When the Bread of Life Kills: Ergotism

On September 5, 1951, Janet Flanner — who wrote for The New Yorker under the name of Genêt — related a story in her Paris Journal 1944 – 1965 that seemed to come from a medieval morality play.

Pont St.-Esprit,  a  small village near Avignon and the ancestral home of Jackie Kennedy’s grandfather, woke up to a bright summer morning on August 17, 1951, little knowing the day would end with people tearing berserk through the streets, hallucinating for reasons that are still a little bit unclear today, nearly sixty years later.

Flanner blamed ergotism (otherwise known as St. Anthony’s Fire), which she interestingly called “that little black abortion on grain heads that comes in wet weather … .” Bread bought from the best bakery in the village, Briand’s, carried the lethal spores, seemed to be the culprit.

Cortège in Pont St.-Esprit

Four people died, thirty-one went insane, two-hundred of their compatriots made ill. And their pet cats and dogs suffered fits, too. So did ducks that ate bread crumbs that fell to the ground or were tossed their way.

Claviceps purpurea. A France-loving fungi, as history shows, is ergot.

Ergot on rye, although it also affects other grains like wheat and barley.

Ergot mold magnified, showing mushroom-shaped fruiting bodies.

Two types of ergotism affect humans: nervous system-related (convulsive and hallucinogenic) and gangrenous.

To be continued …

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

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