The Tooth of the Wolf

On November 16, 1943, in the Sandoz Laboratories in Bassel, Switzerland, Albert Hoffman resynthesized lysergic acid diethylamide from ergot fungus. He was perhaps searching for vasoconstrictors, for pain relievers, for blood medicines to stop hemorrhages. Perhaps for something more sinister. “Was habe ich gemacht?” he asked when the chemistry was completed, holding a beaker of clear liquid to the light. He made a note in the small lab book he kept in his shirt pocket, and drew a few micrograms of the new liquid from the beaker with a thin glass pipette. “What have I made,” he asked, and placed the pipette to his tongue.

In 1095 in La Motte St. Didier, the nobleman Gaston of Valloire founded the order of monks known as the Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony after relics of St. Anthony cured his son of ergotism or holy fire—the inexplicable curse of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, then pain and contortion of the limbs, burning and madness. One’s hands and feet curl in, as if recoiling from fire. Then sores—boils and blackenings. Gangrene and the smell of flesh, rotten and atrophying. The smell of death. And the visions. People with wolf heads instead of faces. The dead walking around, their small bones visible, their guts digesting themselves. Dogs with two heads, and teeth with eyes. Insects, everywhere, the walls, the bedclothes, bugs imagined and real, consuming one’s consumed flesh. Later, often death.

Gaston of Valloire gave away all his land and gold to found the order, his linen raiment and his furs. He shaved his head with a rough knife, took on the coarse wool cloak and tunic, knelt on the cold floor of a drafty stone room and thanked God and St. Anthony for blessing him and saving his son, and prayed that God might show him how to bless others. His son, Gaston Cadet, fully recovered and wished his father had not given so much away.

In 1676 the Parisian physician Denis Dodart first hypothesized the connection between the ergot fungus on wheat crops and barley and the plague of St. Anthony’s Fire in a letter to the French Royal Academy of Sciences. Ergot fungus grows on wheat, barley, rye, and in wet times, or on crops stored in the damp, the fungus grows and spreads. Dodart hypothesized that bread made with ergotized flour became cursed, Le Pain Maudit, sending people into fits of burning and hallucination. To test his hypothesis, Dodart did not eat the bread himself, but fed it to the farmers at his country estate and tracked their symptoms and signs as they ran in circles crying, as they swatted at the nothings in the air, as they screamed at wolves and soldiers and monsters of all manner—devils with wings like flayed skin perching on fence posts, or demons with hundreds of heads and long black tongues sprouting from the ground. Dodart reported his findings very thoroughly in his letter to the Royal Academy, but mostly was ignored.

In the fall of 1688, in Boston, Massachusetts, John Corwin’s Irish slave Anne Glover, who was bought and sold first as a baby in Ireland and then a child in Barbados and finally came as a house girl to Boston, turned 38 and discovered she was pregnant by her master. She did not tell John Corwin, whose habit was to visit her in the mornings before his wife awoke, who took her on the floor in front of the stove, all the while saying sweet words to her she did not understand, who deposited seed in Anne Glover she washed from between her legs over the laundry vat soon after. The harvest had been thin throughout New England, and the autumn long and damp. Another woman she had known from home, where the weather was always damp and the barley always moldy, told her that a bread made from ergot rye would bring on her curse, release her monthly flow, remove John Corwin’s baby. She baked the bread, ate half a loaf herself, fell blind, had spasms, bled from the womb. Corwin’s wife and three young daughters ate the other half of the loaf, similarly fell blind and into spasms, and knew not what afflicted them. John Corwin would not eat the bread, for he hated rye, and saw his family fall victim to the demonic affliction, and knew its demonic origin. On November 16, 1688, Anne Glover and a cat were hanged for witchcraft in the center of Boston.

On August 16th, 1951, all 250 residents of Pont Saint Esprit in the south of France were suddenly wracked with violent hallucinations. Along the medieval city walls, wolves prowled, their fur covered in blood. On the bridge across the Rhone, the people saw a thousand, thousand beak-less birds, and ghosts on horseback. From the water, fish spoke to them of impending doom, of a catastrophic atomic future, and of heartbreak known only to river trout. Cats drank wine from basketed bottles on the river banks, ignoring the commotion, waving away the gnats with lace trimmed fans. The people of Pont Saint Esprit cried and were confused. They pulled at their hair, screamed, ran for comfort to their screaming and hallucinating neighbors. Thirty-two never recovered. Seven people died, most by their own hand. But by the 17th of August, the hallucinations had ended. Cursed bread, said the local gendarme.

No one noticed that Sandoz Laboratories had quietly opened an outpost in the old bread factory in town, or that men with clipboards appeared the day of the madness, carefully recording the townspeople’s reactions.

In the fall of 1788, wheat crops failed in France. By the summer of 1789, people were starving, and forced to eat the bad wheat, the spoiled wheat, the ergot and the chaff. On July 17 1789, three days after the Bastille prison was stormed and destroyed, peasants across France, hallucinating and in pain, rioted. They were afraid, eyeing the hungry dogs in the corners and talking rats, with the world swirling and walking on impossible feet. They crawled to the walls of the palaces. They beat the gates with their numb and burning hands. In Paris, parliament met and voted itself more powerful. In Paris, the powerful men who would never have to eat molded barley or rye because they got the finest soft white flour for their bread and sweetest cream for their butter, voted to execute a king. In the countryside, the starving, hallucinating people waited for the wolves and the country fell to war.

On the floor of his lab in Bassel in 1943, Albert Hoffman watched the effects of his new creation. No burning. No pain. A pleasant kaleidoscope of colors and impossible visions. He lay in his lab on the floor, staring up the plaster ceiling, watching fairies dance, and flowers swirl and the faces of those he’d loved but forgotten about lean out of the plaster to bless him. “Segne dich, Albert,” they said, their pale faces leaning down to kiss him. “Bless you,” said the plaster angels floating down from the ceiling. I have found a blessing, thought Albert. He got off the floor. Seven hours had passed and his colleagues would soon be in, wondering about his results. Outside, armies marched across Europe and crushed and burnt and ravaged. He took out his small notebook from his shirt pocket, tasted the graphite tip of his pencil with his tongue. Outside wolves gnashed their teeth and feasted.  

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