August 16, 1951, started off like any other summer’s day in Pont-Saint-Esprit, a small town in southeastern France. But then, at around 10 A.M., a young farmer staggered into the clinic of the local physician, Dr. Hadar Gabbai, mumbling and waving his arms as though warding off a swarm of bees. In short order, another neighbor came in, also babbling incoherently, and it took a full hour for the physician and two assistants to finally persuade him that snakes were not slithering across his body. By nightfall, the medical team had treated 75 hallucinating residents who had sought help. Some 22 were housed in a barn, because the local hospital quickly filled up. Outside physicians were called in, but they, like their local counterparts, were dumbfounded by the phenomenon they’d witnessed.
“My father always said that it was as though the apocalypse suddenly struck the town,” says Dr. Bernard Gabbai, the youngest of the town doctor’s five children, three of whom also became physicians. “It left an impression that stayed with him his whole life.”
Many patients had to be tied to their bed to prevent them from hurting themselves and others. When the nurses ran out of rope, they used horses’ reins. Nonetheless, some of those affected managed to free themselves from their restraints and join the universal chaos. A little girl screamed that she was being chased by tigers; a boy tried to strangle his mother; a postman complained that he was shrinking; an older woman wept as she saw her children being ground into sausages before her eyes; a heavyset man smashed furniture in an attempt to expel beasts of prey from his house; a woman and her husband chased each other holding knives; and around the town people were seen fleeing from unseen flames and other horrors. Even the local animals went mad – a dog, for example, bit into stones until its teeth broke.
As one Parisian journalist wrote at the time, “It is neither Shakespeare nor Edgar Poe. It is, alas, the sad reality all around Pont-St.-Esprit and its environs, where terrifying scenes of hallucinations are taking place.”
Not everyone who was affected by the phenomenon suffered from it. Some of them, The New York Times reported, “heard heavenly choruses, saw brilliant colors … the world looked beautiful to them.” The inexplicable experience moved the director of the local farmers’ cooperative to write hundreds upon hundreds of pages of poetry.
As the hours passed, the hospitals and insane asylums in the region filled up with townspeople. About 300 of them complained of odd sensations, which included nausea, stomach pains, low blood pressure and a weak pulse, insomnia, low body temperature and cold sweats. The incident lasted several days and seven residents of Pont-Saint-Esprit died as a result of their condition. Another remained in psychiatric confinement for months afterward.
“I saw healthy men and women suddenly become terror-stricken, tearing their bedsheets and hiding under their blankets for fear of the nightmares that were haunting them,”
Albert Hebrard, who was 8 at the time and later became mayor of the town, was quoted as saying. Even today, almost 70 years later, the episode remains one of the most mysterious in French history.
A number of books, including one published at the end of 2018, attempt to shed light on the case, which continues to be the center of heated debate.
Turtle, postman, fungus
The town of Pont-Saint-Esprit was founded in the fifth century but didn’t acquire its name until 1309, when, after 30 years of work, construction was completed on the huge stone structure that spans the treacherous Rhone River. Today it’s a sleepy town, not far from Avignon, in a region that seems to have been passed over by modernity, as the still-intact Roman and medieval structures along the streets attest. The current population is upward of 10,000.
The shortest route from Paris to Pont-Saint-Esprit involves a five-hour trip at the minimum, changing trains three times until reaching the nearest station, which is still 15 minutes’ away. At the end of the trip, the taxi I’d hired crossed the Rhone via the ancient stone bridge and passed by an elderly couple sitting on a bench in the plaza at the town’s entrance.
It was a short drive from there to the municipality for a meeting with Roger Castillon, who was mayor from 2011 until last year. Town Hall is located on Kennedy Boulevard, so named because the great-grandson of Michel Bouvier, a local carpenter, was John Vernou Bouvier, father of Jacqueline Kennedy.
“Back then, this was largely a farming town, with a population of 4,500,” Castillon said, referring to the “madness” incident. “It had an immense impact on events in the years that followed. It wasn’t something that could be easily overlooked, or could pass you by, given the fact that so much of the population here was affected.”
According to local gossip, Castillon is unable to completely relinquish his duties at his advanced age, even though a new mayor – for the first time, a woman – was elected in the recent municipal election. He continues to maintain an office in Town Hall, and welcomed me in his official garb. An only child, Castillon was born and raised here; he was 12 in 1951. Albert Hébrard, who served as mayor at that time, is no longer alive, like most of those who experienced the events firsthand.
“It struck the town like a hammer blow,” recalls Castillon, one of the last remaining witnesses. “Looking back, I think the hardest thing that people here were left with, and that still affects them to this day, is the lack of knowledge, the obscurity about what caused it all.”
The uncertainty continues to influence not only the few surviving victims, but also the families of those who have since passed away. Thus, Michelle Armunier, daughter of the “shrinking postman,” greets me in the courtyard of her home with her Hermann’s tortoise, and warns me to beware of its savage bite.
Michelle’s parents grew up not far from Pont-Saint-Esprit. Her father entered the postal service in Paris and was assigned to the town in 1950, about a year before the event.
“I can only attest to what happened to my father,” Armunier told me in her living room. “Unlike the town’s other residents, he went to the adjacent village the deliver the mail, and he only fell ill the following day: He saw fire and thought he was shrinking. He was put in a straitjacket, it was awful. After being hospitalized for 10 days in a nearby city, during which he was in a coma, he spent another four months in a hospice, and even afterward wasn’t able to go on working and felt ill in closed spaces.”
Showing me a newspaper clipping of an article showing her next to her father, Armunier says, “The case is still open with the Marseille prosecution. It’s a mystery that we’ll never know the truth about.”
Indeed, immediately after the sudden outbreak in that fateful August of 1951, all manner of rumors and theories sprang up about what had caused the madness that gripped the town. Some claimed that someone had run amok and poisoned the locals’ drinks and food (there were even those who believed it was the police who had contaminated the water supply), yet another version blamed a curse put on the town by the local priest.
The initial investigation concluded that the cause was the bread consumed by the victims. The preceding winter had been particularly rainy, and the ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea) had spread across the country’s rye fields. A group of investigators traced the contaminated flour to the bakery of a man named Roch Briand, where the loaves that were supposedly the source of the mass poisoning were produced.
Poisoning by the ergot fungus, known as ergotism, is not a new phenomenon, as certain records attest. Some believe that periods of famine during the biblical era in Canaan and Egypt were caused by the fungus’ infection of crops. In the Middle Ages, in unusually wet summers, the fungus devastated whole fields of rye. When farmers and bakers, acting from ignorance or hunger, nevertheless made bread from the contaminated grain, many of those who ate it became hallucinatory, behaved bizarrely or even lost their sanity. A long and well-documented phenomenon in France, it was given the colorful name of “Saint Anthony’s fire” – named after monks of the Order of St. Anthony who were particularly successful at treating this ailment.
Ergotism is still the explanation most accepted for what happened in the French town, as a result of which the episode is dubbed “the cursed bread” (le pain maudit). In 2008, American-born historian Steven L. Kaplan published a 1,100-page book called “Cursed Bread: Returning to the Forgotten Years in France 1945-1958” (in French) – considered to be the bible when it comes to investigation of the event and its influence on the town and on France as a whole.
Kaplan first presents a lengthy and detailed history of bread, asserting that it is “one of the central actors in the history of France.” As far back as the time of Louis XIV, he notes, bread was a staple of the daily energy intake in France, given a status bordering on the mystical. Control of the wheat crop was a key foundation on which the state’s very existence and the legitimacy of its sovereignty rested.
To that end, the state supervised the transport of flour from regions with a surplus to areas of scarcity, a policy that became standardized during World War II. A dysfunctional industry developed that generated an intense rivalry between “fraternal enemies”: the bakers and the millers. The system did not allow the bakers to choose with which millers they would work, even if they discovered flaws in their flour. In addition, Kaplan writes, in the wake of growing commercial competition, flour sent to distant regions was often of an inferior grade and in some cases was also mixed with other materials – a process that affected its quality and could even be life-threatening. Because hardly any wheat was grown around Pont-Saint-Esprit, for example, local bakers were compelled to use flour sent from other districts in France, which the townsfolk considered “surplus of a very poor quality, from richer regions,” according to Castillon.
The town’s residents were quite poor in the post-war years, like most of France. The cost of living was extremely high, and the quality of many food products, including bread, was almost as poor as it was during the Nazi occupation. In the year of the cursed bread episode, 110 people in the north of the country died after eating tainted horsemeat, three died from liver paté in the Ruhr, and contaminated milk powder made many children in the city of Metz ill.
Several investigations were conducted by law enforcement and medical experts to trace the source of the cursed bread. One of them found that the contamination had been caused by the presence of mercury in pesticides used in the rye fields. Another ended with the suspicion that the sacks of flour had been transported unhygienically in polluted train cars. A third inquiry determined that fuel leaks from nearby factories contaminated the local water supply.
For his part, Kaplan terms “outrageous” a decision by the French government not to follow through on an additional line of inquiry, according to which the contamination in Pont-Saint-Esprit was caused by the use of materials intended to bleach the bread, owing to a rising demand for white bread instead of brown.
In any case, he did not believe that ergotism was the cause of the debacle. According to Kaplan, Ergot contamination would not have affected only one sack of grain in a single bakery but would have been more widespread.
The names of the other bakers disappeared from the list of suspects, but Roch Briand was arrested and his bakery shut down.
“At first, the doctors didn’t understand what all those who fell ill had in common. It took them and the police too long to get to the bakery. By the time they got to Briand, he had already thrown everything into the garbage, and it was impossible to test the bread, because the scientific means we have today did not exist then,” says Michelle Armunier.
“The baker did not deliberately poison his clients,” she adds. “He was doing well, and people liked his bread, so why would be poison them? My father was not angry at him and told him so. But because of the suspicions he had to close the bakery. His wife committed suicide. His life was totally destroyed, but he went on living here.”
Bernard Gabbai will celebrate his 67th birthday this year (“I was born a year after the cursed bread,” he says, laughing), but continues to treat local residents once a week in the tradition of his father, who lived and worked in Pont-Saint-Esprit almost until his death at the age of 93.
“To his last day, he remained convinced that ergotism was in fact the cause of the whole episode, and I don’t know whether even Kaplan’s book, which proved that it was not the trigger, would have persuaded him otherwise,” said Gabbai, quickly rallying to his father’s defense. “The diagnostic methods we have today didn’t exist then, and you also have to remember that this wasn’t only his opinion, but one that was backed up by laboratory tests in Montpelier.”
The cursed bread theory is not the only one that’s been put forward. Among the most outrageous theories is undoubtedly the idea that the United States was to blame for the event.
In 2009, American investigative journalist Hank P. Albarelli, Jr., published “A Terrible Mistake,” a book that addresses the mystery surrounding the death of Frank Olson, a bacteriologist employed by the American military and the CIA. He served at the Edgewood and Fort Detrick scientific research centers in Maryland, where the secrecy was rivaled only by that surrounding the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. Among the many studies Olson took part in was the MKUltra project, as part of which the CIA – in cooperation with the U.S. Army’s biological warfare laboratories – conducted experiments in which drugs were used to extract information from prisoners and captives. The experiments were not confined to the United States, but were also carried out in Canada, England, France, Morocco, Iraq, Vietnam, the Belgian Congo, Haiti and British Guiana.
The American army conducted a number of odd tests even before MKUltra and the incident in 1951, government and law enforcement agencies, often in cooperation with scientists and private companies. Beginning in 1950, under the auspices of Project Bluebird, the CIA conducted experiments with drugs such as heroin, opium, mescaline and LSD, in which people unknowingly consumed the substances. The idea was to make the subjects – as per the name of the project – “sing like birds.”
Albarelli claims that in the course of his work he found a CIA document labeled, “Re: Pont-Saint-Esprit and F. Olson Files… Intel files. Hand carry to Belin – tell him to see to it that these are buried.” This document, which Albarelli maintains was the smoking gun, was submitted to the Rockefeller Commission, which was established in 1975 to investigate CIA experiments and was headed by David Belin, presumably to have him cover it up. The document contained the names of French citizens who had been employed secretly by the intelligence organization, and a direct reference to the “Pont-Saint-Esprit incident.” According to Albarelli, it is possible that it was in the wake of the French event that Olson expressed himself in a way that his colleagues took to be anti-American. He was interrogated under the influence of LSD and died in 1953.
Albarelli spoke with former colleagues of Olson’s and with their families. Some denied any knowledge of the case, others told him that the bizarre events at Pont-Saint-Esprit were the result of a CIA and U.S. Army experiment. They claimed that the Americans had sprayed LSD over the town, and that it had contaminated the local food products.
The main premise of Albarelli’s book, which links the history of experimental LSD use by the CIA and the U.S. Army to the episode of the cursed bread, has been roundly criticized. Kaplan doesn’t support the LSD theory either; he told me that he rules out the use of the drug, saying that the symptoms people suffered, though similar, do not quite fit its effects.
But Tony Jagu, in his 2018 book “Les raisons cachées” (The Hidden Reasons), sets out to continue Albarelli’s investigation. According to Jagu, the French government deliberately sabotaged the inquiry into the events and also kept secret the claims submitted by victims of the episode and their descendants, in an effort to conceal the true story from the public up until today.
In contrast to the books by Kaplan and Albarelli, no one I spoke with in Pont-Saint-Esprit had heard of Jagu’s new book. Asked to comment on his conclusions, Armunier said, “It’s true that an effort was made to silence the whole incident. No proofs were found, and the whole investigation was stopped. My father was a state-worker, but others did not even get compensation, which is sad, because people here died and suffered for months. Entire lives were ruined, but not one politician came here. Maybe a more thorough investigation could have been conducted, and an attempt made to find other things. My parents kept dealing with it; they wanted to find an answer. My father was very disappointed, and he died without knowing what had happened to him. It’s still a mystery, but maybe someday something will turn up.”
Former mayor Castillon has a somewhat different take. “Anyone who says that the investigation was not serious is unable to imagine what things were like in 1951. The procedures weren’t orderly, and what today seems to be negligence was then accepted practice. It’s true that today we don’t have the possibility to check the findings, but I want to think that no malice was involved. It’s also true that if something like that were to happen today, at least one cabinet minister would come here. The mayor didn’t get any help at the time; I think that even the governor of the province didn’t show up. There was a feeling of isolation and avoidance. There was no Facebook or Twitter then, so it was easier to ignore certain topics, if not to silence them altogether.”
While totally rejecting the theory that links the cursed bread to the CIA, Castillon nevertheless admits that even today he doesn’t feel that he knows what’s behind the event. He’s also skeptical about the possibility of ever getting to the bottom of it: “Because you’re here, I tend to think that the episode will not be forgotten, but it all happened 70 years ago – so now they’re going to find the answer? I don’t know if anyone is still looking.”
Remember to remember
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge of Pont-Saint-Esprit since that day almost seven decades ago. Perhaps the most salient symbol of this is visible from the roof of the town’s ancient church, which stands on the riverbank. From there, against the background of the old bridge, you can see the nuclear power station, which provides employment for many of the townspeople. Roch’s bakery, which is located on one of the small streets in the old part of the town, remains closed to this day. The guides who volunteered to take us there – three local journalists who were curious when they heard an Israeli colleague was in town – navigated between the narrow streets, pointing out various buildings that stand out for their modernity in the Old City.
Today, anyone not aware of the events would have a hard time imagining what went on inside that old building that used to house the bakery. The front door of the former bakery is blocked with board panels covered with a painting illustrating a medieval printer’s shop, without any reference to the popular business that flourished here and was forced to close.
“Did the episode cause tension within the town? I don’t know, there are people who say it did,” Castillon said. “I want to be clear: there was no actual witch hunt. Maybe a little settling of accounts.”
He told me that the baker’s son, Guy Briand, who’s a friend of his and is now an elderly man, still lives in the town – but “the subject is sensitive for him” and he’s unwilling to talk about it and about the disastrous consequences it had for his family. Dr. Gabbai, who knows the baker’s son well, also mentioned the latter’s reluctance to talk about the incident. “What happened to that family is a real tragedy,” he told me. “The whole family paid the price, not just the father. The affair still arouses great emotions in people here, but slowly, over time, it is becoming a distant memory, part of the history of the place.”
Castillon noted that the week before, “my wife by chance met someone who had been at university with us. When she told him that we were living in Pont-Saint-Esprit, his response was, ‘Ah, that’s the place of the cursed bread.’ That’s what gets us really fed up – that our town has been reduced to that story. For me, like for others here, it’s ancient history. My children know very little about the story, and my grandchildren know less and take even less interest.”
Thierry Alard, the youngest of the three journalists who accompanied me to Briand’s bakery, said that his generation would be happy “to open a new page” in regard to the events. In the new bakery, located in the town square, the tale of the cursed bread is a source of humor. “It looks like the bread here has remained cursed,” the young saleswoman laughed, and added with a smile, “The people here are still a little loopy.” The two young bakers behind her nodded in assent.
However, older residents are not eager either to joke about the incident, or to go on discussing it. From the moment I entered the town, every person I encountered knew why I had come. Against the background – and perhaps because – of the host of articles, books and films that have dealt with the affair of the cursed bread, not to mention the wound the episode left in the local population, most of them would like to leave it behind; few are ready to talk about it.
I asked Armunier what she thought about an initiative I’d heard about: to hold a tourism festival centering on the story. Bakers in the town would offer loaves of colored bread, and there would be various related activities and other products on sale in the style of “cursed bread.” The curse, then, would become an economic blessing. “It’s not a happy story and it must not be turned into a festival,” she replied, explaining why she’s against the idea. “Bread is a major part of life here, it’s a very important element in religion, so for it to poison us... People died here. It’s not just some anecdote for me and for the families of the other victims.”
On the night train that sped back to Paris, I remembered the words of the Jewish-French historian and intellectual Pierre Nora. “We speak so much of memory because there is so little of it left,” he wrote in “Realms of Memory,” a three-volume work (1984-1992). “What we call memory today is therefore not memory but already history.” History, which by nature sets out to document, preserve, archive and organize, is suspicious of the spontaneity of memory and “its true mission is to suppress and destroy it”; all that remains of it are “realms of memory” (Lieux de mémoire) “torn away from the movement of history, then returned; no longer quite life, not yet death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded.”
The sea of living memory, embodied by the survivors of the events – their families and other local residents of the time – still has not receded fully. Its currents, like those of the Rhone, continue to mold with their movement the essential identity of Pont-Saint-Esprit. To this day, more than half a century after the episode, its commemoration remains an unresolved issue, like the very question of what caused the events of that fateful August.
Ido Shaked contributed to this report.