CIA, LSD and Chemical Warfare – Part II

In my blog dated Jan 23, 2012, I reported a story from the UK Telegraph, by investigative journalist H.P. Albarelli,  on covert CIA experiments with LSD, which allegedly resulted in an incident of mass ergot poisoning through contaminated bread in the French village Pont-Saint-Esprit in 1951.

I should have known better than to uncritically accept a story involving the CIA, the undisputed world masters at disinformation propaganda. Dieter Hagenbach, co-author of the recently published authoritative biography of Albert Hofmann, wrote to tell me that they investigated this story. Here, in extract, is what he and his co-author Lucius Werthmüller,  found. (Albert Hofmann und sein LSD, published by AT Verlag, 2011, has not as yet come out in an English translation).

The authors relate that Albert Hofmann and Werner Stoll,  the two Sandoz scientists most knowledgeable about ergot alkaloids and toxicity travelled to France in 1951, and talked to French research chemist Henri Olivier in Marseille, as well as physicians and psychiatrists who had investigated the epidemic and several of the patients who had suffered the symptoms of the pain maudit, the “cursed bread” as it was called. The chemical analyses and medical symptoms had led to a provisional conclusion of an ergot toxicosis.

Hofmann and Stoll took several kilograms of the flour and 600 grams of the bread that had been consumed in the episode in order to subject it to exhaustive chemical and toxicological analyses. The results were contradictory: a chemical analysis suggested the toxicity came from a mercury-containing seed-stock disinfectant, while a psychiatrist concluded the psychological symptoms resembled ergot poisoning. Albert Hofmann wrote in his concluding report to his superiors that “on the basis of the colorimetric analyses of the three samples, none of them contained ergot alkaloids.” Thus, the effects found in Pont-Saint-Esprit “remain a mystery. Neither LSD nor mercury produce the kinds of symptoms that had been reported. LSD does not produce intense toxic, organic reactions nor do the intense hallucinations reported correspond to any known forms of mercury poisoning.” (op.cit. p.99). They also pointed out that LSD could not have been involved in the poisoned bread since LSD dissolves rapidly in air and upon exposure to sunlight, or upon being dissolved in water, or being baked in bread.

Hagenbach and Werthmüller further discuss the sensationalist account of the episode found in a 2009 book by H.P. Albarelli – which had raised the possibility that the Pont-Saint-Esprit episode was part of  secret CIA cold war experiments with mass poisonings by anthrax and other biological warfare agents carried out under the direction of Frank Olson in the US Army laboratories at Fort Detrick in the 1950s. The actual nature of his work was, and remained, top-secret.  What is known is that Olson became horrified by the work that he was participating in. He either committed suicide or was pushed out of a window in New York, after being surreptitiously dosed with LSD by other CIA agents in 1953. A wrongful death case brought by his widow and family resulted in 1975 in a payment $750,000, together with an invitation to the White House where President Gerald Ford and CIA-Director William Colby personally apologized to the family. The exact details of the work he was involved in or how he was poisoned have remained secret. A website exists that is still accumulating data and reports relating to his case.

Hagenbach and Werthmüller concluded that “a connection between Frank Olson and Albert Hofmann or Sandoz cannot be found, and Hofmann’s diaries do not support even the slightest suspicion that he and Stoll had participated in an investigation of a secret CIA action.”

Despite Hofmann and Stoll’s conclusive rejection of any possible connection between the Pont-Saint-Esprit episode and LSD, a 1968 book by John G. Fuller – The Day of Saint Anthony’s Fire – repeated the same fabrication, with embellishments. New York psychiatrist John Beresford, MD (1924-2007; who was known to and friends with Leary, myself and the Harvard researchers, and who later dedicated himself to working with people that had been unjustly incarcerated as victims of America’s punitive drug-war laws) was troubled by the implications suggested in Fuller’s book and wrote to Hofmann concerning the concerns it raised for him. Hofmann replied in a letter to Beresford, using unmistakeably indignant language.

“The citations in John Fuller’s book The Day of Saint Anthony’s Fire are invented fictions as is the great majority of what he wrote in this book. .. The whole work is a scandal. It has been proven conclusively that ergot was not involved in the Pont-Saint-Esprit episode. Mr Fuller must have known this fact. … To mention just one fact that shows the falsehood of Fuller’s writing – LSD is a semi-synthetic product, that occurs as such neither in ergot nor anywhere else in nature. …Mr Fuller has misused ergot, St. Anthony’s Fire and LSD in order to try to write a best-selling work.” (Hagenbach & Werthmüller, p. 101).

3 Responses

  1. So the mystery is still not solved but we do ‘know’ it was not related to LSD?

  2. The bread and flour weren’t contaminated, but the people could have been dosed without their knowledge through an MK-Ultra op. Things like this definitely happened in America during the 50’s and 60’s; just read ‘A Terrible Mistake’, ‘Acid Dreams’ and ‘Storming Heaven’.

  3. Whatever the poison, it wasn’t LSD. People actually died, which does not happen with LSD overdose. And other effects were inconsistent with LSD, such as the long delay between exposure and effects, also the long length of the effects. See the original medical journal report:

    “Ergot Poisoning at Pont St. Esprit”. British Medical Journal 2 (4732): 650–651. 1951-09-15. doi:10.1136/bmj.2.930.650-a. PMID 14869677.

    If you really insist on a conspiracy, MKULTRA tested many other drugs besides LSD…

    However: In 2008 Steven Kaplan published Le Pain Maudit, an extensive historical account of the incident and its repercussions. The book argues that the poisoning might have been caused by nitrogen trichloride used to artificially (and illegally) bleach flour. (Wikipedia)

    Pesticide poisoning is also likely. Grains that will be planted are treated with pesticides, and there have been many cases of accidental poisoning. Today treated grains are dyed to keep people from eating them.

    Also, Frank Olson fell to his death several days after he was dosed with LSD, he was not under the influence of LSD at the time. This is often not clearly stated when re-telling his story.

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