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.

Absinthe Blanqui

Often reproduced, the Absinthe Blanqui poster is an art-nouveau image inspired by the cultural trend of orientalism at the time.

The most systematic studies of absinthe toxicity took place at another Paris asylum, under the supervision of a psychiatrist seeking to prove that absinthe did indeed “rot your brain out.” Valentin Magnan, an influential and well-respected psychiatrist, was appointed physician-in-chief of France’s main asylum, Sainte-Anne, in 1867 and thus became the national authority on mental illness. He diagnosed a steady decline in French culture—a not uncommon belief.

While Magnan ignored the wilder, medically unsupportable claims of absinthe’s sinister effects, he shared the general concern about the fitness of the French population. Like many nationalists of the time he believed in a “French race”: the concept of “degeneration” had much currency among public officials of the time, as ideas about heredity filtered into public discussion. Claims of degeneration—of a once-great nation now in decline—spurred action and anger, though such claims were often scientifically and statistically confused. Those who saw the French race collapsing, Magnan among them, could point to increasing instances of diagnosed insanity—most likely the effect of better diagnostic techniques—and to the strain of modern industrial life on already at-risk psyches. They could also point to lower birth rates—now seen as a nearly inevitable consequence of higher living standards and greater female education. Given the massive social and industrial changes of the 19th century, many unsurprisingly looked for culprits. And for Magnan, who found signs of national collapse in his asylum, absinthe became the villain responsible for an entire host of social ills.

In response Magnan sought to define “absinthism” as distinct from alcoholism. In 1869 he published results of an experiment designed to do just that. He placed one guinea pig in a glass case with a saucer of pure alcohol. A second guinea pig got its own case and a saucer of wormwood oil. Two other cases contained a cat and a rabbit, both with saucers of wormwood oil. As Magnan watched, the three animals inhaling wormwood fumes grew excited and then fell into seizures. The alcohol-breathing animal merely got drunk.

From this and similar experiments Magnan insisted on a separate category for the small number of “absinthistes” in his asylum. Chronic absinthe users, he claimed, suffered from seizures, violent fits, and bouts of amnesia. He recommended a ban on the Green Devil.

Others found his claims unpersuasive. Responses in The Lancet, for one, noted flaws in his methodology, including the crucial differences between a guinea pig inhaling high doses of distilled wormwood and a human consuming trace amounts of diluted wormwood. More likely, many argued, excessive consumption produced the same alcoholism as with any other drink. The British were especially skeptical of his claims; not coincidentally, the United Kingdom was one of the few countries never to ban the drink, which had never gained popularity there.

But in France, Magnan’s theories fit into the larger cultural conversation. Defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 escalated already existing anxieties about France’s collective health and especially its ability to protect itself against a bellicose and populous neighbor. (After the war Germany had 41 million citizens compared with France’s 36 million.) Public-health concerns gained an existential force; those worried about the rise of absinthe dubbed it “the poisoning of the population.” Not only did it contribute to the ill health of the populace, these opponents argued, but it was also an abortifacient and sterilized men, robbing the country of a generation of potential soldiers.

Others had long reveled in the dark side of absinthe. Baudelaire, an unrepentant absintheur, had declared in 1861, “France is passing through a period of vulgarity.” He thoroughly enjoyed the onrushing modernity, with Paris madhouses filling up and an apparently inevitable decline of civilization. But by the 1890 publication of Magnan’s The Principal Clinical Signs of Absinthism, common opinion in France largely agreed with his conclusion: the absinthe did it.

Still, it took the Lanfray murders of 1905 to convert many citizens into activists. Previously the absinthe drinker symbolized moral decay, but he had never truly crystallized into a violent threat to society. Doctors disagreed about the danger, with Magnan and his disciples declaring absinthe the root of all social evil. On slim evidence some even linked it to tuberculosis. Meanwhile, other physicians continued to tout its health benefits, prescribing it for gout and dropsy, as a general stimulant of mind and body, as a fever reducer, and as the perfect drink for hot climates. Amid the medical uncertainty support for an outright ban remained a minority stance.