Banned — Absinthe: the demon drink of madness and depravity

The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva

Absinthe lives in our collective cultural consciousness as the drink that shook the world, inducing madness, hallucinations, violence and depravity in anyone who drank it. It seems indeed like the ‘green fairy’ plays the part of a perverted drunken muse for all kinds of misbehaviour.

Is it really so bad though? Absinthe is named after absinthium, a Latin word though to have its roots in the ancient Greek word for wormwood Artemisia absinthium – its primary ingredient and the reason for its infamous neon green colour. It tastes primarily of liquorice (because it’s flavoured with anise) and sweet fennel.

It was popularised by French soldiers returning from North Africa in the 19th century and was soon hugely popular across France and Europe, eventually making its way to the US, where it also developed ardent devotees.

It is a potent drink, but it’s by no means an outlier. The strongest Absinthe is usually around 76% ABV, but that is far from the strongest liquor in the world. That honour goes to Spirtyus at an eye-watering 96% ABV. It’s not the alcohol content that gives Absinthe its infamy, it’s an obscure compound called thujone, a chemical contained in Wormwood.

It was discovered that in high doses, thujone could cause seizures, kidney failure, vomiting and death, to name just a few. Much of this research comes from a doctor called Valentin Magnan, who observed seizures in rodents given high doses of thujone, as well as supposed madness when testing the compound on canines, who would stare at a blank wall, barking incessantly.

La Muse Verte by Albert Maignan

Dr Magnan was by no means a neutral party though, with a long history of puritanical hatred for the drink and even going so far as to blame it for the collapse of French culture.

And so, Absinthe became a drink associated with madness and societal depravity, a fuel for the unrest and rampant lax morals of the bourgeoisie and working classes alike. It even became associated with some of history’s most eccentric individuals, including; Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Ernest Hemingway, further adding to the notoriety.

Absinthe may have gone down in history as just another liquour of the age though if it wasn’t for one unfortunate individual — Jean Lanfay. In Switzerland in August of 1905 Jean Lanfay murdered his wife and their two children in a fit of ‘Absinthe madness’, a dubious illness of the age. The details of the case are a grim and sordid as one might imagine, but sufficient to say that after a fit of rage, his family was dead.

He was prosecuted for the murder of four, his wife, their two daughters, and as it turned out, their unborn child. Lanfay’s lawyer called a leading psychiatrist to the stand and it was declared in essence that his actions were the result of the absinthe degrading his character and filling him with a violence that drove him to kill his family.

The trial was over in a day — Lanfay was found guilty and would hang himself three days later in prison. Shortly after this, a petition in Switzerland garnered 82,000 signatures to ban the demon drink corrupting the soul of their nation in just a few days. It was banned less than a month after the murder in canton of Vaud (which contained the town the murder took place in. It was soon banned in Belgium by 1905, then the whole of Switzerland and the Netherlands by 1910, the US followed suit in 1912 and by 1915, even it’s most avid fans, the French banned la fée verte.

The pseudo-science, the spree of murders across Europe and the US, and even WW1 all led to the downfall of this once popular and beloved drink. Many bans stayed in place, following waning of prohibition movements across the world, most famously in the US, where it wasn’t legal until 2007.

Affiche absinthe by Albert Gantner

The truth about this drink though says far more about us that it does about the drink itself. Much of the blame for absinthes effects is laid at the feet of thujone, the chemical extract of Wormwood. The thing is, wormwood has been used by humans for millennia to treat a myriad of ailments, from depression, to muscle pain and even easing childbirth, its name (Artemisia absinthium) originally being associated with Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt and one of the protectors of women in child-birth.

While there is some evidence to suggest that thujone is toxic to humans, the amount you would have to ingest to receive a fatal dose borders on the ridiculous. For example, a lethal dose for a mouse averages about 45mg/L, and the average modern-day bottle of absinthe contains about 39mg/L. So yeah, you would be long dead from alcohol poisoning before the thujone. Furthermore, the hallucinogenic effects of absinthe have long been exaugurated with little scientific evidence supporting thujone as the cause.

The culprit for the hallucinations, the violence and depravity then? Alcohol? No, over-indulgence. Absinthe is certainly strong, but no stronger than other liqueurs. Like other potent drinks though, absinthe is used as an excuse for our own behaviour.

Jean Lanfay was not driven mad by absinthe or alcohol; he was a violent drunk and his family paid the price. Absinthe was scapegoated and is just another example of us excusing societal issues, shifting the blame onto something else; be that a drink, a drug, a religion, or a people.

The 1800s and 1900s were a time of massive societal change. Wars, civil turmoil and disease ran rampant and it was easy to pin this on the absinthe, particularly when it became associated with artists and the working classes. Many turned to drink to ease the burdens of their difficult lives, alleviating their immediate problems, but making the overarching ones much worse. Absinthe was simply a popular drink at the time, guilty only by association with men like Lanfay.

The stigma continues to this day, with the thujone content of modern US absinthe being capped at 10mg/L, with most having so little in as to be classed as ‘thujone-free’. European absinthe is stronger, peaking around 40mg/L but is still far below harmful levels. The Green Fairy was never dangerous, just misunderstood. It was blamed for acts of senseless violence and social changes and continues to live in infamy. Our reaction to it says far more about us though. Our inability to take responsibility for our own actions is ultimately far more damaging that the influence of any fairy.

Food fan, writer and history nerd. Sometimes I combine the three and write about them here :)

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