When the French Village of Pont-Saint-Esprit Went Temporarily Mad

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On August 15, 1951, dozens of people became terribly ill in Pont-Saint-Esprit, a quaint commune in the south of France. In the days that followed, hundreds more joined them. They complained of nausea and stomach pain, weak blood pressure and faint pulses, cold sweats and low temperatures. Worst of all, everybody had insomnia and smelled. “A state of giddiness persisted accompanied by abundant sweating and a disagreeable odour,” reported the British Medical Journal [PDF]. People would compare the stench to the fragrance of dead mice.

For hundreds of victims, that’s where the inexplicable mass illness stopped. For others, it was only the beginning. Dozens upon dozens of people began experiencing nightmarish hallucinations.

The town became gripped in pandemonium. A little girl screamed as she was chased by man-eating tigers. A woman sobbed about how her children had been ground into sausages. A large man fended off terrific beasts by smashing his furniture. A husband and wife ran around, chasing each other with knives. Even the local animals had gone mad: A dog chewed on stones until its teeth chipped away. Ducks began marching like penguins.

Everywhere, people ran wildly as they tried to avoid imaginary flames. One man, convinced that red snakes were devouring his brain, jumped out of a window. Another reportedly leapt from a window, broke both legs, stood up, and continued running.

Outside, a local postal worker complained that he was shrinking. A person sprinted down the lane, claiming he was being chased by “bandits with donkey ears.” Near the Rhône river, a man—convinced that he was a circus tightrope walker—attempted to balance his way across the cables of a suspension bridge. Another tried to jump into the river, only to be saved by friends. “I am dead and my head is made of copper and I have snakes in my stomach and they are burning me!” he yelled [PDF].

(Not everybody was having a bad experience. Some people, according to The New York Times, “heard heavenly choruses, saw brilliant colors … the world looked beautiful to them.” It was an especially productive experience for the head of the local farmers' co-op, who began writing hundreds upon hundreds of pages of luminous poetry.)

But overall, the scene was apocalyptic. “I have seen healthy men and women suddenly become terrorized, ripping their bed sheets, hiding themselves beneath their blankets to escape hallucinations,” the mayor of Pont-Saint-Esprit, Albert Hébrard, said. Asylums were filled with people wrapped in straitjackets and tied to beds. According to the British Medical Journal, “Every attempt at restraint increased the agitation.”

By the time the mass illness had subsided, approximately 300 people had been in some way affected. At least four died. In the immediate aftermath, the outbreak was blamed on … bread [PDF].

The summer of 1951 was especially wet, and ergot fungi grew all over the country's rye fields. Tainted grains were sourced back to the Roch Briand bakery, where a miller had used fungus-contaminated flour, causing widespread poisoning. The last time ergotism—or what's colorfully known as Saint Anthony’s Fire—had reportedly struck France, it was 1816.

Today, ergot poisoning remains the most commonly accepted explanation of what happened in Pont-Saint-Esprit, though there have been competing theories. Just weeks after the incident, the president of France’s millers’ union, Pierre Jacob, refused to acknowledge the ergot explanation, Reuters reported. Jacob argued that ergot was always present in French flour and, therefore, could not be responsible. To prove his point, he offered to eat ergot-tainted bread in front of a group of experts [PDF]. (There's no record of whether he actually completed the stunt.)

Other theories blamed mercury, fungicide, and various other types of fungus. Some people claimed it was the water used to make the bread, and not the grain, that had been infected.

And, of course, there are conspiracy theories.

In 2009, writer Hank P. Albarelli Jr. claimed that he found a fishy document belonging to the CIA. It contained this label: “Re: Pont-Saint-Esprit and F. Olson Files. SO Span/France Operation file, inclusive Olson. Intel files. Hand carry to Belin—tell him to see to it that these are buried.”

According to the BBC, Frank Olson was a CIA scientist researching LSD; David Belin was executive director of the White House commission investigating the CIA's abuses. Were these men connected to the Pont-Saint-Esprit poisoning? Was it some kind of hidden CIA LSD experiment? Or was the CIA—which was certainly studying psychoactive substances at the time—simply curious about what had happened in southern France?

Steven L. Kaplan, a bread historian at Cornell University, who wrote extensively about the fallout from the outbreak in a French-language tome titled The Cursed Bread, doesn’t buy into the CIA conspiracy theory. LSD, he says, was an unlikely culprit; the symptoms suffered by residents don't match those caused by the hallucinogen. But he’s not convinced that ergot was the cause, either.

Which raises the question: If not ergot or LSD, then what happened in Pont-Saint-Esprit in the summer of 1951?

7 Terrifying Historical Remedies for Migraine Headaches

George Marks/Getty Images
George Marks/Getty Images

Migraines are more than just splitting headaches. Migraine symptoms, which affect about one in seven people worldwide, can include throbbing pain on one side of the head, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and visual disturbances called auras. Today, several classes of drugs are prescribed to either prevent migraine headaches from happening or halt them once they’ve started. But in previous centuries, migraine treatments weren’t so convenient—or effective.

1. Bloodletting

Whether by scalpel or by leeches, bloodletting was the most common remedy for migraine headaches (and many other ailments) before the advent of modern medicine. Throughout most of history, Western physicians subscribed to the humoral theory, in which human health was governed by four fluids (humors) that must be kept in balance. Sickness was explained as an imbalance of humors, and bloodletting was thought to rebalance the system. The methods varied, though. In the case of migraine headaches, the Greek physician Aretaeus suggested sticking a barbed goose feather up the unfortunate patient’s nose and prodding around until blood flowed.

Even as late as the 18th century, bloodletting was still believed to help migraines. Swiss physician Samuel Auguste Tissot, who was the first to describe migraines as a discrete medical condition in the 1770s, recommended bleeding, better hygiene and diet, and drugs including infusions of orange leaves and valerian.

2. Garlic

The 11th-century physician Abu al-Qasim suggested sticking a clove of garlic into the migraine headache sufferer’s temple. He offered a handy recipe:

“Take a garlic; peel and cut at both extremities. Make an incision with a large scalpel in the temple and keep under the skin a cavity wide enough to introduce the garlic and to conceal it completely. Apply compresses and tighten, let it remain about 15 hours, then remove the device. Extract the garlic, leave the wound for two or three days, then apply cotton soaked in butter until it suppurates.”

Once the wound started oozing—which was considered a good sign—the physician would cauterize the incision with a hot iron. Cauterization was meant to prevent infection, although modern research has shown that it actually lowers the threshold for bacterial infections.

3. Cupping

Cupping—inverting hot glass vessels on the patients’ body—was thought to perform the same function as bloodletting. Prominent Dutch physician Nicolaes Tulp, depicted in Rembrandt’s 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, treated a migraine sufferer by cupping. She soon recovered.

A substance called cantharidin, a potent blistering agent secreted by the Meloidae family of beetles, was also applied as part of the cupping and blistering process to draw out bad humors. Unfortunately, if the cantharidin was left on too long, it could be absorbed into the body and cause painful urination, gastrointestinal and renal dysfunction, and organ failure. (Perhaps unrelatedly, cantharidin was also used as an aphrodisiac.)

4. Trepanation

One of the oldest types of surgery, trepanation is the practice of cutting away part of the cranium and exposing brain tissue to treat injuries or chronic conditions like migraine headaches. The 16th-century Dutch physician Petrus Forestus, who meticulously recorded the ailments and treatments of his patients, performed trepanation on a person with incurable migraines. In the brain tissue he found something he called a “black worm.” According to a 2010 study by neurologist Peter J. Koehler, the mass may have been a chronic subdural hematoma—a collection of blood between the surface of the brain and its outermost covering—and a possible cause of the patient’s agony.

5. Dead Moles

Ali ibn Isa al-Kahhal, the leading ophthalmologist of the medieval Muslim world, described more than 130 eye diseases and treatments in his groundbreaking monograph Tadhkirat al-kaḥḥālīn (The Notebook of the Oculists). While his descriptions of ocular anatomy were sound, he also touched on remedies for headaches, and here his prescriptions seem more suspect. To treat migraines, he suggested tying a dead mole to one’s head.

6. Electric Fish

Long before scientists fully understood the principles of electricity, ancient doctors recommended it as a remedy for migraines. Scribonius Largus, the court physician for the Roman emperor Claudius, saw that the torpedo fish—also known as the electric ray, native to the Mediterranean Sea among other areas—had the power to shock anyone who touched it. Largus and other doctors prescribed the shocks as cures for headache, gout, and prolapsed anus.

In the mid-18th century, a Dutch journal reported that the electric eel, found in South America, emitted even stronger shocks than the Mediterranean fish and were used for head pain. One observer wrote that headache sufferers “put one of their hands on their head and the other on the fish, and thereby will be helped immediately, without exception.”

7. Mud Foot-Baths

Compared to expired rodents, warm foot-baths must have sounded positively decadent to those afflicted with extreme pain. Nineteenth-century physicians suggested that migraine sufferers take the waters at Marienbad (now Mariánské Lázně) and Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary), two spa towns in what is now the Czech Republic. While the mineral waters were useful for alleviating congestive headaches, mud foot-baths were believed to draw blood toward the feet and away from the head, calming the nervous system. “The foot-bath ought not to be taken too hot, and the feet should be rubbed one over the other while washing the mud off, and afterwards with a coarse towel. A brisk walk may be used to keep up the circulation,” suggested Prussian Army physician Apollinaris Victor Jagielski, M.D. in 1873.

Who Stole My Cheese? Archivists Are Cataloging 200 Years of Criminal Records From the Isle of Ely

Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons
Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

And you thought your parents were strict. In 16th century England, the same courts that tried murderers were also tasked with getting to the bottom of cheese thefts.

As The Guardian reports, archivists from the University of Cambridge have begun cataloging close to 270 court documents from the Isle of Ely, a historic region of England known for its magnificent, gothic-style cathedral as well as being the home of Oliver Cromwell for more than a decade (Cromwell was appointed governor of the isle in 1643).

Some of the documents, which are dated from 1557 to 1775, relate to matters that may seem macabre—or even ridiculous—in the modern world. But they offer a keen insight into the area's past. "This project enables us to hear the voices of people from all backgrounds ... long dead and forgotten, and for whom there is no other surviving record," archivist Sian Collins told The Guardian.

One such person was yeoman John Webbe, who was charged with defamation by one William Tyler after Tyler's wife, Joan, overheard Webbe tell someone that: "Tyler thy husband is a knave, a rascall & a thief for he stole my goodes thefyshely [thievishly] in the night."

Then there was poor William Sturns, whose only crime was a hunger that led him to steal three cheeses; ultimately, he was deemed not guilty. "Unfortunately we don’t know what type of cheese it was," Collins told Atlas Obscura. "But cheesemaking was fairly common in the area at the time."

Not all of Ely's court cases were about backtalk and dairy products, though. The university’s website details how in 1577, Margaret Cotte was accused of using witchcraft to kill Martha Johnson, the daughter of a local blacksmith. Margaret was eventually found not guilty, which is part of what makes this project so important.

"Martha and Margaret may not appear in any other records," Collins said. "This is all we know about them."

[h/t The Guardian]

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