JAKE LEG BLUES: THE RISE AND FALL OF ADULTERATED GINGER

Back in 1930, at the height of Prohibition, Cincinnati was ground zero for the Jamaican ginger epidemic. Jamaican ginger elixir also known as ‘Jake’ was a commonly used tincture available in pharmacies across the United States. It contained potent amounts of alcohol and when used in small doses, was a safe pain reliever. However with Prohibition in full swing and folks looking for a way to imbibe, people began to take the ‘Jake’ and mix it with other beverages such as Coca-Cola, thus making it a more palatable cocktail which delivered an alcoholic punch. As this “underground” drink became more popular, bootleggers wanted in on the action and began to mix up their own versions of the concoction and with that so began the epidemic. You see, the bootleggers weren’t exactly using the pure techniques that pharmacists would with private label Jamaican ginger. Unbeknownst to the consumer, bootleggers would cut the pure product with harmful and even caustic chemicals like tri-orthocresal phosphate (TOCP), a common industrial plasticizer. This version became known as ‘adulterated Jake’. The addition of the TOCP created all sorts of harmful side effects and mysterious symptoms began to plague the ‘adulterated Jake’ drinkers. These maladies included aching calf muscles and numbness in the arms and legs, with an eventual loss of sensation. Eventually the disease would progress to muscle weakness and paralysis which was irreversible in some cases. These symptoms were commonly referred to as jake leg, gingerfoot and wrist drop. As you can imagine, the strange new illness that was sweeping the nation began to make headlines as newspapers across the country warned of the poisonous “adulterated Jake” and the dangers of it’s consumption. Over the first six months of 1930, more than 400 cases of ‘jake leg’ were identified at Cincinnati General Hospital alone. The symptoms, so visible and common, inspired many popular songs of the time such as, “Jake Walk Blues” by the Allen Brothers, “Jake Walk Papa” by Asa Martin and “Jake Leg Blues” by the Mississippi Sheiks just to name a few. Finally, the Food and Drug Administration got involved and seized a large shipment of ‘adulterated Jake’ for testing and not surprisingly, it was loaded with TOCP. In the end, the ‘adulterated Jake’ was eventually traced to Hub Products, a shell company run by two bootleggers out of Boston named Harry Gross and Max Reisman. But not before their mass production of the ‘adulterated Jake’ had sent thousands of bottles of the poisoned ginger elixir into the hands of unknowing boozers. By December of 1930, the two men were indicted by a grand jury and after a successful plea bargain Mr. Gross got off with a slap on the wrist, two years probation, while Mr. Reisman served no time at all. The public didn’t offer much sympathy for the thousands who had developed jake leg and serious paralysis. They were looked upon as being responsible for their own fate and offered no assistance or reparations. Some people say that without the popular songs of the era written about the condition, history may have made no mention of the Jamaican ginger epidemic whatsoever.

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