Friday, March 12, 2010

Notes on Ergot Poisoning: Red flowers were blossoming from their bodies

Sergei Sharov | The Temptations of St. Anthony | 1969

From The French bread spiked with LSD in CIA experiment

The mystery of Le Pain Maudit (Cursed Bread) still haunts the inhabitants of Pont-Saint-Esprit, in the Gard, southeast France.

On August 16, 1951, the inhabitants were suddenly racked with frightful hallucinations of terrifying beasts and fire.

One man tried to drown himself, screaming that his belly was being eaten by snakes. An 11-year-old tried to strangle his grandmother. Another man shouted: "I am a plane", before jumping out of a second-floor window, breaking his legs. He then got up and carried on for 50 yards. Another saw his heart escaping through his feet and begged a doctor to put it back. Many were taken to the local asylum in strait jackets.

Time magazine wrote at the time: "Among the stricken, delirium rose: patients thrashed wildly on their beds, screaming that red flowers were blossoming from their bodies, that their heads had turned to molten lead."

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From Wikipedia: France:

Les cinq hypothèses

Près de soixante ans après les évènements de Pont-Saint-Esprit, on ne sait toujours pas à quoi les attribuer. Cliniquement, les symptômes étaient ceux d'une forme mixte d'ergotisme ou « mal des ardents ».

  • L'hypothèse "ergot de seigle" : En 1951, le corps médical avait estimé que le « pain maudit » aurait pu être contaminé par de l'ergot de seigle (Claviceps purpurea), un champignon parasite des graminées. Mais ce diagnostic n'a jamais pu être prouvé.
  •  L'hypothèse "Panogen (r)" : On a aussi pensé à une intoxication par le dicyandiamide de métyl-mercure, un produit contenu dans un fongicide ("Panogen (r)") utilisé pour la conservation des grains ayant servi à faire la farine. La justice retient cette hypothèse, mais cette piste a fini par être abandonnée suite à une thèse en pharmacie soutenue en 1965. Elle est également mise en doute par Steven Kaplan.
  • L'hypothèse "mycotoxines" : En 1982, le Pr Moreau, toxicologue spécialiste des moisissures, a émis l'hypothèse que l'intoxication de Pont-Saint-Esprit aurait pu provenir de mycotoxines, substances produites par des moisissures pouvant se développer dans les silos à grain. Les effets toxiques des de mycotoxines sont aujourd'hui bien connus en médecine vétérinaire mais étaient quasiment inconnus en 1951.
  • L'hypothèse "agène" : Outre l'hypothèse des mycotoxines, Steven Kaplan retient celle d'un blanchiment artificiel du pain à l'aide d'un composé chimique pathogène : l'agène
  •  L'hypothèse "LSD 25" : Dans un livre publié aux États-Unis en octobre 2009 et traitant des opérations de la CIA durant la Guerre froide, le journaliste américain Hank P. Albarelli Jr. avance que la CIA aurait testé le LSD comme arme de guerre par pulvérisation aérienne sur la population spiripontaine. Dans son n°559 du 18 février 2010, l'hebdomadaire nîmois La Gazette fait état de cette thèse, suivi par d'autres médias. Les hallucinations qui accompagnent les convulsions de l'ergotisme sont similaires à celle déclenchées par le LSD (l'acide lysergique, base du LSD, est synthétisé à partir de l'ergot de seigle). La faille de cette hypothèse est que le LSD ne donne pas de troubles digestifs (nausées, brûlures d'estomac, vomissements).

From Shoa Planetaire:

Un journal français écrivait à l’époque des événements bizarres : « Ce n’est ni du Shakespeare, ni de l’Edgar Poe. C’est hélas la triste réalité tout autour de Pont-Saint-Esprit et de ses environs, où se déroulent des scènes d’hallucinations terrifiantes. Ce sont des scènes tout droit sorties du Moyen Âge, des scènes d’horreur et de pathos, pleines d’ombres sinistres. » Le magazine étasunien Time, dont l’éditeur Henry Luce était étroitement lié aux activités de propagande de la CIA dans les années 50, écrivait : « Parmi les affligés, grandissait le délire : les patients se débattaient sauvagement sur leur lit, en hurlant que des fleurs rouges s’épanouissaient sur leur corps, que leurs têtes se transformaient en plomb fondu. L’hôpital de Pont-Saint-Esprit a signalé quatre tentatives de suicide. »

From the informative and fascinating Ergot of Rye: History:

Due to the cold and wet years that occurred in 1348-50, in certain areas of Europe, grain crops, which were the staple for Europe at this time, were thought to have been contaminated with T-2 or related toxins that damaged the immune systems of both rats and humans. The damage to the immune systems of both rats and human is is believed to be one the contributing factors that led to the high mortality during the Bubonic Plague. However, other causes of depressed immune systems, other than fungal in origin, may also have occurred at this time.

When the greatest mortality due to the Bubonic Plague had passed, areas that were hard hit with the plague did not recover. This puzzled historians, although there were still some incidents of famine and diseases, after the plague, generally there was not a lack of food nor a great deal of disease since the populations in many areas had been drastically reduced by the plague. However, there was still a population depression even a generation after the plague, and longer . Populations in many areas had still not reached levels that were present before the plague. After the plague, the winters were unusually cold. This affected the diet of the poor more than the wealthy. In those years where the winters were cooler, Rye would be more likely to survive than wheat. This made it more likely that Rye would be consumed, and while the Rye survived the cold temperatures, the plants were traumatized and were more susceptible to infections by Ergot. Evidence that Ergot poisoning was occurring was based on reports of nervous system disorders. In summer of 1355, there was an epidemic of “madness” in England. People believed that they saw demons. In 1374, a wet year, marked by a lack of food, there was an outbreak of hallucinations, convulsions and compulsive dancing in the Rhineland. Some people imagined they were drowning in a stream of blood. In addition to nervous system disorders such as those described above, Ergot poisoning is also known to reduce fertility and cause spontaneous abortions. With the greater consumption of Rye, coupled with consumption of grains infected with T-2 and related mycotoxin that is believed to have shortened the consumer's life span by compromising their immune system, were possibly the reason for the population depression during this period of time. It would not be until almost the 15th. Century that an upward trend in population would begin. [...]

Ergotism occurred in 1926-27 in Russia, with 10,000 reported cases, in England in 1927, with 200 cases, among central European Jewish immigrants and the last known example occurred on August 12, 1951. On that day, Jean Vieu, a medical doctor in the little town of Pont-St. Esprit, in Provence, France, was the first to discover the outbreak while puzzling over two cases of patients who complained of intense pain in the lower abdomen. At first Dr. Vieu believed these cases to be acute appendicitis, but the symptoms that his patience exhibited were not those of this particular ailment. Instead, Some of these symptoms included low body temperatures and cold fingertips. Even stranger were the wild babbling and hallucinations. By August 13th., Dr. Vieu had a third patience with these symptoms. His concern of these patients led him to meet with two other colleagues and together, the three doctors had twenty patients with the symptoms just described.

By August 14th., the town's hospital was now filled with more patients with the same symptoms and 70 homes were required as emergency wards. When possible, victims were tied to their beds, those that escaped were running mad and frantic through the streets. All available strait jackets were rushed to the town to restrain the victims of this sickness. If there were any town's people of Pont-St.-Esprit that were not terrified by this time, they became so when they learned of a demented, eleven year old boy, who had tried to strangle his own mother. Paranoia soon spread throughout the town, rumors soon spread that this wave of dementia was due to a mass poisoning that had been carried out by the local authorities.

Meanwhile, the doctors, were working diligently to discover the cause of this dementia. That this was caused by some sort of food poisoning, they were certain. However, what had all these people consumed? The doctors searched the houses of the afflicted and found only one common food item. All the victims had consumed wheat bread from the same baker. Samples of the bread were taken and sent to Marseilles. When the results from the analysis of the bread samples were completed, tests indicated that it contained approximately twenty alkaloid poisons, and that they had all apparently came from the same source. The origin of the alkaloids was identified as those belonging to the fungus causing ergot of the rye plant.

It would be four more weeks before the whole story concerning the contamination of the bread would unfold. Beyond the Auvergne Mountains, where wheat is grown, an unethical farmer had apparently sold contaminated rye grain to a miller who had mixed it with wheat and grounded it into flower. The miller then shipped the flour to Pont-St.-Esprit, to the baker who was also collaborating with the farmer and miller. It was their greed that was responsible for over two hundred cases of alkaloid poisoning, thirty two cases of insanity and four deaths.

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From the 1951 article in The British Medical Journal: Ergot Poisoning at Pont St. Esprit (.pdf):

Logorrhoea, psychomotor agitation, and absolute insomnia always presaged the appearance of mental disorders. Towards evening visual hallucinations appeared, recalling those of alcoholism. The particular themes were visions of animals and of flames. All these visions were fleeting and variable. In many of the patients they were followed by dreamy delirium. The delirium seemed to be systematized, with animal hallucinations and self-accusation, and it was sometimes mystical or macabre. In some cases terrifying visions were followed by-fugues, and two patients even threw themselves out of windows. The delirium was of a confusional kind which could be interrupted for some moments by strong stimulation. Every attempt at restraint increased the agitation. In severe cases muscular spasms appeared, recalling those of tetanus,but seeming to be less sustained and less painful. During this stage, sweating was abundant, and the temperature somewhat raised. The duration of these periods of delirium was very varied. They lasted several hours in been treated and four cases of the latter. In some patients, in others they still persist.

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From the PBS Series: Secrets of the Dead: The Witches Curse:

When Linnda Caporael began nosing into the Salem witch trials as a college student in the early 1970s, she had no idea that a common grain fungus might be responsible for the terrible events of 1692. But then the pieces began to fall into place. Caporael, now a behavioral psychologist at New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, soon noticed a link between the strange symptoms reported by Salem's accusers, chiefly eight young women, and the hallucinogenic effects of drugs like LSD. LSD is a derivative of ergot, a fungus that affects rye grain. Ergotism -- ergot poisoning -- had indeed been implicated in other outbreaks of bizarre behavior, such as the one that afflicted the small French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit in 1951.

But could ergot actually have been the culprit? Did it have the means and the opportunity to wreak havoc in Salem? Caporael's sleuthing, with the help of science, provided the answers. 

Ergotism is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which affects rye, wheat and other cereal grasses. When first infected, the flowering head of a grain will spew out sweet, yellow-colored mucus, called "honey dew," which contains fungal spores that can spread the disease. Eventually, the fungus invades the developing kernels of grain, taking them over with a network of filaments that turn the grains into purplish-black sclerotia. Sclerotia can be mistaken for large, discolored grains of rye. Within them are potent chemicals: ergot alkaloids, including lysergic acid (from which LSD is made) and ergotamine (now used to treat migraine headaches). The alkaloids affect the central nervous system and cause the contraction of smooth muscle -- the muscles that make up the walls of veins and arteries, as well as the internal organs.

Toxicologists now know that eating ergot-contaminated food can lead to a convulsive disorder characterized by violent muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations, crawling sensations on the skin, and a host of other symptoms -- all of which, Linnda Caporael noted, are present in the records of the Salem witchcraft trials. Ergot thrives in warm, damp, rainy springs and summers. When Caporael examined the diaries of Salem residents, she found that those exact conditions had been present in 1691. Nearly all of the accusers lived in the western section of Salem village, a region of swampy meadows that would have been prime breeding ground for the fungus. At that time, rye was the staple grain of Salem. The rye crop consumed in the winter of 1691-1692 -- when the first unusual symptoms began to be reported -- could easily have been contaminated by large quantities of ergot. The summer of 1692, however, was dry, which could explain the abrupt end of the "bewitchments." These and other clues built up into a circumstantial case against ergot that Caporael found impossible to ignore. 

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From the New York Times, October 22, 1998:

DELAIN, France, Oct. 21 - An exorcist has been called in to rid the Delain village church of devils, which he said had sent candlesticks flying, forcing ecclesiastical authorities to close the building until further notice.

The exorcist, the Rev. Max de Wasseige, who was called in by the Archbishop of Besancon to drive out the devils, said, ''I saw candlesticks flying about with my own eyes.''

The trouble began last Thursday in this village in eastern France when volunteers moved the altar by a few inches to make more space for a visiting symphony orchestra.

Witnesses said afterward that a candle went flying, splitting in two, and that statuettes and vases were broken inexplicably. Also the altar was moved by four inches, apparently unaided.

The Mayor of Delain, Thierry Marceaux, said, ''There was no collective hallucination, or 50 people will have to be sent to the lunatic asylum.''

He said that the orchestra gave its concert normally on Sunday, but that the devils resumed their work on Monday, even though the altar had been put back in its place.

The Roman Catholic Church, like many Christian churches, teaches that the Devil is real and evil spirits exist. But modern theologians have been playing down Satan's influence as they have accepted psychological and psychiatric explanations of abnormal behavior.

Niklaus Manuel | Temptation of Saint Anthony | 1520

Thanks to Tiffany for the lead.


Danny said...

Could Ergot have anything to do with the two Swedish twin sisters who recently threw themselves into motorway traffic repeatedly and then murdered a stranger in the UK? They tested negative for drug use but would a fungal intoxication be revealed in the same tests?

Danny said...

Could Ergot have anything to do with the two Swedish twin sisters who recently threw themselves into motorway traffic repeatedly and then murdered a stranger in the UK? They tested negative for drug use but would a fungal intoxication be revealed in the same tests?