When Prohibition came on January 16th 1920, the game was up for many of the saloons in New Orleans. A few days later a New York journalist wrote that ‘the Vieux Carre is languishing to-day, dying slowly of inanition, of thirst.’ The Sazerac and the Gem were closed, as was the bar of Henry C. Ramos where you could get ‘a gin fizz…a goblet of sublimated whipped cream with a kick in it.’ And many had thought that the Old Absinthe House, with Absinthe the most hated of demon liquor, would be among the first to go. Yet somehow it was surviving as a soft drinks parlor ‘feebly bidding for trade on the strength of its wicked past’ (New York Tribune Feb 8 1920.)
It was not the first time that the death knell had sounded for the Old Absinthe House. A disconcerting article appeared in newspapers in 1902. ‘The old Absinthe House…has gone into bankruptcy by petition of Felix Ferrer, the proprietor, by whose family it has been owned since 1826’ (Alexandria Gazette October 31 1902.) Yet it survived. In whose hands, I cannot say, for in 1912 the journalistic crows once more gather in anticipation of the corpse. The ‘old French Absinthe House is soon to be only a memory…closed by order of the government’ (Bossier Banner November 14 1912.) On January 23 1913 The Omaha Daily Bee gleefully crowed that ‘the national law prohibiting the importation of absinthe has put out of business the famous Absinthe House.’ The Washington Herald, more regretfully, also acknowledged its passing (The Washington Herald February 21 1913.) But it was not dead yet. And it even survived the hurricane of 1915 with minimal damage. For despite all this adversity, in 1916 Aleister Crowley is to be found sitting in the Old Absinthe House musing on some literary project.
What dealt the blow to absinthe in America, and portended doom for the Old Absinthe House, was a report from Dr Wiley, head of the Pure Food Board declaring absinthe to be ‘one of the worst enemies of man’ (The Omaha Daily Bee December 15 1911.) From the late 19th century authorities in France had battled with the national enthusiasm for absinthe drinking. Sensational stories from France of the deaths of famous authors and artists and mild men turned murderers from absinthe drinking regularly surfaced in American newspapers. ‘It acts like the draught from the opium smoker’s pipe or the sensation from the needle of the morphine user’ (The San Francisco Call August 6 1908.) Inevitably in 1912, following Dr Wiley’s report, newspapers carried the story that the importation of absinthe and its transportation between states would be banned. Dates were given variously as October 1st 1912 or January 1st 1913. The sale of existing stocks would not be affected. Yet in 1916, Aleister Crowley is found seated in the Old Absinthe House ‘sipping the second glass of that “fascinating but subtle poison”‘ (Crowley, ‘Absinthe – the Green Goddess’ The International February 1918.)
Absinthe House had become famous if not legendary. It was the origin of the Absinthe Frappé, concocted by Cayetano Ferrer, and popularized in song by Glen MacDonough. It was known as the meeting point at Mardi Gras for the younger generation set on a frolic. It was on the tourist map of every traveler to New Orleans. It had been publicized in remarks by Mark Twain and O. Henry amongst other authors. And then there are the stories. It was a font of stories legendary and true. Did Andrew Jackson and the pirate Jean Lafitte really meet there before doing battle with invading British forces? And is the story told by a war correspondent who met with a couple of would-be revolutionaries in the Old Absinthe House in 1898 true or a tall tale?
And the facts of Absinthe House, like the stories, are wreathed in the effects and fumes of its trade. In the early 20th century, the date of the building was given variously as anything from 1752 to 1806. It is now generally settled on as 1806. And then there was the question of ownership. Was the Ferrer family possession of Absinthe House uninterrupted until Prohibition? – as is suggested by Stanley Clisby Arthur in Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em (1938.) Well, no it wasn’t. The Ferrer family ownership seems to have been interrupted by bankruptcy in 1902 and according to newspaper reports Pierre Cazebonne owned Absinthe House in 1918. Nor were the doors padlocked on the 16th of January 1920 as Arthur also claimed.
The Old Absinthe House carried on for a while into 1920 as a soft drinks parlor with perhaps a little hard liquor on the side. By 1921 it was trading as The Old Absinthe House Restaurant with Louis Chevalier as the proprietor.
The Richmond Dispatch War Correspondent.
“Drummond told my Creole friend, whose name was not far from Romasperon, that he was in New Orleans to organize a regiment of men to go to Central America, and assist a body of revolutionists to overthrow the government of Spanish Honduras…
“We met at the old Absinthe House and while the proprietor was mixing us three ‘Suissesses’ we had plenty of time to discuss the proposed invasion…
“Drummond had plenty of money. He exhibited big rolls of bills, and drew drafts on a certain New York establishment with a regularity that opened our eyes…As an inducement to us to accompany him, Drummond offered us a salary of $150 a month each, and a share in certain land, which he said belonged to the company he represented in New York, but which I afterward found belonged to the Government of Spanish Honduras, and which he expected to capture and parcel out to us…” (The Richmond Dispatch September 7 1902.)