Ergot, Frank Olson, and why 250 French people went mad in 1951 [Trenchant Edges]
Estimated reading time: 14 minutes, 44 seconds. Contains 2948 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, One of The Newsletters that Exists.
Today’s sponsored by my waking up with a thing I wanna write about and just doing it for hours. Also, inspired by listening to the superb Come and See Podcast.
Our topic today, ironically, is a demonstration of how hard it can be to really know what happened in the past and some grasping in the dark of how to deal with that.
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To borrow a line from the late Hunter S Thompson:
History is hard to know because of all the hired bullshit.
Anyway, let’s get into it.
Also, I’ve been researching & writing for like 3 hours now so I'm calling it done and not editing anything else. Typos provided free of charge as a courtesy.
Postwar French Madness
One of my ongoing frustrations when it comes to the history of US colonialism is the way people tend to hyperfixate on the CIA as a source of malice, and I'm again thinking about the Pont-Saint-Esprit ergot poisoning event.
The TLDR is in 1951 about 250 in a small town in France called Pont-Saint-Esprit ate a bunch of tainted bread and spent more than a week hallucinating & having serious mental health issues. Something like 50 of them had to be institutionalized for a time. And 7 died.
A reoccurring accusation is that our friends at Central Intelligence used LSD to cause the outbreak seems less likely to me on listening to the facts of the case in the podcast Come And See (A good podcast you should listen to).
LSD isn't super likely because 1. Except at very high doses, LSD doesn't last more than a day and this situation lasted closer to 8-10 days. 2. LSD isn't neurotoxic for most people & it peaks roughly midway through its activity and tapers off from there. 3. They literally found moldy bread from one bakery & from one supplier who'd cut his flour with rye and mold.
Oh look, an unethical capitalist ignoring health concerns and getting people killed. How, uh, novel.
Escalating symptoms, the long duration, the fact that serious testing of LSD by the CIA wouldn't begin in earnest until the next year under Project Bluebird & Artichoke. And actually, in an interesting but probably meaningless connection: Project Artichoke actually started (officially, lol) a week after the cursed bread poisoning began. (August 13th vs August 20th, 1951).
Now, let’s step back and put on our tin foil fedoras here.
Let’s take a moment and talk about Thalidomide.
When anti-vaxers talk about Big Pharma putting profits before people, it’s tricky to respond to because while they’re often wrong in the details of their claims, it’s not like that kind of thing is unheard of and Thalidomide is one of the most famous scandals.
In short, Thalidomide is an immunomodulator and sedative with a wide variety of applications. In 1957 it was first commercialized by Chemie Grünenthal, a former soap maker who branched out into antibiotics after WW2.
It’s exact mechanism is still unknown and it seems to work considerably better on humans than on lab animals. It’s since been approved to treat both blood cancer and even leprosy.
But in 1957 it was mainly marketed toward pregnant women suffering from morning sickness.
And this is something of a problem because Thalidomide causes severe birth defects that can be fatal when a pregnant woman takes it. To make a long story short, it killed about 2,000 babies and left 10,000 more seriously harmed. It’s, uh, a whole thing.
Of course, the anti-vax narrative breaks down in a couple of interesting places: First, it was only approved for use in western Europe, mainly West Germany. Both Eastern Germany and the US declined to approve it citing mixed results in trials and the lack of testing for… exactly the kind of birth defects it ended up causing.
hmm. Interesting, that.
Things get hinkier. Thalidomide wasn’t really tested on humans according to Grünenthal and on their initial patent application, they claimed the data on their mouse trials had been lost. This is an, uh, bit of a red flag and drove several drug regulators to refuse to approve it as mentioned above.
And finally, we can come to the tin foil portion of our essay here: See, Grünenthal had an All Too German habit: Hiring former nazi scientists. Nazi scientists whom some allege were testing Thalidomide in Nazi Germany. In concentration camps.
This is where things get complicated: Lawyer, journalist, and author Michael Magazanik has documented extensive links between Nazi scientists and both Grünenthal generally, and the development of Thalidomide specifically.
From a write-up in the Australian Jewish News:
While Magazanik dismissed claims circulating that Nazi doctors conducted experiments with thalidomide on concentration camp inmates, there were plenty of links between the Grunenthal company, as it was constituted in the 1950s and 1960s, and the wartime Nazis, he said.
Magazanik then goes on to list 5 war criminals who later worked at Grunenthal, including Otto Ambros who was convicted of using slave labor and mass murder while running an IG Farben rubber factory at Auschwitz. Oh, and he helped invent sarin nerve gas. One of the worst chemical weapons ever devised.
To borrow from another interview with Magazanik:
Michael Magazanik: Grunenthal emerged in the mid-to-late 1940s. The man in charge of thalidomide at Grünenthal had been a Nazi doctor in the German army, had done experiments in occupied Poland during the war, had been charged, made it to Germany, and was employed at Grünenthal.
If you take a doctor with a dubious wartime history, a forceful personality, put him in charge of a pharmaceutical lab and incentivise him to sell more and more of the drug, then I think that’s part of the way to understand why Grünenthal behaved the way it did.
Two other authors, Martin Johnson of the Thalidomide Trust & Raymond Stokes a business historian at Glasgow University also make the case that Grunenthal was criminally negligent and actively covering up the side effects of Thalidomide, not only the birth defects but the horrible nerve damage that could just leave one with hideous constant pain. As an average constant pain enjoyer, I do not recommend.
However, they don’t believe that it was developed first in concentration camps, despite the pedigrees of some of its key developers.
And, indeed, finding documentary evidence on the subject is difficult. I’ve found several references to an Argentinian historian named Carlos De Napoli who’s book Nazi En El Sur (“Nazis in the South”) might include a reference to the document he claimed to have found demonstrating its concentration camp origins.
From the only article I could find referencing him in English:
Meanwhile, Carlos De Napoli, an Argentinian author of a upcoming book on Nazi scientists has claimed to have found a document which reveals thalidomide has its origins in Hitler's laboratories in Germany.
"There is absolutely no doubt of the Nazi development of and experimentation with thalidomide in the World War two camps," he was quoted as saying.
Alas, my inability to read Spanish prevents me from double-checking anything in his actual book.
But several searches on possibly relevant terms & the names of the Nazis who helped develop Thalidomide turned up nothing so I’m not going to put a ton of faith in it as a source on this.
So, I guess this whole thing is a longwinded way of saying that sometimes Nazis just help make medicines that also happen to poison the shit out of thousands of people.
Anyway, it’s the *kind* of relationship I want to establish for my actual point.
But first, we need to talk about Frank Olsen.
The Frank Olson Tangent
Frank is one of those dubious people who have the honor of having probably been murdered by the CIA.
Don’t feel super bad for him though, he was CIA.
Olson’s job after WW2 was to be part of debriefing some of the worst Nazi scientists around. Not just your run-of-the-mill war criminals, but Nazis involved with chemical and biological weapons.
These were guys seen as too hot for Operation Paperclip and paperclip took Werner Von fucking Braun, a slaver who was personally responsible for the V1 & V2 programs which killed something like 11,000 allies, mostly British and Belgian civilians.
Anyway, Frank wasn’t thrilled with this assignment and tried to get back stateside. Except because he’s spent a couple years interrogating some of the worst Nazi scientists, he had rather rare expertise so he ended up in the CIA and working on the MK Ultra and its predecessors.
Which brought him to a CIA party in 1953 where he was dosed with something that was probably LSD and reacted badly to it. Even after coming down he was shaken pretty hard and a few of his buddies in the Agency took him to a therapist in New York City.
They were staying on the 13th floor of the Statler hotel when Olson “jumped” out the window to his death.
I’m not going to bore you with the forensics or making an argument for it. If you want that here’s Wormwood Exposed: The Truth About Frank Olson and Other Terrible Mistakes by H.P. Albarelli Jr.
See, my interest is in Frank’s time at Fort Detrick in the 40s and debriefing nazis.
Bringing It All Together
The MK-Whatever projects the CIA did were a response to alleged brainwashing of American POWs in the Korean War.
The Smithsonian did a good piece on the overall panic, but we’re only really interested in the early days of it.
It wasn’t the first time fears of Communism and mind control had seeped into the American public. In 1946 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was so worried about the spread of Communism that it proposed removing liberals, socialists and communists from places like schools, libraries, newspapers and entertainment.
Combined with fiction such as George Orwell’s 1984, the Holocaust, and the fascist transformation of Nazi Germany, there was already established interest in where influence becomes control.
So when Journalist Edward Hunter published “Brain-washing Tactics Force Chinese Into Ranks of Communist Party,” in the Miami Daily News in September 1950, it’s very reasonable to assume someone in or around military intelligence took note.
If you’re unfamiliar, spies and their analysts love newspapers and tend to collect them.
So we’ve got people like Frank Olson (who’s still got 3 years to live) who have gotten a crash course in biological warfare at scale, a pile of nazi scientists forced to share many of their secrets and a small town in France where people were poisoned with something that caused severe hallucinations & escalating medical problems.
Oh, and one more tangent.
Otherwise known as Agent BZ, 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate is LSD’s roided up and heavily armed cousin. Tested as a “peaceful” chemical weapon in hopes that it would be an incapacitant, BZ turned out to be fairly neurotoxic. But it lasts a few days and can do some really gnarly things to the human nervous system.
It’s not particularly likely that BZ was used in Pont-Saint-Esprit, the symptoms grew over time where BZ follows a more traditional dosing curve.
But military experimentation on soldiers was so egregious they actually have won several lawsuits against the Army. And like, soldiers have basically no rights in the military. So winning a lawsuit there is extremely rare.
And I bring it up here because lots of the arguments against Pont-Saint-Esprit are specific to LSD. But LSD was only the star of the psychotropic show in the 1950s.
There are whole classes of compounds with similar effects that are barely known outside of labs.
Alright, Back On Target
So while Ergot poisoning seems promising as a cause for the cursed bread madness in 1951, there are some problems with it as an explanation.
First, it’s highly unusual for an outbreak to be so limited and I couldn’t find details of if other suppliers found bad rye or not. Could easily be that others were just actually ethical about it.
Second, while the broad strokes are right there are some changes that make it less likely. I don’t really want to try and suss out the details here because, frankly, I don’t really know enough to verify them in any meaningful way. Here’s some speculation on the subject.
So we’ve got 250 people hallucinating for days after 6-48 hours all of whom ate bread traceable back to the same handful of batches, a convicted flour merchant, and a lot of shady speculation.
In the background, we have a growing research interest by the US government in mind control, chemical, and biological weapons; a mess of nazis who specialized in those things, the huge body of work they produced for the Reich, and a history of rushed development for the war leading to extremely janky, unworkable, and ultimately useless Wonder Weapons.
If we imagine the chemical/biological programs were as overambitious as their engineering cousins, it’s not hard to suspect that what happened in the south of France in 1951 wasn’t either LSD or ergot. But some other thing that shares properties with them.
It seems entirely plausible that some attempt to modify ergot to be more useful as a weapon occurred, but was mostly covered up or didn’t really go anywhere.
After all, while nazi science funding & use of enslaved human subjects allowed for rapid experimentation, a TON of it was kind of useless or half-cocked. Rushing doesn’t make for good science.
And people who embrace world ice theory or hollow earth don’t make good scientists.
But, is it likely?
Eh, not really. I’d put it at a cozy 20-30% possible. I couldn’t find any information on Nazis experimenting with fungi to any degree, though since I don’t read German that may just be a limit of translation.
While there are open questions like, “If this was a natural occurrence, shouldn’t we have seen more outbreaks like it?” those seem reasonably answered in France by, “Yeah bro food safety laws bro.”
And, sadly for the ancient alien guy, there’s a big gap between could happen and did happen.
The answer, unfortunately, is we don’t really know and we probably never will unless someone fucked up burning documents somewhere. Or the dead CIA scrolls are found in some forgotten Operation Gladio bunker.
This kind of exercise is how I evaluate all conspiracies. Rolling over possibilities for means, motive, and opportunity. If we’re really free-associating, it didn’t even really need to be a state actor at all. How hard is it to spike some grain with a fungus?
Hell, maybe it was a job advertisement. Like the WMD mad science version of a cover letter.
The process is the same either way: Collect facts, roll them around to find new questions to ask, repeat until you’ve got a good story, then look for reasons to disprove it.
When brainstorming ideas you don’t want to dismiss anything because you want a wide selection to start with. But before you hit a conclusion you want to dismiss as many of them as is reasonable.
Why? Because nothing in parapolitics is really set in stone. There’s always a possibility things aren’t as they seem. But a lot of spycraft is about tricking people into seeing what isn’t there to heighten paranoia to provoke unforced errors.
So you want to be liberally aware of possibilities and conservative in guessing how likely they actually are.
Because you’ll never know for sure and embracing that tension is part of the business.
Same reason why statisticians prefer giving a range of answers instead of a solid one. Shit’s unreliable.
This is why I avoid believing in conspiracy theories. Belief binds you to certain assumptions, makes them seem more appealing than they are. Now there’s also no such thing as real objectivity, there’s only accounting for your biases and doing your best to correct them.
Binding yourself to assumptions can be very useful but in complicated games of deception, they’re more dangerous than not.
Take off your tin foidora, you’re free.
Ugh, well, that was interesting if unexpected.
I could pretend this was my plan all along but I woke up at like 5:30 am this morning, turned on the last of Come And See’s last episode about Ergotism, and heard some things that turned my brain on.
Then I freewrote half of this, took a nap, and finished the draft around 10 am on 10/15.
Why is it almost 3,000 words? Fuck if I know, that’s how many words there were for me to write. The older I get and the more I embrace the fact that I’m not really in charge of my brain in any meaningful way, the easier it is to point the fucking thing vaguely where I want to go and ride it that way.
Looking back at it, I think it’s valuable to see me process this kind of subject in real time because I’ve got a pretty good eye for bullshit & I’ve avoided a ton of the mind poisons so many of the people in my subcultures have dosed themselves on.
Seeking context & testing can be very helpful in formulating guesses about what’s going on in the world.
And when it comes to, *ahem* wars of information, that’s often the only way to really suss anything out rather than getting carried away on someone’s propaganda bullshit.
Countercurrents are often no better than mainstreams.
And that’s it. I’m done.
More to come. lol.
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