Mushroom Madness Journalist Hamilton Morris tells us the story of how one man's monomaniacal quest to become the world's greatest mycologist takes him down a path of intrigue, murder and mushrooms.

Mushroom Madness

Mushroom Madness

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Journalist Hamilton Morris tells us the story of how one man's monomaniacal quest to become the world's greatest mycologist takes him down a path of intrigue, murder and mushrooms.

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, the "You Don't Know Me" episode. Today we're exploring the difficulties in getting across the real you, for both admirers and detractors, who you are and why they can't understand. And for our next story, for reasons that will become plain very soon, a subject is very hard to get to know. Please note that this story references illegal drugs. But don't worry, this is public radio. SNAP's Stephanie Foo speaks to Hamilton Morris.

STEPHANIE FOO, BYLINE: The evening of January 31, 1981, should have been a regular night for Steven Pollock. He was a doctor and just had a long day of seeing patients in his San Antonio clinic. But he was late coming back for dinner, and his girlfriend, Mitzi, was worried.

HAMILTON MORRIS: She'd called his office multiple times. He'd never picked up the phone. So she brought the dinner that she'd cooked for them over to his office. When she got to the door, she found that it was locked. Pollock never locked his door, so immediately she knew something was wrong. And when she looked through the window, she could see the walls were splattered with blood and that Pollock had been shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

FOO: Who killed Pollock? Nobody knew. And that there, the guy explaining Pollock's death, that's Hamilton Morris. He's a journalist, and he's the one who found Pollock's story in 2011, 30 years after it happened. And even though the case had long been cold...

MORRIS: I had to start investigating it because more than anything, I wanted to solve the murder.

FOO: The first compelling thing about Pollock's death was why it had gone unsolved for so long and the second was Pollock's strange story. In the late '70s, he had been a renowned mycologist, a scientist who studies mushrooms. His focus was on psilocybin-containing mushrooms or magic mushrooms.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MORRIS: And it seems like he was just the relatively straight-laced, hard-working scientist with a scientific interest in psychoactive drugs.

FOO: Of course, the terms straight-laced and psychoactive drugs don't usually go hand in hand.

MORRIS: For whatever reason, psychoactive mushrooms seem to attract very eccentric, obsessive, crazy people, prone to wacky and potentially unscientific theories, like that mushroom spores had traveled to Earth from outer space and that the mushroom was an alien life form sending a message to humanity.

FOO: But Dr. Pollock was committed to being the opposite of that. Sure, he had an enormous beard, glasses, tie-dye - he looked like a nerdy hippie, but his brain was all business. He wanted to be considered a serious scientist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MORRIS: Pollock was very much committed to making a major impact on medicine. It sounds pretty weird now, but before LSD was illegal, it was used experimentally as a treatment for things like schizophrenia, and Pollock had read a lot of these publications and was interested in reviving the use of psilocybin-containing mushrooms as a treatment for psychological disorders. He genuinely believed that they could be FDA-approved treatments for things like autism.

FOO: So Dr. Pollack, he devoted his life to studying magic mushrooms. He wrote a study where he tested psilocybin on autistic children with remarkably good results. He traveled to South America to hunt mushrooms down. He tried growing them on elephant dung. He discovered dozens of strains and four entirely new species of mushrooms, and he literally wrote the book on how to grow magic mushrooms, a book containing techniques that are still used today. He even developed a hallucinogenic mushroom called Psilocybe cubensis, Penis Envy.

MORRIS: It's a variety that looks just like a penis.

FOO: (Laughter).

MORRIS: Yeah, it's probably about natural penis size.

FOO: But one of his truly important discoveries was Psilocybe tampanensis.

MORRIS: He found this one species. It's really - it was the first time it had ever been discovered in nature, and it's only been found a handful of times since. Some people call it the rarest mushroom in the world.

FOO: Psilocybe tampanensis had a sort of truffle that grew in it called a sclerotia. This truffle contains psilocybin and was really potent, so potent Pollock called it the philosopher's stone. He wrote, (reading) it transports the consumer to states of transcendence and jubilation beyond the realm of ordinary psychedelics.

Tampanensis was his ticket to mycological glory. It was so rare and unusual, so un-mushroom like that he thought he might actually get government approval to study it and market it as a medicine. But to do that, he needed to be able to do more research.

MORRIS: He wanted to build a $2 million mycological super lab, and if he had succeeded, it would've been the first of its kind in the U.S.

FOO: And this is the 1970s, $2 million was a lot of money he didn't have. But he was obsessed, Pollock's girlfriend at the time even said that he interrupted their lovemaking to go tend to his mushrooms - now that's dedication. So he knew that no matter what, he was going to raise the money to achieve his dream of the super lab. Pollock was making a decent amount of money as a doctor, but he needed more. So he started to see more patients.

MORRIS: Apparently there were lines flowing out of the door of his office onto the street because he couldn't contain all the people that were coming to him.

FOO: Because to fund his super lab, Dr. Pollock started to write scripts for anything - Quaaludes, Preludin, Dilaudid, opioids - all without real examinations.

MORRIS: And so he was dealing massive quantities of these substances to his customers, and he would just give them what they wanted and send them off as long as they paid him cash. And then on top of that, he was dealing illegal drugs as well. He was dealing cocaine, cannabis...

FOO: And this is patently - this is not really serious scientist stuff, right?

MORRIS: No, no, it doesn't look good. He is a very strong example of someone who is driven to insanity by their ambition.

FOO: Pollock's drug business got big - really big. He was sending out shipments of mushroom spores by mail. And...

MORRIS: He was planting a massive field of cannabis plants a few miles outside San Antonio with the intention of harvesting it all and sending it across the country in Christmas cookie tins in December.

FOO: All the drug dealers in town knew who he was, and eventually he caught the DEA's eye, too. They wanted him gone.

MORRIS: They had planes flying over the field taking aerial photographs, and they were going to bust him. They had discovered his crop; they were going to destroy it. At the same time, two undercover police officers had come into his office and received liberal prescriptions for Dexedrine without an adequate examination, and they were going to charge him for that as well. And it seemed as if his medical license was going to be revoked. Everything was sort of crumbling around him.

FOO: And then as everything was building to a head, Pollock was shot...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

FOO: And killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOO: Dr. Pollack's funeral was mushroom-themed. Magic mushrooms were handed out to mourners.

MORRIS: At Pollock's funeral, he was buried with a number of different rare psilocybin-containing fungus. And in his breast pocket, his associate had tucked a Psilocybe tampanensis sclerotium.

FOO: So right over his heart?

MORRIS: Yes.

FOO: The sclerotium, that extremely rare truffle, Pollock's baby. And that little truffle became that much more meaningful when, a few days later, the police broke into Pollock's lab and found 1,753 jars of mushrooms, the biggest shroom bust in America up to that point. The police seized all of them and set them on fire.

MORRIS: And as far as the San Antonio Police Department knew, they had burned the very last specimens of this particular species. They had actually driven it into extinction.

FOO: It looked like the police were glad to be rid of the drugs and of Pollock's business.

MORRIS: When I spoke with a lot of the people who had investigated the murder during that period, they all described police who were completely delighted by Pollock's death.

FOO: Pollock's friends could conjure up some suspects, but the police didn't interview as many people as they would have liked. And when the police did find three very plausible suspects, they didn't bother charging them with any crime. Plus, strangely, Hamilton found out that all those charges Pollock had been up against, they'd mysteriously disappeared before Pollock died.

MORRIS: All the charges were dropped just a few days before he was shot. That's also very strange, and there's no explanation for why that happened. The DEA has destroyed all of their records related to Pollock except for the ones that are associated with this field of cannabis plants. Again, this is just a mystery. All I know is that Pollock was about to have his medical license revoked. He should have been brought to court for growing this field of cannabis plants, but the charges were dropped without explanation and he was shot in the head.

FOO: So what did that mean? Did the police make a deal with Pollock that allowed them to drop the charges in exchange for information, and did someone exact revenge? Was it just a coincidence, or was something more mysterious going on? Some people in the mushroom community thought that perhaps Pollock was fated to die.

MORRIS: People considered him as, like, a Prometheus figure.

FOO: Prometheus, the Greek god who gave humans the gift of fire. In the myth, Zeus was outraged.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Prometheus.

FOO: Because fire was supposed to be something so powerful it was meant only for the gods, so he punished Prometheus for eternity. These mushroom aficionados were comparing Prometheus to Pollock.

MORRIS: He wrote these books that were some of the most valuable manuals for cultivation of psilocybin-containing mushrooms that had ever been published, and they felt that he had been punished for bringing this knowledge to mankind, that he was the one who took the risk to make this information available and he paid the price. It absolutely feels unjust.

FOO: So Hamilton set out to do better than the police. He conducted over a hundred interviews over the span of a year with everyone Pollock knew. He traveled to San Antonio, and that's when he really learned that Pollock was a really unpopular guy - not just to the cops, to everyone.

MORRIS: I mean, the sheer number of people that were actually - that openly talked about plotting to kill him is ridiculous. There were people who came forward saying that, yes, I was actually plotting to kill him, but I never got around to it; someone else killed him first. It seems as if almost every drug addict in San Antonio was aware of him and had some plot either to rob him, to kill him - who knows?

FOO: Hamilton found out that Pollock had been selling drugs to addicts - to pimps who would drag in their prostitutes asking for prescriptions for them.

MORRIS: Sometimes the prostitutes were actually unconscious, but Pollock would still write them prescriptions.

FOO: Lots of people had terrible things to say about him. One of his colleagues said he believed Pollock had never administered psilocybin to autistic children. He said Pollock just made up the studies so he could look more legit.

MORRIS: There's two different versions of Pollock, and this is what makes him complicated. On one hand, you have the interpretation that he genuinely believed that these drugs had potential. And then, you know, there's another version of him that makes him seem like a kind of weird, womanizing drug addict who had no moral scruples.

FOO: And hearing this, it kind of seems like maybe who killed Pollock is not as important as why he died. His death did seem inevitable in a way. Maybe it was because Pollock was bringing a wonder drug to humanity, or maybe there was just something about Pollock that made people hate him. But even with everything he learned, Hamilton doesn't dislike Pollock.

MORRIS: You know, I don't think that his behavior was inherently bad. I understood where Pollock was coming from and thought that his mission was a valid one. I think that there is an immensely important task in hunting for mushrooms, finding new species, looking for new therapeutic alkaloids in these species. The truth of the matter was that he was a doctor who was trying to develop medicines to help people.

FOO: But, sure, but, like, he was prescribing pills to unconscious women. Like - but it really seems that you believe that he was a good guy.

MORRIS: I believe that he was a good guy, and also I think that the main aspects of his personality that stood out to me were the monomania, the dedication, and the obsession with finding new mushrooms is something that I really value. I think that's a great character.

FOO: Eventually, Hamilton reached his last deadline. He'd been trying to write a piece about this for Harper's Magazine for a year, and they didn't want to wait any longer. So he packed up, closed the investigation and went home. The article came out in the July 2013 issue of Harper's Magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MORRIS: I still want to solve it. I still hope that, you know, after it's able to be read by a few more people that someone will come out of the woodwork, that some new evidence will emerge that will allow some sort of definitive answer to what happened. That's the fantasy, but I think that it's just going to be too difficult.

FOO: But even though Pollock is gone, his ideas didn't die with him. That's become more and more evident in the past few years. One of Pollock's associates went to Amsterdam in 2008...

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE)

FOO: ...And he was shocked to see that Psilocybe tampanensis, the rare truffle that was Pollock's baby - it was being sold everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MORRIS: He had no idea that it had survived, that anyone had kept the culture, and he had no idea that it had become this massive million-dollar industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASH REGISTER)

FOO: All because of Pollock's research.

MORRIS: Yes, all because of Pollock's research.

FOO: Apparently one of Pollock's spores had survived. It had been sent to a spore library in the Netherlands where it sat until it was discovered a few years ago and then cultivated.

MORRIS: And they call it the Pollock strain. People all over the world, going to Amsterdam, going to smart shops, getting these little Tupperware containers full of this fungus. They don't really know what it is other than it's a legal source of psilocybin, and Pollock's name will be right on the packaging.

FOO: And it turns out now that whether Pollock was a demigod or a very flawed man, his ideas may have been right. In the past couple of years, scientists at Johns Hopkins, UCLA, NYU and other universities have been doing studies on psilocybin, and they found that it could actually be extremely beneficial for people suffering from mental illness.

MORRIS: It could treat PTSD or that it could treat OCD. I mean, this was not some kind of weird, druggy, hallucinatory vision - some kind of justification for hedonistic drug use. I think that he truly did understand something about psilocybin that was correct, that it does have immense therapeutic potential.

FOO: Sure. Magic mushrooms may not be Prometheus's fire, but they may be something big.

MORRIS: The test of time has shown that he was right, that psilocybin has enormous power and all of the current scientific research points towards conclusions that are very much aligned with what Pollock thought all along.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Magic mushrooms, magic mushrooms, magic mushrooms making me insane. Look out here comes Elvis wearing suspenders and a pink dress...

WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Hamilton Morris for sharing his obsession with the SNAP. Big thanks as well to Harper's Magazine. That piece was produced by Stephanie Foo.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Can I ask you guys a question? What's something that people think about you that totally isn't true?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm stingy - but it's totally not true (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: People think I'm spoiled and rich, but I'm not. Like, people usually think I'm like, this spoiled white girl, but I'm not.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: People think about me, they think I'm a pimp, and it's not true. I am a hard-working man. I am a shoeshine man. I own a shoeshine parlor in Frank Ogawa Plaza, right here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: ...To believe that I'm a mean guy. I'm inside of my head a lot, and the things that I'm thinking about, it reflects in my facial expression, which is probably a frown or a mean look because I think about the war and the things that I did sometimes and the innocent people that I hurt. And I have not been able to reconcile that inside of me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: People mistake me for somebody all the time.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I get mistaken for all dwarf actors that are on the movie screen, Bridget the Midget.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: I got dreads, you know? I'll be walking down the street - right? - and I can see a lady and she'll clench her purse if I walk past her or something. And I'm just trying to get home just like her, you feel me? It be hella judgmental out here on these streets.

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WASHINGTON: SNAP JUDGMENT, the "You Don't Know Me" episode continues after the break. Stay tuned.

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