How the CIA Gave LSD to an 11-Year-Old Boy

Josh Clark

Man, that psychology tirade was heavy. How about something a bit lighter today, like a post on how the CIA dosed a village in France in 1951 which resulted in, among other things, an 11-year-old boy with a head full of acid trying to strangle his aged grandmother?

Oh, CIA, how your shady past continues to enthrall us today and makes us wonder what horrific things you're up to currently in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Alabama.

Chuck and I recorded a podcast awhile back -- my favorite one of all time, in fact -- on how the CIA dosed unsuspecting Americans in the 1950s and 60s with LSD. While researching, I ran across the story of an American named Stanley Glickman who spent his early 20s as an artist in Paris. He met up with a few fellow American expats in a cafe one night in 1952 and things began to get a bit strange, you could say. He grew inexplicably terrified, which kicked into overdrive when one of the men, the one with a club foot, told him he could probably perform miracles if he tried.

This is an unsettling thing to say to someone offhandedly, and it appropriately weirded Glickman out; for the rest of his life, actually.

He moved back home to New York, where he took the name "Paul" and lived out the rest of his days a quiet weirdo. His story went unverified and never vindicated, although it was pretty clear that he'd had the misfortune of meeting up with one Dr. Sidney Gottleib, the clubfooted researcher who oversaw the CIA's LSD program.

Last week even more support for Glickman's story came out when the Telegraph reported that investigative journalist H.P. Abarelli, Jr. had uncovered evidence that the CIA had dosed an entire village in France the year before Stanley Glickman's wild ride in Paris.

Abarelli found CIA transcripts between agent and officials from Sandoz Pharmaceutical (the company that originally produced LSD and from which the CIA bought its acid) that explains that "the secret of Pont-Saint-Esprit" was caused by LSD poisoning, not by ergot as had been suspected.

Ergot is a fungus that plagues grain and contains naturally-occurring isoergine, an active ingredient in LSD. It's what historian Linda Caporael suggested in a 1976 paper was the cause of the hysteria behind the Salem witchcraft trials and hangings.

And it's what has, up to last week, served as the explanation for an outbreak of psychosis among the villagers of Pont-Saint-Espirit in southeast France in 1951. The event, referred to locally as Le Pain Maudit (the cursed bread), was originally thought to have originated with ergot-tainted bread from a local baker.

On August 16, 1951, the people of Pont-Saint-Esprit just weren't quite themselves for some reason. In addition to the 11-year-old grandmother strangler, a man ran fifty yards, which isn't noteworthy until you consider that he'd just jumped from a second-story window and had broken both his legs. The asylum was hopping that night, as mad villager after mad villager was scooped up from the streets, sometimes naked and raving, and delivered in straitjackets to the hospital where they complained of flowers blossoming from their bodies and snakes coiling in their stomachs. 500 people in total were affected; five died, two committed suicide. It was a rough night for the town.

And it was a night that was never fully explained until now. The village's symptoms disappeared just as quickly as they had presented and the incident entered the annals of mysterious history.

It appears that Abarelli is onto something. In addition to the Sandoz document, he also turned up two former Army LSD researchers who confirmed the story and a document that lists French nationals who were employed by the CIA for "the Pont St. Esprit incident," as the document calls it. There is no indication of why Pont-Saint-Esprit was chosen.

This is one of those rare mysteries where the true answer behind it turns out to actually pay off.

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