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What were the Lanfray murders?

Like a vice slowly tightening, the pressure to ban absinthe inexorably increased. The last straw was a series of particularly brutal family murders which were – largely unfairly – blamed on absinthe consumption. The most notorious of these was the celebrated Lanfray case, which riveted the European press in 1905.

Jean Lanfray, a Swiss peasant of French stock, having drunk two glasses of absinthe, shot his pregnant wife and two daughters, before attempting to kill himself. He failed, and was found the next morning collapsed across their dead bodies. Public reaction to the case was extraordinary, and it focused on just one detail – the two glasses of absinthe he had drunk beforehand. Forgotten was the fact that Lanfray was a thoroughgoing alcoholic who habitually drank up to 5 litres of wine a day. Forgotten also, was that on the day of the attack he had consumed not only the two absinthes before going to work – hours before the tragedy – but also a crème de menthe, a cognac, six glasses of wine to help his lunch down, another glass of wine before leaving work, a cup of coffee with brandy in it, an entire litre of wine on getting home, and then another coffee with marc in it. People were in no doubt. It must have been the absinthe that did it. Within weeks, a petition demanding that absinthe be banned in Switzerland was signed by over 82 000 local people.

The major absinthe producers, realising too late that their businesses and livelihoods were in jeopardy, fought a desperate rearguard action, organising counter petitions, and promoting the health benefits of their absinthes. There was an increasing vogue for oxygen enriched "absinthe oxygénée", and many brands were sold under the designation "absinthe hygenique".

Some producers - Bailly and Cousin Jeune amongst them - produced absinthes claimed to be thujone free - "absinthe sans-thuj" - but these seem never to have caught on. Of course the science behind the claims of the manufacturers was as dubious and corrupt as that of the temperance movement, and was often mocked in the satirical journals of the day.

Crucially, although in some cases financially powerful, the major absinthe producers lacked political influence in the Chamber of Deputies (where large hereditary landowners - often grape-growers - were disproportionately well represented). The fact that the management of the biggest producer, Pernod Fils, were of Jewish origin (Arthur and Edmond Vielle-Picard, who purchased a controlling interest in the company in 1894, were half-Jewish) in a France still reeling from the anti-semitism exposed by the Dreyfus affair, further aggravated the situation.

The popular press, led by the left-wing Parisian daily Le Matin was virulently pro-prohibition. The momentum to ban the drink was now unstoppable.