Midsummer Night’s Madness: The Day a Town Went Bonkers

Pont-Saint-Esprit, France, site of a famous stone bridge across the Rhone first described by Symon Semeonis in 1323.

Friday, August 16, 1951, was a day unlike any other in the ancient town of Pont-Saint-Esprit, a close-knit community on the banks of the Rhone River, founded in the fifth century and filled with Roman and medieval architecture. Strangely, the first victims in what soon became known throughout France as le pain maudit (“the  accursed bread”) were all animals.

An astonished Laurain Moulin watched her cat suddenly go into convulsions and keel over dead in the kitchen. Moulin opened the door to the barnyard and saw several ducks staggering by, while others marched in unison, acting more like penguins. One duck was lying dead on the ground.

By early evening, the local doctors’ offices were filled with patients complaining of nausea, upset stomachs, insomnia and chills; their pupils were dilated, their temperature and blood pressure below normal. By morning, hundreds more were exhibiting the same symptoms. One woman in her twenties began having seizures. That night, two of the three doctors met to compare notes and concluded that over 200 people had been stricken by some sort of food poisoning that was linked to the town’s favorite baker, Roche Briand.

Wide-eyed and babbling, townspeople began appearing on street corners at all hours, some acting paranoid, others wearing beatific smiles and speaking of universal love; still others were dizzy, confused and had trouble executing the simplest chores. A few were hallucinating so wildly that they could barely distinguish fantasy from reality. An ambulance was called for an elderly man named Felix Mison, who seemed on the verge of a heart attack.

At 6 am on Sunday morning, Emile Testevin was spotted lying naked on the ground near his home, writhing as if in intense pain. He was brought inside by his mother. Although Emile’s father was already hallucinating, he took a wobbly bicycle ride to fetch the nearest doctor. The physician was puzzled by the behavior of the elder Testevin, who seemed positively bursting with euphoria while reporting his son’s condition.

Emile’s father hadn’t slept for two nights and was alternating between fits of depression and bursts of incredible energy and strength. As it turned out, barbituates and other sleeping medications had little impact on Pont-Saint-Esprit’s growing population of insomniacs, although they did seem to help with some of the convulsions. It was at this point that the doctors began to suspect ergotism as the cause of the mysterious outbreak.

Ergot is a parasitic mold that can form on rye, wheat and other cereal grains in high humidity. During the Middle Ages, epidemics of ergotism had appeared sporadically in Europe, usually after heavy rains during the harvest season. Symptoms included convulsions, seizures, nausea and vomiting. Many of the afflicted also experienced strange hallucinations, and their fingers and toes became gangrenous. The disease became known as “St. Anthony’s fire,” named after the order of the Roman Catholic monks who became famous for treating the illness (although treatment consisted of little more than putting patients in a hospital filled with religious icons). In 1650, a fungus was first suspected as the cause of the epidemics, but it wasn’t until 1676 that the first mention of ergot appears in the English language. The most severe outbreaks took place in Gatinais in 1694 and Wurttemberg in 1735, although today some researchers believe that the Salem witch trials of 1692 were also the result of ergot poisoning.

Felix Mison died on August 20, the outbreak’s first casualty. By Monday morning, the 14th Mobile Brigade of Montpellier and other police officials and toxicologists began filtering into town in the first attempts to restore calm and determine the cause of the illness. However, things were destined to get significantly worse before they got better. One hour before midnight, on Friday, August 23, shrieks and screams began resounding throughout the town, screams that would continue into the morning. The next day, the streets were filled with people in various states of undress, some completely naked, babbling incoherently. Some believed they were being eaten alive by snakes or insects; others became violent and tried to strangle their friends or relatives. It was especially wrenching to see children in the throes of such psychic distress. Homes were trashed as the residents piled up furniture against the doors and windows to protect themselves from imaginary invaders.

Unfortunately, the police responded with the worst possible tactic: tackling and restraining the delusional people and forcing them into overflowing barns and other makeshift hospitals that were being set up all around town to isolate the sick. At times, it took a dozen men to capture and subdue a single person. The following day, reinforcements arrived in the form of the militia, armed with more ambulances and more straitjackets. It was decided to move the delusional people into secure asylums, a strategy that merely amplified their desire to escape, while isolating them from the comfort of their familiar surroundings. Those who resisted violently were given electroshock therapy at the asylums, increasing their pain and confusion.

The police arrived at Emile Testevin’s home and insisted that he be taken to the asylum despite his family’s objections. Although Emile was calm now, he’d experienced some violent moments, and the police were concerned about what might happen should the 200-pound giant become agitated again. Emile was loaded into an ambulance already filled with psychotics who couldn’t understand why they were being removed from their homes or where they were going. One man cried out, “My belly is full of snails! I am sending out radio messages everywhere! Get me an x-ray and you will see!!”

When the ambulance arrived at the asylum outside Marseilles, Emile was the last to be unloaded. Seven men couldn’t remove him from the vehicle. The orderlies approached with a straitjacket, but when they tried to put it on him, Emile grabbed it and ripped it in half. The militia arrived with more men and more straitjackets. Emile tore through six more jackets before he could be subdued. He was taken inside, strapped to a bed, and locked in a secure room.

But when an orderly came back to check on him, Emile had somehow eaten through the leather straps (breaking many of his teeth in the process) and was bending the iron bars in the window so he could escape. Six orderlies were needed to move him to a subterranean room with no windows. By now, two other men had died, along with a woman who suffered from hyperthyroidism. The woman reportedly showed the early signs of gangrene on some of her toes, an almost certain indicator of ergot poisoning. Depending on whose statistics you trust, between five and seven people (most of them elderly and frail) would eventually die from the mysterious illness.

But just as the ergot theory was taking hold, an autopsy of Felix Mison, the first victim, indicated traces of mercury in his system. Although no traces of mercury would ever be found in bread samples or any of the other victims, many investigating scientists rushed to conclude that mercury-treated seeds were the culprit. Case closed.

Arthur Stoll.

Unexpectedly, however, two scientists from the prestigious Sandoz Laboratories in nearby Switzerland turned up in Pont-Saint-Esprit at the height of the outbreak: Arthur Stoll and Albert Hofmann, the chemists who discovered LSD-25. They had stumbled across the hallucinogen while investigating the active molecules in ergot, minute amounts of which had been used by European midwives after the 1700s to heighten contractions and stop postpartum bleeding. Sandoz wanted to know whether active ingredients in ergot had any medical applications.

Albert Hofmann.

Hoffman and Stoll had come to Pont-Saint-Esprit, they claimed, because the townspeople’s symptoms were much closer to LSD-25 than ergotism. At the time, however, no one had even heard of LSD. Hofmann had once described it as potentially “appalling, frightening and shocking.” He added that if LSD were ever to be used improperly, it might cause more destruction than the atomic bomb.

Both Hofmann and Stoll seemed certain that the ergot in the flour had somehow broken down to LSD-25. Ergot alone, they reasoned, couldn’t be the cause of the outbreak, because large amounts were needed to cause such widespread symptoms, and any bread tainted with such high concentration would be discolored and obviously rancid. LSD, on the other hand, was odorless, colorless, and thousands of times more potent. Both scientists agreed that mercury poisoning wasn’t the answer either, because no kidney nor liver damage had been found in any of the patients.

The events at Pont-Saint-Esprit would remain a mystery for years to come. The victims formed an association to sue the cartel that controlled flour distribution in France in the 1950s, but this powerful group would be very successful in delaying, appealing and subverting their case. That only left the baker, Roche Briand, to sue, but he’d already lost his business (no one wanted his bread anymore) and had become an insurance salesman. Ten years later, none of the victims had received any compensation for their suffering, and there still wasn’t a scientific consensus on the cause of the outbreak.

In 1968, John G. Fuller published a book titled The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire (Macmillan). He focused exclusively on Briand’s bread as the cause of the outbreak, dismissing other theories that the townspeople put forward (including the possibility of a chemical-warfare experiment). However, today many researchers will be inclined to look at Fuller as a person of interest in a possible coverup. Immediately prior to his book on Pont-Saint-Esprit, Fuller had published an account of Barney and Betty Hill, the first recorded case of alien abduction, an incident that allegedly took place as the New Hampshire couple returned from a vacation trip to Canada in the early 1960s. Many researchers have come to the conclusion that thousands of Americans were secretly hypnotized and dosed with LSD in the 1950s and early 60s as part of the CIA’s mind-control experiments, and the Hills may have been two such victims. According to this scenario, the alien-abduction story was planted through hypnosis to mask the activities of government scientists. The current alien-abduction mythology may, in fact, be largely an invention of the national security system as a cover, which might explain why UFO documentaries and features are so prevalent in the media, while investigations into the deep state exceedingly rare.

John G. Fuller.

There are several other connections that cast suspicions on Fuller’s work, including his relationship with hypnotist Dr. Andrija Puharich (aka Henry K. Puharich), a parapsychology researcher most famous as the man who introduced spoon-bender Uri Geller to the world. Puharich as been linked to the CIA’s MK/Ultra mind-control program and was also involved in a series of bizarre seances with some of our country’s wealthiest elite. Another connection is Dr. Karlis Osis, founder of the Parapsychology Foundation in New York City, a research institute that worked closely with the CIA over the years. In the late 1950s, Osis offered Fuller the opportunity to be the first journalist to try LSD and write about its effects. Fuller turned down the offer. While these connections don’t prove Fuller was a witting accomplice of the CIA, they do suggest that he may have been a writer that the agency employed whenever a story needed containment.

In 2008, the events of Pont-Saint-Esprit were further investigated by Steven K. Kaplan, a professor of European history at Cornell University and an internationally recognized authority on French bread. Although it was written entirely in French, Kaplan’s Le Pain Maudit was the subject of a feature in the New York Times. Kaplan went to Pont-Saint-Esprit after the book was published to give a talk about the incident. Although 30 chairs were set up for his appearance, over 400 people attended, demonstrating that the town had not forgotten the experience. According to the Times, “The government did its best to smooth over the incident and after many inquiries and court cases the affair was finally dropped in 1978. Explanations abound, none of which Kaplan finds satisfying. The most popular one, poisoning by a form of ergot fungus, he finds unconvincing. Mercury poisoning caused by Panogen, a cleansing agent used in wheat containers, was disproved although Kaplan says the government used it as a coverup.”

Frank Olson.

And there the matter would have rested, were it not for a researcher named H.P. Albarelli Jr., whose book A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments finally broke the case wide open. Albarelli spent ten years investigating the death of Olson, a US Army biochemist who’d allegedly killed himself in New York City on the night of November 28, 1953. Initially, Olson’s family was told he had jumped through a closed window (wearing only his underpants) from his room on the 10th floor of the Hotel Statler. What the CIA didn’t initially mention, however, is Olson had been dosed with LSD without his knowledge six days earlier and had been interrogated for 48 hours by mind control experts in an attempt to determine how much of a security risk he posed. Olson, it seems, had grown weary of his job, which involved weaponizing chemical and biological agents for the CIA at Camp Detrick (now Fort Detrick) in Frederick, MD, and was planning to ditch his career and start over as a dentist. However, before he could gracefully exit his high-security position, Olson made “a terrible mistake,” one that would bring about his untimely death. Albarelli determined that mistake was mentioning the Pont-Saint-Esprit incident to someone at Camp Detrick who wasn’t cleared for the information, who then reported him to the camp commander as a potential security risk.

Over 800 pages long, A Terrible Mistake is a riveting exploration into the CIA’s mind control and chemical weapons programs. When revelations about these programs threatened to emerge, then-CIA director Richard Helms made sure that most of those files were burned. But Helms was sacked by Richard Nixon during Watergate, and the new CIA chief, James Schlesinger, was also convinced the abuses needed to come out so they wouldn’t be repeated.

Former CIA Director William Colby (right) talks with former Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs Brent Scowcrof (middle) and former Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller (left) about the Vietnam War during a break from a meeting of the National Security Council on April 24, 1975.

A congressional commission controlled by then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller was eventually created in 1975 to investigate allegations that the CIA was illegally operating inside the US. Colby was called to the White House by Rockefeller at the start of the investigation. According to Albarelli, Rockefeller lashed out at Colby during the meeting. “What the hell are you doing?” he said. “Why are you revealing all this stuff? Don’t you realize the commission is a dog-and-pony show?” The commission would eventually reveal that a Camp Detrick employee had died as a result of being secretly dosed with LSD. Although the report took great pains not to mention Olson by name, it soon became clear just who that person was.

One of the primary reasons why the existence of these programs had to be concealed is that they revealed secret connections between the CIA and the Sicilian men-of-honor society known popularly as the Mafia (and internally as Cosa Nostra). The key person in establishing this connection was a former OSS counterintelligence operative and narcotics agent named George Hunter White. White was the person who brokered the deal that set Lucky Luciano free and opened the doors for the French Connection to flood the US with heroin. White operated safe houses in New York and San Francisco where hundreds of people were dosed with LSD and then interrogated as White observed the sessions behind a two-way mirror. Low-level Mafia operatives were frequently the victims; meanwhile, upper-level Mafia members seemed to enjoy a close relationship with White.

George Hunter White.

According to Wikitree: “George Hunter White was born in Los Angeles, California on June 22, 1908.  His parents were Lafayette Dancy “L.D.” White, a Louisiana native who descended from a prominent family of physicians and plantation owners, and Hermine Brunner, the daughter of German immigrants, whose father made a significant amount of money in the lottery business. During White’s childhood, his grandparents on the Brunner side went through a much-publicized court battle involving alleged domestic abuse; this resulted in George White’s grandfather, Herman Brunner, living with the White family in Alhambra, California in the years leading up to his death in 1912.

In the 1930s, George White took a job with the Border Patrol, which led to a position with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). He applied several times to be a Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), however, he did not demonstrate the right qualifications for the job. White continued to move up in the FBN, holding posts in California, Oregon, Texas, and New York.

White’s work in the FBN in the 1930s had already gone beyond routine drug busts. He worked directly under Harry Anslinger, the Commissioner of Narcotics, and was assigned to high-profile cases that allowed him to make a name for himself. In the mid-1930s, he infiltrated a drug trafficking organization known as the Hip Sing Tong, apparently achieving a level of trust with the members after having “hung around the Oriental restaurants until he was accepted as a regular.”

Hip Sing Tong were involved in the “Tong Wars” in New York City’s Chinatown in the early 1900s.

As noted in his 1975 obituary, White’s overall personage and attitude led people to believe him honest and friendly (“For all his great bulk, Col. White was a wide-eyed sort of man, hale and very hearty…”). White took a “blood oath” with the Hip Sing Tong and stayed within their ranks for two years. In 1938, White and other Federal agents rounded up the group’s leaders and sent over 30 Tong members to prison. As noted by Douglas Valentine in the publication Counterpunch, the Tong case “cemented White’s status as the FBN’s top agent, and subsequently involved him [in] its most important, secret investigations.” [10]

George White was in the United States Army from 1942 to 1945. He attended “a British sabotage school near Toronto, Canada” during this time. In 1943, he left the FBN to begin working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the CIA. In the OSS, White and other agents, “on a quest for truth serums,” secretly added the substance tetrahydocannabinol acetate (THCA) into food being consumed by “suspected communists, conscientious objectors, and mobsters.” [11]

In the early 1950s, White was tapped by Anslinger to work for the head of the CIA’s Technical Division Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, and Gottlieb’s project MK-ULTRA. [12] MK-Ultra was designed to be a test of the potential mind-control properties of psychotropic drugs, most notably LSD. While other scientists and CIA contractors were charged with dosing the substance through laboratories, universities, hospitals, and prisons, White’s territory for his MK-Ultra assignment involved unsuspecting citizens in large U.S. cities.

When Olson was brought to New York, White was supposed to take charge of his security, but he suddenly and unexpectedly had to depart for Los Angeles to attend his mother’s funeral. In his place, White selected Pierre Lafitte, a CIA operative who was also a member of the Corsican Mafia, to guard Olson and make sure that he didn’t escape.

Francois Spirito.

Olson was probably moved to the Statler (now demolished) because Lafitte had a cover job as a security guard there. When it came time to move Olson out of the hotel, Lafitte brought along another Corsican associate, Francois Spirito, to help him. Then things got out of hand. “Lafitte and Spirito killed Frank Olson,” claimed Albarelli. “Some people have misunderstood my book and think it was a planned assassination. In my view, it wasn’t. I think the intent that night was to take Olson back to Rockville, MD, where the CIA maintained an asylum for troubled people they didn’t know what to do with. And it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Olson would have ended up hanging himself or dying from some drug overdose a few days later. But to plan an assassination where two guys throw someone through a closed window? It doesn’t make any sense, especially considering the guy they murdered just spent the last ten years figuring out how to kill someone with a pinprick. It’s just too dirty and too quick to have been planned.”

The smoking gun that Albarelli obtained through the Freedom of Information Act was an undated White House memo sent to CIA director William Colby that mentioned “George H. White, Pierre Lafitte, FNU Spirito and the Pont-Saint-Esprit incident.” This White House memo helped Albarelli put all the pieces of the puzzle together for the first time. He was also able to establish two of the key players in the 1975 coverup: Donald Rumsfeld, then chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, and Rumsfeld’s top aide, Dick Cheney. On July 11, 1975, Cheney wrote a memo to Rumsfeld titled, “The Olson Affair.” The memo included statements that the president should make about Olson’s death at an upcoming press conference. Although the US government eventually reached a settlement with Olson’s family, Ford himself always maintained that the death was a suicide.

While working on this story, I came across an illuminating quote from one of the CIA’s scientists, Dr. Henry K. Beecher, in which he discussed the use of LSD in doses “so small that one can calculate that the water supply of a large city could be disastrously and undetectably (until too late) contaminated with quantities readily available…It should not be a difficult trick to sink a small container near the main outlet of water storage reservoirs, and the container arranged to ‘excrete’ a steady flow of the material over a period of many hours or days.”

At the time, some government scientists believed LSD could be a major advance in “non-violent” war. They were certainly interested in exploring its effects on civilian populations, especially at high doses.

Although a number of other large-scale LSD attacks were in the planning stages, most seemed to have been dropped abruptly. A Detrick employee said, “There was an adverse effect [in France]…what would be called a ‘black swan’ reaction.” However, the Special Operations Division did aerosol spraying through the exhaust pipe of an automobile driven around New York City (Operations Big City and Mad Hatter). “Although White’s records of the experiment were destroyed by the CIA in 1973,” said Abarelli, “We know he twice detonated aerosol devices filled with LSD, and also did at least one LSD experiment within a New York City subway car.”

But why Pont-Saint-Esprit, out of all the towns and villages in the world? “I never asked that question about any of the CIA’s LSD experiments,” said Albarelli. However, it turns out there were two US Army bases located near the town, and one of them may have housed Frank Olson and other members from the Special Operations Division at Camp Detrick for a few days during the experiment. Olson’s presence in Europe at the time was conclusively established after Albarelli examined his passport.

Unfortunately, Albert Hofmann, the man who first tripped on LSD, has since passed away. It would have been interesting to quiz him about the incident, which is curiously absent from his memoirs. When I told someone who knew Hofmann about these revelations (and Hoffman’s own possible role in the coverup), he responded by saying “Albert always said he wasn’t any angel. I wonder if this incident is what he was talking about when he said that.”