On July 14, 1883, Harper's Weekly featured a cartoon about addiction to absinthe, the potent alcoholic beverage
Story by Robert C. Kennedy
Absinthe is a strong alcoholic beverage (60-75% alcohol) that derives its distinctive bitter taste from wormwood (an herb), and is mixed with distilled liquor, such as brandy, and other herbs and spices. In the nineteenth century, the yellowish-green drink became popular in Europe, particularly France, and in American cities. Its hallucinogenic properties made it chic among poets, writers, and artists, prompting one scholar to label it "the cocaine of the nineteenth century." In the early-twentieth century, absinthe was widely banned because of fears that it severely impaired the physical and mental health of its users, as well as the morality and social fabric of nations. Here, the cartoonist shows how one of the "gilded youth" who is a habitual imbiber of absinthe deteriorates rapidly in health from a robust athlete to a prematurely aged addict.
The use of wormwood leaves combined with wine or other alcoholic beverages is ancient, with references to it appearing in the Bible, Egyptian papyri, and other old texts. Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher and mathematician (582-500 B.C.) claimed it eased childbirth, while Hippocrates, the Greek "father of medicine" (460-377 B.C.), recommended it for a number of ailments, including anemia, menstrual pain, and rheumatism. In the first century A.D., the champions of Roman chariot races drank an absinthe concoction to remind them that every victory is mingled with bitterness.
The precise origin of absinthe's transformation from a medical remedy to an intoxicating beverage is uncertain. Advertisements for an absinthe liquor appear in the late-eighteenth century in Switzerland. By 1805, Henri-Louis Pernod had opened a distillery in France, and the Pernod brand thereafter became the leading label for absinthe, although many rival companies competed in the expanding and lucrative market. In the mid-1840s, French troops fighting in Algeria were given absinthe rations to prevent various fevers (a practice continued into World War I), and they returned home with the habit. In 1858, absinthe drinking was so common in France that Harper's Weekly called it "a French institution," although primarily identifying it with military men.
The practice soon spread throughout French society. In 1874, the French consumed 700,000 liters of absinthe per year, a number that reportedly rose to 36 million by 1910 (a greater amount that the rest of Europe combined). Parisians spoke of the "green hour" during which people sat in sidewalk cafes sipping absinthe. Poets like Arthur Rimbaud wrote poetry while intoxicated with the liquor, while artists Edgar Degas and Vincent Van Gogh memorialized the rituals of absinthe drinking in several paintings. (Most drinkers used a special glass topped by a spoon from which a sugar cube in water slowly melted into the beverage.)
Absinthe appeared in New Orleans, America's "Little Paris," as early as the 1830s. The Absinthe Room in the city's French Quarter became a hotspot attracting noted celebrities, such as Americans Walt Whitman and General P. G. T. Beauregard and foreign visitors Oscar Wilde of Britain and Grand Duke Alexis of Russia. Absinthe drinking became the vogue in other major American cities, New York (which had a restaurant named the Absinthe House), Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. In the United States the practice was also associated with the bohemian culture of artists and their trendy (and often wealthy) imitators.
At the same time that absinthe's popularity was spreading, physicians began warning about its ill effects on the user's mental and physical health. The drink was blamed for causing convulsions, hallucinations, birth defects, tuberculosis, insanity, and criminality. A leading critic was Dr. Valentin Magnan, a respected French physician and researcher, who, beginning in the 1860s, conducted experiments on animals to study the effects of absinthe and alcohol in general. He isolated thujone, a toxic chemical found in wormwood, as the main culprit.
In 1879, Harper's Weekly warned, "Many deaths are directly traceable to the excessive use of absinthe. The encroachments of this habit are scarcely perceptible. A regular absinthe drinker seldom perceives that he is dominated by its baleful influence until it is too late. All of a sudden he breaks down; his nervous system is destroyed, his brain is in operative, his will is paralyzed, he is a mere wreck; there is no hope of his recovery." By 1907, the newspaper was calling it the "green curse of France."
A prohibition movement began in France in the early 1870s, and soon gained adherents in other countries. It was finally banned in Europe and the United States in the early-twentieth century as part of a general movement to prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages and recreational drugs. In 1905, the sensational story of an absinthe-intoxicated man's murder of his family in Switzerland made headlines across the globe, adding momentum to the prohibition movement. Belgium outlawed absinthe in 1905, Switzerland followed in 1908, Holland in 1910, the United States in 1912, and France in 1915. Absinthe is the only alcoholic drink to be singled out for legal prohibition.
In 1918, the Pernod firm opened a distillery in Spain (where it was still legal) and manufactured an alcohol beverage similar to, and still labeled as, absinthe, but without wormwood. In France and other countries, a black market for the genuine article continued. When Spain joined the European Economic Community in 1992, it was the only European country in which absinthe was legal.
Robert C. Kennedy