Absinthe et Absintheurs by Henri Balesta

Published in 1860, Absinthe et Absintheurs is no more than an extended pamphlet, a modest and crudely printed publication of less than a 100 pages and measuring, in the original, just 4″ by 6″. Its influence on the prohibitionist movement however was out of all proportion to its size: it laid out the case against absinthe with a clarity and vigour that have never been equalled, and it’s been quoted in almost every book about the drink published since.

Written by a young journalist and playwright named Henri Balesta, it documented the social effects of the nascent absinthe craze. The booklet is divided into seven chapters each discussing a particular aspect of absinthe drinking in Paris, with the final chapter being a heartfelt anti-absinthe appeal. The year Absinthe et Absintheurs was written was a particularly important time in terms of the burgeoning understanding of drug use. In Britain for example, the Food and Drugs act had just been published. This specifically prohibited the adulteration of foodstuffs – something which was becoming an increasing problem, not least in the manufacture of absinthe. In the same year the naturalist Mordecai Cooke published his ground-breaking work The Seven Sisters of Sleep, a work which looked at historical drug use throughout the world. He documented the usage of the seven most popular plants of the Victorian era: tobacco, opium, cannabis, betel nut, coca, datura, and fly agaric and warned of the failure of even the harshest deterrent measures to discourage their consumption. This issue was increasingly relevant because the abuse of alcohol and similar substances was beginning to be recognized as both widespread in the new urban classes and ever more problematic. The same year saw the end of the Second Opium war, leading the United States to effectively legalize the opium trade with China, resulting in the increasing availability of cocaine and products containing coca leaf extract.

Balesta’s book was published at a time when the profile of the typical Parisian absinthe drinker was beginning to change. Until the late 1850’s, absinthe had been a fairly expensive drink compared to wine, and it’s use was confined largely to the military and professional classes. But the increased use of cheaper grain and beet alcohol to replace the original wine alcohol in its manufacture – a process that escalated exponentially when the onset of phylloxera began to devastate the vineyards of France – resulted in a drastic fall in the price of absinthe, and a resultant explosion of popularity amongst the working class. Absinthe fell in price to the point when it was often cheaper than wine – indeed, by 1873 the price of a glass of absinthe was less than a third that of a loaf of bread. Balesta was of course writing right at the beginning of this process, but his depiction of the working class man whose casual absinthe drinking eventually results in his complete degradation and ruin, rang alarm bells in a governing class already concerned at the consequences of industrialization and the growth of the new urban poor.

In one especially notable chapter, Balesta relates a lengthy conversation with a medical doctor, which reflects the growing conviction in the scientific profession that the abuse of alcohol, and absinthe in particular, could trigger almost any illness. According to Balesta’s unnamed doctor absinthe caused apoplexy, paralysis, chronic stomach, liver and intestinal problems, gout, dropsy, mental derangement, sterility, impotence, convulsions, epilepsy, depression, hallucinations, and most dramatically spontaneous combustion! It was believed that absinthe was somehow not disposed of properly by the body, and so it accumulated in the tissues until even the muscles of the absinthe drinker became saturated with alcohol. All that was then needed were the right conditions for the body to burst into flames. The belief in spontaneous human combustion was of course a well known oddity of the era – two of the most famous depictions of the phenomenon are to be found in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853) and Emile Zola’s Doctor Pascal (1893). The unfortunate victims of this peculiar death – Zola’s Uncle Macquart, and Dickens’s Krook – are both shown to have been drinking heavily, and eventually spontaneously combust, the alcohol soaked in their bodies causing their body fat to smoulder like a candle. Of course, there is an obvious correlation between alcoholism and death by fire, but it relates to simple drunken carelessness around open flames. Bizarre as the idea seems today however, the possibility of spontaneous combustion fitted in perfectly with the temperance movement’s agenda. The prospect of inevitable insanity was also one of the temperance movements ominous threats. Balesta’s anonymous doctor advises him to go to Charenton – the famous asylum for the insane located just outside Paris – to witness first hand the consequences of absinthe abuse.

Another influential account in Absinthe et Absintheurs is the tale of a cabinet maker called Aubin. He is widowed and has a six year old daughter. Missing his wife, Aubin begins spending more and more time in the cafes drinking absinthe. Balesta writes that although Aubin adored his little girl too much to leave her with hired help, he could not give up the pleasure of his absinthe. One day in an attempt to help the poor, pale little girl forget about her dead mother he offers her little taste of absinthe. He has the ‘diabolical’ idea that somehow the absinthe will revive the colour of her cheeks and give her strength. Unfortunately the child quickly becomes addicted. She begins to demand her share of absinthe if they forget to give it to her, and sometimes she drinks as much as two glasses in an evening. Soon she begins to have a reaction to the drink. She suffers alarming anxiety and febrile convulsions as well as severe stomach problems. The terrified Aubin rushes to find the child a doctor who very quickly guesses the truth.

He solicits a confession out of poor Aubin and tells him that he has ‘wasted’ the child by ‘overstimulating’ her. He accuses Aubin of betraying his duty to protect his daughter and of having killed her instead. Unfortunately it is too late – the little girl inevitably dies and soon after the funeral Aubin is found hanged in his garret. Balesta’s depiction of a working class father giving his child absinthe was by no means an unusual idea and it became a common theme. It was the subject of Jean-Francois Raffaelli’s Au Cafe, l’Absinthe Pernod (1885) showing a poor woman giving her child absinthe while her husband looks on. A version of this painting was published in L’Assiette au Beurre 1901, under the title Danse Macabre (see the following page). There are also numerous other satirical sketches showing adults giving absinthe to small children. Balesta made the point that working-class absinthe abuse damaged families, in a way that middle-class Bohemian self-destruction tended not to and this became a favourite theme of anti absinthe propaganda. Balesta never wrote anything again as important as Absinthe et Absintheurs, and after a few fairly well received books and plays he vanished into obscurity in the early 1900’s. But his youthful pamphlet lives on, and has had an influence over the years far in excess of anything he could have imagined.

A large poster (37″ x 40″) designed by Frédéric Christol (1850-1933) and printed in 1910 by Berger & Levrault, Nancy. It was reproduced, with altered colours, as the frontpiece of Achille Mélandri’s L’Etoile bleue in 1912. It is interesting to note that wine, beer and cider are expressly omitted from the list of Poisons de Choix at the bottom right of the poster. These were regarded as natural and healthy, and seldom targeted by the French temperance movement. (“Fine Champagne” is cognac.)
“Omnibus pour Charenton!! Avec correspondence par l’alcool Ou directement avec l’absinthe.” Charenton was the asylum for the insane just outside Paris.