The epidemic of madness in Pont-Saint-Esprit: how poisoned bread drove the french crazy

The epidemic of madness in Pont-Saint-Esprit: how poisoned bread drove the french crazy

Categories: Europe | Health and Medicine | History

In August 1951, the whole world suddenly found out about the small town of Pont-Saint-Esprit, located in the south of France. Overnight, at least 250 residents of the city lost their minds. Mad people ran through the streets, shouted about demons, snakes, jumped out of windows, danced in the square and rushed at passers-by.

As it turned out later, the cause of mass insanity was poisoned bread. Although there are other versions of what happened…

The epidemic of madness in Pont-Saint-Esprit: how poisoned bread drove the french crazy

It all started on August 16, 1951. Then three patients came to the hospital at once with strange complaints. One said that his stomach was being devoured by snakes, and he himself was surrounded by flames. The second one said that he was a "plane", and with these words jumped out of the window. An eleven-year-old boy, who was also admitted to the hospital, attacked his own grandmother and tried to strangle her… The doctors were confused and didn't know what to do. But the worst was waiting for them ahead.

The epidemic of madness in Pont-Saint-Esprit: how poisoned bread drove the french crazy

Every day the number of "patients" began to increase. People were wandering around the streets, shouting something, dancing, screaming in terror and rushing at others. On the night of August 26, 23 patients were admitted to the hospital at once. They were tormented by hallucinations, suicidal thoughts, nausea, convulsions and other mysterious symptoms.

Out of 4,500 thousand residents of a small town, about 400 people were seized by madness. And no one knew exactly what the reason was. It remained only to build theories…

To cope with the huge flow of patients, specialists from neighboring cities arrived to help local doctors. After conducting several analyses, they were able to find out that the inhabitants of Pont-Saint-Esprit, apparently, suffer from ergotism.

The epidemic of madness in Pont-Saint-Esprit: how poisoned bread drove the french crazy

Ergotism is poisoning with ergot alkaloids. This is a dangerous fungus that parasitizes cereals, including rye and wheat. Experts have suggested that a local baker used ergot-infected flour when baking, and this is what affected the residents of the town so much.

Immediately after people found out about it, a cross was painted on the bakery, and the baker himself was threatened with lynching. It was possible to avoid lynching only thanks to the arrest of the man by the gendarmerie. Not that he was really suspected of poisoning people… It's just that otherwise the distraught residents would have killed the unfortunate, because in hysterical attacks they even threw themselves at friends and relatives.

Soon the gendarmes came to the miller who supplied flour to this bakery. He was the first to be charged, because, as it turned out, an unscrupulous seller added ryegrass to flour, a herb that often contains ergot and other parasites.

The epidemic of madness in Pont-Saint-Esprit: how poisoned bread drove the french crazy

Ergotism as the cause of poisoning was finally confirmed after the autopsy of the bodies of several deceased people. However, not all residents of Pont-Saint-Esprit willingly believed in scientific explanations. There were also those who believed that these were the tricks of sorcerers or a secret CIA experiment to study bacteriological weapons.

In 2009, journalist Hank Albarelli published the book "A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the Secret of the CIA experiments during the Cold War." Initially, he wanted to get to the truth about the Kennedy assassination, but in the course of working on the book, he noticed several interesting facts…

The epidemic of madness in Pont-Saint-Esprit: how poisoned bread drove the french crazy

First, the strange death of biochemist Frank Olson, who worked for the US Army and jumped out of a laboratory window two years after the incident in Pont-Saint-Esprit. Secondly, a recording of a conversation between CIA employees in which they discuss the tragedy that occurred and say that it's not about ergot at all.

The journalist also found two witnesses, high-ranking officials, who confirmed the experiments. According to Albarelli, it was just about Pont-Saint-Esprit. The journalist believes that LSD or another psychotropic substance could have been sprayed over the city to study the effect of mass psychosis.

However, it was not possible to confirm Albarelli's guesses, despite the fact that he had certain documents. According to the official version, the residents were poisoned with ergot. But the talk about what really happened has not subsided to this day.

In most patients, the symptoms of poisoning passed by themselves after a couple of days. However, those whose psyche turned out to be less stable spent several more months in a psychiatric hospital. It is known about at least 32 residents of the town who needed additional help.

The epidemic of madness in Pont-Saint-Esprit: how poisoned bread drove the french crazy

Six more people could not survive the "epidemic of madness". Someone died of heart failure, someone decided to take his own life. It seemed to people that they were burning alive, demons were flying around them, snakes were devouring their bellies, and giant plants were growing on the streets… Not everyone is able to cope with this.

During the investigation of the incident, it became known that the flour supplier and the baker were in collusion. The miller sold the spoiled product, and the baker thus saved on the purchase of raw materials. As a result, both were arrested.

But the mystery of the "mad town" still torments fans of mysticism and conspiracy. Many people believe that an experiment was really carried out in Pont-Saint-Esprit. And only a few recognize the version with poisoned bread…

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