The CIA’s LSD Attack
An entire French town mysteriously went insane in the summer of 1951, and for nearly 60 years, there’s been no concrete explanation of exactly what happened. Until now – according to a new book, the incident was the result of a Cold War experiment gone horribly wrong, an experiment using a recently discovered drug called LSD. The cause of this tragedy has been one of the CIA’s most closely guarded secrets – and a US Army scientist was murdered to keep it hidden.
By early evening, the local doctors’ offices were filled with patients complaining of nausea, upset stomachs, insomnia and chills; their pupils were dilated, their temperature and blood pressure below normal. By morning, hundreds more were exhibiting the same symptoms. One woman in her twenties began having seizures. That night, two of the town’s three doctors met to compare notes and concluded that over 200 people had been stricken by some sort of food poisoning that was linked to the town’s favorite baker, Roche Briand. Wide-eyed and babbling, townspeople began appearing on street corners at all hours, some acting paranoid, others wearing beatific smiles and speaking of universal love; still others were dizzy, confused and had trouble executing the simplest chores. A few were hallucinating so wildly that they could barely distinguish fantasy from reality. An ambulance was called for an elderly man named Felix Mison, who seemed on the verge of a heart attack.
At 6 a.m. on Sunday morning, Emile Testevin was spotted lying naked on the ground near his home, writhing as if in intense pain. He was brought inside by his mother. Although Emile’s father was already hallucinating, he took a wobbly bicycle ride to fetch the nearest doctor. The physician was puzzled by the behavior of the elder Testevin, who seemed positively bursting with euphoria while reporting his son’s condition. Emile’s father hadn’t slept for two nights and was alternating between fits of depression and bursts of incredible energy and strength. As it turned out, barbiturates and other sleeping medications had little impact on Pont-Saint-Esprit’s growing population of insomniacs, although they did seem to help with some of the convulsions. It was at this point that the doctors began to suspect ergotism as the cause of the mysterious outbreak.
Ergot is a parasitic mold that can form on rye, wheat and other cereal grains in high humidity. During the Middle Ages, epidemics of ergotism had appeared sporadically in Europe, usually after heavy rains during the harvest season. Symptoms included convulsions, seizures, nausea and vomiting. Many of the afflicted also experienced strange hallucinations, and their fingers and toes became gangrenous. The disease became known as “St. Anthony’s fire,” named after the order of Roman Catholic monks who became famous for treating the illness (although their treatment consisted of little more than putting patients in a hospital filled with religious icons). In 1650, a fungus was first suspected as the cause of the epidemics, but it wasn’t until 1676 that the first mention of ergot appears in the English language. The most severe outbreaks took place in Gatinais in 1694 and Wurttemberg in 1735, although today some researchers believe that the Salem witch trials of 1692 were also the result of ergot poisoning.
Felix Mison died on August 20, the outbreak’s first human casualty. By Monday morning, the 14th Mobile Brigade of Montpellier and other police officials and toxicologists began filtering into town in the first attempts to restore calm and determine the cause of the illness. However, things were destined to get significantly worse before they got better. One hour before midnight on Friday, August 23, shrieks and screams began resounding throughout the town – screams that would continue into the morning. The next day, the streets were filled with people in various states of undress, some completely naked, babbling incoherently. Some people believed they were being eaten alive by snakes or insects; others became violent and tried to strangle their friends or relatives. It was especially wrenching to see children in the throes of such psychic distress. Homes were trashed as the residents piled furniture against the doors and windows to protect themselves from imaginary invaders.
Unfortunately, the police responded with the worst possible tactic: tackling and restraining the delusional people and forcing them into overflowing barns and other makeshift hospitals that were being set up all around town to isolate the sick. At times, it took a dozen men to capture and subdue a single person. The following day, reinforcements arrived in the form of the militia, armed with more ambulances and more straitjackets. It was decided to move the most delusional people into secure asylums, a strategy that merely amplified their desire to escape, while isolating them from the comfort of their familiar surroundings. Those who resisted violently were given electroshock therapy at the asylums, increasing their pain and confusion.
The police arrived at Emile Testevin’s home and insisted that he be taken to the asylum despite his family’s objections. Although Emile was calm now, he’d experienced some violent moments, and the police were concerned about what might happen should the 200-pound giant become agitated again. Emile was loaded into an ambulance already filled with psychotics who couldn’t understand why they were being removed from their homes or where they were going. One old man cried out, “My belly is full of snails! I am sending out radio messages everywhere. Get me an X-ray and you can see!”
When the ambulance arrived at the asylum outside Marseilles, Emile was the last to be unloaded. Seven men couldn’t remove him from the vehicle. The orderlies approached with a straitjacket, but when they tried to put it on him, Emile grabbed it and ripped it in half. The militia arrived with more men and more straitjackets. Emile tore through six more jackets before he could be subdued. He was taken inside, strapped to a bed and locked in a secure room. But when an orderly came back to check on him, Emile had somehow eaten through the leather straps (breaking many of his teeth in the process) and was bending the iron bars in the window so he could escape. Six orderlies were needed to move him to a subterranean room with no windows. By now, two other men had died, along with a women who suffered from hyperthyroidism. The woman reportedly showed the early stages of gangrene on some of her toes, an almost certain indicator of ergot poisoning. Depending on whose statistics you trust, between five and seven people (most of them elderly and frail) would eventually die from the mysterious illness.
But just as the ergot theory was taking hold, an autopsy of Felix Mison, the first victim, indicated traces of mercury in his system. Although no traces of mercury would ever be found in bread samples or any of the other victims, many of the investigating scientists rushed to conclude that mercury-treated seeds were the culprit. Case closed.
Unexpectedly, however, two scientists from the prestigious Sandoz Laboratories in nearby Switzerland turned up in Pont-Saint-Esprit at the height of the outbreak: Dr. W. Arthur Stoll, a psychiatrist and the nephew of one of Sandoz’s directors, and Albert Hofmann, the chemist who discovered LSD-25. Hofmann had stumbled across the hallucinogen while investigating the active molecules in ergot, minute amounts of which had been used by European midwives after the 1700s to heighten contractions and stop postpartum bleeding. Sandoz wanted to know whether the active ingredients in ergot had any significant medical applications. Hofmann and Stoll had come to Pont-Saint-Esprit, they claimed, because the townspeople’s symptoms were much closer to LSD-25 than ergotism. At the time, however, no one had ever heard of LSD. Hofmann described it as potentially “appalling, frightful and shocking.” He added that if LSD were ever used improperly, it might cause more destruction than the atomic bomb.
Both Hofmann and Stoll seemed certain that ergot in the flour had somehow broken down to LSD-25. Ergot alone, they reasoned, couldn’t be the cause of the outbreak, because large amounts were needed to cause such widespread symptoms, and any bread tainted with such high concentrations would be discolored and obviously rancid. LSD, on the other hand, was odorless, colorless and thousands of times more potent. Both scientists agreed that mercury poisoning wasn’t the answer either, because no kidney or liver damage had been found in any of the patients.
The events at Pont-Saint-Esprit would remain a mystery for years to come. The victims formed an association to sue the cartel that controlled flour distribution in France in the 1950s, but this powerful group would be very successful in delaying, appealing and subverting their case. That left only the baker, Roche Briand, to sue, but he’d already lost his business (no one wanted his bread anymore) and had become an insurance salesman. Ten years later, none of the victims had received any compensation for their suffering, and there still wasn’t a scientific consensus on the cause of the outbreak.
In 1968, John G. Fuller published a book titled The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire(Macmillan). He focused exclusively on Briand’s bread as the cause of the outbreak, dismissing other theories that the townspeople put forward (including the possibility of a chemical-warfare experiment). However, today many researchers will be inclined to look at Fuller as a person of interest in a possible cover-up. Immediately prior to his book on Pont-Saint-Esprit, Fuller had published an account of Barney and Betty Hill, the first recorded case of alien abduction, an incident that allegedly took place as the New Hampshire couple returned from a vacation trip to Canada in the early 1960s. Many researchers have come to the conclusion that thousands of Americans were secretly hypnotized and dosed with LSD in the 1950s and early ’60s as part of the CIA’s mind-control experiments, and the Hills may have been two such victims. According to this scenario, the alien-abduction story was planted through hypnosis to mask the activities of government scientists. The current alien-abduction mythology may, in fact, be largely an invention of the national-security establishment to cover such experiments. (This might also explain why investigations into UFOs are so prevalent on the major cable channels, while investigations into real political events are so rare.)
There are several other connections that cast suspicion on Fuller’s work, including his relationship with hypnotist Dr. Andrija Puharich (a.k.a. Henry K. Puharich), a parapsychology researcher most famous as the man who introduced spoon-bender Uri Geller to the world. Puharich has been linked to the CIA’s MK-ULTRA mind-control program and was also involved in a series of bizarre séances with some of our country’s wealthy elite. Another connection is Dr. Karlis Osis, founder of the Parapsychology Foundation in New York City, a research institute that worked closely with the Pentagon and the CIA over the years. In the late 1950s, Osis offered Fuller the opportunity to be the first journalist to try LSD and write about its effects. (Fuller turned down the offer.) While these connections certainly don’t prove that Fuller was a witting accomplice of the CIA, they do suggest that he may have been a writer that the agency employed whenever a story needed containment.
In 2008, the events at Pont-Saint-Esprit were further investigated by Steven L. Kaplan, a professor of European history at Cornell University and an internationally recognized authority on French bread. Although it was written entirely in French, Kaplan’s Le Pain Maudit was the subject of a feature in theNew York Times. Kaplan went to Pont-Saint-Esprit after the book was published to give a talk about the incident. Although 30 chairs were set up for his appearance, over 400 people attended, demonstrating that the town has not yet forgotten the experience. According to the Times, “The government did its best to smooth over the incident and after many inquiries and court cases the affair was finally dropped in 1978. Explanations abound, none of which Kaplan finds satisfying. The most popular one, poisoning by a form of ergot fungus, he finds unconvincing. Mercury poisoning caused by Panogen, a cleansing agent used in wheat containers, was disproved although Kaplan says the government used it as a cover-up.”
And there the matter would have rested, were it not for a researcher named H.P. Albarelli Jr., whose book A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments (TrineDay) finally broke the case wide open. Albarelli has spent the last 10 years investigating the death of Olson, a US Army biochemist who allegedly killed himself in New York City on the night of November 28, 1953. Initially, Olson’s family was told that he had jumped through a closed window (wearing only his underpants) from his room on the 10th floor of the Hotel Statler. What the CIA didn’t mention, however, was that Olson had been unknowingly dosed with LSD six days earlier and had then been interrogated for 48 hours by mind-control experts in an attempt to determine how much of a security risk he posed. Olson, it seems, had grown weary of his job, which involved weaponizing chemical and biological agents for the CIA at Camp Detrick (now Fort Detrick) in Frederick, MD, and was planning to ditch his career and start over as a dentist. However, before he could gracefully exit his high-security position, Olson made a “terrible mistake” – one that would bring about his untimely death. Albarelli is convinced that fatal mistake was mentioning the Pont-Saint-Esprit incident to someone at Camp Detrick who wasn’t cleared for the information, who then reported him to the camp commander as a potential security risk.
A Terrible Mistake will probably become the definitive account of what happened to Frank Olson. Over 800 pages long, it’s a riveting exploration into the CIA’s mind-control and chemical-weapons programs. When revelations about these programs threatened to emerge, then-CIA director Richard Helms made sure that most of those files were burned. But Helms was sacked by Richard Nixon during Watergate, and the new CIA chief, James Schlesinger, seemed determined to clean up the agency. (He may even have given information to journalist Seymour Hersh, who went on to publish a ground-breaking article outlining some of these abuses, which had been compiled into a 600-page report known within the agency as “the family jewels.”) William Colby, who took over the CIA after Schlesinger, was also convinced that the abuses needed to come out so that mistakes wouldn’t be repeated.
A congressional commission controlled by then–Vice President Nelson Rockefeller was eventually created in 1975 to investigate allegations that the CIA was illegally operating inside the US. Colby was called to the White House by Rockefeller at the start of his investigation. According to Albarelli, Rockefeller lashed out at Colby during the meeting. “What the hell are you doing?” he said. “Why are you revealing all this stuff? Don’t you realize this commission is a dog-and-pony show?” The commission would eventually reveal that a Camp Detrick employee had died as a result of being secretly dosed with LSD. Although the report took great pains not to mention Olson by name, it soon became clear just who this person was.
One of the primary reasons why the existence of these programs had to be concealed is that they revealed secret connections between the CIA and the Mafia. The key person in establishing this connection was a former OSS counterintelligence operative and narcotics agent named George Hunter White. White was the person who brokered the deal that set Lucky Luciano free and opened the doors for the French Connection to flood the US with heroin. White operated safe houses in New York and San Francisco where hundreds of people were dosed with LSD and then interrogated as White observed the sessions behind a two-way mirror. Low-level Mafia operatives were frequently the victims; meanwhile, upper-level Mafia members seemed to enjoy a very close relationship with White.
When Olson was brought to New York, White was supposed to take charge of his security, but he suddenly and unexpectedly had to depart for Los Angeles to attend his mother’s funeral. In his place, White selected Pierre Lafitte, a CIA operative who was also a member of the Corsican Mafia, to guard Olson and make sure that he didn’t escape. Olson was probably moved to the Statler (now the Hotel Pennsylvania) because Lafitte had a cover job as a security guard there. When it came time to move Olson out of the hotel, Lafitte brought along another Corsican Mafia associate, François Spirito, to help him. Then things got out of hand.
“Lafitte and Spirito killed Frank Olson,” Albarelli says. “Some people have misunderstood my book and think it was a planned assassination. In my view, it wasn’t – I think the intent that night was to take Olson to Rockville, MD, where the CIA maintained an asylum for troubled people they didn’t know what to do with. And it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Olson would have ended up hanging himself or dying from some drug overdose a few days later. But to plan an assassination where two guys throw someone through a closed window? It doesn’t make any sense – especially considering the guy they murdered just spent the last 10 years figuring out how to kill people with a pinprick. It’s just too dirty and too quick to have been planned.”
The smoking gun that Albarelli obtained through the Freedom of Information Act was an undated White House memo sent to CIA director William Colby that mentioned “George H. White, Pierre Lafitte, FNU Spirito and the Pont Saint Esprit incident (Olsojn).” (The “j” in Olson’s name is undoubtedly a typo.) This White House memo helped Albarelli put all the pieces of the puzzle together for the first time. He was also able to establish two of the key players in the 1975 cover-up: Donald Rumsfeld, then chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, and Rumsfeld’s top aide, Dick Cheney. On July 11, 1975, Cheney wrote a memo to Rumsfeld titled “The Olson Affair.” The memo included statements that the president should make about Olson’s death at an upcoming press conference. Although the US government eventually reached a settlement with Olson’s family, Ford himself always maintained that the death was a suicide.
While working on this story, I came across an illuminating quote in Albarelli’s book from one of the CIA’s scientists, Dr. Henry K. Beecher, in which he discusses the use of LSD in doses “so small that one can calculate that the water supply of a large city could be disastrously and undetectably (until too late) contaminated with quantities apparently readily available …. It should not be a difficult trick to sink a small container of [LSD] near the main outlet of water storage reservoirs, and the container arranged to ‘excrete’ a steady flow of the material over a period of many hours or days.”
At the time, some government scientists believed that LSD could be a major advance in “non-violent” war. They were certainly interested in exploring its effects on civilian populations, especially at high doses. But why Pont-Saint-Esprit, out of all the towns and villages in the world? “I never asked that question about any of the CIA’s LSD experiments,” Albarelli says. However, it turns out that there were two US Army bases located near the town, and one of them may have housed Frank Olson and other members from the Special Operations Division at Camp Detrick for a few days during the experiment. Olson’s presence in France at the time was conclusively established after Albarelli examined his passport.
Unfortunately, Albert Hofmann, the man who discovered LSD, has since passed away. It would have been interesting to quiz him about the incident, which is curiously absent from his memoirs. When I told someone who knew Hofmann about these revelations (and Hofmann’s own possible role in the cover-up), he responded by saying: “Albert always said he wasn’t any angel. I wonder if this incident is what he was talking about when he said that.”