Much like every new craze, it probably seemed like a good idea at the time.
Patent medicines containing Jamaican ginger had been available since the 19th century and were used for treating various medical complaints. Familiar names such as "Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound" (a.k.a. Lily the Pink) were extremely popular, not only for their presumed medicinal value, but also for their alcohol content. Packaged in syrup or tincture form, the ginger was often dissolved in alcohol (as much as 90 per cent in some cases). Commonly known as "jake", the ginger extract was sold in pharmacies and considered to be perfectly safe in dealing with minor colds, menstrual cramps, and digestive problems.
Unfortunately, things changed when the U.S. Treasury department began investigating the alcoholic content found in most jake products. After the Stock Market crash of 1929, jake became increasingly popular as a low-cost alternative to the inflated prices that bootleggers charged for liquor. Since Prohibition was still in force, producers of jake attempted to bypass alcohol control laws by claiming that the ginger content made their product "undrinkable". Mixing jake with soft drinks such as Coca Cola helped hide the ginger flavour so this was hardly a deterrent for serious drinkers. As a result, jake sales soared in "dry" parts of the country. Alcohol was still alcohol however and the pressure was on to make jake more acceptable. Various alternative ingredients went into bootleg jake (including castor oil and molasses) but the "kick" that the alcohol had brought to the product was still lacking.
Beginning in early 1930, a disturbing new illness began sweeping much of the country. The first five instances was seen in an Oklahoma hospital on February 27, 1930 by Dr. Ephraim Goldfrain on the same day. Characterized by aching calf muscles, numbness in the legs, and eventual loss of sensation, the disease progressed to muscle weakness and paralysis which was irreversible in some cases. Although sudden paralysis was usually associated with polio or lead poisoning, these were quickly ruled out as possible causes. The strange new disease could be identified by the peculiar "foot drop" (and occasionally "wrist drop" as well). Over the first six months of 1930, more than 400 cases were identified at Cincinnati General Hospital alone with cases being reported in Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Ohio, and Kansas as well.
No children were affected and virtually all victims were men (usually poverty-stricken alcoholics). Careful questioning of the various patients implicated ginger jake (one of the victims happened to be a pharmacist who sold the product in his own store). This led to quite a medical puzzle since Jamaican ginger products had been sold for decades with no previous problems being identified. As newspapers took notice of the strange epidemic, various nicknames for the disease became common including "jake leg", "jake walk", "jakeitis", and "gingerfoot".
Alarmed by the epidemic linked to ginger jake, the Treasury Department's Bureau of Industrial Alcohol began testing available jake supplies. Based on laboratory findings, approximately two percent of the affected alcohol contained tri-orthocresal phosphate (TOCP), a common industrial plasticizer. When the adulterated jake was given to test rabbits, they were found to develop similar symptoms (monkeys and dogs were apparently immune). The Food and Drug Administration seized most shipments of ginger jake and the adulterated jake was eventually traced to Hub Products, a company in Boston. Based on their investigation, it turned out that the company was a shell run by two bootleggers, Harry Gross and Max Reisman (who also happened to be brothers-in-law). They were well-known to the Treasury department for their various illegal alcohol operations.
By 1928, Gross and Reisman had formed their latest venture, Hub Products, and went into full-time production of Jamaican ginger extract. Since they also happened to be amateur chemists (many bootleggers were back then), they experimented with different ingredients to avoid the problems associated with the usual additives and to give their jake some "kick". Given that Treasury agents often tested suspect jake by boiling it, they needed something that would be cheap, non-toxic, and non-volatile. After some experimentation, they settled on TOCP which was then being sold under the brandname of "Lindol" and which they were assured was non-toxic.
Once Gross and Reisman settled on Lindol as the perfect ingredient for their jake, they went into mass production. Purchasing more than a hundred and thirty-five gallons, they eventually made enough jake to fill thousands of bottles. Although news stories about the "jake epidemic" were already beginning to circulate, the intrepid bootleggers managed to ship off the last barrels of jake by March of 1930. Fortunately for the Treasury Department, various distributors were able to implicate Hub Products and still had samples of the adulterated jake in their inventory. By December of that same year, Harry Gross and Max Reisman were indicted by a federal grand jury.
Given the thousands who had already been paralyzed by the tainted jake (and the cases that would occur in the following year when the last barrels of jake Gross and Reisman distributed turned up in Los Angeles), the penalty was surprisingly light. After a successful plea bargain, Harry Gross served a two-year sentence while Max Reisman avoided serving any jail time. Despite various lawsuits launched on behalf of the victims, consumer protection legislation allowing class-action lawsuits was still in its infancy. Hub Products had gone bankrupt and none of the other companies involved had direct responsibility for the tainted jake.
In 1931, the United Victims of Jamaica Ginger Paralysis was formed. Claiming to represent 35,000 affected people across the country, the group petitioned Congress for financial support but to no real effect. Since almost all of the victims of "jakeitis" were immigrants, migrants, or itinerants, their political influence was minimal and the pressure to act on their behalf was never great. The epidemic was especially common among lower-class African-American men, many of whom were not allowed in hospitals where they might have sought treatment.
Public support was nonexistent and jake victims were largely left to fend for themselves. Reliable statistics on the full extent of the epidemic were never really collected but the number of victims may have been as high as 100,000. Although the paralysis condition is now formally recognized as organophospate-induced delayed neuropathy (OPIDN), the informal name of "jake leg" became more popular. Largely forgotten by mainstream society, paralyzed beggars became a common sight during the 1930s and 1940s. Considering that jake victims were often viewed as being somehow responsible for their own condition, there was tremendous stigma associated with the paralysis. Many victims refused to admit that they had ever been jake drinkers which prevented medical doctors from diagnosing their condition properly. Since the disease also caused impotence, victims were especially reluctant to discuss their sex lives with medical professionals.
Even well into the 1970s, surviving jake victims continued to display the paralysis that had crippled them. Autopsies showed damage to the central nervous system including the spinal horn's anterior nerve cells and the spinal column's pyramidal tract cells. Higher brain functions were unaffected though. While later epidemics of TOCP poisoning would break out in Europe and Morocco due to adulterated household products, the ginger jake epidemic of the 1930s and 1940s was the most severe.
The ginger jake epidemic also had an impact on popular music of the time. In 1930, the Allen Brothers released a song titled, "Jake Walk Blues" with memorable lyrics such as "I can't eat, I can't walk, I can't talk, drinking mean jake. Lord, I can't walk". Other blues songs inspired by the jake-leg epidemic included "Jake Walk Papa" by Asa Martin, "Jake Leg Blues" by the Mississippi Sheiks, and "Jake Liquor Blues" by Ishman Bracey. Many of the songs mentioned the "limber leg" (impotence) caused by drinking jake which may well have been what inspired the blues in the first place. It is a sad commentary that the ginger jake epidemic might have well been forgotten except as an obscure medical footnote were it not for the musical legacy that its victims left behind.