Absinthe was originally fairly expensive, and largely a drink of the upper-middle classes. However, by the second half of the nineteenth century it had fallen dramatically in price, both because of increasing economies of scale in its production, and because most producers had switched from grape alcohol to far cheaper grain and beet alcohols. At the same time the number of brands exploded, with many catering for the very cheapest end of the market.
Absinthe became increasingly popular amongst all classes of French society, and began to displace wine as the standard drink of the French working class. During this period the French wine industry was struggling with the crippling effects of both oidium (a kind of mildew) and phyloxera (an incurable aphid infestation deadly to vines). Almost all the French national vineyard had to be replanted, a process that took decades and resulted in a prolonged shortage of wine, and a consequent rise in wine prices.
Increasingly, absinthe was the affordable, and far more alcoholic, alternative to wine. This was both a major reason for its enormous popularity, and ultimately the root cause of its downfall. When the wine industry began to recover in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the politically well-connected grape growers, seeking to recover the market share they had lost, began to agitate for the prohibition of what they termed “unnatural” products like absinthe.
In the 1860’s, there was for the first time concern about the results of chronic abuse of absinthe. Chronic use of absinthe was claimed to produce a syndrome, called absinthism, which was characterized by addiction, hyperexcitability, epileptic fits and hallucinations. This was first described in a series of influential papers by Dr Valentin Magnan, the chief physician at the asylum of Sainte-Anne in Paris. Magnan wrote :
“In absinthism, the hallucinating delirium is most active, most terrifying, sometimes provoking reactions of an extremely violent and dangerous nature. Another more grave syndrome accompanies this: all of a sudden the absinthist cries out, pales, loses consciousness and falls; the features contract, the jaws clench, the pupils dilate, the eyes roll up, the limbs stiffen, a jet of urine escapes, gas and waste material are brusquely expulsed. In just a few seconds the face becomes contorted, the limbs twitch, the eyes are strongly convulsed, the jaws gnash and the tongue projected between the teeth is badly gnawed; a bloody saliva covers the lip, the face grows red, becaomes purplish, swollen, the eyes are bulging, tearful, the respiration is loud, then the movements cease, the whole body relaxes, the sphincter releases, the evacuations soil the sick man. Suddenly he lifts his head and casts his eyes around him with a look of bewilderment. Coming to himself after awhile, he doesn’t remember one thing that has happened.”
Magnan’s research was fundamentally flawed. His experiments involved exposing small animals to large quantities of pure wormwood essence, rather than to commercially produced absinthe, which contains only a relatively small percentage of actual essence. (In French, crucially, the same word, absinthe, is used for both the essence and the drink, which meant that extracts from Magnan’s and other scientists works could be quoted directly by anti-absinthe prohibitionists in order to demonize the drink).
A skeptical English scientist writing in The Lancet, in 1869, described how :
“the question whether absinthe exerts any special action other than that of alcohol in general, has been revived by some experiments by Monsieurs Magnan and Bouchereau in France.”
The experiments placed animals such as guinea pigs in tightly sealed glass jars, some with a saucer of pure wormwood essence, others with one of alcohol. The animals which inhaled wormwood vapours experienced “epileptiform convulsions”, those exposed only to alcohol fumes merely became lively and drunk. The Lancet’s anonymous correspondent continued :
“Upon these facts it is sought to establish the conclusion that the effects of excessive absinthe drinking are seriously different from those of ordinary alcoholic intemperance. It is not the first time that we have had to notice discussions on this subject, and to comment upon the inadequacy of the evidence produced in order to prove that absinthism, as met with in the Parisian world, is something different in its nature from chronic alcoholism. We have never denied the possibility of an ultimate discovery of such differences, but we do maintain that as yet no symptoms of absinthism have been described which are not to be met with in many of the victims of simple alcoholic excess.”
He went on to remark that the insomnia, trembling, hallucinations, paralysis and convulsions identified by Magnan as typical of absinthism were all equally well known symptoms frequently met with in English alcoholics. He correctly pointed out that the fact that concentrated fumes of wormwood were peculiarly toxic was evidence of little, as wormwood is present in only small proportions in absinthe, and no absinthe drinker drinks, or inhales, concentrated wormwood.
Magnan, undeterred by this criticism, continued his researches on the same lines. He made much of the undeniably true observation that many of the most desperate alcoholics encountered in Parisian hospitals were habitual absinthe drinkers. He attributed their degeneration specifically to the absinthe they were drinking, rather than even considering the alternative and far more likely explanation that, in common with hard-core alcoholics the world over, they were simply seeking out the cheapest and strongest spirit available to them. In late nineteenth century France this was absinthe, just as it had been gin from the eighteenth century onwards in England.
Although as we have seen, the science, or pseudo-science behind these anti-absinthe reports was dubious and often obviously flawed, they were generally accepted in France, and perhaps even more importantly, published as fact in the popular press of the day.
Further aggravating matters was the then widely held belief in scientific circles that not just the consequences of alcoholism were hereditary – fetal alcohol syndrome, mental retardation and birth defects – but alcoholism itself. In other words, an alcoholic father would sire alcoholic children and grandchildren, with each generation sinking deeper into despair and depravity. Absinthism was regarded as the most dangerous and virulent form of alcoholism, and the most likely to be passed down from father to son.
It now seems clear that the symptoms of “absinthism” were due primarily to the effects of the alcohol itself, and also perhaps to the many sometimes extremely dangerous chemical adulterants used in cheap absinthes of the time. Well-made absinthes used chlorophylic colouration from herbs to achieve their characteristic green colour. This however was an expensive and difficult to control process, so unscrupulous low cost producers substituted chemicals such as copper sulphate to achieve the same effect. Antimony chloride – another highly poisonous substance – was also used to help the drink become cloudy when water was added.
The adulteration of spirits was a huge problem worldwide from the middle of the eighteenth century when industrially made drinks like gin were first developed in England, right up to the implementation of accurate scientific testing and regulation at the beginning of the twentieth century.
During the late 19th & early 20th centuries France, together with many western countries, was under pressure from various temperance movements and their constituents to curb alcohol consumption on a governmental level, as it was seen to morally corrupt its citizens. In the midst of this prohibitionist excitement, fanned by the chief French temperance organisation, the Ligue National Contre L’Alcoolisme (or the “Croix Bleue” as it was colloquially known), the word “absinthism” came to lose its specific meaning. Absinthism and alcoholism were confused, and an alcoholic was simply deemed an “absinthe drinker”.
This confusion of meaning seems to have been deliberately encouraged by the prohibitionist movement. Wine was believed to be healthy and natural, since it came from the land and was a time-honored tradition, not to mention a major source of revenue. Absinthe, however, was made with industrial alcohol, and was moreover by far the most alcoholic of all liquors. It’s not surprising, that by the 1890’s, absinthe had become the primary target for the French temperance movement.
In 1907 the Croix Bleue gathered 400 000 signatures on a petition which declared :
“Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.”
This narrow focus on absinthe was of course entirely in the interests of the powerful wine industry lobby. After all, under the growing threat of Prohibition, how better to draw attention away from your own alcoholic product –wine – than to make people believe that it is the healthy, natural exception to the “bad” rule? After a series of temperance rallies in Paris, the June 15th 1907 headline of Le Matin read : “TOUS POUR LE VIN CONTRE L’ABSINTHE”.
The leading anti-absinthe firebrand in the Chamber of Deputies, Henri Schmidt, told the assembly that studies “proved” that absinthe was 246 times more likely to cause insanity than wine, and was three times more guilty than other distilled alcohols like cognac. Schmidt went on to argue:
“The real characteristic of absinthe is that it leads straight to the madhouse or the courthouse. It is truly ‘madness in a bottle’ and no habitual drinker can claim that he will not become a criminal.”
Adding to the political agitation against absinthe was its popularity not just with the working class, but also with the radical bohemian set – young artists like Van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec, writers like Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine, to name just a few. Their scandalous lifestyles and debauched behaviour shocked and outraged the establishment, and absinthe, their favourite drink, came to encapsulate in the public mind everything that had gone wrong with conservative France.
Indoctrination against absinthe in schools A 1907 dictation book containing a passage on the dangers of absinthe.. It amusingly starts with :
“L’absinhte est une poisson extremement dangereuse.”