “suicide” of Frank Olson, a C.I.A. biochemist who leapt to his death from a tenth-floor Manhattan hotel window after being unwittingly dosed with LSD by his fellow agents. This was a relatively common practice in the Agency in those early days of LSD experimentation, when intelligence officials believed the drug held great promise for use during interrogations and other operations.
Albarelli found a note regarding a conversation between a C.I.A. agent and a Sandoz executive that mentions the “secret of Pont-Saint-Esprit” and refutes the notion that mould was responsible for the villagers’ madness. The note attributes the hallucinations to diethylamide, the ‘D’ in LSD.
Moreover, Albarelli uncovered a White House document sent to the Rockefeller Commission, established by President Gerald Ford in 1975 to investigate C.I.A. wrongdoing, that directly mentions the “Pont St. Esprit incident.”
Frank Olson’s former colleagues also told Albarelli that the ‘Cursed Bread’ incident was part of a C.I.A. and U.S. Army mind control experiment.
Today, C.I.A. LSD experiments are no longer a secret or the stuff of conspiracy theory. It is well known that the C.I.A., alarmed by reports of communist “brainwashing” of captured U.S. troops during the Korean War, wanted to create real-life ‘Manchurian Candidates,’ people programmed to carry out orders under hypnosis. To that end, secret projects such as Bluebird, Artichoke and, most infamously, MKULTRA were undertaken and involved intensive and highly unethical research into mind control. Drugs such as LSD played a crucial role in this dubious research. Thousands of human guinea pigs were unwittingly dosed with these drugs, including thousands of military personnel. Some of the MKULTRA experiments were scripted from Nazi science and can be described as nothing less than torture. Many involved dosing test subjects with dangerous levels of radiation. The United States hardly ever apologizes for its crimes, but the horrors of MKULTRA and other similar mind control and radiation experiments led to a rare apology from President Bill Clinton in 1995.
The innocent villagers of Pont-Saint-Esprit unknowingly got caught up in one of these experiments 60 years ago today. But exactly why the village was chosen for the test and what the C.I.A. hoped to learn from it is still a mystery. The survivors of the atrocity still alive today would like answers.
“I almost kicked the bucket,” 71-year-old Charles Granjoh is quoted in the Telegraph. “I’d like to know why.”
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