A little over 100 years ago, the after-work crowd in Paris would fill the cafés along the boulevard and drink greenish, milky cocktail known in colloquial parlance as La Fée Verte--"the green fairy." It was notably the most popular adult beverage of the age. But absinthe's popularity was its own demise.
Painters and poets of the time were inspired by the drink but popular culture remained skeptical. In 1859, Claude Manet's painting The Absinthe Drinker was rejected by the annual Salon of Paris because of its depiction of something other than wine in a painting. Toulouse-Lautrec, known for his drinking and loose ways with prostitutes, was known to be so much a fan of the green concoction that fellow artists of the time claimed his paintings had absinthe's hallucinatory glow in them. Oscar Wilde, who had a taste for absinthe--among other bizarre indulgences--wrote quite eloquently about its subtle and not so subtle qualities. Actor Maurice Barrymore called absinthe "the paregoric of second childhood." Gaugin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Hemingway and Monet were said to enjoy the anise flavored drink. Some art historians even suggest that impressionism was somehow influenced by it.
Served ceremoniously, with water poured over a sugar cube balancing on an absinthe spoon, it became the ritual for millions of Frenchmen who enjoyed it recreationally. But many took too much a liking to the 72 percent alcoholic beverage (140-plus proof). Prior to alcoholism being identified as a disease, those who enjoyed the green fairy in addictive ways came to be known as suffering from absinthism. A movement to curtail its popularity gained traction. The beginnings of prohibition, the banning of all alcohol, were beginning to take hold, and its poster child was absinthe. All the movement needed was a tragic example for anti-absinthe advocates to latch on to.
On the evening of August 28, 1905, Jean Lanfray, a farmer in the French speaking region of Switzerland, shot his pregnant wife, his four-year-old and two-year-old daughters then tried to shoot himself but managed to only wound himself in the jaw. Authorities blamed his violent behavior on the fact that he had two glasses of absinthe. History tells a different story. While he had begun the day with two absinthes before dawn, he also loaded up on a crème de menthe, cheap brandy and a Cognac and soda at 5:30 a.m. at the local café before heading off to work. At lunch and throughout the afternoon he enjoyed six big glasses of wine then quit work at 4:30 when he had more wine and a coffee spiked with brandy. He returned home where he drank another bottle of wine, had another coffee laced with brandy before getting mad at his wife for not waxing his boots. So he waxed her.
The "Absinthe Murder" as it became known sparked a petition drive in Switzerland to ban absinthe. To make matters worse, Lanfray's lawyers used an insanity plea blaming his behavior on the absinthe and not necessarily all the other stuff he drank that day. By the time it was all over, Switzerland banned absinthe in 1908, Holland in 1910 and the United States in 1912. Fearing intoxicated troops defending France against a well disciplined German army at the beginning of World War I, France banned all absinthe in 1915. With a small win against absinthe, the next stop was banning all alcohol. And history has proven what a success that was.
While no one doubts absinthe's influence on art and literature that continues to be felt to this day, the myth and scare tactics used to ban the drink a hundred years ago continue to be repeated in the modern age and used to keep it illegal. Only in recent years has the hype been made clear by the truth about absinthe. Switzerland as well as other European countries has lifted the ban but it still remains illegal to produce in the United States.
(See the previous column for the hype about absinthe's alleged hallucinatory qualities.)