From Green Fairy to Green Demon
The morning of August 28, 1905 was typical for Jean Lanfray, a Swiss laborer. Waking at 4:30 in the morning, he took a swig of absinthe mixed with three parts of water to face the uneventful day in his little town of Commugny, Switzerland. Absinthe was the drink of choice for many men like Lanfray—31-years-old, six-feet tall, French-speaking, and burly. It was due to the popularity of the drink amongst the French Army; serving three years in the Chasseurs Alpins regiment, Lanfray was especially attuned with its warmth and bitterness. Consumption of it also provided a moment of tranquility from daily work. But, by day’s end, tranquility had turned to terror. At around 5:30 that evening, Lanfray found himself holding the dead body of his daughter, Blanche, blood gushing from his face from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the jaw. Although he may have only murdered his wife and two daughters with his military-issued Vetterli rifle, Lanfray’s actions had another, unintentional outcome: The death of the European absinthe industry.
Facing the Three Coffins
After drinking his first shot of absinthe that day, Jean Lanfray got dressed. He lived with his wife and two children in a two-story farmhouse; Lanfray’s parents and his brother, Paul, lived on the first floor, while he lived on the second. Before he started his chores, he reminded his wife to wax his boots in anticipation of mushroom hunting the next day, to which she replied with a disinterested grumble. From there:
[Lanfray] went to the barn and watered the cows and let them out into the pasture. He returned and had some coffee and bread. The children—Rose, four and a half, and Blanche, one and a half—were still asleep. Lanfray went downstairs. He joined his father and brother. The three Lanfrays then began walking to the vineyards near the village where they were employed.
Jean Lanfray and his father headed home after work at around 5:00, encountering Lanfray’s wife in a disgruntled mood. She felt overburdened having to care for their two daughters in addition to cleaning the house, cooking the meals, and tending to the farm. When his wife requested that he help her by milking their herd of cows, Lanfray insulted her and demanded she put the coffeepot on the stove. After yelling that his coffee wasn’t hot enough, Lanfray noticed his boots had not been waxed and yelled some more. His wife responded with a disinterested shrug, angering Lanfray even further. The final bout of yelling came from her apparent indifference about the departure of Lanfray’s father.
“Shut up!” Lanfray screamed.
“I’d like to see you make me!” his wife replied.
Thus, Lanfray was prompted to retrieve his Vetterli rifle and shoot his wife in the head at point-blank range. Rose came running in and became the next victim. He then walked to Blanche’s cradle and killed her last. Unsuccessfully trying to shoot himself in the head, Lanfray passed out outside, cradling Blanche’s corpse. He wouldn’t see his victims again until he faced their coffins, where he reportedly cried, “It is not me who did this. Tell me, O God, please tell me that I have not done this. I loved my wife and children so much.”
Immediately dubbed the ‘absinthe murderer’ by his country, Jean Lanfray’s day actually involved a more diverse selection of wines and spirits than his new moniker implied. Even though he had consumed his shot of (watered-down) absinthe hours before the murders, no one paid any mind to the police’s meticulous account of his alcohol intake. Swiss officials figured that Lanfray “had consumed not only the absinthe before work, but a crème de menthe, a cognac, six glasses of wine to help his lunch down, another glass of wine before leaving work, a cup of coffee with brandy in it, a liter of wine on getting home, and then another coffee with marc in it.” Lanfray was even known amongst his friends and family to drink up to five liters a wine per day, but the populace of Commugny didn’t see this as a sign of alcoholism as a modern audience would.
The swift public reaction to the scandal led to a meeting held on September 3rd, where the citizens of Commugny gathered to cement the crime’s motivation. They placed the burden solely on the absinthe, and backed it up with a petition demanding the overarching canton government of Vaud to ban its consumption and sale. Within the week, a total of 82,450 people had signed it, including women, whose political ability was still severely limited.
A few months later, on February 23, 1906, Lanfray went on trial. He accepted the notion that the absinthe had caused a frenzied delirium, and he argued that it proved his mental insanity and that charges should be lenient. Nevertheless, Lanfray was charged with four counts of murder (an autopsy revealed that his wife was carrying an infant boy) and sentenced to life imprisonment; three days later, he hanged himself in his cell. The petition soon proved successful, as the Vaud canton legislature voted to ban absinthe sales on September 27, 1906. Coincidentally, Jean Lanfray was not the only culprit of absinthe-induced murder in Switzerland at the time. A few days after Lanfray’s crime in 1905, a man only known as Sallaz murdered his wife with a revolver and hatchet in the canton of Geneva. The incident similarly galvanized public support for absinthe prohibition, and the Geneva legislature enacted a ban shortly after Vaud.
Le Guguss, a satirical magazine first published in Geneva in 1894 and helmed by Louis Bron and Albert Gantner, became the primary pro-absinthe literature in Switzerland during the lead-up to regional bans. Multiple issues became dedicated solely to attacking prohibitionists. In the November 11, 1905 issue, Gantner depicted one as a Don Quixote-esque figure attacking an absinthe windmill. In the June 2, 1906 issue, Gantner drew a caricature of other aperitifs looking on as the Vaud wine syndicate choked a broken bottle of absinthe in front of an audience of temperance advocates. But their satire never swayed most of the Swiss population. The regional bans led to national legislature banning absinthe sales on January 31, 1907. A referendum was held on July 5, 1907 to enshrine it in the Swiss constitution, amassing a ratio of 236,232 to 137,702 votes in favor. The full ban on absinthe production, sales, and importation came into effect on October 7, 1910 as part of Article 32.
Although Le Guguss found themselves on the losing side of the war, their satire provided a scathing look at the aftermath. Shortly after the total ban, Gantner drew a depiction of a gaunt priest wearing a blue cross—the emblem of the Ligue National Contre L’Alcoolisme or “Blue Cross,” the main Swiss and French prohibition organization—standing over absinthe’s common personification as the Green Fairy. Echoing the oft-repeated depravity of the Lanfray murders, a Blue Cross dagger juts out just below absinthe’s breast as the priest proudly points to the exact time the ban was enacted. In the background sits a weeping Helvetia, the female personification of the Swiss Confederation.
The Junk Science of Absinthism
One of the most notable contemporary reactions to Lanfray was the dismissal of the alcoholic drinks he had consumed outside of the absinthe. Popular science treated absinthe as the only ruinous alcohol, and the notion was firmly entrenched in the culture of the time. This retrospectively unreliable view on the spirit perhaps had no clearer advocate than Dr. Valentin Jacques Joseph Magnan.
Dr. Valentin Magnan was an influential and well-respected psychiatrist acting as the physician-in-chief of the Saint-Anne Hospital Center from 1867 to his death in 1916. In the position, Magnan essentially possessed the ability to define “insanity” in all of France, as Saint-Anne acted as the processing center for all other asylums in the city. Backed by the belief that absinthe was “the villain responsible for an entire host of ills” plaguing the French race, Magnan sought to medically prove that the drink caused extreme symptoms through experiments in 1869.
His first misstep came was his use of the word “absinthe” to describe both the drink, and the pharmaceutical wormwood extract present in it in small quantities—a popular practice at the time that persists in some modern texts. Of course, this played right into the temperance ideology he subscribed to. As most of the population only used the term for the drink, any negative effects from a concentrated dose of the extract would instead be associated with the diluted drink. Magnan also never used human test subjects (surprising for the lax regulations of the time), instead providing the wormwood extract to a series of live animals:
He placed one guinea pig in a glass case with a saucer of pure alcohol. A second guinea pig got its own case and a saucer of wormwood oil. Two other cases contained a cat and a rabbit, both with saucers of wormwood oil. As Magnan watched, the three animals inhaling wormwood fumes grew excited and then fell into seizures. The alcohol-breathing animal merely got drunk.
Coupled with supposed observations of crazed absinthe drinkers in his asylum, Magnan’s study led to the definition of “absinthism” as something separate from alcoholism caused by other alcoholic drinks. Patients who exhibited symptoms of sleeplessness, blindness, delirium tremors, convulsions, and hallucinations were diagnosed with absinthism—all symptoms now associated with chronic alcoholism, in general. In contrast, the “good” alcohols in wine, beer, and cider only produced a mild hangover after a gentle sleep when used in moderation—a scientific fact commonly printed on posters for elementary science classes.
Although absinthism was widely accepted as a clinical illness throughout France and Switzerland, contemporary scientific criticism emerged in the United Kingdom countering it. A response from the medical journal, The Lancet, criticized the inadequate evidence Magnan used to separate absinthism from chronic alcoholism, noting that the symptoms were well-correlated with consuming alcohol in excess and that inhaling wormwood extract was not the same as taking small oral doses. Opposition was widespread enough that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals started to prosecute three British doctors who had assisted Magnan in injecting the extract into a dog in 1874 before fleeing to France.
These differences in findings key us in to a cultural difference between the United Kingdom and France: Absinthe was never as popularly consumed in the U.K. as it was on mainland Europe due to a series of moral associations with decadence, and their hatred of the French. A production ban was simply not needed there. Furthermore, the chemical compound found in wormwood oil—thujone—provided a medicinal use not yet popularized in France. Along with wormwood, the yellow cedar contains a high amount of thujone. A reference handbook of traditional knowledge noted that an “injection of yellow cedar tincture into venereal warts is said to cause them to disappear,” a far cry from the supposed deliriums induced by wormwood.
Implicitly (and often explicitly) behind nearly every anti-absinthe movement during this period was the ominous French wine industry. They had their own business vendettas against the producers, and any scientific evidence they could amass only strengthened their economic position.
Absinthe and Phylloxera: Pests of the Vine
With modernization came new distillation technologies that could create alcohol at higher volumes that the wine industry couldn’t compete with. But an extra pitfall arrived in French vineyards that allowed absinthe makers to gain an even greater leg up: grape phylloxera.
Phylloxera is a small aphid that feeds on the roots of grapevines, killing them by allowing exposure to other viruses and bacteria. Native to North America, phylloxera evolved in tandem with the native Vitis lambrusca, to protect their roots. Over time, V. lambrusca developed a thick sap and cork layer that prevented other microbes from entering the bite areas. However, the predominant European species, V. vinifera, did not evolve to have this advantage.
The pest then became an unintended passenger when rich patrons across the continent began to import American vines in the mid-19th century. Initial reports of the disease occurred in France in 1863, but methods to combat it weren’t successfully implemented until the end of the century. In France alone, this meant that total wine production fell “from a peak of 84.5 million hectoliters in 1875 to a mere 23.4 million in 1889.” What was once in bountiful supply for even the poor across France, became too pricey for even the wealthy as the nation’s supply was swiftly depleting.
With winemakers trying to control the phylloxera outbreak, absinthe producers had to switch to new sourcing and technology to maintain their operations. During the first half of the century, French absinthe producers usually distilled wine to get the neutral alcohol needed to mix with their wormwood blends. Because of this, absinthe necessitated a higher selling price to cover the increased production costs. With the price of wine soaring, producers found that switching to industrial alcohols made of beets, molasses, or grains allowed them to produce more product at a cheaper price. The result was a spirit “which could be bought for 10 centimes less than a glass of wine but which was many times stronger—absinthe had an alcoholic content of 55-75 percent ABV, as compared to 8 or 9 for table wine.”
In Switzerland, absinthe production still occurred primarily in home-run operations. By the time the national prohibition vote occurred in 1907, Swiss producers were largely concentrated in Neuchatel and Geneva with a combined 28 commercial distilleries and countless home stills. Even with prohibition, however, these producers still reaped the benefits of new distilling methods that were discovered in the late-1800s, joining the French producers in a moment of lucrative bliss.
Although French winemakers gained control of their phylloxera outbreak by the turn of the century, they were still cognizant of absinthe’s seeming encroachment on their profits. As already discussed, the wine industry often had sway over scientific studies on alcoholism and absinthism and even went so far to push the narrative in school science classes. They also adopted a stance of aligning themselves with blanket temperance organizations, such as the Blue Cross, based on a peculiar reasoning:
The concentration of their attack on absinthe left the French temperance movement in the paradoxical position of enjoying support from the main producers of alcoholic drinks in their country, the wine growers, who deduced that absinthe could easily be sacrificed, and that no serious attack on wine would take place.
This led to such policy proposals as the one put in front of the Gabarnac town council on June 23, 1907. The winemaker-supported motion declared that “absinthe harms the health, ruins the family, and destroys the race.” Rival liqueur companies eventually joined the anti-absinthe coalition as well. As early as 1878, companies were promoting their absinthe substitutes made with eucalyptus by highlighting health-giving properties that weren’t found in absinthe.
The winemakers were perhaps a bit too paranoid, in retrospect. Even on the eve of Absinthe Bans in 1907, the drink was never consumed in greater quantity than wine was: Of all the alcohol consumed in France, absinthe made up ~3% while wine made up 72%. Nevertheless, one of the largest anti-absinthe rallies convened in Paris in June of that year under the slogan, “All for wine: against absinthe.”
For the absinthe producers, this period of bliss may have prevented them from successfully confronting the winemakers and prohibitionists until it was too late. Knowing they were outmatched on both moral and religious grounds, for help producers turned to statistics about consumption patterns, ideas of liberty, and the negative impact of prohibition on the economy. The most authoritative compilation was Edmond Couleru’s “Au Pays de L’Absinthe (In the Land of Absinthe)” published in 1908, predated by a pamphlet produced in 1906 by absinthe producers in Val-de-Travers, Neuchatel called “Appel adresse au bon sens set a la raison du people Suisse par l’Union des interesses a la question de l’Absinthe au Val-de-Travers (Appeal to the Common Sense and Reason of the Swiss People, by the Union of Interested Parties in the Issue of Absinthe in Val-de-Travers).” But such appeals to reason weren’t enough to break through the propaganda. As expressed by an anti-absinthe British business journal reporting on the pamphlet:
The great argument was that the new measure was inspired by the pastors, and was only the forerunner of prohibitive laws against wine, the chief agricultural product of the canton de Vaud. The good interesses (concerned persons) said also that the law was contrary to the right of liberty and to the moral education of the people. Strange defenders of free will! They are selling a poison whose effect is to enslave men and make them unconscious automata. “No outside compulsion,” they said, “no teaching of morals by laws, but personal education is the true way of social progress.” Queer educators of the people! Their trade is nowadays the strongest power of demoralization.
Alas, with Switzerland passing the production ban in 1907, the pro-absinthe lobby didn’t make much of a lasting impression. Even with their appeals to reason ,they couldn’t escape the parallel nationalistic preconceptions of the absinthe subculture that the winemakers and temperance unions bought into and propagated to the masses.
Bohemians to Prussians to Jews: Absinthe and Nationalism
For as much vitriol it faced at the beginning of the 20th century in France, absinthe’s biggest boost in popularity couldn’t have been more nationalistic, in comparison. Although both the French and Swiss origin stories claim it was developed in the Swiss village of Couvet by a French monarchist or two sisters, it didn’t become commercially produced until Henri-Louis Pernod started the still-operating Pernod dynasty and moved it to the small French town of Pontarlier in 1797. When the French began fighting colonial wars throughout North Africa between 1830 and 1847, the soldiers were provided with absinthe rations to fend off malaria, dysentery, and other ailments. French colonists and rich Algerians developed a taste for it, as well. By the time soldiers and expats had returned to France, the success of the campaigns construed absinthe as a nationalistic symbol—a source of pride that all classes wanted to imbibe. Originally confined to the bourgeoisie (reflecting its high production costs), absinthe became such a status symbol that l’heure verte—the green hour—became a café staple between 5:00 and 7:00 in the evening.
As the century progressed, however, absinthe’s nationalistic associations increasingly turned towards the negative.
The cheapest places to live were often clustered around the university area, which was initially referred to as the Latin Quarter for its language of academics. The area became known as the Bohemian Quarter (its inhabitants, by extension, Bohemians) after Henri Murger’s publication of Scenes de la vie de Boheme in the late 1840s. A codification of the Parisian artistic lifestyle, the ‘Bohemia’ of the title referred not to the historic land of the Czech Republic but to a loose association with the free-spirited gypsies who migrated from the area. Unlike the restrained bourgeoisie who usually drank and savored one glass of absinthe at a time, the Bohemians often drank it for its high alcohol content rather than taste. In doing so, they brought their free-spiritedness in direct conflict with the restraint that French nationalists sought to uphold in the face of tumultuous modernization. Artists and poets sought to capture its magic while trying to resist falling completely under its spell. Everyone from Charles Baudelaire and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to Alfred de Musset and Edouard Manet grappled with some aspect of the Green Fairy in the 1850s to the 1890s. But not all artists tolerated its power. Henri Balesta, a minor French playwright by modern standards, published Absinthe et Absintheurs—a depiction of working-class men ruining their lives with absinthe—in 1860. Balesta’s novel was prominently referenced by temperance advocates and doctors, and included the bizarre notion that consuming too much absinthe would cause a man to spontaneously combust.
The next notable event that altered the reputation of absinthe occurred in September 1870: the Prussian invasion of Paris. Ending the short Franco-Prussian War in January 1871 when Paris surrendered, the siege prompted the newly proclaimed French Third Republic to find a scapegoat for their defeat. Images of absinthe-drunk soldiers played right into “existing anxieties about France’s collective health and especially its ability to protect itself against a bellicose and populous neighbor.” Even if evidence is scant that soldiers were too drunk to fight properly, the short-lived “proletariat dictatorship” of the Paris Commune likely deteriorated any positive image of absinthe before the Republic was able to reclaim the city.
But this was neither the last, nor the worst, nationalistic episode that absinthe was associated with. Anti-semitism came into play with the Dreyfus affair between 1894 and 1906. As summarized in Hideous Absinthe, the Dreyfus affair was:
…a bungled inquiry into the presence of a spy in the War Office which resulted in the only Jew in the place, Captain Dreyfus, being seized, convicted and imprisoned. The stages of the campaign of injustice against Dreyfus coincided with the years in which absinthe was most hotly contested: his conviction in 1894, the discovery of the evidence which showed him guiltless in 1896, his reconviction in 1899, and eventual exoneration in 1906.
This Jewish-absinthe connection had materialized in two major ways. First, Bohemian writer Emile Zola wrote “J’accuse!”—the famous open letter to the French president exposing the entire affair—in January 1898. Five years earlier, Zola famously incorporated an instance of the pseudo-scientific spontaneous combustion due to absynthism, echoing Henri Balesta. Second, the Jewish couple Arthur and Edmond Weil-Picard bought a majority interest in Pernod Fils in 1894. This led to absinthe being directly labeled as a tool of the Jews by one of France’s more notable anti-semitics, Edouard Drumont. Absinthe producers that feared the consequences of association aggressively pushed nationalistic propaganda on their labels, using the French tricolors and slogans about equality. One producer, Montbeliard, even marketed its absinthe as “anti-Jewish” and “France for the French.”
The First of Many Absinthe Murders
When Jean Lanfray grabbed his Vetterli rifle in a drunken rage on August 25, 1905, he sentenced more than just his family to death. Absinthe was the scapegoat for his three murders, and the victim of three fronts of modernization across Europe. Attacked by junk science, winemakers and teetotalers, and French nationalist movements, absinthe died the first of many deaths when Switzerland banned it in 1910. Belgium may have jumped the gun by comprehensively banning it in 1906, but Switzerland’s actions influenced the further bans in the United States (1912), France (1915), and even Chile (1916), where the Green Fairy’s notoriety was more story that reality. But absinthe clung to life held in some corners of Europe: Spain and the United Kingdom never enacted bans, allowing producers to scamper off and thrive, though on a reduced scale. It has even made a resurgence in modern times as the bans have slowly lifted across the world. Nevertheless, the story of absinthe still ends with the transformation of the benevolent Green Fairy into a tainted green devil.
Matthew Delarosa is a perpetual graduate student currently pursuing an M.A. in Food Studies at New York University. When not trying to eat through every restaurant in Manhattan, he fears he is being chased by the looming issues of the modern food system.