October 27, 2011
In southern France near Avignon was a quiet village on the Rhone called Pont Saint-Esprit where two bakeries tended to the inhabitants’ daily need for bread. The summer of 1951 was unusually wet, and that year’s rye crop was expected to fall short. In August of that year, one of the village bakers received a supply of strangely gray flour, but with the government strictly controlling flour distribution, he had no other means of making that morning’s baguettes and proceeded to bake and sell his wares as usual. Over the course of a few weeks, le pain maudit—”the cursed bread”—wreaked havoc in Pont Saint-Esprit.
Within 48 hours, some 230 villagers became violently ill. Initially their reactions to the bread resembled severe food poisoning, with people experiencing nausea and vomiting accompanied by days of insomnia. But a few fared far worse, experiencing wild hallucinations, convulsions and swollen limbs that felt as if they were burning, some turning gangrenous. “I have seen healthy men and women suddenly become terrorized, ripping their bedsheets, hiding themselves beneath their blankets to escape hallucinations,” Mayor Albert Hubbard said to the United Press at the time. People leaped from windows to escape their visions. Some thought they were being eaten by tigers, others saw men with grinning skulls for heads. ”I am dead and my head is made of copper and I have snakes in my stomach and they are burning me,” villager Gabriel Veladaire repeatedly screamed before attempting to throw himself in the river. Five people, including an otherwise healthy 25-year-old man, died.
The rash of disturbing behavior pointed to ergotism, epidemics of which were common in the Middle Ages but had not been seen on French soil since the early 19th century. Ergot is a parasitic fungus that thrives on rye under certain climate conditions—cold winters followed by an especially rainy growing season—and manifests itself as oversized, violet grains protruding from the head of the plant. Lysergic acid, the active component in the fungus, was used to create LSD, which became a popular recreational drug. Some historians have even suggested that erratic behavior in several young Puritan girls was brought on by ergot poisoning, instigating the Salem witch trials in 1692; however, that theory that has been called into question.
Ergotism as the cause of this episode in Pont Saint-Esprit has also been debated, with later investigations suggesting the outbreak was due to mercury poisoning, the use of nitrogren trichloride to bleach flour or even that the CIA was testing LSD as a possible biological weapon and treated the bread with the drug.
Modern scholarship has yet to suggest that the baneful baguettes were the result of witchcraft. What do you think caused the outbreak in France?
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