The photo of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger revisiting Alcatraz with girl-friend-on-the-lamb Catherine Grieg is pure Disney Land – jail house striped costumes seen through steel bars, he with ball and chain, she holding mug with logo. Bulger claimed to have ‘fond memories’ of the infamous prison he toured in 1995 only weeks into his 16 year run from the law.
The warm feelings seem strange in light of stories he endured years of MKUltra LSD experiments there. The story location is wrong, a product of sloppy reporting.
Before landing his near decade stint at ‘The Rock,’ Bulger did three years at United States Penitentiary, Atlanta. During that truck hijacking and bank robbery bid, he agreed to play guinea pig in exchange for a sentence break. His CIA mind control program handlers lied to him, never delivering on reduced time. Soon thereafter, a doctor Bulger would later nickname ‘Mengele’ – after the concentration camp butcher – administered the first of many LSD doses.
Bulger was in good company. The 149 sub-projects of MKUltra, spanning 80 institutions are credited with dosing famous author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest), unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, Timothy Leary and Dr. W. Henry Wall Sr. – Wall’s son wrote a comprehensive book revealing LSD induced torments endured by his dentist-turned-pain-pill-addict/prisoner dad at the very same Atlanta lock-up.
At the start of the experiment, Bulger was optimistic. His neatly scribed diary recalled excitement at doing some good, but the cover story of treating schizophrenia quickly gave way to nightmare. CIA Scientific Intelligence Division goals included manipulating mental states to fracture personalities. At the low end of the evil scale, they sought to induce pliability, but unlucky subjects might be given higher and higher doses for unending days until psychosis and insanity presented.
LSD, technically an entheogen – ‘generating the divine within’ – had not yet achieved its reputation as route to instant godhead. The 1950s pre Summer of Love version, Delysid, was marketed by Sandoz as psychiatric medicine. Injections of the colorless, odorless liquid took effect within 30 minutes.
The drug’s history begins with Ergot fungus infected Rye. Ingesting the tainted cereal induces fatal neurotoxic poisoning likely responsible for medieval witch trials – those affected endured sleepless days of euphoric hallucination, vomiting and diarrhea. Gangrene appeared on hands and feet as the poison constricted peripheral blood flow and nerves. Victims would ‘bug out’ from the resulting crawling sensation. By standards of the day, the prancing, delusional villagers were possessed by demons, their close family or friends bewitchers, and the rest is history.
Back to this century: At Sandoz Labs, Dr. Albert Hoffman derived LSD-25 from ergotamine in his search for medicinal plant based medications – pure pharmaceutical research. Hoffman’s accidental self dosing, followed 3 days after by experimental self medication confirmed the dramatic psychological effects of the drug. It was 1943.
Just over a decade later, Whitey Bulger had prisoner’s luck to come under MKUltra’s thumb. Before the experiments ended, he would admit to “a morbid fear of LSD.” Compared to his offenses, “I feel they committed a worse crime on me” he later wrote.
“I feel they committed a worse crime on me.”
Bulger endured many common LSD sensory distortions – affronts to his sanity he kept to himself. Visions of his “head chang[ing] shape” were solved by looking in the mirror to confirm reality. Throughout the experiment, he feared the vivid hallucinations would land him in an asylum.
Even as a free man, both real and imagined after effects haunted him. Long sleeved shirts were worn to bed because bare arms “made [him] nervous.” Flashbacks of imaginary light shafts piercing otherwise darkened rooms produced unfounded fear of chromosome damage. The rumored if untrue LSD consequence fueled anxiety over his wife’s desire for children.
We’re left with a picture of a hardened man capable of confronting his fears – at least to himself in diary. Clearly, Alcatraz or anywhere else was better than surrendered sanity in Atlanta. Fond memories of ‘The Rock’ come into perspective. More details aren’t likely to arise. By 1973, all MKUltra files had been ordered burned, effectively closing the books on a sordid chapter in American intelligence.
For more in-depth perspective on LSD’s birth and perceptual effects, you may want to read these excerpts from discoverer Albert Hoffman’s writings in ‘LSD -My Problem Child.’