MK-ULTRA: the gift that keeps on giving.

French bread spiked with LSD in CIA experiment

The mystery of Le Pain Maudit (Cursed Bread) still haunts the inhabitants of Pont-Saint-Esprit, in the Gard, southeast France. On August 16, 1951, the inhabitants were suddenly racked with frightful hallucinations of terrifying beasts and fire.

Eventually, it was determined that the best-known local baker had unwittingly contaminated his flour with ergot, a hallucinogenic mould that infects rye grain. Another theory was the bread had been poisoned with organic mercury.

However, H P Albarelli Jr., an investigative journalist, claims the outbreak resulted from a covert experiment directed by the CIA and the US Army's top-secret Special Operations Division (SOD) at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

The scientists who produced both alternative explanations, he writes, worked for the Swiss-based Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company, which was then secretly supplying both the Army and CIA with LSD.

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25 Responses:

  1. giles says:

    This bread looks kinda funky, but it tastes kinda funk-aaayyy!

  2. deviant_ says:

    Isn't this outbreak already well documented in The Day of Saint Anthony's Fire as being an ergotism outbreak largely caused by France's incredibly bad system of forced wheat distribution?

    • jwz says:

      Isn't the text I quoted saying that that was CIA-backed misinformation campaign?

      I have no real opinion on which of these two stories is the lie, but it's like you didn't even read the words on your screen.

      • deviant_ says:

        I did; it's just that the book has first-hand accounts that seem to contradict the story's contradiction.

        • dasht says:

          Suppose it is so that all it takes is a little lack of vigilance to result in mass-scale ergot poisoning. It's the kind of thing that can easily happen - after all, it's just a common mold that happens to like grain.

          Now, show me any other recorded case in recent history. Explain to me why the village in question didn't show any of the *other* symptoms of ergot poisoning - only the lsd-like effects of them. How did it happen that this was such a narrowly confined incident and how did it happen that the citizenry all displayed such atypical reactions to ergot poisoning? Why isn't LSD the simpler explanation and, in light of the documents the article sights, an explanation with superior historical evidence in its support?

          • deviant_ says:

            I'm actually not going to recite the whole book here. Feel free to read it if you're interested in what it says.

          • nojay says:

            There are lots of incidents similar to the 1951 outbreak in the historical record. That's why there was a word for it, "ergotism". In modern First World countries cultivated grains such as rye are treated to prevent ergot fungus contamination and tested while in storage to prevent any contaminated grain getting into the foodchain. As a consequence rye ergot is now very rare even in the wild and vanishingly rare in cultivars. The 1951 ergotism outbreak in France was newsworthy because of its rarity in the modern world.

            As a matter of logistics why would the CIA stage this "experiment" in a remote French village rather than, say, in the Midwestern states where they could more easily get hold of medical treatment records and flood the area with observers without drawing attention to themselves as foreigners etc.?

    • phoenixredux says:

      Oh, sure, that's the Official Explanation. Do you believe everything The Man tells us?

  3. dasht says:

    Please admire my very stylish tin-foil hat:

    It's hardly a surprise and from my readings on the topic, I rather suspect that the public exposure and alleged dismantling in the MK-Ultra / Cointelpro hearings in the 1970s were a cover-up, trying to minimize damage.

    Other somewhat famous things they did (about which there is no dispute on any side): They ran a brothel in San Francisco, spiking the drinks of some johns with LSD to see what would happen. They conducted aerosol experiments in San Francisco, not spraying clouds of LSD (per the record) but to trace how the winds would distribute aerosol doses in case they wanted to try. They tried out the use of LSD as a truth serum (result: big fail, subjects become incoherent and hallucinatory). They contemplated its use as a method of targeted defamation (e.g., dose Castro to provoke his overthrow). They got in bed with various academic researchers including sponsoring unethical human subject experiments. As the article notes, they went batshit nuts abusing unwitting servicemen (some of whom went on to testify before Congress). They played "dose your co-worker" among themselves, ultimately leading to the death of Frank Olson (as noted in the article) which in turn was one of the main catalysts triggering the Congressional hearings.

    They dabbled in other similar creepy stuff, like voice-to-skull technology:

    (Almost makes one want to live in a Faraday cage.)

    They were all over the 60s "counter-culture" movement in COINTELPRO and intimate with some of the leading "civilian" LSD evangelists. There are indications that they were one of the major suppliers of the street supply.

    While LSD mostly failed as an interrogation tool, MKULTRA wasn't limited to drugs. Any notion that it was dropped cold in the 1970s hearings should surely be laid to rest by observation of such phenomenon as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

    As a matter of personal speculation, I also tend to give some credibility to the rumors that they had hands in such things as Jonestown, Manson, and Keyses touring "Acid test graduation".

    It's also worth noting that the modern CIA formed out of the OSS in no small part by importing and giving shelter to various Nazi war criminals. These folks ain't James Bond or even the hapless Felix. They are a criminal organization. A criminal organization which, under the Bush II adminstration, was ever so thoughtfully put under a unifying umbrella with their only obvious competition: the FBI and military intelligence organizations.

    Pont-Saint-Esprit was barely a warning shot across the bow of civilization. They're just getting warmed up.

  4. lifftchi says:

    Isn't LSD very easily inactivated by stuff like light, heat, or trace amounts of chlorine?

  5. pavel_lishin says:

    This article by an impressive science guy calls bullshit.

    • pfrank says:

      I don't think that just because the article has bad science in it is a good enough reason to throw the whole thing out. That quote about "The D in LSD" could have easily been a misunderstanding by a non-chemist reporter.

      • autopope says:

        Let me add:

        Ergot, the other candidate for the incident, is a rye fungus which produces a variety of alkaloids including ergometrine and ergotamine (structurally similar) and lysergide (not similar to the other two, but a precursor -- fairly easily modified -- to LSD-25, our hallucinogen of chouce).

        The key indicator in this incident should be the presence in the villagers of symptoms of ergotism -- induced by ergometrine and ergotamine poisoning -- as well as the lysergide-included hallucinations.

        • rapier1 says:

          You mean like the convulsions, burning sensations in the extremities, and the occasional death? Supposedly the author also claims that the LSD was aerosolized. However, the investigation at the time showed that the common factor was the bread. Basically, you didn't have enough people impacted across a wide enough range of the population for an aerosol vector to be likely. There is no way it would have only affected those people who also just happened to have eaten that bread.

          We do have to ask why the CIA was involved though. What a lot of people don't remember is that communism was a pretty powerful political force in France during the 50s. The CIA would have been called in to determine if this was a communist action to discredit the current government.

          Seriously, the LSD idea really doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

          • dasht says:

            How many cases of gangrene were reported and ended in amputation, if it was ergot? Does it give you any pause that the field investigators who came up with the ergot theory worked for Sandoz, a company then advertising the company to the US Gov't as a weapon that could be used in exactly this way? Does it bug you that a couple of years earlier the CIA had devised aerosal dispersal methods like driving down the street and spewing it out an exhaust pipe - a method that would not effect the whole town? Or maybe raise some questions with you that not all of the afflicted ate that bread?


  6. latemodel says:

    Shit like this makes me want to be president. Just so I could call those guys up, ask if it really happened, and have a chance of getting a straight answer. Just to satisfy my curiosity.

    • dasht says:

      I think you have a naive view of the powers of the presidency.

      • latemodel says:

        Oh, I agree, there's always the Bill-Pullman-in-Independence-Day possiblity. I just figure that being POTUS sounds like a better job than being the head of the Company, and I'd imagine that President has nearly as much power when it comes to arm-twisting at Langley.

  7. biggeek says:

    Citizens of San Francisco demand this bread!