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This King Hated Coffee So Much He Tried to Kill Someone With It

December 20, 2017 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Portrait of Adolf Frederick of Sweden. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

There are 92 references to coffee in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, whose protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, wreaks bloody revenge in Stieg Larsson’s Swedish crime thrillers. Indeed, people in the Scandinavian country drink the equivalent of 18 pounds of coffee every year, making Sweden the world’s sixth most caffeinated nation.

But the country’s coffee habit hasn’t always been a given. Starting in the 18th century, Sweden’s leaders tried to ban the beloved caffeine source. And one Swedish king hated coffee so much, he pitted two murderers against one another to prove how deadly the drink was.

Coffee made its way to Sweden in the 17th century as world trade opened up, and Swedes immediately took to the drink. But their monarchs did not, believing that coffee made people behave badly. Starting in 1756, during the reign of Adolf Frederick, the country began to impose a heavy tax on coffee imports and consumption as a result of the “misuse of tea and coffee drinking.” Those who insisted on drinking coffee without paying the tax were punished by having their cups and saucers confiscated.

Later that year, coffee was banned altogether. Royal officials tried to paint coffee as an un-Swedish move and encouraged Swedes to enjoy other drinks instead. Swedes, especially upper-class ones who could afford the precious beans, shrugged and kept on drinking coffee despite the ban. A flourishing bootlegging trade made the beverage widely available.

Portrait of Adolf Frederick of Sweden. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Then Gustav III came to power. The son of the king who originally banned coffee, he was disgusted by coffee and convinced it had bad effects on one’s health. He was so against the bitter brew that he decided to use science—or what passed for it—to prove to his subjects that they should give up coffee once and for all.

In a move that would make modern scientists’ jaws drop, Gustav enlisted prisoners for a scientific experiment. He found two convicted murderers on whom to conduct his experiment—an early example of a controlled study. The men had been sentenced to death, so the king offered them life in prison instead if they’d participate.

Some versions of the story say that the men were identical twins; …read more


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