6 July 2011, by mblanding
Jimmy Hebshie’s 10 year nightmare is finally over. As I described in my story in the April issue of Boston Magazine, Hebshie was arrested in 2001 for an arson he didn’t commit, and wrongfully convicted in 2006. He served more than three years in prison before Judge Nancy Gertner overturned his conviction and let him free last year. But the government kept the threat of a new trial over his head for nearly a year, delaying an official dismissal of the indictment until last week.
In the ultimate insult to injury, however, prosecutors led by assistant US attorney Donald Cabell still refuse to admit they made a mistake in bringing the charges against an innocent man. In their June 20 Dismissal of Indictment, they write only that “continued prosecution in this matter would be an overly costly use of its limited prosecutorial resources”—as if limited resources ever kept the US Attorney’s office from pursuing charges in a crime as serious as arson. Beyond just saving face in this case, however, it’s pretty clear why prosecutors are unwilling to admit they were wrong: If they did, they’d open the door to a wider challenge of arson investigation techniques, which have been increasingly called into question in Massachusetts and other states over the past few years.
If Massachusetts was really serious about seeing justice done, it would support a systematic review of arson cases, as a government commission in Texas has recommended in that state. Until then, we have no way of knowing how many other Jimmy Hebshies are still lingering in jail.
9 December 2010, by mblanding
Photo by Dana Smith
My latest story for Boston Magazine, investigating sexual abuse of immigrants working in Massachusetts, has just been published in the December issue. It tells the harrowing story of Luisa Gonzaga, a woman allegedly sexually harrased for years before coming forward to confront her abuser. As difficult as Gonzaga’s story is, however, it is only one of nearly a dozen cases I examined as I was putting together the piece. Due to the frustrating culture of silence that exists around these issues, it took over a year of investigating, reporting, and writing to bring this story to fruition. In several of the cases I first looked at, the women were forbidden from speaking due to court settlements. In others, charges were never filed by prosecutors for lack of evidence despite convincing stories of abuse. In another case, a woman ultimately declined to talk with me for fear it would traumatize her too much to relive the experience. Immigrant workers in Massachusetts and other states face multiple challenges in speaking out about abuse–in addition to the shame felt by victims in these circumstances, there is fear of deportation, cultural pressure from within their own communities, and insistence on confidentiality agreements by the courts that all conspire to keep them silent. That makes it all the more inspiring and impressive when someone like Gonzaga comes forward to tell her story.
Categories: Immigration, Investigative
9 December 2010, by mblanding
This fall, I was thrilled to appear on Chronicle – a show on Boston’s Channel 5 that I’ve been watching since I was young. Chronicle picked one of the towns from the “New England’s 25 Best Foliage Towns” feature I wrote for Yankee Magazine to appear in its “Mystery Main Streets” segment. I spent a fun day tooling around town showing off the sights and talking with local residents. The town has a couple of wonderful state parks, some amazing art galleries, and a fantastic Belgian chocolate maker. Which one did they choose? You’ll have to watch to find out…
WCVB, Channel 5 – Mystery Main Streets and Back Roads, November 15, 2010
Categories: Foliage, New England, Travel
27 October 2010, by mblanding
There’s nothing like that kick you get from an ice-cold Coke on a hot summer day. But if you believe the rumors, that’s nothing compared to the kick Coca-Cola used to have back when it contained a little extra ingredient called cocaine. Are those rumors true? After examining all the evidence for my new book, The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink, I can almost certainly say yes.
Let’s start with the name. In its earliest days, Coca-Cola was marketed as the combination of two exotic ingredients: the African kola nut, which contains more caffeine than coffee; and the South American coca leaf, which was once hailed as a miracle cure for whatever ailed you—from asthma to toothaches. (Drug maker Parke-Davis even produced coca-leaf cigarettes.) Coca-Cola’s creator, John Pemberton, took to the new ingredient wholeheartedly, producing a precursor to Coca-Cola called French Wine Coca that mixed red wine and cocaine to the tune of a third of a modern “line” per glass. When prohibition came to Atlanta in 1885, however, he was forced to remove the alcohol and concoct a new beverage, and Coca-Cola was born.
It would be strange if Pemberton didn’t keep the cocaine in his new drink—he was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the drug, raving to a newspaper reporter that, “[i]t is a most powerful stimulant…strengthening and giving tone to the nerves more promptly and permanently than any drug with which I am acquainted. Besides exercising an invigorating influence upon the cerebral centers, it imparts an indescribable sense of satisfaction.” (Indeed!)
While the exact formula for Coca-Cola has always been a closely guarded secret, both Pemberton and the man who took control of the Coca-Cola Company a few years later, Asa Candler, marketed the drink as containing cocaine, declaring as much in both newspaper advertisements and pamphlets. One pamphlet that Candler produced at the turn of the 20th century, for example, claimed it “contains, in a remarkable degree, the tonic properties of the wonderful Erythroxylon Coca Plant of South America.” During a court trial in 1901, Candler himself testified on the stand that it did contain “a very small proportion” of the drug.
So assuming that’s true, how much cocaine did Coke actually contain? In actuality, probably not much. While the formula for Coca-Cola has always been a closely guarded secret, one early copy drink uncovered by Coke biographer Mark Pendergrast called for 1/20th of a grain, or about 3 mg, of cocaine. (Compare that to the 30mg of cocaine in Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, or the 50–100 mg in a modern “line.”) A chemical analysis done in 1891 by the president of the Georgia Pharmaceutical Association also confirmed the presence of cocaine, but concluded that “it would require about thirty glasses…to make an ordinary dose of the drug.” In other words, the amount of cocaine in the drink was probably more symbolic than medicinal—requiring a whole lot of Cokes to feel much of any effect.
That fact makes it all the more strange that the Coca-Cola Company continues to claim to this day it never used cocaine in the drink. As recently as 2008, company archivist Phil Mooney categorically denied the rumors in a blog posting, insisting, “Coca-Cola has never used cocaine as an ingredient.” Perhaps there’s a slight slipperiness there—since cocaine was never added directly, but was rather part of the extract of coca leaves used to make the drink. (I would have asked Mooney himself to explain; however, The Coca-Cola Company denied me an interview with him and virtually everyone else in the company.)
One thing is clear: By the early twentieth century, cocaine was already under attack as an addictive drug, and its use was soon banned in the United States. Records show that by 1906, Candler had entirely removed it from the drink. To this day, Coke continues to be made with de-cocanized coca leaves (imported with special permission from Peru). But for more than 100 years, there has been no coke in Coke.
Categories: Book, Coke
16 September 2010, by mblanding
The Coke Machine takes readers deep inside the Coca-Cola Company and its international franchisees to reveal how they became the number one brand in the world, and just how far they’ll go to stay there.
From India and Mexico, where bottling plants are suspected of decimating water supplies and spreading toxic pollution; to Colombia, where Coke union organizers are being killed for trying to protect their rights; to America, where super-sizing and exclusive soda contracts with schools have fueled a childhood obesity crisis, The Coke Machine exposes the costs behind one extremely influential company’s quest for international success.
(Published by Avery/Penguin, September 2010)
Categories: Book, Coke