MEETING # 1 5 8 1
JANUARY 30, 1997
The Pepper Paper
by James A. Fallows M.D.
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public
Pepper has no significant therapeutic uses and only the
limited toxicology of stomach irritation.
The production, propagation, varieties, and chemistry of
pepper are described in this paper..
Pepper has stimulated world exploration and trading in the
past because of its value at the destination where it is used. Because of its price
volatility its history has been associated with economic shenanigans.
BIOGRAPHY OF THE AUTHOR
James A. Fallows M.D. is a retired physician, having
practiced Internal Medicine at the Beaver Medical Clinic for 35 years until retirement in
He was born in Abington, Pennsylvania, in 1925. After
graduation from Harvard Medical School, he trained at hospitals in Philadelphia, and
served in the U.S. Navy at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center, and first came to
California to be on the staff of the U.S. Naval Hospital in Corona, California. He is a
Fellow of the American College of Physicians and the American College of Cardiology.
In Redlands he has served on the School Board, headed the
Intensive Care Unit for its first fifteen years. At times he has been active with The
Redlands Racquet Club, Redlands Mounted Police, Rim-of-the-World Riders, Redlands Symphony
Orchestra, Trinity Episcopal Church, the Fortnightly club, the Beaver Medical Clinic
Foundation, and others. In his medical practice and subsequently he has been interested in
and aided by computers.
His wife, Jean, his four children and their families have
always been a joy to him.
Uses and Effects of Pepper
Uses As Seasoning
It is almost impossible to believe that in this country we are consuming a total of
37,000,000 pounds of pepper a year.. And yet this is a fact. We are not talking about red,
green or chili peppers. We are talking about black, white and pepper corn peppers. Pepper
is our most popular spice - and it is used, as indicated above, mainly in three forms -
black ground, white ground, and the whole pepper corns, either white or black,
Fine ground pepper, either white or black,-is the most commonly used. White pepper,
which is less pungent and also less conspicuous, is generally used in foods where black
coloring would be noticed. In creamed soups, sauces and gravies, as well as in mayonnaise,
white pepper gives seasoning and does not appear in black specks.
Black pepper, which is the most used, now comes in two grinds, the finely ground
product and a coarser or butcher grind, packaged for institutional use The coarser grind
has more flavor and is somewhat stronger in effect.
When in its whole form (black and white) it is a spicy addition to soups, meats and
pickling. When ground (black and white) it is excellent in meats, sauces, gravies, and
many vegetables, soups, salads and eggs. A dash of fresh Black Pepper adds a tang in a
tossed green salad.
According to the United States Dispensatory, "from the time of Hippocrates pepper
has been used as a condiment and in medicine."
The New Yorker reports that pepper first became popular among the East Indians and
Malayans three or four thousand years ago. "They found it added relish to their
standard diet of rice pudding, a dish as dull then as it is now," and that when used
in curries, for example, it induced a feeling of coolness on the part of the diner by
making him sweat.
Studies of the antioxidant properties of pepper have been carried out., a matter of
some importance in food preservation. In a simple oil-in-water emulsion system, pepper was
shown to have high antioxidant properties.
A group of dietitians under the guidance of D. Johnson, studied the effect of spices on
flavor and acceptability of food for sick patients. It was-found that patients whose
childhood eating pattern had been limited to mashed potato and gravy type of diet were
cautious in expanding their flavor experience. On the other hand, a group of food
conscious dietitians showed very surprisingly uniform preference for spice and herb
It was also shown that flavor preference is a subjective, highly individualized matter.
This study suggests that the appreciation of subtle flavors is usually developed in early
life. These observations lend support to the view that the inclusion of a variety of food
and flavor experiences is a desirable part of training for the development of good food
A taste-panel study was conducted in 1955, using standard blindfold taste-testing
methods, with the results analyzed statistically. Thirty-two common foods were studied -
processed meats, soups, salads, vegetables and miscellaneous foods. Foods prepared with
pepper were compared with the same foods prepared without pepper. The pepper was used in
concentrations determined by military or industrial specifications, if available;
otherwise the concentrations were set by judgment of trained home economists.
For only seven of the thirty-two foods was there a preference for those with pepper
These were bologna, liver sausage, pork sausage, bean soup, chicken soup, vegetable soup
and fried haddock. With the remaining twenty-five there were no significant preferences.
The results suggest that in many common American foods, at least, pepper is used only by
blind custom and never would be missed if omitted.
The late Louis Diat, one of the most famous chefs of all time, once explained that
pepper's importance stems from the fact that no other spice does as much for as many
different types of food. He noted that pepper will frequently be used three times in a
dish before it is eaten; first as an ingredient in preparation; then, to
"correct" the overall seasoning of the dish during or after cooking; finally, at
the table if the diner prefers more seasoning.
The peppermill is an interesting sidelight in this picture. Up until a few years ago
the American dinner table rarely saw one. Now there are millions of people who swear by
the exquisitely fresh flavor that comes from grinding pepper as it is used. Millions more
are staunch adherents of coarse pepper, a relatively new grind of pepper. This is
particularly popular with the outdoor set because it is easily handled. Fine ground pepper
often blows away before it hits the steak, but the coarser flakes zero in nicely.
The ancient Aryans used pepper for dyspepsia, malaria, delirium tremens and
hemorrhoids. The Egyptians used it for embalming. Today the Hindus use it for toothache,
Asians as an aphrodisiac, and Dutch and French housewives as an insect repellent and moth
killer. Its value as an essential preservative for meats and other perishable foods has
been known for centuries.
While most of the more exotic uses of pepper have yet to be established scientifically,
there is evidence of a stimulating effect upon the appetite and the digestive system.
According to Gerrit Leonard, president of the American Spice Trade Association, the
world consumes 130,00O,000 pounds of pepper annually. Of the total, the United States
imports about 37,000,000 pounds. About 20% of that amount is sold to bulk meat packers,
and a like quantity to the canning, pickling, baking, confectionery, and beverage trades.
60% is sold direct to consumers. The average American housewife used about 7 ounces of
pepper a year.
One of pepper's principal functions in the pre-refrigeration days of previous centuries
was to preserve meat and, failing that, "to conceal the fact that it had
failed". The Hindus are said to have used it also as a specific for mistiness of the
eyes, the Mohammedans for snake bite.
The Dutch and French dust a crude powdered form of it in clothes and carpets to keep
The reason that it causes sneezing, by the way, is said to be not that it's pepper, but
merely that it's a very fine dust.
Pepper's use is not due to physiologic necessity (as is salt's). Its indestructibility
has been helpful to growers and dealers. About the only simple way to destroy pepper is to
eat it. It is never attacked by insects; it neither deteriorates nor shrinks; it can be
stored indefinitely, and therefore it has had the same permanence as gold as an
In the book Aphrodisiacs, Shaykh Nefzaw is quoted as recommending stimulant pastry
containing long pepper, long ginger, pyrethrum, syrup of vinegar, hellebore, garlic,
cinnamon' cardomoms, sparrows' tongues' Chinese cinnamon. Chinese Annamites recommended
electuaries of honey, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper (probably white
pepper) for this purpose. Chinese used white pepper in the form of an infusion of the
Cubebs were long used as prophylactic against G.C., and oleum cubebae (not official)
still stands in the British materia medica as being occasionally useful in subacute and
chronic inflammations of the urinary tract, especially G. C.
There is no published work of any beneficial or harmful effects on heart disease,
atherosclerosis, or blood lipids, Pepper's chemistry gives no reason to suspect an effect
of this type.
The Effect of Pepper on the Stomach
Frank, by tube feedings in humans, demonstrated that coriander, garlic, marjoram, dill,
sage, savory, rosemary, celery, thyme' and caraway have no significant effect on the
secretion by the stomach (1 Gm. in 100 cc water for 5 minutes). These findings were
confirmed in singular work by Harth.
No untoward symptoms such as heartburn, indigestion, belching or pain were observed if
these spices were ingested with food; but they often occurred if any of the spices were
taken on an empty stomach..
Black Pepper and chili pepper, which produced symptoms, also induced the most marked
hyperemia and edema of the gastric mucosa observed gastroscopically, Black pepper, chili
pepper, cloves, mustard seed, and probably nutmeg, were considered to be gastric irritants
on the basis of these and other studies.
Sodium Content of Pepper
The amount of sodium in pepper is physiologically insignificant.
Black pepper refers to berries picked before fully ripe. They are merely dried, cleaned
and shipped, The entire berry is ground. Since the pepper berry is composed of a
dark-colored outer hull and a light-colored kernel, Ground Black Pepper is composed of
both light and dark particles.
White pepper refers to berries left on the vine until fully ripe, when the outer hull
or shell has partly separated from the white center. The ripened berries are steeped in
water to hasten the removal of the hull. The hulls are removed, the white peppercorn is
washed several times, dried and shipped. The process of hull removal is known as
Black pepper has a characteristic, penetrating odor and a hot, biting, and very pungent
taste. Since only the inner kernel is used, ground white pepper has an even light color.
Its taste is more mild.
There are many varieties of black pepper known to the trade. They take their names from
the localities where they are grown or from the ports through which they are exported,
Penang, Tellicherry, Alleppey, Lampong and Saigon.. These peppers differ slightly from
each other in their physical and chemical properties, the color, size and flavor varying
among them. Lampong and Singapore peppercorns are smaller and more shriveled but very
Traditionally the Indian peppers exported from the Malabar coast, Tellicherry and
Alleppey, command the highest prices of any on the market. Long acclaimed by gourmets,
Malabar pepper is used today in some of our finest food products. Characteristically, the
Indian peppercorns are large, evenly shaped and rich in aroma and tang..
Not to be confused with black pepper or white pepper is red pepper, cayenne, or paprika
which comes from a different plant, has small volume, little speculative value and is not
traded on pepper exchanges.
Black pepper consists of the dry unripe fruit of Piper nigrum L, a perennial vine with
rather large, fleshy leaves, resembling philodendron leaves, and a small spherical
fruit borne on spikes. On each spike there are usually twenty to forty berries which are
first green, but upon ripening, turn red and finally yellowish. A single vine usually
bears twenty or more fruit spikes.
Uncared for vines may trail along the ground, growing to thirty feet or more, and
becoming quite woody. Practically ail the pepper of commerce comes from pepper gardens
where the plants are cultivated and kept cut back to eight to ten feet, and are supported
by posts, or more often, trees which are planted especially to shade and support the vine,
As soon as the oldest fruits on the spike begin to turn red in color the entire spike
is picked. There are usually two crops each year, and a vine may bear fruit for fifteen
years, or longer.
At the time of harvesting, the berries are cherry red, but after thorough drying in the
sun or over smoky fires, they turn to a deep brown or black and become shriveled and hard.
When completely dry, the berries are broken off the spikes by hand, by threshing
with sticks, or tramping with bare feet. Finally, the berries are cleaned by winnowing and
sometimes hand-sorted for size and quality. At this point, they are peppercorns.
The producers send their spices to the U. S. in the whole form and most of it is ground
by spice packaging companies here before it is sold. However, the whole peppercorns have
become more familiar to Americans in recent years, as a result of the new popularity of
When the black pepper in the shaker is examined, it is seen that it is really a
collection of small dark and light particles. This is because the peppercorn is composed
of two parts, a dark colored outer husk and a light colored kernel. For the spice we call
black pepper, the entire peppercorn is used.
Pepper Growth Sites
India is still by far the largest pepper producing country in the world, although
cultivation of this spice has since spread to other lands, chiefly Indonesia, Borneo,
Ceylon, and recently, Brazil.
Numerous attempts have been made to introduce commercial pepper growing into the
Western hemisphere, and though pepper is grown to some extent in the Caribbean countries,
Central America and Brazil, it has never assumed any importance in the export of these
countries. Introduction of Asian varieties has been hampered by the fact that seed-grown
stock will not produce true to type, and cuttings have been unable to withstand the
hazards of transpacific shipping,
With the Japanese occupation of the East Indies during the war and subsequent near
destruction of the plantations, importation of pepper into the United States ceased but a
large reserve in this country delayed any severe shortage until the post-war years when
imports were resumed but not in enough volume to keep up with demand.
In the post-war years India has replaced Indonesia as the chief supplier of pepper for
American tables, Indonesian vines were a complete loss as a result of war conditions and
neglect, but it was found that by cutting back, mulching and vigorous fertilizing, many of
them could be brought back into production.
Pepper may be propagated from seed, or preferably, from cuttings planted directly in
the fields during a rainy season, or started in nursery beds until the roots have
developed sufficiently to permit transplanting. The stems produce numerous rootless at
their swollen joints, and with these, the plant attaches itself to its support much in the
manner of ivy. Depending on local climate, harvesting takes place from September to
Substitutes for pepper were marketed in 1943, when it became apparent that our pepper
situation was going to get hopeless. Imitation pepper is probably better for the stomach
as it has a cereal base, but it is less pungent and lacks "heat." It's an odd
fact that, in 1946, imitation pepper looked more like pepper than real pepper did. This
was because the bulk of peppercorns in this country had been stored on Staten Island since
1933 and had faded.
In 1951, in anticipation of another pepper shortage, Army chemists were speeding their
efforts to produce the spice synthetically.
Through steam distillations, the various components of pepper were extracted for
identification purposes. To arrive at a usable result, two factors of pepper, its bite and
its volatile quality affecting the sense of smell are being approached through a blending
of certain synthesized compounds closely allied to the chemical compounds in natural
The American Spice Trade Association has deplored the use of substitutes for pepper
They have stated a usual method of production of synthetic pepper involves the grinding of
soya, buckwheat or cottonseed hulls, which is then stained black. For flavoring it is
sprayed with oil of capsicum, a sharp bitter substance obtained from small red Chile
berries grown in the tropics. The spice men argue that such a product may easily become
infested by undesirable bacteria.
There is a taste test for substitute pepper - sprinkle a bit of seasoning on the hand
and taste it, If there is an immediate burning sensation, then it is not pepper, but oil
of capsicum. The taste buds react more slowly to pepper.
THEOPHRASTUS, 4 CENTURY B. C.
The first literary mention of pepper was by Theophrastus, a Greek free-lance who lived
during the fourth century B.C.
ALARIC THE GOTH, 408 B. C.
Once worth its weight in gold, this king of spices helped ransom Rome. Alaric the Goth
in 408 B.C. demanded 5,000 pounds of gold and 3,000 pounds of pepper under threat that the
city would be sacked and burned. For 1000 years afterwards pepper ranked with gold as a
basis of wealth. Landowners sometimes paid rent or taxes with pepper.
CRUSADES, 1 200
It has been pointed out that the defeat of Christendom during the Crusades was due in
considerable part to the immense revenues gained from levies on the spice trade' which at
that time was in the hands of the Mohammedans.
MARCO POLO, 1280
The date of pepper's first use as a condiment is unknown, but from the time of Marco
Polo in 1280, it was an important article of commerce between Europe and the Orient and
shared cargo space with silk and precious jewels in the caravans that plied the Great Silk
Route throughout the Middle Ages.
The costs of transportation were very high. Marco Polo reported that a transport of
1,000 baskets of pepper required a crew of 60 to 100 men. Although Marco Polo has been
called the Prince of Exaggerators, it is reasonable to assume that, at the time, the
efforts of one man were required to transport 10 baskets of pepper from the Indies to the
Red Sea. High costs of water and land transportation plus tariffs, protections, piracy,
losses at sea, and the like, made pepper a very valuable product by the time it reached
the western European consumer. It is recorded that, by the time pepper reached Venice,
"what at first cost one Scats was raised in the end to 60 and even 70 ducats."
Originally pepper moved overland by caravan through India and Persia, or by water
through the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea. The pepper passed into the hands of the
Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon who peddled it around the Mediterranean ports. Pepper also
moved up the Red Sea and was taken by caravan to the Nile and Alexandria for further
distribution. Amid all other imports from the Orient, pepper was peculiarly significant
because at the source it could be had for next to nothing. The main value of the spice was
acquired during transmission, and it became a high value.
During the Middle Ages, the Mohammedan world controlled the movement of goods from the
East, and the Christian World, the movement to the West. There was a constant interchange
of goods but little movement of traders. Christendom bought spices at Alexandria and
Aleppo. Venice and Genoa became secondary points of distributions. Arriving by water at
these cities, it was carried on pack animals to the Rhine and there transhipped by boats
to Cologne and Flanders for distribution in England and northern Europe.
In the 1 5th century, men began to ask whether it would not be cheaper to bring pepper
by sea. The problem appealed in turn to the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British.
Columbus first thought he had reached his goal when he found small, dark berries
similar to peppercorns, growing in the West Indies. They turned out to be allspice, but to
this day this spice is known in the Caribbean as pimento, which means pepper in Spanish -
the name given it by the great admiral.
VASCO DA GAMA, 1498
Vasco da Gama was in search of pepper when he first skirted the Cape of Good Hope, and
when he reached the Malabar coast of India in 1498, he found the home of this precious
spice, There, where the annual rainfall averages well over 80 inches and the temperature
nearer falls below 50° F., the vines that bear pepper berries have been flourishing since
long before the Christian era..
After da Gama found it on the Malabar coast, Portugal had a corner on pepper for over a
century until England's East India Company was formed by Queen Elizabeth to capture the
CONQUEST OF INDIA, IN 1459
Indeed it was the high price of pepper that led to Britain's conquest of India. In 1459
the Dutch had a monopoly on pepper which a group of London merchants was determined to
crack. To break the Dutch stranglehold on the pepper market, these merchants decided to
trade directly with India. The East India Company, which they organized, eventually took
control of the whole of India.
BARTHOLOMEW DIAS 1487
In 1486-1487, Dias, with pepper in view, doubled the Cape of Good Hope and opened an
oceanic route to the lands of the Par East. In the elaboration of the diet, pepper played
the part of pioneer. Tea, coffee, cocoa, tobacco and other comforts were added to the
cargo, first as novelties for those who could afford them, and then as necessities for the
community as a whole. The commerce that started with pepper grew into commerce as we know
MAGELLAN, 1 521
Magellan's expedition circled the globe in search of spices, and although the great
mariner lost his life and all of his ships but one foundered, the pepper in the hold of
the surviving vessel more than paid for the loss of the ships.
DUTCH IN 1581
Probably one of the greatest declines in the cost of distributing pepper occurred when
the Portuguese opened the all-water route to the East. At the time when Portugal united
with Spain in 1581, the Dutch played a dominant role for a time in the pepper trade
between the Orient and Western Europe. Spain was probably more interested in the precious
metals of the New World than in the spices of the Orient. In 1610 the Dutch East Indies
Company paid dividends of 132%. but grew "antiquated and unscrupulously
dishonest" and finally failed, When the Dutch monopoly raised the price of pepper Tom
the equivalent of about $1.25 to $3.25 a pound, the English established the East Indies
Company to compete in this lucrative spice trade.
PEPPER AS CURRENCY, 1582
Pepper was always greatly prized and there have been times when it was even used for
currency. In Elizabethan days7 when sailing vessels went to the Orient for spices and
other products, people unloading pepper from the boats in England had their pockets sewn
up before they could work on the docks to prevent them from stealing this precious spice.
HENRY HUDSON, 1609
Henry Hudson, who discovered the Hudson River in 1609 for the Dutch East India Company,
was also looking for a new and shorter route to the pepper countries of the East.
SALEM FROM 1799
No port in America has ever dominated the trade in a single foreign commodity, or in a
single part of the world so thoroughly as Salem did in pepper from Sumatra in the first
fifty years of the Republic. Her vessels encouraged the culture of pepper by supplying a
ready market. Though it did not really get going until 1799, from then until 1846, pepper
ships came almost every year. Many single ships brought over a half million pounds and at
least one, the Elizabeth, came in with over a million pounds.
Black pepper was bought at $10.00 to $11.00 per picul (133 pounds) in 1803. Profits
ranged up to 700%. Although the pepper trade in its prosperous years in Salem ran into
millions of pounds, it must not be assumed that the pepper was used to any extent in Salem
or even in America. It was re-shipped to all the ports of Europe from Archangel to Naples,
not only by Salem merchants but also by merchants from other ports in America who came to
Salem to buy it.
Most of the buying was done for specie and the current coin was the Spanish silver
The pepper season began in January when they gathered the small pepper at the bottom of
the vines, but March, April and May represented the height of the crop and the best pepper
was gathered from the top of the vines in May. (This pepper is larger and more solid than
that gathered earlier.) However, it varied by the season and often good pepper was coming
down to the coast as late as July.
There are many discussions on what such enormous quantities of pepper
could be used for Many persons assume that it was used to preserve meat before the days of
refrigeration. It is asserted that rubbing ground pepper into fresh meat would keep away
flies and thus prevent early decay, somewhat after the smoking process. If so, it must
have been for local use. for peppered meat was never mentioned in the export Made. England
did quite a business in provisions but it was always salt beef and salt pork which was
mentioned. There is a gruesome story of a man who died far from home and was shipped back
to Salem in a coffin filled with pepper - and when it was opened sometime after 1900, he
still looked "very natural". It is unlikely there were many cases of this sort.
One day in the spring of 1797 a small American schooner named "Rajah" sailed into New York harbor with a hold full of "wrinkled
blackberries". Her captain, Jonathan Carnes, would not say where she had been but
word soon leaked out that the voyage had netted a 700 per cent profit. The cargo, 150,000
pounds of it, was the most valuable berry in the world; black pepper.
The Rajah, which had sailed from Salem' Massachusetts, started a
fascinating chapter in American history. In the next fifty years, Salem's pepper trade
with the Orient did much to establish our young nation's merchant marine. Hundreds of
ships were built for this trade alone. More than $5,000,000 in pepper duties were added to
the U. S. Treasury At one point Salem contributed (mostly from pepper) duties equal to
about five per cent of the Federal Government's total budget.
In a usual year the U.S. imports about 38,000,000 pounds of pepper, more
then 34,000,000 of which is black pepper.
Americans for the most part prefer black pepper; the British, Germans
and Scandinavians like it white. Black pepper's production is four times that of white.
Pepper trade follows a well established pattern. France consumes all of Gambodia's
exports as well as those from Madagascar and other former French territories. The Soviet
Union received India's output. The Western Hemisphere consumes Brazil's exports The United
States was chiefly supplied by Indonesia before the war, but was supplied by India after
destruction of the Indonesia market. Since 195 6 imports from Indonesia have resumed and
most of the 18,200 metric tons imported by the United States in 1960 were from there. The
regions of Brazil, Ceylon, Thailand, and Madagascar together grow 20% of the world's
The word shenanigan is defined as "trickery; foolery, nonsense; also,
treacherous action or a treacherous act " and probably derives from the Irish sionnach,
meaning fox. The lore of pepper is replete with shenanigans committed by men as wily
as the fox..
PORTUGAL IN 1 500
About 1500 a German company bought 600,000 guilders of pepper from the King of Portugal
at higher than the usual price, on condition that the king of Portugal would charge a
still higher price to all other importers of pepper from Portugal into Germany.
QUEEN ELIZABETH RIGGING
Queen Elizabeth rigged the pepper market in 1592. On his fifth voyage to the Indies in
1592, George, Earl of Cumberland, captured a great Spanish carrack, the Madre de Dios,
laden with 3,652 bags of pepper. When the consignment reached London there was such a
quantity that no one merchant could be found to buy it all. The Queen owned the largest
quantity, her share being worth 80,000 pounds, and Richard Carwarden, a great merchant of
those days, was instructed by Lord Burghley to ask three shillings a pound for it.
At the same time the city authorities were warned that no other pepper was to be placed
on the market until the Queen's lot had been sold. It was eventually sold to Mr. Garraway
for more than the sum stipulated, but this glut of the spice caused such a drop in prices
that a few months later a warrant was issued by the Queen, prohibiting all importation of
pepper for one year or longer, according to the Lord Treasurer's discretion. Of course
difficulties arose and certain merchants were quickly charged under the warrant with
importing pepper contrary to regulations.
"The whole situation seems somewhat undignified, as presenting a spectacle of the
Queen and her courtiers quarreling over plunder gained from Spain by what was after all
THE HOWESON SCANDAL
In 1935 an astounding character named Garabed Bishirgian emerged from Armenia to gamble
in rugs, caviar, tin, and finally pepper with such success that he became known as the
"Pepper King".He threw parties which awed London, and owned a model farm in
Surrey on which he raised 600 thoroughbred pigs. In 1935 he joined with "Tin
King", John Henry Charles Ernest Howeson in an attempt to corner the pepper market.
Howeson had come to London from Calcutta as an obscure jute merchant, 3 6 years old. He
was then known by his real name of von Ernsthausen, but he promptly changed it to Howeson,
sold his other interests, and embarked on a Napoleonic career in tin
When a bumper crop of pepper threatened their corner, they resorted to a fraudulent
stock issue, which brought several old commodity firms to bankruptcy, cost the public
millions, landed Kings Bishirgian and Howeson in jail, and London's pepper market in
The old concern of James and Shakespeare; Ltd., metal dealers and produce brokers, with
an issued capital of 425,000 pounds (about 2 million dollars) became the first casualty of
the mad gambling in white pepper.
Public interest in the failure was heightened by the news that Reginald McKenna, a
former Chairman of the Exchequer and chairman of the Midland Bank held 5,000 shares in his
own name, while his bank held 50,000 more. Sir Hugo Cunliffe Owen, chairman of the British
American Tobacco Company, also was among shareholders with 5206 preference shares and 5166
It was disclosed that Howeson had made desperate futile attempts the preceding January
to induce the Netherlands and British government to shut off imports of pepper from the
east and thus save the pool from ruin. At that time the pool held 12,000 tons of white
pepper at a cost of 1,600,000 pounds, this being the world's entire crop for a normal
year. 6,000 tons more were on the point of being shipped to London.
In February, 1936, John Howeson and Garabed Bishirgian were sentenced to one year and
Louis Hardy to nine months to the "second division", which means ordinary
imprisonment without hard labor. "You were in great positions said Justice Sir Cyril
Atkinson in pronouncing sentence. Great positions carry great responsibilities. I should
be failing in my duty if I did not punish you -. "
McCORMICK & CO. SCANDAL
Food Inspector Sudler operating from the Baltimore station, observed that McCormick and
Company of that city were importing large amounts of pepper shells. There may be
legitimate uses for this article but Inspector Sudler did not know what they were and
McCormick and Company were not disposed to tell them. Suspecting "adulterated
pepper", he tested many samples of McCormick's "Pure Ground Black Pepper",
but never did the ash and fiber run over the standard. Whatever manipulation was going on
was so skillful, so carefully controlled' that chemical analysis would not detect the
Albert Seeker, chief chemist of the New York station, advised Inspector Sudler to spray
a dilute alcoholic solution (alcoholic rather than aqueous to avoid mold) of quinine
through several hundred bags of shells on the dock when they arrived in this country - and
then Dr. Sudler followed 199 of these bags to the McCormick factory. There followed
seizure and condemnation of six barrels of ground pepper shipped by McCormick and Company
of Baltimore into the State of New York. Adulteration of the article was charged for the
reason that added pepper shells had been mixed and packed with it so as to reduce and
lower and injuriously affect its quality and strength, and had been substituted for it.
Misbranding was charged for the reason that the statement "Pure Ground
Pepper" in the labeling was false and misleading in that the article was an imitation
of, and was offered for sale as, black pepper when it was not black pepper, and for the
further reason that it was labeled and branded so as to deceive and mislead the producer.
Other shipments were seized in Wilmington and Savannah.
Judge Manton ordered the pepper to be sold by the U. S. marshal as a ground black
pepper containing from 10 to 28% added pepper shells," all costs to be borne by the
manufacturer A subsequent criminal prosecution based on these seizures added up more costs
for McCormick and Company and a fine of $750.00. Proceeds from the sale went to the United
THE SINGAPORE SYNDICATE
In 1959 a syndicate of Singapore dealers (the Wan Tong Trading Co.) attempted to corner
the world market by accumulating very large stocks of pepper. This was reinforced by heavy
buying of the Soviet Union - second largest importer after the United States - and by a
poor crop harvested late. The price of pepper trebled from January to December, 1959.
Stocks held in producer countries are unknown in amount, but they are considerable.
Throughout Asia pepper is regarded by both native producers and dealers as a convenient
investment Poor families frequently bury a small parcel of pepper in their gardens and
sell it if there is a sharp rise in price. These stocks are an effective means of
defeating efforts of organized dealers to corner the market for a prolonged period.
I gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the staffs of the medical libraries of the
Los Angeles County Medical Society and Loma Linda University Medical School, as well as
the library at California Institute of Technology and the Redlands Smiley Library.
The American Spice Trade Association provided the illustrations along with some helpful
information. A recent internet search using the keyword "pepper" yields more
than 89,000 items. I have included information from some of these sites after excluding
many entries such as, the Pepper family genealogies going back to the 16 century, the J.W.
Pepper Music Association, and Doctor Pepper soft drinks.