Saturday, January 14, 2023

The Sad Life of John Stith Pemberton, Inventor of Coca-Cola

A Pain with no End

By Robert A. Waters

What would it be like to become severely wounded during the last battle of a war that had already ended? Wounded so badly that the chronic pain lasts a lifetime. This happened to John Stith Pemberton and led to the invention of the most popular soft drink in the world: Coca-Cola.


On April 12, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.

On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Boothe assassinated United States President Abraham Lincoln.

Since most telegraph wires in the war-torn South had been destroyed, Union Major General James H. Wilson didn’t know either of these events had occurred. Ordered to occupy the manufacturing town of Columbus, Georgia, he arrived around 2:00 in the afternoon on April 16. His 15,000 troops dwarfed those of the defenders of Columbus, which numbered about 3,500 soldiers and civilian volunteers. Shortly after Wilson arrived, his army attacked. states that “by April of 1865, Columbus was the last surviving industrial city in the South. A major center for military manufacturing, it was also the home of significant naval construction facilities where the new ironclad C.S.S. Jackson was nearing completion.”

Barricades at two bridges across the Chattahoochee River temporarily kept the invaders at bay. The Confederates blew up Dillingham Street Bridge to keep the Union army from advancing, but, as the battle began, they spared the 14th Street Bridge because many of their own soldiers were fighting Yankees on that span. The battle stormed on into the night, with the Federals finally taking the city.

Casualties were high, particularly for the Confederates who fought to the bitter end. One defender, John Stith Pemberton, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Third Cavalry Battalion of the Georgia State Guard, suffered a saber wound to his chest during the battle.

In The Civil War Roots of Coca-Cola in Columbus, Georgia, Richard Gardiner writes: “Pemberton served in the Confederate army for almost the entire duration of the Civil War. During the Battle of Columbus, Pemberton served as Colonel in the local mounted cavalry. [When the battle began], he rode out to the bank of the Chattahoochee where he encountered cavalry under the command of Union General Wilson.

“The weapon of choice in the cavalry was the saber. A musket was incredibly difficult to manage on horseback, especially the muzzle-loading variety. Most cavalrymen relied on their swords and pistols in battle. The pistols, which normally fired six shots, quickly became empty and useless in the midst of an engagement. Pemberton found himself in an equestrian sword-fight with Union cavalry. According to the closest eyewitness, Pemberton was both shot and slashed in that encounter. The wound from the saber to his torso was life-altering. It left a scar that he would carry for the rest of his life, though he grew weary of talking about it.”

The Pemberton lineage in America dated from 1680 when his family settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Phineas Pemberton, an ancestor, served as administrator for William Penn. Since he had been born and raised in Georgia, John Stith Pemberton fought for the Confederacy. Before the war, when he was just 19 years old, the young phenom graduated from Reform Medical College of Georgia in Macon. He later obtained a degree in pharmacy.

After the war, Pemberton continued to live in Columbus with his wife, Ann Eliza Clifford Lewis, and their son, Charles, in a four-bedroom home. There he set up his lab and began developing the concoction that would later become Coca-Cola. Pemberton, trying to alleviate the constant torment from his war wound, became addicted to morphine. As his body and mental state slowly deteriorated, he began trying to find a cure for his habit. (Morphine addiction became so common among former soldiers the medicine came to be called “Soldier’s Joy.”)

The Confederate veteran established Pemberton’s Eagle Drug and Chemical Company on Broad Street in Columbus. There he developed several draughts which he sold as medicine. For instance, “Globe Flower Cough Syrup” was described as being “free from opium” and helpful for stopping coughs. He also opened a wholesale and retail business “selling the raw materials for pharmaceutical remedies.”

Gardiner writes that “Pemberton’s [newspaper] advertisements from the era leave no question that he dispensed numerous soft-drink syrups at his drug store in Columbus. The significant elements in Pemberton’s most famous formula were the cocoa (coca) leaf and the kola nut. When and where Pemberton first mixed the world’s most famous formula has been debated.”

He called one of his inventions “French Wine Coca” which was similar to a French-based drink called “Vin Mariani.” About it, he stated “I am convinced from actual experiments that coca is the very best substitute for opium…It supplies the place of that drug, and the patient who will use it as means of a cure, may deliver himself from the pernicious habit.” It was not well- known at the time that coca (i.e., cocaine) was even more addictive and destructive than morphine.

In 1870, Pemberton moved to Atlanta. There he had some success selling a perfume called “Sweet Southern Bouquet.” He also served as a trustee for Atlanta Medical College (now Emory University Medical School). While in Atlanta, he formed a partnership with other investors.

After a slow start, Pemberton’s original “French Wine Coca” sold well. He continued to experiment with it, particularly after Atlanta’s city government banned alcoholic beverages. He removed wine from the formula and included damiana, said to contain aphrodisiac properties. His drinks were sold over the counter at various drug stores in Atlanta. Only after he added carbonation to the formula, and named it Coca-Cola (suggested by his bookkeeper, Frank Robinson) did he have the final product. reports that, after an unsuccessful first year, he used local advertisements to enhance sales: “Soon the product was spreading across the city, and Pemberton was convinced it was on its way to national popularity.”

He was right, but he would never see it, having developed stomach cancer. Suffering from excruciating pain and his seemingly endless addiction to morphine, “he progressively sold two-thirds of his interest in the company to other investors, including the transplanted Northern pharmacist Asa G. Chandler. He retained one-third for his son.” states that “Pemberton died on August 16, 1888, leaving his wife in a difficult financial situation. A struggle for control of Coca-Cola followed his death; the financial machinations that occurred were murky, with rights to both the name Coca-Cola and the formula for the drink under dispute, and it has never been entirely clear how Asa Candler, who was responsible for the growth of Coca-Cola in the 1890s, wrested control of the company from Charles Pemberton and the other investors.”

Tragedy often begets innovation, as it did with John Stith Pemberton. Had he not been wounded in war, he likely would never have invented the most popular soft drink in the history of mankind.

Monday, January 9, 2023

The Hidden Life of Nursery Rhymes

Secrets Kept from Children

By Robert A. Waters

Baa, baa black sheep, have you any wool?

Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.

One for my master, one for the dame,

One for the little boy who lives down the lane.

Hiding behind nursery rhyme lyrics are stories--old stories, stories of mystery and suspense, and sometimes stories of subtle resistance to tyranny. These poems and songs circulated among the peasants of olde England from the 1400s to the 1800s. No one knows who wrote them, they just appeared out of the dark.

For instance, the well-known nursery rhyme posted above chronicled a real event. Clemency Burton-Hill, in "The dark side of nursery rhymes," wrote that "Baa, Baa Black Sheep is about the medieval wool tax, imposed in the 13th century by King Edward I. Under the new rules, a third of the cost of a sack of wool went to him, another third went to the church and the last to the farmer. (In the original version, nothing was left for the little shepherd boy who lives down the lane.)"

The wool farmer ended up having to pay a suffocating sixty-six per cent of his earnings in taxes. Resentment led someone to come up with the jingle that we all know and love.

The nursery rhyme, "Oranges and Lemons," refers to a condemned man walking to his execution past famous churches in downtown London.

Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clement's.

You owe me five farthings say the bells of St. Martin's.

When will you pay me say the bells of Old Bailey?

When I grow rich say the bells of Shoreditch.

And when will that be say the bells of Stepney.

Oh, I do not know say the great bells of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,

And here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

Nursery rhymes are found in all cultures throughout the world. A compilation of English nursery rhymes was first published in 1744. Later editions, including Mother Goose, kept the poems alive. Many have been sanitized through the years until they became what we know today.

Nursery rhymes have been deemed important to the cognitive development of children. Infants-to-adults enjoy the rhymes, the music, and the rich tapestry of Medieval England. Yet, in the background behind a few words may exist murderous plots and deeds. For instance, "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" has a gruesome history.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary.

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockle shells

And pretty maids all in a row.

Burton-Hill writes that "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary may be about Bloody Mary, daughter of King Henry VIII and concerns the torture and murder of Protestants. Queen Mary was a staunch Catholic and the 'garden' here is an allusion to the graveyards which were filling with Protestant martyrs. The 'silver bells' were thumbscrews; while 'cockleshells' are believed to be instruments of torture which were attached to male genitals."

The meanings of many nursery rhymes are unknown. For instance, "Humpty Dumpty" may refer to King Richard III, a humpback who was defeated and killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1845. Or Humpty Dumpty could be a cannon ball, or some unknown king, an egg, or a dozen other things. We just don't know. Scholars make their guesses, right or wrong. 

Maybe it's just as well that we're kept in the dark. Meanwhile, children love to sing and recite these sometimes nonsensical tales. And that's good--it helps them to learn language skills.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.

Humpty Dumpty had a big fall.

All the king's horses and all the king's men

Couldn't put Humpty together again.

In my opinion, those few words were written by a genius. I'll leave it at that.