Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Thirty Seven


Angelo Mariani and John Pemberton

Colombian Marching Powder aka Cocaine is an illicit substance in many parts of the world these days but just 150 years ago some quacks were keen to market its medicinal properties.

The first half of our unholy duo is Angelo Mariani, a French chemist, who in the early 1860s was fascinated with coca and its effects. By 1863 he had come up with a hooch which went by the name of Vin Mariani or to give it its full title, Vin Tonique Mariani (a la Coca du Perou). A mix of Bordeaux wine and coca leaves, the ethanol acted as an agent extracting the cocaine from the leaves. It must have been a heady mix as it contained 6 milligrams of cocaine for every fluid ounce of wine. The colourful advertisements, often featuring girls dancing whilst sipping the red tincture from a glass, boasted that it would restore health, energy, strength and vitality.


It sold like hot cakes and the list of its users included the great and the good. Queen Victoria was partial to a drop as were the Popes, Leo XIII and Saint Pius X. Pope Leo even went so far as to award Mariani the Vatican gold medal and appeared on a poster endorsing the wine. The headline, Pope on Coke, clearly had a different impact in those more innocent times and was a boon to sales in Catholic countries. Thomas Edison claimed, not unsurprisingly given the contents, that it helped to stay awake longer and Ulysses S Grant found it useful in writing his memoirs, a sentiment anyone unfortunate enough to read them would readily understand.

In attempting to crack the export market Mariani had to up the cocaine content to 7.2 milligrams a fluid ounce to compete with some of the cocaine based drinks available in the United States. And this is where our other quack, former Confederate colonel John Pemberton, comes in. Addicted to morphine following on from his war wounds Pemberton was keen to find an alternative to the opiate. Almost certainly inspired by Mariani’s tincture, Pemberton developed his prototype drink, registered in 1885 as French Wine Coca Nerve Tonic, at the Eagle Drug and Chemical House in Columbus in Georgia.


Timing is everything and in 1886 the state of Georgia passed prohibition legislation that, you might think, would have sounded the death-knell for Pemberton’s hooch. But think again. Pemberton simply removed the alcoholic content from his drink and relaunched it as Coca-cola. It was dispensed from soda fountains at five cents a glass and was marketed as a patent medicine. The early advertisements proclaimed that it would cure amongst other things morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headaches and impotence. Pemberton’s potion cashed in on the belief in America that carbonated water was good for your health.

Coca-cola was heavily marketed. In 1888 tickets were printed and distributed entitling the bearer to one glass of free Coca-cola at the fountain of any genuine dispenser of the drink. By 1913 8.5 million of the tickets had been redeemed. The product was well on the road to global domination.

Coca-cola, of course, is now one of the world’s leading carbonated drinks and it is fascinating to note that it owed its origins to a cocaine based alcoholic drink, developed in France and promoted by the papacy. Today it is better known for its contribution to obesity and tooth decay and for its astonishing ability to clean jewellery. But that is another story.

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