1951: Hallucinations, Terror in Southern France

December 5, 2010, 1:11 am

Neuroskeptic posted this week about the extremely strange events that took place in the French town of Pont St. Esprit.

These events took place in 1951, and were the subject of one of the weirdest news stories ever to appear in the New York Times.

Datelined Paris, Aug. 28, the dispatch was headlined: “3 Die, Many Stricken by Madness From Poison in Bread in France”. It reported that in addition to the three dead, at least 90 others were poisoned by the bread.  Many victims experience hallucinations. Later reports in medical journals revealed that toxic manifestations often started with severe gastrointestinal symptoms, followed by bradycardia, diminished peripheral pulses, and gangrene of the extremities.

A United Press filing that accompanied the Times piece quoted Mayor Albert Hebrard describing what he had witnessed during the episode:

I have seen healthy men and women suddenly becoming terrorized, ripping their bedsheets, hiding themselves beneath their blankets to escape hallucinations.

Charles Pommier, whom I have known for years, barricaded his doors and armed himself with a gun. He said he was ready to shoot the monster that was pursuing him.

Neuroskeptic notes that the cause is of these hallucinations and peripheral vascular disorders is generally attributed to ergotism, but suggests that other possible explanations might include mercury or nitrogen trichloride.

I disagree.  The renal effects often caused by mercury absent. Nitrogen trichloride is a more interesting hypothesis.  According to Spencer and Schaumburg’s Experiemental and Clinical Neurotoxicology (Second Edition), NCl3 had been used to bleach flour since the early twentieth century.  It produces a condition in dogs called canine hysteria, fright disease, or running fits, where: “Affected dogs suddenly appear frightened with wild, unnatural facial expressions.  The dogs are frequently seen to run about in an uncontrolled manner, eventually becoming exhausted and depressed.” However, the authors go on to note that “Humans  . . . are resistant to the toxic effects of nitrogen trichloride-treated flour”. Nitrogen trichloride was never detected in the bread that had been consumed by all the victims in Pont St. Esprit, and I am not aware of any human medical reports of hallucinations and peripheral ischemia caused by NCl3

I still think that the most probable candidate — by far — is ergotism. This is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which produces a varied and complex mixture of toxins.  In addition to ergot alkaloids, C. purpurea producess histamine, tyramine, serotonin, acetylcholine, and sterols. Some of these are powerful vasoconstrictors.  Since all the ergot alkaloids are structurally similar to lysergic acid, they are also potent hallucinogens.

There are two types of epidemic ergotism:

1)  Gangrenous ergotism: The most dramatic manifestation of this type is peripheral vasoconstriction, causing ischemic pulseless limbs progressing to gangrene.  Since symptoms include burning pain and blackened skin, this form as been called le feu sacre, or St. Anthony’s Fire.

2) Convulsive ergotism: This type does not cause true seizures, but rather writhing and muscle spasms without loss of consciousness.

An outbreak can contain features of both forms, but usually one predominates.

To read my 2006 Emergency Medicine News column about ergotism, click here.

Time Magazine has posted its coverage of the events in Pont St. Esprit.

2 Comments:

  1. Dean Says:

    There has been a new development in this story. Leaked documents have suggested that the town was an unfortunate unwilling experiment of the CIA to test its new psychoactive drug…LSD, which mimics many of the symptoms of ergotism since it is a molecular derivitive of ergot.

  2. Leon Says:

    Dean:

    I know this story made the news over the past year, but I’m still not sure what the real story is. I agree with you that leaked documents “suggested” deliberate LSD contamination but to my mind did not prove the theory. It was such an unusual occurrence that the ergot theory seems possibly suspect.

    See this story in The Telegraph (U.K.):

    http://tinyurl.com/y98sn7n

    and this one from the BBC:

    http://tinyurl.com/2vnos2o