The Pont St Esprit Affair
Pont St Esprit, a small town in southern France. August 1951. There was nothing remarkable about Pont St Esprit, it was just a typical French town in post war Europe. It had been a wet summer, but otherwise unremarkable. And the war had been over for six years, so things were getting back to normal. And normal in France was going to the market in the morning and buying the daily meals, and this would include fresh bread. And that’s what the residents of Pont St Esprit did, they bought the bread, took it home, and ate it. Just like any other day.
August 15 wasn’t just another day though. The first thing that happened was that animals, dogs and some cats, that had eaten the bread … died. This was a little alarming to say the least, and in the modern world there would likely have already been people contacting authorities. In 1951 there were no such authorities, and people had to deal with things like this themselves. And who would get excited about a few dead pets anyhow?
The villagers talked it over among themselves, what else could they do? And talked. And talked. And then noticed the second strange thing going on. No one who ate the bread could sleep. The villagers who ate the bread spent the night standing in the streets talking to each other. Even in this era before horror movies, it’s a good bet that a lot of these people were pretty freaked out. I would be. The second day passed normally, and the second night it was the same. The people who had eaten the bread still couldn’t sleep.
And then, all hell broke loose. People started going, quite literally, insane. Wracked with terrible delusions and complete psychotic breaks with reality, they did terrible risky things. One guy climbed a bridge and walked along the narrow girders, convinced he was a high rise circus tightrope walker. I don’t recall how he ended up, but yes, people died. Many more injured themselves, sometimes in almost incomprehensible ways. One strong strapping fellow was restrained in an asylum with leather straps. He had a fit and tore through the straps holding him down with his teeth. Ripping out many of his teeth in the process. I don’t even want to think about how that must have felt. He survived, but yes, he had life changing injuries. One of the luckier ones became obsessed with the idea that he had some great knowledge to impart. He spent over a week at his desk scribbling furiously before his mind cleared. All gibberish, but he was thankful. It may have been gibberish, but it kept him from doing anything dangerous. Unlike some of his friends and neighbours.
Ina few weeks it was over, people’s heads cleared, and many of them couldn’t even remember what they had done or what had transpired. Imagine a bad acid trip that lasted for weeks, oh Dear God. Seven people died, more than 50 had been locked up in asylums they had gone so out of control. There were minor outbreaks in a few other areas, but Pont St Esprit was far and away the worst. It was traced to the bread, and was identified as ergot poisoning. Well, identified may be too strong a word, it was the best guess but no one knows for sure. Ergot is a fungus that grows on grains, particularly rye, and particularly during wet seasons. Its active ingredients, if one can call them that, are very similar to LSD.
A variety of other causes have been suggested, various toxins like mercury and such that might have gotten into the flour. All of which are intriguing, but none of which seem like a good match for the victims of Pont St Esprit. It’s been suggested that this was a modern outbreak of something that happened in the Middle Ages called dancing mania or St. Anthony’s Fire. In these cases large number of people would dance and hallucinate uncontrollably, continuing to thrash even after they had collapsed from exhaustion. It too is unexplained, though ergot poisoning again has been suggested.
One of the big problems with ergot poisoning for either case is that ergot poisoning restricts the blood flow to the extremities making movement of any kind extremely painful, this doesn’t jibe with people dancing or being wildly physically active as in Pont St Esprit. It’s been suggested that some of the medieval cases were in fact a sort of mass hysteria, with at least one modern example, the Tanganyika laughter epidemic, to show it’s possible. No one has suggested Pont St Esprit was mass hysteria though. The symptoms were too severe and the dead pets obviously didn’t die of hysteria.
It’s recently been suggested that Pont St esprit was actually a deliberate mass poisoning conducted by the CIA. While this is getting headlines in the media, it’s a pretty wild suggestion. And a suggestion that’s not supported by much, the shreds of evidence the originators of this theory have come up with aren’t terribly convincing. On the other hand, by the US military was completely out of control and did such things as conduct secret biological warfare experiments on US cities. So it’s certainly not impossible that the CIA would try dosing a town with LSD to see what would happen. Unlikely, unproven, but not impossible.
And to this day the mystery of Pont St Esprit and medieval Dancing Mania remains unexplained. Pont St Esprit was mass poisoning of some sort, and that’s as far as we get. If it happened today we have the science to detect all sorts of subtle chemical and biological clues, and likely the cause would be identified. Likely. Who knows though, I described this case to show that once again, there are still unsolved mysteries in the world. And as a public service, the next time you have insomnia, and if you remember eating anything that tastes funny, have your friends chain you to your bed. Why take chances?
(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law. It’s a Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) painting titled “The Temptation of St Anthony.” I chose it because I love Bosch’s work, and hopefully to some extent it captures what some of the victims of Pont St Esprit may have experienced. Lastly, I got a lot of the details above from a book I read decades ago on the incident, The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire. Hopefully my memory is reasonably accurate.)