On August 15, 1951, dozens of people became terribly ill in Pont-Saint-Esprit, a quaint commune in the south of France. In the days that followed, hundreds more joined them. They complained of nausea and stomach pain, weak blood pressure and faint pulses, cold sweats and low temperatures. Worst of all, everybody had insomnia and smelled. “A state of giddiness persisted accompanied by abundant sweating and a disagreeable odour,” reported the British Medical Journal [PDF]. People would compare the stench to the fragrance of dead mice.
For hundreds of victims, that’s where the inexplicable mass illness stopped. For others, it was only the beginning. Dozens upon dozens of people began experiencing nightmarish hallucinations.
The town became gripped in pandemonium. A little girl screamed as she was chased by man-eating tigers. A woman sobbed about how her children had been ground into sausages. A large man fended off terrific beasts by smashing his furniture. A husband and wife ran around, chasing each other with knives. Even the local animals had gone mad: A dog chewed on stones until its teeth chipped away. Ducks began marching like penguins.
Everywhere, people ran wildly as they tried to avoid imaginary flames. One man, convinced that red snakes were devouring his brain, jumped out of a window. Another reportedly leapt from a window, broke both legs, stood up, and continued running.
Outside, a local postal worker complained that he was shrinking. A person sprinted down the lane, claiming he was being chased by “bandits with donkey ears.” Near the Rhône river, a man—convinced that he was a circus tightrope walker—attempted to balance his way across the cables of a suspension bridge. Another tried to jump into the river, only to be saved by friends. “I am dead and my head is made of copper and I have snakes in my stomach and they are burning me!” he yelled [PDF].
(Not everybody was having a bad experience. Some people, according to The New York Times, “heard heavenly choruses, saw brilliant colors … the world looked beautiful to them.” It was an especially productive experience for the head of the local farmers' co-op, who began writing hundreds upon hundreds of pages of luminous poetry.)
But overall, the scene was apocalyptic. “I have seen healthy men and women suddenly become terrorized, ripping their bed sheets, hiding themselves beneath their blankets to escape hallucinations,” the mayor of Pont-Saint-Esprit, Albert Hébrard, said. Asylums were filled with people wrapped in straitjackets and tied to beds. According to the British Medical Journal, “Every attempt at restraint increased the agitation.”
By the time the mass illness had subsided, approximately 300 people had been in some way affected. At least four died. In the immediate aftermath, the outbreak was blamed on … bread [PDF].
The summer of 1951 was especially wet, and ergot fungi grew all over the country's rye fields. Tainted grains were sourced back to the Roch Briand bakery, where a miller had used fungus-contaminated flour, causing widespread poisoning. The last time ergotism—or what's colorfully known as Saint Anthony’s Fire—had reportedly struck France, it was 1816.
Today, ergot poisoning remains the most commonly accepted explanation of what happened in Pont-Saint-Esprit, though there have been competing theories. Just weeks after the incident, the president of France’s millers’ union, Pierre Jacob, refused to acknowledge the ergot explanation, Reuters reported. Jacob argued that ergot was always present in French flour and, therefore, could not be responsible. To prove his point, he offered to eat ergot-tainted bread in front of a group of experts [PDF]. (There's no record of whether he actually completed the stunt.)
Other theories blamed mercury, fungicide, and various other types of fungus. Some people claimed it was the water used to make the bread, and not the grain, that had been infected.
And, of course, there are conspiracy theories.
In 2009, writer Hank P. Albarelli Jr. claimed that he found a fishy document belonging to the CIA. It contained this label: “Re: Pont-Saint-Esprit and F. Olson Files. SO Span/France Operation file, inclusive Olson. Intel files. Hand carry to Belin—tell him to see to it that these are buried.”
According to the BBC, Frank Olson was a CIA scientist researching LSD; David Belin was executive director of the White House commission investigating the CIA's abuses. Were these men connected to the Pont-Saint-Esprit poisoning? Was it some kind of hidden CIA LSD experiment? Or was the CIA—which was certainly studying psychoactive substances at the time—simply curious about what had happened in southern France?
Steven L. Kaplan, a bread historian at Cornell University, who wrote extensively about the fallout from the outbreak in a French-language tome titled The Cursed Bread, doesn’t buy into the CIA conspiracy theory. LSD, he says, was an unlikely culprit; the symptoms suffered by residents don't match those caused by the hallucinogen. But he’s not convinced that ergot was the cause, either.
Which raises the question: If not ergot or LSD, then what happened in Pont-Saint-Esprit in the summer of 1951?