On 13 February 2010, French channel 3 broadcast "The Devil’s Bread", a television film by Bertrand Arthuys which meticulously reconstructs the Pont-Saint-Esprit episode. It describes the madness that seized the village, the suspicions surrounding the bread baker and the interest of certain French officials to cover up certain aspects. But it ends with a question mark: sixty years later, the causes of the intoxication still remain a mystery!

For decades now, the seemingly unrelated mysteries of Dr. Frank Olson’s strange and alleged “suicide” in New York City in 1953 and the bizarre hallucinogenic outbreak of madness in a small French village in 1951 have independently provoked and perplexed serious investigators. As related in countless accounts on the Internet and in televised news features for the past 35 years, Olson’s death has long been suspected to be a government-sponsored murder, but no plausible murderers or motives have ever been positively identified. The outbreak of madness in the village of Pont St. Esprit in southern France has baffled scientists for decades, with many discounting strong suspicions of some sort of covert LSD attack simply because the means and motives were not believed to exist.

In 1995, I began to seriously investigate the death of Dr. Frank Olson, an American bacteriologist at the U.S. Army’s top-secret biological warfare center at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Little did I suspect that my discovery that Olson was murdered would collide head on with the horrible events at Pont St. Esprit in August 1951. My 900-page book, /A TERRIBLE MISTAKE: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments/, explains in painstaking detail how the two events collided. Recent reports that “a major diplomatic and political scandal is erupting that could have significant import for French-American relations” over my book’s explanation about and documentation of the Pont St. Esprit outbreak causes me to provide an explanation here for those that are curious about the two events.

The strange outbreak of insanity in Pont St. Esprit affected nearly five hundred people, causing the deaths of at least five, and the suicides of two. For nearly sixty years, the incident has been tentatively attributed either to ergot poisoning, meaning villagers consumed bread infected with a psychedelic mold, or to mercury poisoning. The vast majority of credible scientists that examined the outbreak, until recently, have stated that the cause remains a mystery.

A French newspaper at the time of the bizarre incident wrote, “It is neither Shakespeare nor Edgar [Allen] Poe. It is, alas, the sad reality all around Pont-St.-Esprit and its environs, where terrifying scenes of hallucinations are taking place. They are scenes straight out of the Middle Ages, scenes of horror and pathos, full of sinister shadows.” A brief article in TIME magazine, then a major U.S. news journal, with extremely close ties to the CIA, stated, “Among the stricken, delirium rose: patients thrashed wildly on their beds, screaming that red flowers were blossoming from their bodies.” Other newspapers that converged on the scene described people throwing themselves from rooftops, women and men throwing their cloths off and running the streets naked, and children complaining that their stomachs were infested with coils of snakes.


Shortly after the incident, in September 1951, scientists writing in the highly respected British Medical Journal declared that “the outbreak of poisoning” was produced by ergot mold. This explanation, however, was based almost solely upon the findings of biochemists dispatched to the scene from the nearby Sandoz Chemical Company in Basle, Switzerland. Included in the contingent from Sandoz was Dr. Albert Hofmann, the man who had first synthesized LSD on November 16, 1938. At the time of the Sandoz group’s visit to Pont St. Esprit only a handful of scientists worldwide, estimated to be no more than eight-to-ten, knew of the existence of the man-made drug LSD. Of perhaps equal, if not greater, importance was that virtually nobody in France in 1951, apart from a select few officials at Sandoz Chemical, was aware that the company was secretly working closely with the CIA.

In 1938, Sandoz chemist Albert Hofmann (1906-2008) was the first to synthesize LSD. In 1951, he was sent to Pont-Saint-Esprit in an expert capacity.

Sandoz was both supplying the CIA with ample amounts of the drug, and consulting with the agency on possible defensive and offensive uses for LSD, including secret experimentation in the United States and Europe. To grossly summarize the long story told in my book, the outbreak at Pont St. Esprit had actually been produced by a top-secret, joint Army-CIA experiment conducted as part of the Project MK/NAOMI, an adjunct project to the CIA’s ultra-secret Projects Artichoke and MK/ULTRA. Indeed, the very unit that Dr. Frank Olson directed, the Special Operations Division at Fort Detrick, oversaw the experiment in France.

Suffice it to say I found the entire solution to the Pont St. Esprit mystery remarkably sensible and coherent, but also quite shocking, and I do not shock easily. With further investigation the story became even more remarkable in its subtle features and obvious nature. Even today, a U.S. Department of Justice website on the dangers of LSD states that in the early 1950s “the Sandoz Chemical Company went as far as promoting LSD as a potential secret chemical warfare weapon to the U.S. Government. Their main selling point in this was that a small amount in a main water supply or sprayed in the air could disorient and turn psychotic an entire company of soldiers leaving them harmless and unable to fight.” Not to mention, of course, an entire small town or city.

Indeed, as I dug further into the overall story, I discovered once secret FBI documents that reveal that Fort Detrick’s Special Operations Division had, one year prior to the Pont St. Esprit experiment, targeted New York City’s subway system for a similar experiment. Reads an August 1950 FBI memorandum, “The BW [biological warfare] experiments to be conducted by representatives of the Department of the Army in the New York Subway System in September, 1950 have been indefinitely postponed.”

When I discussed the FBI memoranda with former Fort Detrick biochemists they confidentially informed me that the New York City experiments “were delayed until after the experiment was conducted in France.” Said one former Special Operations Division scientist, “The overall results of the experiment in southern France were good, but there was also an adverse effect or what would now be called a ‘black swan’ reaction. That several people died was unexpected, completely unexpected. It wasn’t supposed to turn out that way, so it was back to the drawing boards.”

The same scientists confirmed that following the Pont St. Esprit experiment, Fort Detrick’s Special Operations Division returned to New York City in 1956 to conduct experiments under Operations Big City and Mad Hatter. These were covert projects that involved the aerosol spraying of chemicals through the exhaust pipe of an automobile that was driven by CIA and Army scientists around New York City. Prior to this, in 1952 and 1953, smaller experiments were conducted within New York subway cars by George Hunter White, a Federal Bureau of Narcotics agent who secretly worked as a contractor for the CIA. On at least two occasions, White detonated specially devised aerosol devices filled with LSD. The CIA destroyed White’s written reports covering these experiments in 1973.

Stepping backward for a moment to the time before I discovered the true cause of the southern France outbreak, perhaps the very first solid clue I had that something was amiss about the incident was a CIA confidential informer’s report I had been given in 1999. That report, dated December 1953, concerned a meeting the unidentified informer had with an official with the Sandoz Chemical Company in New York City. The informer wrote that after “having several drinks” the Sandoz official blurted out, “The Pont Saint Esprit ‘secret’ was that it was not the bread at all.” Continued the Sandoz official, “For weeks the French tied up our laboratories with analyses of bread. It was not the grain ergot, it was a diethylamide-like compound.” By this, of course, the official meant a man-made drug had provoked the Pont St. Esprit outbreak.

The CIA informer then asked, according to his report, “If the material wasn’t in the bread then how did it get into the people?”

To this, the official responded, “An experiment.” Now concerned, the informer asked, “An experiment?” To which the Sandoz official coyly responded, “Maybe by the French government,” knowing that most likely the American informer well knew the identities of the actual perpetrators of the experiment. It was all an act of high political drama and subterfuge that concluded with the Sandoz official saying, “One small reason I’m here in the U.S. is to dispose of our LSD. If war breaks out our LSD will disappear.”

My next major clue in the chain of assembled evidence was a copy of a letter I was given that had been written by a Federal Narcotics agent who was also working for the CIA in the 1950s. This was George Hunter White. The letter written in October 1954 specifically referenced the Pont St. Esprit experiment, referring to it as “that little French villages Stormy epidemic.” In White’s veiled parlance with the CIA, “Stormy” was code for LSD.

According to US media, following the appearance of Hank Albarelli’s book, French Director-General for External Security, Erard Corbin de Mangoux, asked the State Department for an explanation.

Lastly, in the chain of evidence was an undated White House document that appeared to be part of a larger file that had been sent to members of the Rockefeller Commission formed in 1975 by President Gerald Ford to investigate to CIA abuses. The document contained the names of two French nationals who had been secretly employed by the CIA, and made direct reference to the “Pont St. Esprit incident” linking a former CIA biological warfare expert and the chief of Fort Detrick’s Special Operations Division. This document, along with one other, in my view, comprised the smoking gun.

In 2005, a reporter with the /Baltimore Sun/ newspaper, Scott Shane, who now writes for the New York Times, wrote, “The [U.S.] Army has no records on MK/NAOMI or on the [Fort Detrick] Special Operations Division.” When Scott, and then this writer, asked the Army for records on both, the Army replied that it “could find none.” In 1973, the CIA destroyed all of its records on MKNAOMI and its work with Fort Detrick’s Special Operations Division. One of the stated reasons for this destruction, explained the CIA, was that “people would not understand or misconstrue the reasons for many of the projects the Agency carried out.” When reporter Shane asked a former top ranking Special Operations Division officer to speak about the divisions past projects, Andrew M. Cowan Jr. said, “I just don’t give interviews on that subject. It should still be classified—if nothing else, to keep information the division developed out of the hands of some nut.”

Earlier in the article, I wrote that I found the Pont St. Esprit experiment initially shocking. In many ways, I still do. But perhaps not for all those reasons many readers would imagine. Firstly, I find it shocking when I read Internet reactions to it, as contained in my book, over the past month like, “So what, at least they didn’t do it in a small town in America”, or worse yet, “Why didn’t they pick a town in Mexico; it’s closer by?” I’m saddened to find that some Americans have become both numb and immune to the arrogant and horrible past actions of the CIA. Torture is now supported in the United States by a large segment of the population. Some well thinking Americans say that they pray for a return “to the America where their government honored, respected, and observed human rights and the international laws and treaties” that protected prisoners of war, enemy combatants, and detainees, but the real truth of the matter is that any objective and serious examination of Cold War history in America produces numerous instances of the horrific abuse of foreign detainees and prisoners.

The CIA’s Project Artichoke, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, subjected multiple foreign prisoners and suspected double agents to barbaric treatment, including electro-shock therapy, lobotomies, and drug induced insulin shock. Countless numbers of Americans were yanked off the streets of New York and San Francisco for secret experiments only because they were members of minority groups, poor, transient, perceived criminals, or prostitutes. Many of these people were permanently damaged physically and mentally because of these experiments. Nearly 6,500 U.S. servicemen were unwittingly subjected to LSD in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these men never fully recovered from these experiments. Many committed suicide as a result of the experiments. In 1953, one foreign national was imprisoned and tortured for over eight months in Panama by the CIA only because he was suspected of cooperating with French intelligence officials. Later, the CIA may well have murdered the same man because he confidently told a news reporter that he knew who had murdered President John F. Kennedy.

Interview with Hank Albarelli on Russia Today (12 March 2010)

French Channel 2 report (13 mars 2010)


Voltaire Network exclusive article.

titre documents joints

(PDF - 1.2 MiB)

« A Terrible Mistake : The murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s secret Cold War Experiments » is an investigation into the drug experiments conducted by the CIA during the Cold War, and more particularly into the death of Dr. Frank Olson, a chemist assigned to Fort Detrick to study military drug applications. In 1975, during the inquest of the Rockefeller Commission, the US Army acknowledged having administered LSD to Olson without his knowledge, plunging him into a state of delirium during which he allegedly jumped out the window. The Pentagon offered a reparation fee of 750 000 dollars to his family. However, in 1994, a post-mortem forensic examination invalidated the official version concluding that it had been a probable case of homicide. New documents reveal that Dr. Olson directed various chemical war experiments, notably .... at Pont-Saint-Esprit.