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History's famous cokeheads

Cocaine, as Rick James said, is a hell of a drug. South Americans have been chewing coca leaves for centuries, but the drug’s modern history began in 1855, when a German scientist named Friedrich Gaedcke isolated the active ingredient. Cocaine became a popular medicine: doctors used it as an anesthetic, a stimulant, and an antidepressant.

It also became popular for other, less clinical purposes. A French chemist made a wine called Vin Mariani by infusing Bordeaux with coca leaves: his customers included Queen Victoria, the Pope, and Ulysses S. Grant, who sipped it while writing his memoirs. Vin Mariani’s success inspired John Pemberton to create a nonalcoholic coca drink called Coca-Cola.

Cocaine has stimulated a lot of famous nervous systems over the years. The list includes Robert Louis Stevenson (who allegedly wrote the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in less than a week while coked out of his skull), Jules Verne, and Thomas Edison. Its best-known abuser might be Sigmund Freud, who published his first scientific paper on cocaine: “Über Coca” (1884). In June 1884, the 28-year-old doctor wrote his wife about the essay he planned to write.

Woe to you, my Princess, when I come. I will kiss you quite red and feed you till you are plump. And if you are forward you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn’t eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body. In my last severe depression I took coca again and a small dose lifted me to the heights in a wonderful fashion. I am just now busy collecting the literature for a song of praise to this magical substance.