Absinthe's (Allegedly) Murderous Past

You’ve most likely heard a story or two about absinthe: It makes you hallucinate, it makes you lash out in a murderous rage, it’s hugely addictive, it’ll turn your life into one big Baz Luhrmann movie. You’ve also probably heard these rumors are false. But those crazy stories certainly had to come from somewhere, which is why we’re diving into absinthe’s allegedly murderous past to find some answers.

Absinthe was originally produced for medicinal purposes before it started gaining popularity as a recreational beverage in the mid-1800s. As the thirst for the anise-flavored spirit grew, the phylloxera plague was decimating French vineyards. With wine stores low, people turned to bottles of the green stuff, drinking it over dinner in place of their usual Bordeaux or Chablis, and having a lot more fun. The absinthe industry thrived.

The wine industry, on the other hand, was supremely displeased with this turn of events—even though wine still accounted for 72 percent of alcohol consumption at the time. So, in response, the wine community launched smear campaigns against absinthe, linking it to violence, murder and madness, which just happened to coincide with a growing Temperance movement that was already blaming absinthe for Europe’s alcoholism epidemic.

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Anti-absinthe propaganda began popping up everywhere. Posters warned of the spirit’s dangers, depicting the grim reaper pouring absinthe into dazed drinkers’ glasses or green fairies being burned at the stake or lying dead at the feet of a priest. There were rallies in France where protesters marched with signs sporting slogans like, “All for wine: against absinthe.” Absinthe abolitionists even went as far as to inject animals with essence of wormwood to illustrate absinthe’s purported effects on the human body.

And then, of course, there were the stories of violence, which the anti-absinthe faction blamed on absinthe. The most notorious tale—and possibly the one that led to absinthe’s ultimate ban—was that of French vineyard worker Jean Lanfray. It was August of 1905, and Lanfray, a confirmed alcoholic, was living with his pregnant wife and two children in the Swiss village of Commugny. It was a typical day: Lanfray spent his morning and afternoon drinking. That day the menu consisted of two glasses of absinthe, a liter of wine, Cognac and brandied coffees, among other things. It’s safe to say Lanfray was less than sober when he arrived home from work, which, again, was not unusual. But then things took a turn. Lanfray started arguing with his wife. Things escalated and Lanfray shot her in the head with a rifle. His four-year-old daughter Rose ran into the room when she heard the noise. Lanfray shot her, followed by his two-year-old daughter Blanche. He then turned the gun on himself in an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

Lanfray’s trial started and ended on Feb. 23, 1906. His attorneys, supported by Swiss psychologist Dr. Albert Mahaim, used the absinthe defense. Lanfray, they said, was not to blame—it was the absinthe that drove him to madness. The defense worked, but only saved Lanfray from capital punishment. He was still found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Three days later, though, he was found dead, hanging in his cell.

The trial sealed not only Lanfray’s fate but also that of absinthe. The anti-absinthe faction created a petition to outlaw the spirit, pegging it to the bloody murders, and quickly secured 82,000 signatures. Soon enough, absinthe was banned in Switzerland and most of Europe.

Of course, the ban on absinthe didn’t last forever—it was lifted at the start of the 21st century, when the murderous, hallucinogenic rumors were disproven. Absinthe was simply an unlucky scapegoat, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time...or was it? Hey, little green fairy, who did you say I should kill tonight?