Pont-Saint-Esprit and the Strange Affair at Woodstock
THIS is the Marlborough Arms, at Woodstock, near Oxford. An old coaching inn, nowadays spruced up and advertising its grills. No, I've not decided to turn this blog into a pub and restaurant review, and nor is this respectable establishment in the news.
Betty in Pont St.Esprit, 1952.
It was 60 years ago that the Marlborough was the scene of strange occurrences. The landlord back then was himself an unusual character. Lancashire-born Dr.Donald McIntosh Johnson had worked as a GP in Thornton Heath, Croydon, and abroad, when he decided in 1936 that he wanted to run a licensed hotel.
Between catering for locals, the county set, coach parties and the racing crowd, he found time to stand as a Liberal candidate for parliament, and was quite undeservedly smeared as a "Red" when he took an anti-Appeasement stand.
During the war, while the Marlborough was invaded by upper-class idlers avoiding the London Blitz, Dr. Johnson was found work as a Military Medical Liaison Officer. As Captain Johnson he stood as Independent in Chippenham, Wilts, coming third.
Before he took over the Marlborough Arms, Johnson had made a holiday trip to Moscow with his wife Chris, in June 1936. While there they met a young "Mr.Jones" from the American embassy, who expressed decidedly fascist sympathies. This turned out to be Tyler Kent, later transferred to London, where he joined the Right Club, led by Tory MP Archibald Maule Ramsay, and was convicted of espionage for stealing documents from the embassy.
During his wartime political wanderings Donald Johnson was briefly in contact with Tom Wintringham, ex-International Brigade commander, and founder of the Commonwealth party. Later, Frank Pakenham tried to draw him to the Labour Party. But Johnson's course was to the right-wing of the Liberal Party, looking for an alliance with Tories, opposing the National Health Service, and being a founder of what became the Society for Individual Freedom. He gave up the pub and became Tory MP for Carlisle in 1954.
None of which helps explain the incident described in his book "Bars and Barricades", in the chapter headed "A Psychotic Episode". On October 7, 1950, Johnson had a sort of mental breakdown, possibly brought on by worries about the hotel, with staff deserting to a rival establishment. But it took a peculiar form. He became convinced that the bedroom was bugged, and his mail was being intercepted. The odd thing was that his second wife, Betty had the same feeling. It got worse. Betty was convinced the laughing cavalier in the picture on the wall was winking at her. Eventually they were taken to Warneford hospital.
Johnson after being troubled with "sexual imaginings of the bawdiest and most intimate kind", began to think he was in gaol "a prisoner in the Cold war" . Unsure whether those holding him were criminals or Communists, he feared he was going to be killed. From this anxiety he next passed to thinking that "Some powerful secret organisation -maybe it was MI5, maybe it was some organisation more powerful still -had taken me in here from the ken of the world at large for some special dedicated reason".
He was going to be sent to Central Asia, and all the other folk in the ward were to be his picked companions, though cunningly disguised inmates of a mental ward. His imagination continued. He was being groomed to become Britain's representative at the UN, or Princess Margaret's husband (no accounting for fantasies).
Eventually, Betty came to see him.
"Hello, sweetheart, you're not insane."
"I know, " I said, "I'm doped."
"Sh-sh. Don't say that here. They'll keep you here for ever"
He began to get better, to co-operate with his medical attendants, and after six weeks was released.
In January 1952, Johnson and Betty went to Pont St.Esprit in France. This is the famous town where people suffered a mass outbreak of mental illness on August 16, 1951, with people having hallucinations, jumping from windows, trying to kill family members, or just thrashing about helplessly on their beds. Several people died, and others were injured, or had to be taken to mental asylums.
There had been cases like this back in the Middle Ages. They might have been attributed to witchcraft or the devil, but there is a more material explanation. Ergot is a fungus disease affecting grains, particularly rye. Ergotism, its poisonous affect on the central nervous system. The Johnsons met a doctor who had treated the people in Pont St.Esprit. All of them had eaten bread from the same baker. It seemed that in a time of shortage and austerity he had mixed some rye flour into his dough, not realising it was infected. This has been the explanation accepted till now for the Pont St.Esprit outbreak.
Yet Dr. Johnson became convinced that he and Betty had been poisoned, by persons unknown, and that the cause of his troubles was cannabis, or "Indian Hemp". He wrote about the evils of this drug, and later he asked questions in parliament about criminals from the United States who might be bringing it to Britain.
This may seem odd, because there is a drug that closely resembles ergot chemically and in its possible effects. But then back in the 1950s, Lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD, or 'Acid', was yet far from being the well-known 'recreational' drug it was to become when promoted by Timothy Leary and others a decade or so later.
It was known however. First synthesized from ergot by Dr.Albert Hoffman, in Switzerland, in 1938, and developed by the Sandoz laboratories, it was tried on children with epilepsy after the war, and sold to US institutions for psychiatric research. In 1952, a Dr. Sandison began trying it on psychiatric patients at the Powick hospital in Worcestershire.
The previous year, the US government had agreed to purchase LSD from Sandoz, on condition the company would not supply communist countries. This was not about possible therapeutic uses. The US army and the CIA were interested in its possible use in chemical warfare (for instance if it could be added to food or water supplies) or in brainwashing and interrogation techniques. Experiments were made on unwitting GIs and other guinea pigs.
Were there other experiments? Yes, a quite big one, if we are to believe a story published recently in the Daily Telegraph:
"French bread spiked with LSD in CIA experiment", said the report bylined Henry Samuel in Paris, on March 11.
'A 50-year mystery over the 'cursed bread' of Pont-Saint-Esprit, which left residents suffering hallucinations, has been solved after a writer discovered the US had spiked the bread with LSD as part of an experiment'.
The Telegraph report is based on a book by American journalist H.P. Alborelli, and its story is not entirely new nor as yet confirmed. But its publication in a relatively serious Conservative newspaper has been the cue for a lot of comment, and the French government has reportedly asked for an official statement from Washington. After all, you are not really supposed to try your chemicals on citizens of a friendly ally, and with fatal results.
This makes me wonder whether any similar experiments were carried out in Britain, and perhaps if Donald McIntosh Johnson and his partner Betty could have been picked by chance by someone wanting to experiment with the drug. Why them? Well, come to that, why Pont Saint Esprit?
And here is Abirelli on Pont St.Esprit and Olsen case: