The Lanfray Murders

It was a crime that nobody would have expected in peaceful Switzerland.

Jean Lanfray was a 31-year old labourer who lived with his pregnant wife and two children on the second floor of a farmhouse in Commugny, Switzerland. His parents and brother lived downstairs. A burly, ex-soldier (he had served three years in the French army), Lanfray would later be described as a devoted family man who worked hard to support his growing family.

At 4:30 am on August 28, 1905,  Lanfray got up from bed as usual. He then began his day with his regular shot of absinthe mixed with three parts of water. He and his wife quarreled briefly as he insisted that she wax his boots (they had been quarreling fairly frequently over the past year about his drinking). Jean then went to join his father and brothers in the vineyards where they worked. Despite this heavy workload, he still managed to find time to stop off at a local tavern and down 200px-Absinthe-glass[1] more alcohol (the police would be very conscientious about later documenting all the alcohol he had that day).

Ending his work at 4:30 pm (there had been two more wine breaks in the meantime), Lanfray and his brothers dropped into a local cafe where he had black coffee mixed with brandy. After finally going home, he found his wife in an extremely bad mood. The fight began with Lanfray refusing to milk the cows and ordering his wife to milk them herself. Although his father tried to head off the worsening argument, Jean Lanfray exploded with rage. Despite his father`s desperate protests, he got his rifle and shot his wife in the head. She died almost instantly while his father ran out of the house screaming for help. When four-year old Rose ran into the room, she screamed at the sight of her dead mother. He shot her in the chest and went to the crib where one-year old Blanche was sleeping. After killing the infant as well, Jean Lanfray then attempted to shoot himself in the head. He made several clumsy attempts (due to the length of the barrel, he needed to use a string to pull the trigger) and finally managed to fire the gun. The bullet missed his brain completely and lodged in his lower jaw. Tucking Blanche`s corpse under one arm, he went into the barn and laid down on the ground to sleep; apparently with the intention of bleeding to death before the police arrived.

The police reached Jean Lanfray in time and took him to a nearby hospital where the bullet was removed. Described by the police as "dazed and incoherent", he fell asleep after the surgery and denied any knowledge of the murders when he regained consciousness  After being taken to see the bodies of his wife and daughters, he became inconsolable. A nurse later reported that Lanfray moaned over and over again, "It is not me who did this. Oh God, tell me please that I have not done this.; I loved my wife and children so much".

Almost from the beginning, people searched for an explanation of why such an inconceivable crime could have happened. The autopsy results that showed Madame Lanfray being four months pregnant with a boy roused the townspeople even further. A town meeting was held on September 5th of that year where the people on Commugny heard speaker after speaker linking Lanfray's violence to a single culprit: absinthe.

Distilled from the flowers and leaves of artemisia absinthium (wormwood), absinthe is a green liqueur-like alcohol drink that was the basis of a 100 million dollar industry at the time of the Lanfray murders. Through its long association with "bohemian" culture, artists, and intellectuals, the liqueur (also known as the "green fairy") had always been viewed with suspicion by conservatives.  Despite efforts to ban its use, consumption in France alone rose fifteen-fold between 1875 and 1913 alone. Since some absinthe manufacturers also used unusual (and occasionally toxic) additives to give their product an extra "kick", the results were often unpredictable.  

Temperance movements particularly targeted absinthe for its psychoactive properties and the addiction problems that it supposedly caused. Medical researchers produced studies showing the potentially destructive effects of absinthe and even proposed a new term, "absinthism" resulting from prolonged absinthe use. Symptoms of absinthism included seizures, hallucinations, speech impairments, and eventually death. Although these early studies often lacked real validity, they were enough to help the anti-absinthe temperance movement push for a total ban.

The primary factor for absinthe's notoriety seems to be one of the chemicals found in absinthe. A GABA-receptor antagonist, thujone is a; ketone found in wormwood that has been believed to cause psychedelic effects in those taking it. While absinthe only contains small amounts of thujone, early researchers were quick to link the chemical to the various psychiatric symptoms associated with absinthism.

The fact that Jean Lanfray had consumed absinthe on the day of the murders (along with numerous other alcoholic beverages) seemed enough to implicate it's role in the tragedy. During Lanfray's 1906 trial, his attorneys certainly attempted to lay as much blame as possible on his absinthe use. A Swiss psychiatrist, Dr. Albert Mahaim, was called in to testify about Lanfray's absinthism although the judge and prosecutor remained skeptical. Jean Lanfray was found guilty on all three counts of murder and sentenced to thirty years in prison. Although he was found hanged in his cell three days after the verdict, the closing of the case did nothing to stop the hysterical anti-absinthe crusade that he had helped set in motion.

In 1906, following a petition with 82,000 signatures, the Swiss government banned the sale and use of absinthe. Despite efforts by absinthe manufacturers to reverse this decision, the Swiss Constitution was changed to make absinthe illegal in 1910. Publicity over the Lanfray case and efforts by temperance activists led to similar bans across Europe and the United States (only the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Spain failed to follow suit). There is a certain irony in the absinthe ban considering it occurred at a time when heroin and cocaine were still legal (although the trend towards banning all addictive substances was only just beginning).

Absinthe continued to be sold by bootleggers and it gained a reputation as a dangerously addictive substance that would take decades to shake. By the 1990s, the trend towards legalizing absinthe began as it became clear that absinthe's dangers were greatly exaggerated. Since 2000, Switzerland and other countries have reversed their ban and the United States began allowing the importation and manufacture of absinthe in 2007.

While still illegal in some countries, the green fairy definitely seems to be back.


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