The 19th Century French Hashish Club Called Club des Hashischins

Example of hashish next to a penny. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The nineteenth century French Hashish Club called Club des Hashischins (also spelled Club des Hashishins or Club des Hachichins) was a club of hashish users dedicated to exploring drug-induced experiences, primarily with a resin that comes from the female cannabis plant called hashish (or nicknamed hash). The club was founded in about 1844 and included members from the literary and intellectually elite of Paris. Monthly séances (the French word for meetings) were held at the gothic Hôtel Pimodan (afterwards known as the Hôtel de Lauzun) in the rooms of Fernand Boissard, a nineteenth century painter and musician who was considered the figurehead of the club. At the time, also living at Pimodan in a rented upstairs apartment was the poet and translator of Edgar Allan Poe’s works, Charles Baudelaire. Théophile Gautier, a poet, dramatist, novelist, journalist, and art and literary critic also rented apartments there.

Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In the early nineteenth century, Napoleon’s troops returned from their campaign in Egypt and brought with them a habit of smoking hash. Between 1836 and 1840, Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau, a psychiatrist, took an extended trip to the Orient and discovered the effects of hash for himself. At the time, he and other psychiatrists believed that events prior to mentally ill person’s breakdown might provide clues that would enable them to solve mental illness. Because hallucinations often preceded mental illness, Moreau wanted to experience them without experience a mental breakdown. He also thought that he if he understood psychotic states, he might be able to better help or cure the mentally ill. Moreover, as Moreau was already familiar with hash and knew that it produced hallucinations, it seemed to be the perfect drug for him to use when testing his theories.

To explore the effects of hashish, he tried it. He discovered that the drug distorted time and produced hallucinations. However, he felt that although he learned about the drug, his experiences were too subjective and that to gain an objective opinion, he needed to observe others who would willing take the drug even if he did not. He then began looking for volunteers that would allow him to observe them, and, before long, he became the drug dispenser at the club des Hashischins.

Membership in the hashish club was loose, and people joined or withdrew at will. Among some of the séance attendees besides Baudelaire, Gautier, and Moreau, there was also Gérard de Nerval (a major figure of French romanticism who is best known for his poems and novellas), Eugène Delacroix (Romantic painter), and Alexandre Dumas (one of France’s most popular writers). Victor Hugo, the French poet, novelist, and dramatist of the Romantic movement probably best-known his novels “Les Misérable” and “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” also sometimes participated.

Théophile Gautier photograph by Félix Nadar. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Some of those who visited the club recorded their impressions. For instance, after Gautier’s first visit, he wrote an article titled “Le Club des Hashischins,” which was published in the “Revue des Deux Mondes” in February 1846:

“One December evening, obeying a mysterious summons, drafted in enigmatic terms understood by affiliates but unintelligible for others, I arrived in a distant quarter, a sort of oasis of solitude in the middle of Paris … that seemed to defend against the encroachments of civilization. It was in an old house … that the bizarre club of which I was a member … held its monthly sittings where I was to attend for the first time. Although it was scarcely six o’clock, the night was dark.”[1]

He went on to state that when he entered Boissard’s he felt as if he went back in time because he found himself in a large, dimly lit room. “The walls, wooded with carpentry painted white, were half covered with frosted canvases bearing the stamp of the period; on the gigantic stove stood a statue that might have been thought stolen from Versailles. On the ceiling, rounded in a cupola, was a twisted and allegory strapassée, in the taste of Lemoine … that was perhaps him.”[2]

Another person also wrote a description of Boissard’s room that provided more detail:

“The room in which the club convened had a door hung with a velvet curtain, the walls panelled and covered in discoloured gold leaf, the decorated ceilings domed, while the Pyrenean, red-and-white-flecked marble mantelpiece bore a clock in the shape of an elephant with a castellated howdah on its back. The furniture was dated and covered with faded tapestries.”[3]

According to Gautier, on the night he attended, Moreau was there and highly enthusiastic about what was to take place. “[H]is eyes glittered, his cheekbones blotted with redness, the veins of his temples stood out, his dilated nostrils breathed the air with force.”[4] It was also Moreau who handed out the individual doses in the form of a green paste that he took from a glass jar and presented on Oriental porcelain dishes. Each dose was approximately the size of a thumb and taken from a gold and silver spoon, which attendees either ate with a meal or mixed it into a strong-tasting Arabic coffee.

Members reported the hashish looked like green preserves, jam, or marmalade and they said Moreau called it dawamesk. The recipe for dawamesk can vary but usually it contains a mixture of hash, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, orange juice, butter, pistachio, sugar or honey, and sometimes cantharides (Spanish fly). Attendees also reported that after taking the green paste they experienced “dazzling hallucinations.” Moreau noted that it produced a type of “intellectual intoxication” and stated:

“It is … really happiness which is produced by the hashish; and by this I imply an enjoyment entirely moral, and by no means sensual, as we might be induced to suppose. The hashish eater is happy, not like the gourmand or the famished man when satisfying his appetite, but like him who hears tidings which fill him with joy, like the miser counting his treasures, the gambler who is successful at play, or the ambitious man who is intoxicated with success.”[5]

Honoré de Balzac. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Many users of the club reported their senses became intensified and they became voraciously hungry. They also experienced hallucinations or heard voices. For instance, the French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac tried it once in 1845 and reported hearing heavenly voices and seeing divine paintings. Gautier also heard and saw strange things when he tried the drug. He wrote about his experience, which was published in the French newspaper La Presse and then a version was republished in an English newspaper in 1848:

“[A] few minutes after swallowing some of the preparation, a sudden overwhelming sensation took possession of him. It appeared to him that his body was dissolved, that he had become transparent. He clearly saw in his chest the hashish which he had swallowed, under the form of an emerald, from which a thousand little sparks issued. His eyelashes were lengthened out indefinitely, and rolled like threads of gold around ivory balls, which turned with an inconceivable rapidity. … He now and then saw his friends who were round him disfigured – half-men half-plants, some with the wings of the ostrich, which they were constantly shaking. … In the air there were millions of butterflies, confusedly luminous, shaking their wings like fans. Gigantic flowers with challices of christal, large peonies upon beds of gold and silver, rose and surrounded him with the cracking sound that accompanies the explosion in the air of fireworks. His hearing acquired new power; it was enormously developed. He heard the noise of colours. Green, red, blue, yellow sounds reached him in waves. A glass thrown down, the creaking of a sofa, a word pronounced low, vibrated and rolled within him like peals of thunder.”[6]

One popular literary magazine of 1848 that was published in Edinburgh wrote about the physical effects that hashish users might experience, stating:

“The ordinary … effects of hashish are the feeling of a slight compression of the temporal bones and the upper parts of the head. The respiration is gentle; the pulse is slightly accelerated; a gentle heat, such as is felt on going in winter into a warm bath of a temperature of about 98 degrees, is felt all over the surface of the body; there is some weight about the fore part of the arms, and there is an occasional slight involuntary motion, as if to seek relief from it. There are certain indefinable sensations of discomfort about the lower extremities; they do not amount too much, but are sufficient to render the body uneasy. … Throughout the whole period it is the nervous system that is affected, no other part of the body being acted upon; … Under the influence of hashish, the ear lends itself more to the illusion than any other sense. It has been observed by those who devote their attention to the aberrations of intellect, that hallucinations of hearing are much more frequent than those of the eye or the other senses: for one diseased person who sees visions, there are three that are deceived by the ear; and the more intellectual are the more generally the prey to this affection.”[7]

Charles Baudelaire by Étienne Carjat, 1863. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although most of the members got “high,” not everyone shared such enthusiasm for the drug. For example, Baudelaire, who had a reputation for debauchery and was known for liking the exotic, found the drug repugnant and did not try it more than once or twice. In 1860, he wrote about being under the influence of hash and opium in the book “Les paradis artificiels.” He also claimed that he preferred wine and is credited with having said that hashish had many disadvantages, the least of which was that it isolates its user and makes the person antisocial, whereas wine drinkers became sociable and deeply human.

Because of his experiments and because he could observe, Moreau became the first psychiatrist to systematically work on how drugs affect the central nervous system. He also catalogued, analyzed, and recorded his observations. In addition, his experiments with hash resulted in him publishing in 1845 “Du Hachisch et de l’aliénation mentale” that was later translated into English under the title, “Hashish and Mental Illness.”

Nineteenth-century Frenchmen read Moreau’s work with various degrees of interest, and many readers reported that his descriptions were disturbing. Accounts provided by club members soon crossed the English Channel, and curious Englishman began to experiment with the drug, resulting in an 1848 article about “the peculiar influence of certain drugs upon the human mind, and the alterations which they produce upon the perceptive powers, the imagination, and the reason.”[8] The article also summarized the dangers of hash by stating:

“It may be said that none of nature’s laws can be violated with impunity, nor can that reason which renders man pre-eminent be misapplied without a punishment.”[9]

As for the Club des Hashischins, it broke up by 1849 as Moreau’s scientific goals had been met and his book published.

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