Pont St Esprit and the “Cursed Bread” incident

In the summer of 1951, American biochemist Frank Olson led a team of researchers from the US Army’s top-secret Special Operations Division (SOD) at Fort Detrick, Maryland, to the quaint, picturesque village of Pont St. Esprit in southern France. They were engaged in a top-secret CIA experiment conducted under the code-name Operation Span, part of Project MK/NAOMI, which was itself associated with the highly secret Project MK/ULTRA.

On August 16th of that year, the entire village was stricken with an outbreak of mass insanity and hallucinations. Hundreds were afflicted in one way or another. At least five people died (two of them committing suicide) and dozens were interned in asylums. A local politician danced naked in the town square. A teenage girl tore off her dress and wandered about mimicking the sounds of farm animals. A five-year-old girl told her mother: “Tigers are going to eat us all. They’re going to rip us to pieces!” Pointing to the ceiling, she cried out: “Blood is dripping down on everything. Can’t you stop the bleeding?” An elderly man told everyone his belly was full of snails. Another man attempted to drown himself, convinced that his belly was being eaten by snakes. An 11-year-old tried to strangle his grandmother. A man shouted “I am a plane” and jumped out of a second-floor window, breaking his legs. Incredibly, he then got up and carried on for fifty yards.

Postman Leon Armunier was doing his rounds when he was suddenly overwhelmed by nausea and wild hallucinations. “It was terrible,” he recalled later. “I had the sensation of shrinking and shrinking, and the fire and the serpents coiling around my arms.” Eventually, he fell off his bike and was taken to the hospital in Avignon. He was put in a straitjacket in a room where three teenagers had been chained to their beds to keep them under control. “Some of my friends tried to get out of the window,” Armunier said. “They were thrashing wildly, screaming, and the sound of the metal beds and the jumping up and down… the noise was terrible. I’d prefer to die rather than go through that again.” Other patients were screaming that red flowers were blossoming from their bodies and that their heads had turned to molten lead. Animals were also affected. A dog sat in the town square howling at the sun for nearly an hour until someone dragged it away.

For decades it was assumed that bread at one of the town’s bakeries had become contaminated by ergot, a hallucinogenic mould that naturally infects rye grain. However, scientists working for the British Medical Journal concluded that this did not adequately explain the afflictions. The mystery of the outbreak deepened. Dr Olson fell to his death from a tenth floor room at the Hotel Statler in New York two years after the “Cursed Bread” incident.

White House memoIn 2009, an American investigative journalist, Hank Albarelli, came across secret CIA documents while investigating Olson’s suspicious ‘suicide’. Some of these documents had been sent to members of the Rockefeller Commission formed in 1975 to investigate CIA abuses. Albarelli believes the Pont-Saint-Esprit and F. Olson files referred to in the White House memo pictured here would have revealed that Dr Olson’s team used aerosols to spray local food with the hallucinogenic drug LSD. Another memo transcribes a conversation between a CIA agent and an official of the Swiss-based Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company, which was then secretly supplying both the Army and CIA with LSD. It reveals that the “secret of Pont-Saint-Esprit” was not caused by mould but by diethylamide (the D in LSD).

Hank Albarelli’s research is set out in his book entitled “A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments”.

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