United States v. Forty Barrels & Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola

40 Barrels ImageWhen I think of a government beverage raid in the early 1900s, I envision grainy black and white footage of government men chopping away at barrels and releasing a sudsy avalanche of alcohol onto the street. But did you know that in the United States in the 1800s and early 1900s a trip to the local pharmacy was all that was needed to legally purchase such drugs as cocaine, morphine, or heroin over the counter?! In addition, druggists mixed various combinations of these drugs and alcohol into their various elixirs, including Coca-Cola.

In the 1880s a druggist by the name of John Pemberton created an elixir that seemed to cure aches, pains, and especially the dreaded hangover while at the same time increasing the consumer’s energy. Early estimates of this elixir claimed to contain 9 milligrams of cocaine and kola nut wine. In addition, caffeine was added to increase the effect of the cocaine! In order to improve the taste, sugar-flavored caramel syrup was added. He called this medicine “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca.” Ironically Pemberton’s health began to decline while his elixir was flying off the shelf. He sold his elixir to drug store owner Asa Candler for $2,300. Candler, a religious man, significantly decreased the amount of cocaine and alcohol but was adamant that the amount of caffeine must stay the same. A man by the name of Dr. Harvey Wiley, head of the U.S. government’s Bureau of Chemistry, strongly disagreed.

In 1909, forty barrels and twenty kegs of Coca-Cola were seized by the government. The government offered reports of the dangers of caffeine to justify this action. They used the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act to try and prove that Coca-Cola was adulterated and misbranded. They argued that it was adulterated because it added a “deleterious” ingredient, most notably caffeine. In addition, they said it was misbranded as the labels showed pictures of coca leaves and kola nuts but that it “contained no coca and little if any cola.”

So the case of the United States v. Forty Barrels & Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on February 29, 1916. What? Seriously, this was the name of the case? The answer is yes because this is an example of jurisdiction in rem meaning “against a thing”. In this case the “thing” was Coca-Cola the beverage and not the Coca-Cola Company itself.

The decision was delivered by Justice Hughes. As to the charge of the caffeine being adulterated, Hughes wrote, “whether caffeine was a poisonous or deleterious ingredient which might render the article injurious to health, there was a decided conflict of competent evidence.” The Court also held that in the misbranding charge neither side proved their case so it was sent back down to the lower court. In the end an out-of-court settlement was reached. Today Coca-Cola continues to be enjoyed by people around the world but I can’t help but chuckle at the thought of G-men seizing gallons of soda pop!

See: US v. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca Cola, 241 U.S. 265 – Supreme Court 1916:


About John W. Davis III

I am passionate about legal research, legal librarianship and scholarship, Intellectual Property, U.S. History, fine art, reading, and most sports. I have over 9 years of research and library experience and a unique history that has taken me from running my own fine art business to meeting Associate Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

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This entry was posted on March 11, 2015 by in History and tagged , , , , .

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