Masons, Morphine, Coca-Cola, and Cocaine: John Pemberton and His French Wine Cola

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Pythagoras Lodge No. 41, F.&A.M. in Decatur, GA has a number of claims to excellence. Not only is it possessed of one of the most breathtaking Lodgerooms on which we’ve had the pleasure to lay our eyes, but as all of Her Brethren well know, Pythagoras Lodge No. 41 was also the home to many of the famous Candlers, the family responsible for founding the Coca-Cola Company. However, without the work of another important Georgian and Freemason, the world may never have known the name of the remarkable Candler family, or their product, Coca-Cola.

John Stith Pemberton (1831–1888) of Columbus Lodge No. 7, F.&A.M. in Columbus, GA was the inventor of the world-famous beverage we now know as Coca-Cola. Born to parents James Pemberton and Martha L. Gant in Knoxville, GA on July 8, 1831, Pemberton spent his childhood in Rome, GA. As a young man Pemberton relocated to Macon, GA where he studied pharmacy at Reform Medical College, and in 1850 he graduated as a licensed pharmacist. Three years later Pemberton met and married his wife Ann Eliza “Cliff” Clifford of Columbus, GA, and the year following the young couple had a son, Charles “Charlie” Ney Pemberton. The three lived happily in the famous Pemberton House of Columbus, GA.

Eager to serve his country, Pemberton enlisted in the American Civil War and served in the Third Calvary Battalion of the GA State Guard, a component of the Confederate Army, where he attained to the rank of lieutenant colonel. After sustaining a chest wound during the Battle of Columbus, like many other wounded veterans at the time, Pemberton became severely addicted to morphine, which he employed to ease the pain of his substantial injury.

In an attempt both to treat his morphine addiction and to find a non-opioid pain reliever that was sufficiently powerful to abate his agony, in 1866, relying on his knowledge as a pharmacist, Pemberton began to experiment with creating a new analgesic tonic. His first attempt resulted in an elixir he labeled Dr. Tuggle’s Compound Syrup of Golden Flower, a tincture which was prepared from buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), a toxic plant that flourished in his native state. Unable to find adequate relief in the compound, Pemberton began his experimentation anew.

Taking a page from Angelo Mariani, a Parisian chemist who made a fortune in 1863 after combining cocaine with wine in an elixir he called Vin Mariani, a concoction that was praised by the likes of Jules Verne, Alexander Dumas, Freemason Arthur Conan Doyle, Pope Leo XIII, and even the chief rabbi of France, the latter of whom is quoted as exclaiming “Praise be to Mariani’s wine!”, Pemberton attempted to create his own American spin on the product. The result was Pemberton’s French Wine Cola, a powerful tonic which combined Mariani’s cocaine and wine blend with known aphrodisiac damiana (Turnera diffusa) and the caffeine-rich kola nut of Africa. While it did not provide him with much relief in regard to his painful injury or his morphine addiction, as “the ideal brain tonic” the elixir was marketed primarily to upper class intellectuals as a panacea, cited as being a cure for nervous disorders, dyspepsia, gastroparesis, mental and physical exhaustion, gastric irritability, constipation, headache, impotence, and a whole host of other maladies and disorders. In an 1885 interview with the Atlanta Journal, Pemberton touted that the tonic would be valuable to “scientists, scholars, poets, divines, lawyers, physicians, and others devoted to extreme mental exertion.”

The following year, in 1886, Atlanta and Fulton County enacted temperance legislation which would prevent Pemberton from producing and selling his French Wine Cola in its then present form. This led Pemberton back to the drawing board in search of a new formula. In this endeavor he enlisted the assistance of drugstore owner and proprietor Willis E. Venable. During this set of experiments, in an attempt to recreate the tonic sans alcohol (the use of cocaine was not prohibited by the legislation), a fortuitous accident led the pair to combine the base syrup of the tonic with carbonated water. Pemberton was so impressed with the result that he decided to market the product instead as a fountain soda. Pemberton’s friend Frank Mason Robinson, who handwrote the Spencerian script on the Coca-Cola bottles and advertisements, came up with the final name Coca-Cola as a description of its two main active ingredients, cocaine and kola nut.

The year after Coca-Cola hit the market Pemberton fell terribly ill with stomach cancer, nearly going bankrupt as his expensive morphine habit rapidly escalated following this malign misfortune. Reluctantly, he and his son decided to sell the rights and patents of the beverage to his business partners in Atlanta, GA, the family of Mayor Asa Griggs Candler, for $1,750. Nearly penniless and hopelessly addicted to morphine, Pemberton sadly succumbed to his cancer. He passed away on August 16, 1888.

Fifteen years following Pemberton’s demise, in 1903, due to the social climate of the era and the pressure felt from the public, Asa Griggs Candler made the decision to alter Pemberton’s recipe and remove cocaine from the product’s ingredients. However, Coca-Cola did not wane in popularity. The current recipe remains “the most guarded trade secret in the world,” and Coca-Cola stands as celebrated and iconic today as it did when it hit the market nearly a century and a half ago.

Phillip Newman

Phillip Newman

P.D. Newman is a member of Tupelo Lodge No. 318, Free and Accepted Masons. He has had papers published by the MS Lodge of Research, Guthrie Scottish Rite Journal, Knight Templar Magazine, Ad Lucem Journal, The Invisible College, Dragibus, Disinformation, Reality Sandwich, Neuro Soup, Living Stones Magazine, The Working Tools Magazine, etc.
Phillip Newman