In August 1905, Jean Lanfray, a French man working on a vineyard in the Swiss village of Commugny, murdered his wife and their two children. It was believed Lanfray had been under the influence of an evil spirit--absinthe. He had consumed it before killing his family and the village’s mayor determined, “Absinthe is the cause of a series of bloody crimes in our country.” Though the crime was committed in Switzerland, it became international news and panic surrounding the beverage ensued. Three days after he received his sentence to life in prison, Lanfray hung himself. In addition to the death of the Lanfray’s, some see this event as the death of absinthe culture.
According to popular lore, absinthe consumption can lead to hallucinations, madness and epileptic seizures. On this day said to be filled with evil spirits, should absinthe be considered one of them?
Though mainly known as an intoxicant, the use of wormwood (absinthe in French) for medicinal purposes dates back to at least 1550 B.C. Its usage was recorded in the Egyptian medical document known as the Ebers Papyrus, though its usage may go back even further since the papyrus included writings from as far back as 3500 B.C. Wormwood continued to be used medicinally throughout the ages. Hippocrates recommended wormwood extract for rheumatism, menstrual pain, jaundice and anemia. In Historia Naturalis, Pliny the Elder wrote of wormwood’s usage to treat gastrointestinal worms.
As Mary Poppins would advise, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down and with the addition of it, wormwood began shifting from being a bitter medicine to a spirit to be enjoyed. In 1731, Smith’s Complete Body of Distilling recommended infusing dried wormwood leaves with caraway seeds and dulcifying the mixture with sugar. It wasn't until the 1790's that it's believed the classic recipe was invented by French physician Pierre Ordinaire. Following Ordinaire’s death, Henri-Louis Pernod obtained his recipe and began producing absinthe commercially in 1797 in Pontarlier, France.
Although it varied by region and maker, there were several characteristics most types of absinthe had in common. It was usually a high-proof distilled alcohol made with oil of wormwood and infused with herbs including green anise, lemon balm, and hyssop. Absinthe also contained thujone, a chemical that was thought to cause hallucinations and also causes absinthe to louche, or become milky when diluted with water.
Several factors contributed to absinthe’s popularity throughout Europe in the late 19th century. When a phylloxera plague in French vineyards caused a large wine shortage, absinthe became an alternative drink. Some of its popularity may partially be attributed to the use of wormwood during the French-Algerian conflict throughout the 1840s. In lieu of quinine, which was said to be too expensive, wormwood was used by French soldiers to combat malaria and also used to treat roundworm and fevers. The soldiers cut its bitterness by mixing it with wine and when they returned to France, they brought back requests for une verte, named so for its distinctive green hue. Soon, 5 p.m. in French cafes became known as l’heure verte, or “the green hour.”
The belief that absinthe had psychedelic properties contributed to its lure amongst the bohemian culture of Parisian artists and writers. Writers including Oscar Wilde often mentioned the drink in their works; Ernest Hemingway didn’t just write a book called “Death in the Afternoon,” he created a cocktail of the same name--a mixture of absinthe and chilled champagne.
Absinthe was also featured in the paintings of several influential artists including Paul Marie Verlaine, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Pablo Picasso was a casual imbiber, painting both The Absinthe Drinker and The Glass of Absinthe. Later, he sculpted a wax original and six bronze copies of an absinthe glass, spoon.
Not everyone was enamoured with the spirit; some saw it as contributing to the decline of French culture. Amongst those sharing that belief was Valentin Magnan, an influential French psychiatrist. Magnan believed absinthism was distinct from alcoholism and conducted experiments on animals to compare the effects of absinthe with other types of alcohol. In a series of tests, some animals were exposed to pure alcohol while others were exposed to distilled wormwood.
The animals given pure alcohol merely placed slurred late night phone calls, while the ones given wormwood promptly went to cafes, enjoyed l’heure verte and channeled their experience onto canvas. According to Magnan, the animals exposed solely to alcohol displayed expected alcohol induced behavior but the ones exposed to distilled wormwood had different effects, including hallucinations and seizures. He concluded that absinthism was entirely separate from alcoholism and recommended that it be banned.
Although his studies were subjected to criticism by scientists and journals including The Lancet, an anti-absinthe sentiment was growing throughout Europe. Along with it being perceived to contribute to the decline of French culture, winemakers saw it as competition, Magnan’s distinction between alcoholism and absinthism meant wine could go without blame for the decline of France's health. Less than a month after the Lanfray murders, it was banned by the canton of Vaud in Switzerland. With the exception of Spain and England, absinthe was banned in most countries by 1915.
Despite the ban, absinthe probably wasn’t the evil spirit it was made out to be. Without strict regulation, some cheaper versions of absinthe may have also been made with adulterants in an effort to have higher profits. Although Lanfray had consumed absinthe the day he murdered his family, he had also ingested seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, a coffee with brandy and two crème de menthes. And some of its most famous imbibers, including van Gogh and Hemingway, also had alcoholic tendencies and may have suffered from other disorders.
In 2008, a research team led by food chemist Dirk W. Lachenmeier conducted a study that examined the chemical composition of pre-ban absinthe (1895–1910), in comparison to post-ban (1915–88) and modern commercial absinthe (2003–06). As part of the analysis, the researchers looked specifically at levels of thujone. More than just giving absinthe its cloudy appearance, thujone was said to be its active ingredient; in large amounts it can be toxic and can cause kidney failure. The researchers obtained samples from 13 bottles of pre-ban absinthe and used gas chromatography/mass spectrometry to analyze them, then testing the post-ban and modern samples for comparison.
The researchers took several variables into consideration including variations in production, types of herbs, thujone content and also considered the possibility of thujone degradation. Their tests found that the levels of thujone in pre-ban absinthe were not significantly different from those of the post-ban and modern samples. They also found nothing other than ethanol to explain absinthism, suggesting that it was just a form of alcoholism.
The ban on absinthe has been repealed throughout most of the world, including the US, with the stipulation that absinthe contain less than 10 mg/L of thujone.
Want to dance with the Green Fairy? There’s a traditional ritual to prepare it: first, a jigger of absinthe is poured into a glass, then a cube of sugar is placed on special slotted absinthe spoon and laid on the rim of a glass. Finally, cold water is poured over the sugar, dissolving it and changing the clear green spirit to a milky yellow mixture.
Image Credits: By Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany, Poster critical of the ban on absinthe in Switzerland, 1910, photograph by Rama, Henri Privat-Livemont, The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva, all via Wikimedia Commons