Flashback Friday: Absinthe

The drink that grows hair on your brain.
Flashback Friday: Absinthe
The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva (1861–1928)/Wikimedia Commons

From the September, 1977 issue of High Times comes Craig Pyes’ illuminating profile of the so-called “green fairy.

On a slightly chill afternoon in 1867, Mlle. Ellen Andree and M. Marcelin Besboutin sit on the terrace of the Cafe de Nouvelle-Athenes in the Place Pigalle. Mademoiselle, pale, petite, with pearl earrings and mousy bangs, has ordered une absinthe, a strong, anise-flavored aperitif. She sits with the tumbler before her, ignoring it, ignoring Monsieur, ignoring tout le monde, through eyes so unfocused there appears to be no one looking out through them. For his part, Monsieur ignores her as well. He sits to her left, looking away, smoking a pipe that has burned out. Clearly respectable, pathetically harmless, they have simply chosen oblivion over this reality of ours.

Seventeen years later, this innocent encounter will cause a scandal in London. Forty years later, one will not be able to drink absinthe at the Nouvelle-Athenes, nor at any other bistro in Paris, nor in Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Brazil nor the United States. Nor can you order a shot today, when Degas’ painting L’Absinthe is universally regarded as a pitiless and objective study of the despair and utter abasement befalling the absinthe drinker. As one of Degas’ contemporaries wrote in 1887, “Absinthe and tobacco together have killed more people in their funereal alliance than all the wars, pestilences and epidemics combined.”

Absinthe, a hypnotic, mildly hallucinogenic drink, is the; most notorious liqueur ever distilled. The drinker even forgets that he or she is alive. To be an absinthe drinker means to commit crimes of the most revolting character; it means brutality, cruelty, apathy, sensuality and mania—not just for the drinkers, but for their children as well. And yet, the one thing reckless, dissipated, jaded pleasure-seekers even today want to know is, who do you have to know to get a drink around here?

Degas was a man who knew his absinthe. Ten years before he painted his absintheurs, Edouard Manet, the leader of the impressionists, admonished him to stop jointing classical Greek bullshit and concentrate on rendering “just what the eye sees”—graphic and delectable scenes of Parisian decadence in the Sixties and Seventies. It helps to know that impressionism was the first artistic movement ever organized entirely in cafes. Thus impressionism and absinthe were synonymous. Perceptions irrigated by great quantities of absinthe eidetically transposed the world into a series of points, dots, smudges, washes and smears. Life was but a dream.

The impressionist cafes were situated mostly in Montmartre, but there were cafes for every class and clique; literary and student cafes on the Left Bank, cafes with tables made of coffins and candelabra made of skulls and bones and, of course, the grand cafes of the Boul’ Miche, the main drag of the Latin Quarter. The people who frequented the Boul’ Miche were called boulevardiers, men whose principal accomplishment was to appear at the proper time in the proper cafe. Bv tradition, the time between four and six o’clock in the evening was designated the “hour of the aperitif,” and the proper aperitif to drink was, of course, une absinthe.

The favorite vantage points on the Boul’ Miche were along the sidewalks under the awnings. There the boulevardiers could sit and watch the flower girls, chorus girls and actresses, smell the roasting chestnuts, buy sweetmeats from the Turks, or pipes and canes from the peripatetic vendors or just gawk at the exotic Martinique Negroes strolling by. A waiter would appear, squeezing through the crowd (Garçon! Garçon!), place an empty tumbler on the table and within the tumbler a jigger containing an ounce of dark green absinthe, which at 136 proof was considered much too strong to drink unless diluted.

He then dripped water into the emerald elixir until it overflowed from one container to the other, changing from luminous green to a milky opalescence. The ceremony continued until the jigger held nothing but clear water, which meant that the contents in the tumbler would be five parts water to one part absinthe: the proper proportion to drink the proper aperitif at the proper time in the proper cafe. One could not imagine a civilized person nursing a whiskey or a cognac. No! It had to be an absinthe. Only absinthe stimulated the mind, the passion and the libido—and all this only at the expense of reason!

Unlike the patrons of the Boul’ Miche, the cafe bohemians would celebrate the hour of the aperitif for much of the day and far into the night. The Cabaret du Soleil D’or, par example, was a cafe whose innards housed nothing but dedicated absinthe drinkers. According to an eyewitness account from the 1890s, the members of this absinthe subculture were sloppily dressed, though they exhibited some adornment or finery completely out of character with the rest of their attire. Men had long hair, and so did women. The environment was gloomy and wretched, with smoke belching from foot-long pipes and cigarettes which were continuously rolled. The atmosphere reeked from the funereal alliance of tobacco and absinthe. The patrons listened to poetry and music and animated discussions of aesthetic theories.

One of the patrons of the 1890s cabaret scene was Paul Verlaine, the middle-aged poet of the slums, who had built a great literary reputation despite a reckless hunger for absinthe, which he had once dubbed “the Green Muse.” Absinthe did to the mind’s eyes of the writers of the period just what it had done to the impressionists’ retinas. It was a sacrament of creativity, the key to a particularly luxurious madness, which opened the mind to poetic visions and sensual derangement.

Verlaine’s lover, the 16-year-old poet Arthur Rimbaud, wrote a manifesto on poetics calling for “le dérèglement de tous les sens.” Rimbaud claimed that by deliberate intoxication the conscious mind would open to the ineffable; by drinking absinthe, the poet could achieve a fusion of all senses, a perfect synesthesia in which to dream.

Together they attended the best cafes, but Verlaine alone paid the bills. Rimbaud is described as taking absinthe “with ecstasy. He liked the taste; he enjoyed the effect; it gave him confidence.” Rimbaud called it “The Academy of Absomphe, that drunkenness for the virtue of this sage of glaciers.” However, “the morning after,” he once wrote, “was like sleeping in shit.”

But if Rimbaud was sleeping in it, Verlaine, who was 26 at the time and married to 17-year-old Mathilde Maute de Fleurville, was buried in it. They say that absinthe seduces. Verlaine was seduced. As his affections for absinthe increased, so did his affections for Rimbaud. Likewise did his affections for Mathilde diminish. In the early morning hours Verlaine would slink home, stumble up the stairs and beat his wife. In one encounter, he tried to strangle Mathilde and then hurled their young baby against the wall, nearly killing it. Un vrai absintheur, n’est ce pas?

In the Cafe du Rat Mort, Rimbaud asked Verlaine to put his hands on the table, and when he had done so, Rimbaud sliced them with a knife. While it was only a lover’s quarrel, Rimbaud’s usual preference was to burn Verlaine with cigarettes or surprise him by jumping out at him in the night. During a trip to Brussels, Verlaine surprised Rimbaud by taking a drunken aim and shooting him in the wrist. Verlaine was sentenced to jail for two years, during which time his wife and child left him. Shortly thereafter, Rimbaud wrote: “What is my nothingness compared to the stupor which awaits you?” Absinthe did not make the heart grow fonder, only colder.

Another brilliant young poet, Alfred Jarry, consumed monumental quantities of absinthe because he “believed in it.” Jarry held that absinthe should only be drunk straight, never diluted or muddied with water. Jarry died of chronic alcoholism at the age of 34. But George Saintsbury, an English man of letters with a passion for the green liqueur, claimed “only a lunatic would drink it neat.” The temperate Saintsbury lived to be 88. Toulouse-Lautrec carried a flask of absinthe in his cane. Van Gogh, another absinthophile, cut off his ear and mailed it to his girlfriend before he was completely consumed in his own madness. Absinthe was blamed. Openly called “bottled madness” and “the devil’s liquor,” its reputation deteriorated. The “Green Muse” became the “Green Curse.”

Before absinthe was known as a subtle poison, it was called a vivifying miracle drug. Robert Jordan, the hero of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and an absinthophile with a special craving for the Spanish Tarragona variety, justified his passion on medicinal grounds. Jordan described the “medicine” as an “opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy….In this, the real absinthe, there is wormwood. It’s supposed to rot your brain out, but I don’t believe it. It only changes the ideas.”

The ideas about wormwood change nearly every time someone studies it. The plant grows about two to four feet high and belongs to a species of sagebrush whose scientific name is Artemesia absinthium. Species of artemesia grow extensively in large parts of the world, including the United States, and the oils extracted from these plants have been used pharmacologically since recorded history. Its primary alchemy is absinthe, an essential oil from which the drink is made. But long before it was used for that, Hippocrates, the Greek founder of modern medicine, used to prescribe it for anemia, rheumatism and menstrual pains, a practice that was continued by European chemists into the twentieth century.

In this country, oil of wormwood was listed in the U.S. Formulary, “the druggist’s Old Testament,” as an antidote for fever and a stimulant for growing hair. It is still used today by W. F. Young, Inc., the world’s largest buyer of wormwood, in manufacturing Absorbine Jr. and Absorbine Veterinary Liniment. “We use the oil,” says the company’s chemist, Rick Harper, “so Absorbine will smell good when you rub it on your stomach.”

Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French royalist chemist living in exile in the mountains of Switzerland, hit upon the original formula for modern absinthe in 1792, when he discovered that wormwood oil was better when it rubbed the inside of the stomach. Using the dried flowering tops and leaves of artemesia and mixing them with 15 other aromatics, Dr. Ordinaire macerated them in alcohol, added water and distilled the mix in a 16- to-20-liter still. What came out tasted bitter on the first sip, but sweet at the last. Dr. Pierre dubbed it “the Green Fairy” and sold it at 136 proof to his neighbors in the Swiss countryside as a remedy for gastric pains. Strong medicine, but apparently effective, for soon his neighbors were drinking it daily at the slightest twinge.

After Dr. Ordinaire died in 1793, his housekeeper Mere Henriod continued to make the elixir until 1797, when she sold the formula to a Major Henri Dubied. Major Dubied discovered that absinthe cured just about everything, as well as stimulating the appetite and the genitals. “It was indeed one of the best and safest aphrodisiacs ever invented by the mind of man,” wrote Maurice Zolotow in a 1971 Playboy article. “It worked by changing the ideas, as Hemingway said, and not by irritating the sexual glands, as do most aphrodisiacs.”

Major Dubied’s daughter married Henri-Louis Pernod, and the families established the first absinthe factory in Couvet, Switzerland, under the name of Pernod Fils. By 1827 the company had expanded its facilities and production began to soar, helped by a colonial war in Algeria. The French Army in Africa was unable to obtain drinkable water, and military doctors advised troopers to add a few drops of absinthe to the water to rid it of microbes. This made a refreshing and agreeable beverage. The ratio of absinthe to water increased daily, and Pernod Fils profited immensely. Daily production rose from 400 liters in 1829 to over 30,000 liters at the turn of the century, with world-wide distribution.

Then, in 1901, disaster struck, signaling an omen which marked the beginning of the end of the absinthe era. One Sunday, a lightning bolt hit a telephone line at the large Pernod plant at Pontalier and was conducted like a long-distance call along the copper wire to a metal vat, cutting it in two and spilling its flaming contents all over the premises. Fearing that the other vats would explode and destroy the entire neighborhood, a worker ran into the cellars and opened all the faucets, sending absinthe streaming into the Doubs River. Absinthe, which had kept the French alive when added to the waters of Algeria, was now polluting the very currents of France.

While Pontalier burned, French doctors raged against habitual “absinthism,” which they claimed to be medically distinct from alcoholism. In its acute stages, the absinthism victim can hardly walk and suffers from vertigo and giddiness, disorientation and stupefaction. From the moral standpoint, there is great instability of character and a tendency toward violent crime. In its chronic stages, absinthism causes convulsive epilepsy and hallucinatory delirium, followed by amnesia. One’s conscience disappears entirely, giving way to an automatism in which criminal acts are performed. You can easily spot someone in this condition—they are exceedingly pale, ashamed, gloomy, exhibiting the disposition of somebody just about to jump. Unfortunately. medical texts further assure us that this condition does not end with those afflicted, but is transmitted genetically to their children, enfeebling them and perpetuating the tendencies toward crime.

Physicians and reformers naturally became alarmed. France was degenerating right before their bloodshot eyes. After France lost the Franco-Prussian War, the number of insane French doubled in 30 years. Juvenile delinquency and violent crime soared. Paris was plagued by gaiety (yes!) and wretchedly low standards of moral responsibility. Talk in the cafes was no longer of avenging the national disgrace, of honor, of taking back Alsace-Lorraine, storming Berlin and kicking the asses of les boches, but of obscenities, vice, vulgarities, le can-can, drug drinking and I’amour. Which brings us to the worst and most alarming symptom of absinthism: it made people avoid the army!

Another case of colonial karma was in the making: the army, having introduced absinthe to France, was now being destroyed by it, much the same way in which the American expeditionary forces in Vietnam were immobilized by the marijuana they encountered there. As one writer of the time expressed it, “The absinthe drinker is content to crouch before the stalwart, honest, beerbred Teuton.” France had to choose between a national aperitif and a national army.

But first, things got worse. On August 28, 1905, 31-year-old Jean Lanfray, a French-born vineyard worker living in the little community of Commugny, in the commune of the Vaud, Switzerland, awoke and poured himself a shot of absinthe, which he diluted in three parts water. He got dressed and had another absinthe in water, then went about his daily chores.

On returning home that evening, Lanfray commenced an argument with his pregnant wife over why she had not polished his boots that day. Then, going to what appears to be extraordinary lengths to make his point. Lanfray took his Vetterli rifle out of the closet and shot his wife through the head. Hearing the noise, his four-year-old daughter Rose ran into the room screaming, and Lanfray silenced her with a bullet in the chest. His youngest daughter Blanche, who remained sleeping in the crib, received the next bullet and died instantly. With his family now liquidated, Lanfray turned the rifle on himself. Tying a string to the trigger and aiming at his brain, Lanfray jerked the string, but succeeded only in shooting himself in the jaw. Easily discouraged, he threw the rifle down, picked up the corpse of his youngest daughter and went to sleep it off out in the barn.

That is where the police found him. Lanfray was taken into custody and driven to the hospital in nearby Nyon, where his wound was fixed. Then he was taken to see his family in their coffins. According to Marie Blaser, the nurse on duty that night, Lanfray cried at the sight of them: “It is not me who did this! Tell me I have not done this! I loved my wife and children so much!” Like the fictional Gaston Bauvais, he didn’t remember a thing.

To the shocked citizens of the Vaud, the motiveless massacre was at first perplexing. Jean Lanfray’s drinking buddies at the cabaret all described him as “un bon garcon.” And indeed, he was. In detention while awaiting sentencing, he was always perfectly “calm, submissive and discreet,” and he took to embroidering little silken ornaments with marvelous dexterity. It was not until Lanfray was remanded for observation to the psychiatric institution at Cery that the leading Swiss psychologist of the time, Dr. Albert Mahaim, opined that it had been the prisoner’s daily intake of absinthe over a long period of time which had triggered his murderous rage. In fact, Dr. Mahaim reported, “it was a classic case.”

The story of the “absinthe murderer” made front-page headlines all over Europe. Suddenly, absinthe was behind every unsolved crime west of Poland. On February 23, 1906, Lanfray went to trial charged with four murders, the last being the four-month-old fetus of his pregnant wife. His lawyers argued that he had been temporarily deranged due to absinthe, as Dr. Mahaim had found. The prosecutor disagreed.

Lanfray, the prosecutor argued, had taken two ounces of absinthe only ten hours before the commission of the crime. In addition, he had consumed a creme de menthe, a cognac and soda, six or seven glasses of a strong, local Burgundian chambertin and a cup of black coffee laced with brandy. Nor was this unusual. The prosecutor explained that Lanfray’s habitual daily intake of liquor included six quarts of wine, plus six to eight ounces of brandy and cordials, of which absinthe was a minor part. Serious studies made of absinthe drinkers at the time showed that they were usually quite catholic in their alcoholic tastes. One medical researcher even wrote a scientific paper lamenting the fact that he could not find a pure absinthe-consuming population among the French working class, and he wondered how other scientists dared to come to any conclusions on the absinthe question. But never mind. Lanfray was found guilty and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment. Three days later he hung himself in his cell.

But absinthe was what was really on trial in the Vaud.

By the turn of the century, temperance movements had gained full swing. As the world moved into the modern era, older social orders crumbled and alcohol consumption grew. So did the aspirations of emerging nation-states and empires. Governments now relied on the masses rather than professional armies to fight their wars. The masses were too tipsy, and the cereal crops were needed for the army, not brandy. The Lanfray trial helped turned the tide. Though many countries instituted general temperance, absinthe became the first and only beverage ever to be singled out for complete prohibition. It was banned by Belgium in 1906, Switzerland in 1908, Holland in 1910 and the United States in 1912. France, which consumed two-thirds of the world’s absinthe, still had that choice to make.

Then, the deputy from the Vosges, Pierre Henri Schmidt, came forward. “We’re not attacking the hour of the aperitif, this agreeable moment of detente,” he declared tremulously to the Chamber of Deputies. “We are attacking the erosion of the national defense. The abolition of absinthe and the national defense are the same. What is necessary is trench warfare against absinthism!”

The trench warfare lasted nine years. Each year, absinthe was acquitted by medical committees. But Schmidt worked tirelessly. He argued figures, showing how absinthe consumption was spreading through France like a plague. (Official statistics from the French Ministry of Finance showed that absinthe consumption increased until 1900, then dropped considerably by the time of the debates.)

But then war broke out, and on March 16, 1915, Schmidt finally left his parliamentary trench victorious. The legislature agreed: absinthe would be banished forever from France, and public health would benefit the national defense.

One million, three-hundred-fifty-three thousand, eight hundred young Frenchmen were spared a life of hallucinations to die without dreams in the trenches of Europe.

On July 13. 1907, Harper’s Weekly noted, “The growing consumption in America of absinthe, the ‘green curse of France,’ has attracted the attention of the Department of Agriculture, and an investigation has been ordered to determine to what extent it is being manufactured in this country.” Five years later, on July 25, 1912, the Department of Agriculture issued Food Inspection Decision 147, which banned absinthe in America. The ruling is now covered under Section 801A of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, as amended in August 1972. Also in that act, Section 409, “Unsafe Food Additives” is specifically applied to absinthe because of thujone, the active ingredient of wormwood oil.

Thujone (C10H16O) is a colorless, aromatic and bitter resinous material. It is mildly convulsant and is the “cause” of absinthism. While no scientific material exists proving a correlation between thujone and homicide, experiments have shown the chemical to be mildly toxic. Enforcement of the absinthe ban is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. This writer was surprised when, at the end of a phone interview, an employee of that department let drop: “One of our chemists here, however, is skeptical that there are any damaging properties to thujone, at least in the quantity in which it is contained in absinthe.”

Had absinthe been framed?

Dr. Richard Rappolt, the executive editor of Clinical Toxicology, volunteered the same opinion: “Our feeling has been, as far as medical toxicology is concerned, that the most harmful ingredient in absinthe is not wormwood or thujone, but ethanol, which is drinking alcohol. What people object to in absinthe is mostly the name ’wormwood.’ It makes them think little maggots are eating their brains.”

“But there is really very little known about absinthe,” Dr. Rappolt continued. “So they’ve removed the wormwood and now market it as an anisette aperitif. Well, if you drink enough of it, anisette flushes potassium out of the body. And what about the glycyrrhiza in licorice! I swear there are cases of people eating up to 10 to 20 Switzers a day whose muscles won’t coordinate because they’ve become ataxic and weak. The point is, everything is toxic if you take enough of it!”

The way the FDA operates is that in order for food additives to be admitted to the dietary, they must be on the GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe). A substance is placed on GRAS only after laboratory studies on its lifetime effects on two kinds of animals have established a permissible “no effect” level, or the quantity at which the substance can be ingested without injury to brain, liver or fetus. But animals aren’t humans, so as a safety measure, the human no-effect level has to be 100 times smaller than it is for animals.

The generally accepted measure for thujone poisoning is in ratio of 30 milligrams per kilogram of a rat’s body weight. At this level, thujone causes mild convulsions and lesions of the cerebral cortex in the rat’s brain. The maximum nonlethal dose (administered orally) is 75 milligrams per kilogram. This is not very toxic. And though thujone is psychoactive in a relatively weak dose compared to other flavorings, evidence indicates that it does not cause cumulative damage to the nervous system.

The question is: How much thujone is contained in absinthe?

We were unable to find any records of modern experimentation on this question, and three departments of government, as well as the Pernod Corporation, claimed that they had none. Nevertheless, we were able to reconstruct an equation which did give us an average approximate amount, and we checked this equation with three separate toxicologists. What it shows is that the intake of thujone in one ounce of traditional absinthe (drunk by a 150-pound person) is 50 times less than the dosage required to cause a minimum toxic reaction. This safety margin of 50, we should point out, is half of what is necessary to qualify by FDA standards. But the toxicity is so minimal that it is doubtful that anyone could drink enough absinthe to suffer anything other than alcoholic poisoning.

An ounce of absinthe contains much less thujone than is contained in the amount of wormwood oil once prescribed by doctors for alleviation of fever. What this means, very simply, is that the thujone in the notorious Green Curse must be innocent of 99 percent of the crimes attributed to it. Jean Lanfray, on the day of the murder, had consumed 30 times less thujone than it would take to make a rat shudder.

Thujone is still present today in vermouth (from the German Wermut, which also means “wormwood”), but in legally passable quantities of 10 parts per million (there are about 60 parts per million in absinthe), Thujone is also present in sausages spiced with sage.

Such scientific research remains to be done on the absinthe question, but there are a number of ways you could gain direct experiential knowledge of the problem. A Danish import firm sells a bottle of vodka, the label of which advises the purchaser to soak wormwood leaves in the alcohol for two days to draw out the thujonic essences. Wormwood is available at most herbalists for a few dollars a pound. This same process could be done with any of the so-called imitation absinthe drinks on the market such as Pernod, Ricard, Ouzo, Ojen, Anesone, Herbsaint and our personal favorite, LiqueurD’Anis (by Charles Jacquin in Philadelphia; it is bottled at 136 proof, the same as absinthe), for a more quintessential absinthe experience. Macerate the flowering tops and leaves of wormwood in the drink for about two weeks, agitating and filtering it each day. And voila!

But before you touch a drop, you better pay attention to a recent study on the effects of thujone conducted by the Institut de Recherches Appliquees aux Boissons in Paris. As with the FDA, we have drawn our own animal-to-human inferences, which may be of serious import for the neophyte absintheur wishing to start the regreening of America.

The experiment was conducted on Swiss male mice. These mice were given exceedingly high doses of thujone (150 milligrams per kilogram, nearly the maximum nonlethal intramuscular dose), and were then observed in various “typical” situations.

The mice in the first group were made to hang from a bar by their little toes and, under the influence of the thujone, were unable to right themselves. The thujone-stoned rodents of the second group had their heads stuffed into a test tube and were unable to extricate themselves. The third group of mice was noted to eventually fall when placed on a spinning dowel.

The mice in the final group seemed so hypnotized by the thujone that, when placed on their backs, they didn’t attempt to resume a normal standing position. But then, if you had to look forward to hanging from your toes from a high bar, getting your head stuffed into a test tube or being placed on a spinning dowel, what would you do?

Answer: Join the French Army and work for the national defense.

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