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Absinthe in the Old West

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Looking through old newspaper images, I wanted to find a story about absinthe in the pre-ban era that was somehow uniquely 'American". Most stories in the press convey stories about 'the French madness' of absinthe, but here is a story from the Wild West, the booming railroad and mining town that was Salt Lake City.


At the age of 19, Roy Kaighn (b. Merrill M, Kaighn) , had been an alcoholic, and an addict of opium and cocaine for years. He had at least once been caught when the police raided the Salt Lake City Chinatown "Plumb Alley" opium dens. He came from the upper middle class, son of a prominent mining company director, and attorney, 'Coronal' M. M. Kaighn. (Maurice M. Kaighn)


On November 26, 1901, Mr. Haynes, a longtime family friend and 'recognized suitor' came a courting to the Kaighn family home. His interest was in Miss Coates, the sister of Roy's stepmother. Miss Coates was only a few years older than Roy, and the relationship was probably more like brother and sister, but some would claim 'even more'. It seem like Hanes may have gotten a little to physical with the young lady, and Miss Coates bit his arm, then showed him the door; but the commotion was noticed by Roy. In Roy's mind, family honor had been insulted. Roy stayed up all night drinking, smoking, and possibly using cocaine and opium.


In the morning, Roy went to a few saloons. He then bought a gun at a hardware store, and went to the hotel where Haynes was staying. The two met in the hotel sitting room, and had some kind of discussion for about 10 minutes before Roy drew his gun and fatally shot Haynes at close range. Kaighn would claim he thought Haynes was going for a gun. It would take weeks for Haynes to die from his wounds, and Haynes would remain a reluctant witness until his death, blaming himself for what happened.


Roy Kaighn would be on trial for his life. The trial would last about nine months. The defense lawyers, which included former US Senator , and family friend, Sen. Brown (UT) , would mount a strategy that would argue self-defense, honor, and insanity due to drugs and alcohol addiction.


Absinthe, and "absinthism" would take a key part of the insanity defense, suggesting that the bad reputation of absinthe in the newspapers of the era was even worse that that of opium and cocaine.


One of the better absinthe quotes from the trial:


Cross-examined, Dr. Niles admitted that he had not made a specialty of mental deseases, but had had considerable experience with insane patients. He declared, further, that absinthe fiends were subject to hallucinations, and that no boy of Kaighn's age could drink the drug for a long time and not become a moral pervert, and have his senses so dulled that he could not tell right from wrong."

Salt Lake City Herald, Sept 24, 1902, p 8


And one of the bartenders testifies:

Mr McNamee testified that he had used absinthe for two years himself and he said it completely benumbed the brain and made a person entirely irresponsible.

SLC Herald Sept 19, 1902 p5



In a verdict that would surprise both prosecution and defense, the jury would return a verdict of guilty for the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter. Kaighn would serve about a year of his sentence, working most of the time as a prison school teacher before his early parole. As a school marm, the prisoners gave him the women's name "Sallie".


The 'breaking story' is HERE. Pages 1 and 2. Little mention of absinthe initially.

For absinthe quotes in the trial, mentioned above and more, use the search window and confine the states to "Utah" dates of 1902 to 1902, keyword "absinthe" LINK. For the trial , keyword "Kaighn"

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Hey, that would make good theater!


Here are a couple of things I forgot to mention in the original post:


Senator Arthur Brown, Kaighn's lawyer who argued for 'temporary insanity' from absinthe was shot and killed my his mistress in 1906. She was found not guilty, due to temporary insanity. WIKI , and longer article.


The newspaper article that describes Roy Kaighn's life as "one of the girls" in the Utah Pen.



And an interesting article about Salt Lake City opium dens (1910). (SLC's Chinatown population, 1500-1800, rivaled that of San Francisco) I bet the places only got raided when too many rich white folks came to visit, or the right cops didn't get paid off. LINK

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