Was idyllic French village driven crazy by LSD in a secret American mind experiment?
For centuries, nothing much happened in Pont-Saint-Esprit, a sleepy village in southern France. Perched on the banks of the River Rhone, people lived there much as they had done since Medieval times.
Indeed, throughout the great dramas of the past 100 years, peasant farmers toiled in the fields while housewives browsed for cheeses, bread and other local produce at the village market.
But then, one rainy Saturday in August 1951, life imploded for the good people of Pont-Saint-Esprit. That was the day that insanity came to call - bringing bedlam, bloodshed and worldwide infamy with it.
Without warning, local people - young and old, male and female - went mad. En masse.
Some ran screaming through the narrow, cobbled streets, crying out that terrible, flesh-eating demons were in hot pursuit. Others, wild-eyed and clearly deranged, jabbered that their brains had turned to molten lead and their internal organs were flowing, ablaze, from their ears.
One man leapt from a high window in the main street, shouting 'I'm an aeroplane', before plunging to the ground with his arms outstretched.
Despite breaking his legs in the fall, the man got to his feet and staggered for 50 yards - pursued by a mob of madmen and women - before collapsing in a pool of blood.
Small boys tried to strangle their mothers. One man tried to cut open his chest with a butcher's knife, saying he had to 'let his heart free'.
Gabriel Validire, a local stonemason, gabbled to his wife: 'I'm dead! My head is copper! I've snakes in my stomach!'
Throughout the night, across the rooftops and spires of the old town, local people howled and begged for mercy, saying they were being attacked by strange, multi-coloured wild animals.
Even the dogs, cats and chickens went berserk and careered through the streets, while other animals foamed at the mouth and perished after uncontrollable convulsions.
The next morning, Dr Giraud Gabbai, the town's doctor, described it as a time of 'pure madness' - scenes of lunacy and death that wouldn't have been out of place in Bosch's The Last Judgement.
When shocked gendarmes rushed from surrounding towns to restore order, the casualty list was grim. 'Small boys tried to strangle their mothers'
At least five people had died and virtually every family in the village, which numbered 4,000 inhabitants, was affected by lunacy.
Hundreds of the afflicted had to be captured, cowering and whimpering, by police armed with nets usually used to round up stray dogs.
The local asylums were soon overflowing with townsfolk, many of whom needed to be strapped to beds or put in straitjackets.
Their minds forever shattered, some of those who were taken away would never emerge from the asylums, and were subjected to years of electroshock therapy to try to cure them.
With the deranged locked safely away, top detectives and forensic scientists from all over France descended on the village.
With the world gripped by reports of this outbreak of madness, in the classic fashion, investigators decided it was the baker that did it.
To his enduring shame, Roch Briand, who ran the most famous boulangerie in the village, was blamed for using contaminated rye flour bought from a government-controlled mill 300 miles away in Poitiers.
According to investigators, the flour had been contaminated by a fungus that was almost identical to synthetic lysergic acid diethylamide - better known as LSD, or acid - the hallucinogenic drug that fuelled the psychedelic hippy movement of the Sixties.
Known as ergot poisoning or Saint Anthony's fire, the effects of contaminated rye had been blamed for driving other populations mad in previous centuries. Dr Sidney Gottlieb
Dr Sidney Gottlieb, former head of the CIA's mind control project
Indeed, the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692, which saw women and children hung for saying they could see demons in hallucinations, were said to have resulted from ergot poisoning from damp rye flour.
Less than a month after the outbreak of the French madness, the British Medical Journal concluded that it was, indeed, the ageold curse of the baker that was to blame - saying that it immediately 'brings to mind the old name of the disease: ergotism'.
And so poor Monsieur Briand took the blame, ending his life penniless and disgraced.
Renowned medical journals referred to the case over the years as being the most striking example of ergot poisoning in modern times. Case closed.
Or so it seemed. Not any longer. According to a new book, the people of Pont-Saint-Esprit were not simply victims of what became known as du pain maudit - bad bread.
Instead, it seems they were targeted by a top secret, U.S. government programme to test new drugs as potential weapons against enemy populations. New evidence suggests that the bread was deliberately infected with LSD as part of a covert operation mounted by MKULTRA, a shadowy operation run by a renegade, alcoholic intelligence agent called Sidney Gottlieb.
Known as the Black Sorcerer, Gottlieb - whose favourite hobby was stomping round nightclub dance floors despite being born with a club foot - was an American military chemist put in charge of the U.S. government's secret mind control programme, which involved using drugs to kill and disable the enemy.
Obsessed with the potential of LSD, which had been synthesised from ergot fungus in 1943, Gottlieb once even plotted to have Cuban dictator Fidel Castro poisoned with the drug, hoping it would drive him mad.
As well as targeting U.S. enemies, he secretly tested drugs on prostitutes, university students and Vietnamese prisoners of war. Anyone was a potential guinea pig for his mad schemes.
'I want to learn how to control the mind - and destroy it if need be,' Gottlieb said at the time, arguing that LSD was a potent weapon to weaken enemy targets.
Fearing LSD could fall into Soviet hands, Gottlieb ordered that doses of the drug be bought by his unit - and set about using it on targets.
Having tested the drug himself, Gottlieb knew it could produce sensations ranging from kaleidoscopicvisions to temporary insanity. So where's the proof that the Black Sorcerer targeted the village of Pont-Saint-Esprit?
Certainly, Gottlieb would have had no moral qualms about poisoning innocent people: he even set up his own brothel, paid for by CIA funds, where clients were secretly drugged so he could 'study the effects' of LSD on sexual behaviour.
Hank Albarelli, an investigative journalist and author, battled for years to obtain classified CIA documents about the death of Frank Olson, a member of Gottlieb's unit, who reputedly committed suicide - but was long suspected of being murdered after threatening to blow the whistle on their activities. 'An operation run by a renegade, alcoholic agent'
Albarelli kept stumbling across CIA documents relating to 'the secret of Pont-Saint-Esprit' - a place he had never heard of.
Sources came forward with more documents, including coded White House papers ordering that the 'Pont-Saint-Esprit incident' be kept under wraps.
'It seems like a crazy idea,' said Albarelli. 'If someone came to you and said a CIA unit were going to poison a French town with acid, you'd laugh at them. But that's what happened - no question.'
Of course, the absolute truth about du pain maudit may never be known for sure.
But it does seem likely that the Black Sorcerer, who died in 1999, had a hand in the terrible events - otherwise, why would it be in secret CIA files?
It would also explain why ergotism - a disease all but eradicated from Europe centuries ago - is such an unlikely explanation for a relatively modern episode.
Blaming the baker is just too convenient, considering that other bakers were also supplied with flour from the mill in Poitiers, but their loaves carried no hallucinogenic drugs - though sceptics of the other theory say the contaminated batch was found only in the barrel supplied to Monsieur Briand.
As one expert said: 'Even if Gottlieb wasn't involved, he'd wish he had been.
'The chance to drive a whole bunch of Frenchman crazy with drugs would have been a dream for him. He was a classic evil genius. He'll be laughing about it - in Hell.'
For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.