Apocalypse Now by Carole Rommene

apocalypse now 2Some extraordinary events make the headlines, create a stir for a while, then are all but forgotten. This is the case with a peculiar but true event which took place in August 1951 in Pont-Saint- Esprit, a little town in the Gard department, and which climaxed in what was to become known as the Night of Apocalypse.

It all started on 16 August when several inhabitants went to see the local doctor with symptoms of nausea, cold and vomiting, as well as feelings of euphoria quickly turning into depression.

Soon, signs seemed to be pointing at a produce the local population consumed every single day. In a farm, a bread-based feed led to the sudden death of all animals, while the only member of a family not suffering from any symptoms was the son who had bought his daily baguette in the neighbouring town. Meanwhile, the town's bakers had been complaining about the sticky texture and raw, greyish aspect of their dough.

A few days later, more serious symptoms started to appear with many people experiencing severe hallucinations, while the first fatality was recorded in Nîmes hospital. The local government decided to take precautionary measures by closing down all the town's bakeries while investigations were being carried out. However, nothing suspicious was found, despite the number of sufferers reaching 300. The three doctors, exhausted and powerless in the face of all these people suffering mainly from hallucinations, asked intern colleagues in Montpellier to come and help. However, they had no idea that soon, the epidemic would reach a different level and that they would all remember that fateful night, 19 August 1951, as the Night of the Apocalypse...

At around midnight in Pont-Saint- Esprit and around the neighbouring farms, people woke up in a terrified panic, overcome by strong hallucinations. An atmosphere of pure hysteria pervaded the area. Imagining they were being chased by wild animals or eaten by snakes, inhabitants started jumping from windows. In hospital, doctors witnessed the same phenomenon with patients trying to escape, terrorised by invisible flames and imaginary creatures, all of them releasing an unusually strong body odour. Powerless in front of what can only be described as mass insanity, doctors finally called the Minister for Health at 3am, and permission was granted to transport all patients to a psychiatric unit. Five days after that notorious night, a teenager sadly died. Hallucinations carried on for a little while, then slowly disappeared. In total, seven people would have died from this astonishing epidemic.

To find out the origin of this horrific event, lab tests were conducted, formally incriminating the bread, in particular l'ergot de seigle, or rye ergot fungus, a plant disease caused by the fungus Claviceps Purpurea, which in large quantities can contaminate flours. This fungus contains alkaloids, a nitrogenous organic molecule that has a pharmacological effect on humans and animals. In high quantities, alkaloids are somewhat hallucinogenic*.

Following these findings, a baker and a miller were arrested after a defective lot of flour was found in central France. However, a few months later, new experiments were conducted by a team of eminent experts who strongly opposed the initial findings and declared the rye ergot fungus not guilty. Instead, the group of chemists and biologists blamed the epidemic on traces of a mercury- based component normally used as pesticide and found in the flour.

The case re-opened, with suspect packages confiscated. A new battle of experts followed, with none of them able to provide conclusive answers.

Ten years later, an innovative scientific approach was suggested to the victims' families but they decided not to go ahead with it, possibly deterred by their lack of funding and the cost of potentially lengthy legal proceedings.

For more than sixty years, this extraordinary affair has remained unsolved.

However, a book released in 2009 by investigative journalist HP Albarelli Jr** claims that the epidemic was the result of a secret LSD spray experimentation led by the US Army top-secret Division of Special Operations at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

The book also argues that the group of scientists who falsely identified bread as the source of the outbreak worked for pharmaceutical company Sandoz, which at the time supplied both the US Army and the CIA with LSD for research purposes.

Albarelli claims to have found various old CIA documents mentioning 'the secret of Pont- Saint-Esprit' with a Sandoz official stating that 'it was not the ergot at all'. Albarelli suggests that the CIA may have conducted experiments to assess the effects of an LSD aerosol epidemic on soldiers or populations. According to him, a US Government site on the dangers of LSD even shows Sandoz to promote the drug as a possible secret chemical weapon for the US.

Fantasy, conspiracy theory or real- life James Bond-esque true story? We might never find out but one thing is sure. Locals in Pont-Saint- Esprit will always remember La Nuit de l'Apocalypse...

*Source: Science Daily

**A terrible mistake: the murder of Frank Olson and the CIA's secret Cold War experiments by HP Albarelli Jr. See article 'French Government Queries US re 50s secret LSD Experiment' by F.William Engdahl

apocalypse now 1For more fascinating true stories taking place in our area, read the wonderful book (in French) by Hubert Delobette and Paul-René Di Nitto, Histoires vraies en Languedoc Roussillon published by Le Papillon Rouge, a local editor based in the Hérault.
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