Got the Jake Leg Too
DESCRIPTION: Singer wakes up in the middle of the night with "jake leg"; he can't get out of bed and feels nearly dead. His Aunt Dinah has it; a preacher drinks and gets it too. Singer warns against drinking "Jamaica ginger"; he will pray for his fellow jake-leggers
EARLIEST DATE: 1930 (recording, Ray Brothers)
KEYWORDS: disease warning drink
Ray Brothers, "Got the Jake Leg Too" (Victor 23508, 1930; on RoughWays1)
cf. "Jake Limber Leg Blues" (topic)
NOTES [1372 words]: In 1929-1930 public health authorities in the USA became aware of an epidemic of neurological disease, "jake leg," characterized by irregular, halting gait and muscular palsy, caused by impurities contained in bootleg liquor, most notably "Jamaica ginger." Jake leg inspired numerous tunes and songs among country and blues artists. - PJS
Not all Jamaica ginger was dangerous -- but one batch was very bad. MacInnis, pp. 42-43, has this report:
"Ginger Jake [was]... a popular substitute for liquor during Prohibition in the United States. This was an alcoholic extract of Jamaica ginger, and legally listed in the U. S. Pharmacopoeia as a cure for assorted ailments. It tasted so horrible that the authorities thought it would surely be safe enough to sell, but the poor bought it anyway to satisfy their need for a buzz. Sadly, in 1930 one batch was accidentally adulterated with poisonous tri-orthocresyl phosphate (TOCP). Victims' symptoms beginning with cramps and sore calf muscles but developing into a form of leg paralysis known and celebrated in song as Jake Leg."
The account in Timbrell, pp. 259-263, is similar. The disease, when first noticed, was called "1930-type of polyneuritis," and received a good deal of newspaper attention. "Foot drop" was the most common symptom (because the sufferer's foot would droop if lifted into the air), but "wrist drop' was also known. It was found mostly in the states in a band from Texas to Ohio -- supposedly Cincinnati General Hospital dealt with 400 cases in one half-year period in 1930.
Baum, p. 311, observes that one of the first to spot the problem was a doctor named Ephraim Goldfain, The first case he was was of "a man whose name is lost to history [who] staggered in off the street. The patient's feet dangled like a marionette's, so that walking involved swinging them forward and slapping them onto the floor.... He wasn't in any pain, he said, but he could barely get around." The disease didn't appear to be polio, but tests for lead poisoning came back negative. And there weren't any other obvious candidates. A new disease had been found.
Baum, p. 315, mentions another consequence not cited in most of the other articles: Jake Leg caused impotence. This was apparently one of the main side effects; one of Baum's contacts suggests that this was the real reason the condition became the subject of so many songs.
"Jake" was apparently a widely-used remedy for all sorts of minor pains -- presumably because it was almost pure alcohol. Theoretically "jake" really was undrinkable in pure form -- the usual method of consumption was to dilute it with water or soft drinks. It was still pretty bad when taken with water, but Coca-Cola made it palatable. And it was cheaper than going to a speakeasy.
Although the FDA regulated and tested "jake," the tests were not very effective. The test, according to Satin, p. 177, consisted of heating it to 250 degrees Fahrenheit for three hours. This boiled off all alcohol and water. The test consisted of weighing what was left over. If it weighed enough, the jake was considered legitimate. But in fact it could contain any adulterant that didn't boil off at 250 degrees. Since Jamaica Ginger was somewhat expensive, many recipes had only a little ginger and used something else, such as castor oil, to make up the rest of the non-volatile material (Satin, p. 179). After all, no one cared about the ginger -- they were buying it for the alcohol.
Unlike a modern pharmaceutical, there was no one standard source; several different manufacturers made jake, which made it easier for one batch to become contaminated without others being affected.
One of the manufacturers of cheap "jake" was a fellow by the name of Harry Gross. But, in 1929, he had a problem: castor oil was getting expensive. He needed a substitute (Satin, p. 179). He started looking around for a chemical he could get at industrial rates. And -- because he did all the mixing himself in a secret work room -- no one really knew what he was doing (Satin, p. 181). To make things even more complicated, although the "jake" was all manufactured in Gross's secret operation, it was sold under a variety of labels -- Gross used half a dozen names, and had agreements to share others (Satin, p. 182; Baum, p. 318, sees this as a sinister attempt to evade regulations, adding that his license to handle alcohol during Prohibition had been revoked some years earlier).
As a replacement for castor oil, Gross eventually settled on a chemical called Lindol, properly tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate, or TOCP (Satin, p. 180) -- a lacquer solvent! Blum, p. 204, explains that it combined "carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen into a ring-shaped structure called a cresol (also found in creosote), and phosphorus hangs onto the ring like an exhausted swimmer gripping a life preserver." It passed the boiling test, and it was colorless, tasteless, odorless, and mixed easily with the other components of "jake."
Apparently no one realized it was dangerous -- products were not properly tested for toxicity at this time (Timbrell, p. 261; Baum, pp. 316-317, says that it had been found non-toxic in dogs and monkeys, although it later proved to be dangerous to rabbits and calves). Lindol made up about 2% of the mix produced by Gross, and exposure to it was quickly found to produce "jake leg" type symptoms in animals (Timbrell, p. 260).
Blum, p. 204, suggests that the TOCP actually made the "jake" pack more punch -- the neurotoxic effect of the TOCP gave the consumer more of a buzz. The flip side is, most drinkers of "jake" were already alcoholic; what they wanted was the alcohol more than the high.
It generally took between seven and sixteen days for symptoms to develop (TOCP operates by killing off nerves, and it took time for the damage to accumulate; Timbrell, p. 261; Blum, p. 206, says that some of the byproducts actually resemble nerve gases such as sarin). This is one reason why it took some time to diagnose the problem. A newspaper broke the story on March 7, 1930 (Satin, p. 182).
The contaminated samples were eventually traced to Hub Products, Harry Gross's company; the FDA visited him on March 17. He was minimally cooperative, but stopped shipping "jake" on March 18; he shut down his business a few weeks later (Satin, p. 184).
Gross, his brother-in-law Max Reisman, and a distributor were charged with violations of the Prohibition and Food and Drug acts (i.e. selling illicit alcohol and an adulterated substance. Satin, p. 185, is indignant that no charges were brought for their poisoning of thousands of people).
The case went to trial in March 1931. Gross and Reisman eventually (and separately) pleaded guilty to relatively minor charges, and were given suspended sentences and fines (Satin, p. 184). Because they remained relatively uncooperative, they eventually were sent to prison to serve their time (so Satin, p. 185; Baum, p. 319, says Gross went to jail but Reisman did not).
There was talk of a suit against the Celluloid Corporation, maker of the TOCP (Baum, p. 319), but that went nowhere -- properly, it seems to me, since they had no idea how their product was used.
Estimates of those who suffered from "Jake Leg" reportedly ranged from 35,000 (Timbrell, p. 261) to 50,000 (MacInnis, p. 42), some of whom took the Jake for legitimate medical reasons rather than because they were drunks -- but there was little sympathy for the suffers, since most of them were alcoholics. This helps to explain why no compensation was paid to the victims. Also, it appears that Gross and Reisman were bankrupt; they never paid their lawyers, let alone any settlements (Satin, p. 185).
Timbrell, p. 262, cites a little bit of the Ray Brothers recording of this song, and says that there were at least ten other blues songs about Jake Leg. Satin, p. 183, says that four had been released by May 1930, and on p. 186 quotes one by the Allen Brothers. If any went into tradition, I am not aware of it.
Timbrell, p. 262, mentions several more recent incidents of outbreaks of TOCP poisoning around the world, but apparently not on the same scale as the Ginger Jake disaster.. And (as far as I know) none has inspired a song, at least in English. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.2
- Baum: Dan Baum, "'Jake Leg: How the blues diagnosed a medical mystery,''" article published 2003 in The New Yorker; republished on pp. 310-320 of Norm Cohen, editor, All This for a Song, Southern Folklife Collection, 2009. Page references are to the Cohen reprint
- Blum: Deborah Blum, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, Penguin, 2010
- MacInnis: Peter MacInnis, Poisons (originally published as The Killer Bean of Calabar and Other Stories), 2004 (I use the 2005 Arcade paperback)
- Satin: Morton Satin: Death in the Pot: The Impact of Food Poisoning on History, Prometheus, 2007
- Timbrell: John Timbrell, The Poison Paradox: Chemicals as Friends and Foes, Oxford, 2005
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