Did the CIA poison a French town with LSD?

A US journalist claims the CIA conducted secret experiments with LSD on the inhabitants of the French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit in 1951 resulting in a mysterious mass poisoning that led to psychotic episodes and five deaths.


The so-called “cursed bread” incident was a mysterious poisoning that struck the small picturesque southern town of Pont-Saint-Esprit. In the summer of 1951, the “curse” resulted in five deaths, 300 illnesses, and 30 severe psychiatric cases leading to the victims being locked up in mental asylums. Nearly 60 years on, a US journalist, Hank Albarelli, claims that the CIA was behind the poisoning. However, US historian Steven Kaplan says Albarelli’s theory lacks “solid evidence”.

In an investigative book entitled “A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA's Secret Cold War Experiments” published in 2009, Albarelli claimed that the CIA conducted large-scale chemical tests in Pont-Saint-Esprit without the knowledge of the town’s inhabitants. Albarelli’s also accused the CIA – in cahoots with the US Army - of poisoning bread with LSD so as to test its effects on the unsuspecting local populace.

On August 1951, around 300 inhabitants of Pont-Saint-Esprit suffered what on the surface appeared to be mass food poisoning. But in addition to the usual symptoms of vomiting and headaches, other symptoms emerged: insanity, hallucinations and suicide attempts.

'An apocalyptic night'

A local doctor who witnessed the mysterious tragedy called it “an apocalyptic night”. One young girl believed she was being attacked by tigers, a boy of 11 years tried to strangle his mother and a grandmother threw herself against a wall and broke three ribs. One man flung himself from the second floor of a hospital window, shouting “I am a plane”. Even more bizarrely, the fall broke both his legs, but he got up and ran for 5 metres before collapsing. Many more of the locals endured hallucinations involving snakes, fire and monsters.

Albarelli backed up his thesis with a transcript of a conversation between the CIA and the Swiss laboratory Sandoz, which invented LSD in 1938. The lab made reference to “the secret of Pont-Saint-Esprit" and to “diethylamide,” a component of LSD.

Furthermore, he claims that two former CIA researchers told him that the village was subjected to an air blitz of pulverised LSD, to force the townspeople to take in the substance through the air. According to the researchers, this manner of distribution proved unsuccessful, forcing the CIA to move on to Phase Two: contaminating local food.

'Incoherent, harebrained'

Steven Kaplan, a US historian specialising in French food history and the author of the 2008 book “Le pain maudit” told FRANCE 24: “I have numerous objections to this paltry evidence against the CIA. First of all, it's clinically incoherent: LSD takes effects in just a few hours, whereas the inhabitants showed symptoms only after 36 hours or more. Furthermore, LSD does not cause the digestive ailments or the vegetative effects described by the townspeople.”

Furthermore, Kaplan deems the whole notion “harebrained”. “It is absurd, this idea of transmitting a very toxic drug by putting it in bread," he said. "As for pulverising it [for ingestion through the air], that technology was not even possible at that time. Most compellingly, why would they choose the town of Pont-Saint-Esprit to conduct these tests? It was half-destroyed by the US Army during fighting with the Germans in the Second World War. It makes no sense.”

The CIA conspiracy theory is not the only one put forth to explain the events of 1951. The most common hypothesis blames the bakery of Pont-Saint-Esprit, the idea being that some unknown fungus affected the rye used in making the bread, bringing on ergotism, a form of poisoning that can psychologically affect those who ingest it. However, without more evidence, this theory remains flimsy – ergotism has not existed in France since the 18th century.

The mystery remains unsolved. And according to Kaplan, no clear answer will be forthcoming without new evidence.

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