It was the drink of artists, poets, and la vie bohème. It inspired timeless artists like Vincent van Gogh, Charles Baudelaire, and Oscar Wilde. Absinthe became known and loved for its rich flavor, hypnotic louche, and supposed psychoactive properties that could create feelings of euphoria or excitability.
But it wasn’t always a happy high…
One horrible day in Commugny, Switzerland back in 1905, when he was 31 years old, Jean Lanfray brutally murdered his pregnant wife and their two small children.
He then unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide before being arrested by the police. Later, while in prison, he would make another attempt and ultimately succeed.
This horrible event became known throughout Europe as the Absinthe Murders.
While there were complaints and controversies about the effects of absinthe on society before Jean Lanfray’s actions, these murders became the rallying cry that would lead to absinthe’s ban in many countries.
Today we’re going to explore the details of this story and how it ultimately shaped public opinion on absinthe at the beginning of the 20th century.
Who Was Jean Lanfray?
Jean Lanfray was a French peasant and laborer living in Commugny, Switzerland.
Here, he lived with his pregnant wife and two children (aged four and two) in the second floor of an old farmhouse. His parents and brother lived on the first floor.
Lanfray had served three years with the Chasseurs Alpins (the French mountain infantry). Some claim that his time in the military is why he was so prone to raising his voice.
It wasn’t unusual for him to yell at his wife, but nobody else in his village thought much of it. There was certainly no reason for them to believe that he would be a murderer.
However, Jean Lanfray did have a reputation for being quite an alcoholic.
Some days he was known to put away upwards of five liters of wine in addition to whatever else he could get ahold of!
He would often go on benders in the local bars, getting in arguments with strangers and embarrassing himself. If he was “cut off,” it wasn’t uncommon for him to have fits of rage if he didn’t get enough to drink.
Nevertheless, the 31-year-old Jean Lanfray was also known as a hard worker who did whatever it took to support his family. He would wake up before dawn and work all through the day to provide for them.
It made what would happen in the autumn of 1905 all the more shocking…
The Absinthe Murders
It was August 28, 1905.
That morning, Jean Lanfray had told his wife to wax his boots since he would be gathering mushrooms the next day.
Lanfray, his father, and his brother all made their way to a cafe for a drink before they began their workday at the vineyard. Throughout the day, Lanfray would go on to drink a massive amount of alcohol during his lunch break and at a cafe once the day’s work had been finished.
Once home, Lanfray continued drinking a strong homemade brandy until he saw his still-unwaxed boots. An argument ensued between the Lanfrays until Jean, wildly drunk from an entire day’s worth of drinking, stormed off into the next room.
When he returned, Jean Lanfray was holding a rifle. He shot his wife then proceeded to shoot his two children. In the commotion, Jean’s father had run to get the police who hurried to the farmhouse.
Jean had tried to turn the rifle on himself, but only managed to shoot himself through the jaw. He was arrested by the police and treated at a nearby infirmary before being imprisoned.
Lanfray’s lawyers maintained that he was not responsible for the gruesome murders because of his drunken state. Dr. Albert Mahaim, a prominent Swiss psychiatrist, explained that this was a case of “absinthe madness” that affected Monsieur Lanfray.
Nevertheless, the prosecution won and Jean Lanfray was sentenced to thirty years in prison on four counts of murder.
He wouldn’t serve that sentence, though. After just three days, Jean Lanfray committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell.
But while this is where the story of Jean Lanfray comes to an end, it’s only the beginning of the legend of “absinthe madness.”
The prosecution overcame Lanfray’s defendants’ claim that the two glasses of absinthe he had consumed were responsible for the madness. But there were already temperance movements to ban absinthe throughout Europe that now had the perfect example of why the Green Fairy had to be banned immediately.
Even though there were at least 5 other types of alcohol in Jean Lanfray’s bloodstream, it was the absinthe that got the most attention.
Studies were released that blamed absinthe for all manners of things such as hallucinations, madness, and death. While these studies were not peer-reviewed and lacked the type of scientific validity that one might expect, they further increased the fear of absinthism.
And so, by 1910, Swiss doctors and temperance leaders got what they wanted: manufacturing, selling, and possessing absinthe was banned throughout Switzerland. Most of the rest of Europe quickly followed as well as the United States.
The bans would remain in effect for nearly a century until they were gradually lifted.
The Legacy of the Absinthe Murders
Jean Lanfray’s murder of his family and the subsequent prohibition of absinthe influenced people’s perceptions of absinthe for decades to come.
It wasn’t until recent years that people have begun to better understand the truth of this particular drink.
Many of the myths, legends, and lies told in the early 1900s in an attempt to ban absinthe still linger to this day.
This misinformation is a large part of why absinthe is so notorious. Even despite the Green Fairy’s revival in modern times, there’s still a great deal of work to do in fighting the misinformation and opening doors for new distillers and absintheurs alike!
Speaking of which… check out this article debunking the myth that absinthe is deadly!
Conclusion – Jean Lanfray and the Absinthe Murders
Few, if any, spirits can rightly claim to have a history as controversial as absinthe!
In a way, the same fervor that led to the ban of absinthe following the Absinthe Murders isn’t unlike the infamous “Reefer Madness” concerns in the United States in the mid-20th century.
At what point does misinformation (backed by quack science and the media) become dangerous?
Even beyond the fake science and sensationalist newspapers, Jean Lanfray’s actions were the exact spark that the prohibitionists had been waiting for.
While we can safely enjoy absinthe today, it’s important to remember its troubled history. That’s how we can really enjoy the wonderful future of the Green Fairy!