The Devil in a Little Green Bottle: A History of Absinthe

T. Bianco, Le Peril Vert

Le Peril Vert depicts absinthe ravaging the French population. The artist, T. Bianco, was a well-known satirical illustrator.

It was late August 1905 in the small village of Commugny, Switzerland, and three coffins stood open to the air. The mother’s was the largest, adult-sized; a smaller casket held her four-year-old daughter, Rose. In the smallest coffin lay her two-year-old daughter, Blanche.

Before the coffins stood Jean Lanfray, a burly, French-speaking laborer. Facing the bodies of his family, he wept, insisting he didn’t remember shooting the three. “Please tell me I haven’t done this,” he wailed. “I loved my family and children so much!”

Lanfray had drunk his way through the previous day, beginning near dawn with a shot of absinthe diluted in water. A second absinthe shot soon followed. At lunch and during his afternoon break from work at a nearby vineyard, he downed six glasses of strong wine. He drank another glass before leaving work. Heading home, Lanfray stopped at a café and drank black coffee with brandy. Back home Lanfray finished a liter of wine as his wife watched in disgust. She called him lazy. He told her to shut up. She told him to make her. He took his loaded rifle from the wall and shot her through the forehead. When his daughter Rose came to investigate, he shot her too. Then he went into the next room, walked to the crib of his other daughter, Blanche, and shot her.

From this domestic tragedy the people of Commugny drew one inescapable conclusion: the absinthe made him do it. Anti-absinthe sentiment had been bubbling throughout Europe, and in Switzerland it boiled over. “Absinthe,” Commugny’s mayor publicly declared, “is the principal cause of a series of bloody crimes in our country.” A petition to outlaw the drink gathered 82,000 signatures in just a few days.

The press seized on Lanfray’s story, dubbing it “the absinthe murder.” For members of the anti-absinthe movement (including many newspaper editors), two glasses of pale-green liquid explained why a family lay dead. Prohibitionists could not have imagined a more potent metaphor for social decay. La Gazette de Lausanne, a French-language Swiss newspaper, called it “the premiere cause of bloodthirsty crime in this century.”

At his trial the following February, Lanfray’s lawyers declared him a classic case of absinthe madness—a medically ill-defined affliction, but one that captured the public imagination. The lawyers called to the stand Albert Mahaim, a leading Swiss psychiatrist. He had examined the defendant and declared confidently that only sustained, daily corruption by that foul drink could have given him “the ferociousness of temper and blind rages that made him shoot his wife for nothing and his two poor children, whom he loved.” The prosecution countered that his absinthe consumption was dwarfed by his prodigious intake of other alcohol.

The trial lasted a single day. Found guilty on four counts of murder—his wife, an examination revealed, had been pregnant with a son—Lanfray hanged himself in prison three days later.

The murders energized prohibitionists—the drink became a Swiss national concern. The canton of Vaud (containing Commugny) banned it less than a month after Lanfray’s death. The canton of Geneva, reacting to its own “absinthe murder,” followed suit. In 1910 Switzerland declared absinthe illegal. Belgium had banned it in 1905 and the Netherlands in 1910. In 1912 the U.S. Pure Food Board imposed a ban, calling absinthe “one of the worst enemies of man, and if we can keep the people of the United States from becoming slaves to this demon, we will do it.” By 1915 the Green Fairy (la fée verte, as the absintheurs called it) had been exiled even from France, long the center of absinthe subculture.

While temperance movements had blossomed worldwide in the late 1800s and early 1900s, never before had an individual alcoholic drink been targeted. Yet by World War I, throughout the world a combination of economic interests, dubious science, and a fear of social change—and the tabloid stories that used murder to inflame readers’ imaginations—had turned the Green Fairy into the Green Demon.