What do you do when you find a bluish lump of fungus previously unknown to science, growing in your petri dish? If you’re Steven Pollock, you eat it, call your friend, and tell him you’ve discovered the one thing that’s eluded men of obscurity for millennia. I am talking of course about the philosopher’s stone—key to the universe—elixir of life—the ultimate essence of all things. In suburban San Antonio of all places. But there’s one quality the Ancients forgot—it gets you really, really high.1
On first blush, mad scientists and mushrooms don’t appear to have much in common. Mad scientists are reason’s burnt offering to the gods of insanity—twisted caricatures of own hubris, doomed eternally to hollows of our brains.
Mushrooms are a tasty food.
But there is a darkness within the mushroom. An evil that, if left unchecked, can consume the very person that tries to eat it.
Yes they may look cute all bunched up in the produce aisle. But don’t be a fool. The wrong mushroom can kill you. Once you’re dead, others still feast off your flesh. They can warp your mind into insanity. And, in the case of 1970s physician and mycologist Steven Pollock—they can even get you murdered.2
Interviewer: Are you really seriously suggesting that Jesus Christ was a mushroom?
John Allegro: Yes
What’s a mycologist? You ask slack-jawed. Loosely put, mycologists study fungi. I say loosely because fungi have found their way into literally every realm of human experience. From pretentious Italian cookery to cancer treatment in canines to obscure tribal ritual, you’d be hard pressed to find anything that mycologists don’t stick their noses in. Noses which, like most parts of the human body, are covered in hungrily munching fungal colonies.3
You might be surprised to know that much of what we cherish and hold dear are in fact mushrooms. Ethnomycologist James Arthur has boldly declared that Santa Claus is a mushroom clad stoned shaman from Siberia.4 John Allegro argues that Jesus Christ himself, despite appearances, was in fact a mushroom sacrament, ingested by a secret Judaic fertility cult whose scripture inadvertently gave rise to modern Christianity.5
Pollock believed that many modern medical treatments could effectively be replaced by mushrooms, psychedelic mushrooms to be precise.6 While his facial hair suggests a nudist colony off the Puget Sound, or maybe even an obscure Ben and Jerry’s flavor made with beard chunks and thick-rimmed glasses, the San Antonio based doctor had his sights set firmly on the mainstream medical establishment.
By the late 70s, natural medicine was quickly going mainstream, and there are few natural medical compounds more psychoactive than psilocybin, shroom’s active ingredient.
With medical marijuana gaining a grudging legal acceptance, Pollock believed it was only a matter of time before Uncle Sam would wise up to the benefits of medical mushrooms. And when he did, the doctor would be first to the party, satchel of Psilocybin ℞ in one hand, a bestselling hardcover in the other.
He wrote extensively in publications like the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs on the potential of shrooms to treat illness and improve overall life quality.6,7,8 And yes the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs is a real scientific journal—you have to respect a publication that lets a sentence like, “I felt as if I were perceiving stimuli traveling through multifocal space warps,”9 go to print.
At the same time, Pollock drew up plans for a multimillion dollar mushroom research center to conduct his own clinical studies.1 A facility that he hoped to finance, naturally, with magic mushrooms.1
Under the name Hidden Creek, “the magic mushroom people who are forever keeping your mind in mind,” Pollock sold ready-made magic mushroom grow kits in the back pages of High Times.10 His unrivaled cultivation skills and bizarre marketing acumen gave magazine readers such evocative products as Hawaiian Cyan, The Cosmic Camote, and Penis Envy (the latter bred specifically to look like a penis).10, 11
Our dates were spent shaking mushroom jars early into the morning, and the sex was often interrupted by technical raps about mushrooms.
The whole thing was actually legit. Magic mushroom spores don’t contain any psychoactive compounds, so not technically illegal to sell them. Of course, you’ll need plenty of mushrooms to create the spores. Which explains why Pollock had, according to one source, “the world’s largest collection of psychedelic mushrooms.”2 After his murder police seized 1,758 jars of mushrooms and growing mediums from his modest ranch-style suburban home.2
Hidden Creek was a considerable success,1 thanks largely to Pollock’s relentless obsession. According to his girlfriend, “We hardly ever went out…Our dates were spent shaking mushroom jars early into the morning, and the sex was often interrupted by technical raps about mushrooms.”2
But still, grow kits weren’t raising the kind of money needed to finance Pollock’s vision. So the good doctor turned to the next best thing—selling narcotic prescriptions for cash out of his home.2
Now here’s where things get really hairy. It seems Pollock’s erratic behavior was quickly pissing off a whole lot of people. Friends and colleagues broke contact.1 Five separate government agencies took an interest in his activities.2 And it didn’t help that he started a cannabis plantation, prescribed Dexedrine to two undercover cops, and purchased a pharmacy to fill his own ‘scrips.1
What we do is that Steven Pollock was shot dead “execution style” in his house on January 31st, 1981.2
I won’t go into the details of Pollock’s brutal murder, which to this day remains a mystery. Was it just a simple robbery as police claim? Or was it a clandestine coup aimed to keep psychedelics out of the medical establishment. You can check out Hamilton Morris’s excellent article in Harpers for more info on the crime itself. Suffice to say there’s enough conspiracy to make your propeller beanie whiz uncontrollably in alarm, with unsubstantiated rumors and hearsay stretching all the way up to the big Texan himself—Ross Perot.1
“Had Steve worn a tie, had short hair, worked under a government grant at Harvard and sold prescriptions to suburbanites,” colleague Kenneth Blum attests, “He would still be alive today.”2 If so, would Pollock’s dream of a mushroom stocked pharmacy on every main street have come to pass?
Thirty-plus years later, and medicinal magic mushrooms still just sound funny, despite psilocybin’s promise in the treatment of anything from obsessive compulsive disorder, to cigarette addition, to headaches. But Pollock’s philosopher’s stone fungus (P. Tampenensis)11 lives on, in the Netherlands of all places, where thanks to a legal loophole it is widely sold under the less arcane moniker, Magic Truffles.1
True mad science after all is never eradicated. Just when you think history has blotted out any last trace, it pops up in the shelves of an Amsterdam smart shop.
1. Morris, M. (2013, July). Blood spore: Of murder and mushrooms. Harper’s Magazine, 41 – 56. Retrieved from: http://harpers.org/archive/2013/07/blood-spore/
2. Fellner, M. (1980). ’Shroom king slain in his San Antonio home. High Times.
3. Krom, B. P., Kidwai, S., ten Cate, J. M. (2014). Candida and other fungal species: Forgotten players of healthy oral microbiota. Journal of Dental Research, 93(5), 445 – 451.
4. Arthur, J. (2003). Mushrooms and mankind: The impact of mushrooms on human consciousness and religion. San Diego, California: The Book Tree.
5. Allegro, J. M. (1970). The sacred mushroom and the cross. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.
6. Pollock, S. H. (1976). Psilocybin mycetismus with a special reference to the Panaeolus. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, 8(1), 43 – 57.
7. Pollock, S. H. (1975). The Psilocybin Mushroom Pandemic. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, 7(1), 73 – 84.
8. Pollock, S. H. (1976). Liberty caps: Recreational hallucinogenic mushrooms. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 1(6), 445 – 447.
9. Pollock, S. H. (1974). A case study from Hawaii. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, 6(1), 85 – 89.
10. Hidden Creek [advertisement]. (1979). High Times. Retrieved From: http://www.mushroomjohn.org/cult150.html
11. Morris, M. (2009). A nice, thick, uncut, 12-inch shroom. Vice Magazine, 16(2). Retrieved from: http://www.vice.com/print/12-inch-shroom-603-v16n2
12. Guzmán, G., & Pollock, S. H. (1978). A new bluing species of psilocybe from Florida, U.S.A. Mycotaxon, 7(2), 373 – 376.