26 March 2008

Maladies & Treatments:
Madness in a Bottle

By Jennifer Linforth

They were all dead.

His pregnant wife had a bullet hole in her head and four year old Rose was killed when curiosity roused her from her bed. Two year old Blanche was murdered where she lay sleeping, but found in her father's arms outside the house. Her father, Jean, tried to kill himself once he realized what he did to his family. He botched the attempt. The father turned murderer would be tried and convicted and the murders blamed on a tiny green fairy.

Jean, a Swiss peasant, was known for being an alcoholic of mammoth proportions. It did not matter that the man was a constant raging drunk. The only thing to blame was the devil in a bottle slowly consuming all who drank it.

Labeled as dangerously addictive and psychoactive it is appropriate that the odd green drink called absinthe has a colorful history. Absinthism was the condition coined for addicts of the 'green fairy' and by the late 19th century absinthe would be considered the worst alcoholic drink ever known to man. But was it worse then other types of alcohol?

It was rumored absinthe gave a drinker clarity of thought—which is why many writers and artists consumed it. The belief was an element in the wormwood (which absinthe is based from) blocked the effects of drunkenness until its neurotoxins slowly effected the brain causing hallucinations and madness. The finger of blame was pointed at this new poison for the general ruin of society in France and in particular for insanity. Thujone, an element in absinthe, was blamed for convulsions and wild mood swings.

Statistics of the time showed a drinker was 246 times more likely to become insane from absinthe than other forms of liquor. By 1880 and into the 90's (the absinthe decade), the temperance warnings went out--'absinthe rend fou' (absinthe drives you mad). Insane asylums filled with victims of the drink. Some who consumed it claimed an amazing high--one that involved seeing a variance in colors, perhaps why so many artists drank it. But what goes up, must come down...

Absinthe became popular in France after 1840 when soldiers introduced it to their favorite cafes. Soon it became fashionable among the bourgeoisie, so much so, cafes were crowed during 'l'heure vert--the green hour. Jean loved the green hour. He carried in his pocket a flat slotted spoon. Lips quivering in anticipation, he would perch the spoon on the top of his glass, place a sugar cube atop it and slowly add cold water to his liquid green candy. His favorite brand was by far the Pontarlier. No matter the brand, all absinthe was gaining a reputation with the upwardly mobile class of poets, artists and soldiers.

Absinthe is derived from wormwood. Wormwood use dates back to ancient Greece when it was used to aid rheumatism, menstrual pains and jaundice. Prior to its popularity as a social drink, absinthe was believed to prevent fever and kill bacteria in water. It was Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor, who is believed to have first used absinthe as a cure-all remedy. Cheaper than wine, it was the most popular drink from 1876-1900. How could something so beneficial suddenly be considered the deliverer of delirium?

It was our murderer Jean, last name Lanfray, and his famous Absinthe Murder of 1905 that put the final nail the coffin of absinthe. It was banned in his homeland of Switzerland by 1910--in France in 1915. It took a military order to do so. The wormwood oil and the convulsions it caused in laboratory animals is what began the bad reputation--far before Jean got so stinking drunk he lost his ability to think straight.

Today we know much more about the myths regarding absinthe and each person can pass their own judgment on the drink. It is more likely that lesser quality brands of absinthe with poor adulterants caused more harm then the thujone itself. By drinking inferior brands of absinthe, lovers had to consume more of it to achieve the same highs from the quality absinthe. And what happens to the mind on high levels of alcohol? But in the late 19th century there was sin lurking behind sips of absinthe. And while I have done some crazy things in order for realism in my novels (I know all about the side effects of morphine first hand and natural childbirth was possibly the stupidest thing I have never done in the name of my career)I can't bring myself to sip absinthe. Perhaps it is its history of 'madness in a bottle' and the fact that one glass of wine knocks me on my ear. I can only imagine what absinthe can do to a lightweight. But I am oh so curious... (Apparently you can get absinthe in the United States, with the level of toxicity removed.)

However, I do know the addictive quality attached to it and the madness that goes with it makes for one great villain. I have never enjoyed crafting a character more then my absinthe addict Loup.

Oscar Wilde probably summed it up best:

After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.