The picturesque southern French village of Pont Saint Esprit is hardly the place you'd expect anything out of the ordinary to happen. With a population of nearly 11,000 people, the little town takes its name from a historic bridge crossing the Rhone river and, aside from being the birthplace of the well-known Bouvier family (as in Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy) seems just like numerous other towns in the region.
But a bizarre epidemic that struck the town in 1951 would forever change all that. For reasons that nobody could determine at first, many people in the town began experiencing strange hallucinations and violent hysterics that proved to be life-threatening in some cases. One of the first cases occurred on August 16 when postman Leon Armunier was suddenly struck by nausea and wild hallucinations as he was doing his rounds. "It was terrible," Armunier later told reporters. "I had the sensation of shrinking and shrinking, and the fire and the serpents coiling around my arms." While Armunier was taken to hospital in Avignon where he needed to be forcibly restrained, other cases followed almost immediately. In the week that followed, hundred of patients began to report the same symptoms: nausea, stomach cramps, insomnia, and diarrhea and, in some cases, hallucinations and violent behaviour.
Almost immediately, reporters were on the scene to cover the strange outbreak in the town and to speculate on the possible cause. Many of the news stories about what was happening in Pont Saint Esprit provided eyewitness accounts of the collective madness that seemed to grip the town. One doctor even likened what was happening to the scenes from hell show in Hieronymous Bosch's painting, Night of the Apocalypse.
As these patients flooded the hospital, reporters watched medical staff trying to keep patients from hurting themselves.But they weren't always successful. One eleven-year-old child, Charles Granjhon, began strangling his mother and needed to be forcibly restrained while another girl began screaming that she was being chased by tigers. A third patient, Gabriel Validire, screamed that he was dead. He added that his "head is made of copper and I have snakes in my stomach!”. Another man screamed that he was an aeroplane and threw himself out of a second-floor window of the hospital. While he only got a broken leg from the experience, he still managed to get up and run another fifty metres before hospital staff caught up with him.
By the time the strange epidemic ran its course, there were more than 300 cases reported, most of whom managed to recover after a few days. Of these, thirty would develop more serious symptoms and five villagers died. Though an epidemic of colic striking the village later that same year raised new fears, all of the cases were successfully treated and released.
Which still left medical experts floundering for an explanation for why so many people had been affected in the first place. The most popular explanation was that a consignment of rye flour from Poitiers had been contaminated with a particularly nasty strain of claviceps purpurea (rye ergot fungus). The fungus, which is most common in tropical regions, produces powerful alkaloids that can cause a medical condition known as ergotism (aka St. Anthony's fire). Epidemics of ergotism have occurred throughout history and historians have even suggested that the Salem Witch Trials may have been caused by accusations of bewitchment linked to ergotism. Not only had all of the affected people eaten bread made from the same consignment of flour but witnesses reported that some of the bread had been thrown into the Rhone river and killed many of the fish. To contain the outbreak, government inspectors ordered a ban on fishing as well as issuing a warning to consumers to avoid bread and other bakery products for the duration of the emergency.
As part of a formal investigation, the French government sent Dr. Francois Olieu, an inspector general with the National Health Service to determine how contaminated wheat bypassed normal quality controls to be sold to consumers. Dr. Olieu, along with his team managed to trace all of the contaminated loaves to a several bakeries in Pont Saint Esprit. They also managed to secure some uneaten loaves from the same shipment to determine what the ingredients were that had caused the outbreak. But the investigation soon took on a more sinister tone as health officials began to suggest that the flour had been deliberately contaminated with unknown ingredients.
While this was ruled out eventually, a Poitiers miller named Maurice Mailet was charged with manslaughter after admitting that he had bought grain that he knew to be of suspicious quality and, not wanting to sell it locally, arranged for the grain to be shipped to Pont Saint Esprit. A second man, Roland Bruere, admitted to helping him unload the grain for profit. Though the entire tragedy was dismissed by many newspapers as a case of criminal negligence, other conspiracy theories soon formed.
The paranoia that soon sprang up was helped along by the fact that researchers had difficulty isolating whatever was in the bread that caused the strange outbreak. Though ergotism remained the official cause, the entire episode was soon labelled "Le Pain Maudit" (cursed bread), medical experts argued that what happened seemed different from previous descriptions of ergotism outbreaks. Instead, experts suggested, the flour had been contaminated with something else entirely. Among the possible culprits named were mercury (which was commonly used as a food preservative at the time), nitrogen trichloride that was used as a bleaching agent, contamination from some other fungus, or even the accidental mixing of cannabis sativa into the grain used to make the bread (cannabis sativa is known to grow wild in part of Europe though this isn't as implausible as you might think).
As the years passed, the memory of what had happened in Pont Saint Esprit soon faded. While families of the people who had died in the outbreak still demanded an explanation, all they were ever told was that the contaminated grain was responsible somehow. But the mystery of "Le Pain Maudit" wasn't completely forgotten.
In 2009, writer Hank P. Albarelli Jr published a book which provided the most sinister explanation yet for the Pont Saint Esprit outbreak In his book, Albarelli argued that "Le Pain Maudit" was linked to the CIA experiments into mind control that were taking place at around the same time. This included obtaining declassified CIA documents that referenced the "Pont-Saint-Esprit incident” and the possibility that it had been one of the rogue operations carried out by CIA chemist and spymaster, Sidney Gottlieb, who was later found to have carried out a series of rogue LSD experiments during that same era.
Despite there being no direct evidence linking Gottlieb to Pont Saint Esprit, Albarelli pointed out that Gottlied, with full backing from the CIA, carried out illegal experiments on a wide range of test subjects (mostly involuntarily), including Vietnamese prisoners, college students, and prostitutes. That he may have experimented on the inhabitants of a town in France back in 1951 seemed too far-fetched for most academic researchers, almost all of whom rejected Albarelli's book as paranoid fear-mongering.
Whatever the real cause for the strange events of the summer of 1951, repeated investigations have failed to come up with a satisfactory explanation. Still, whether the cause of the outbreak was accidental or man-made, what happened in Pont Saint Esprit remains a sobering reminder of how vulnerable we are to contaminants in our air, food, or water. Have any lessons really been learned from what happened?