Saturday, April 12, 2008

Jake Leg

I'm cooling my heels, waiting for the cable guy (really). I'm biding my time by reading and listening to a great CD, My Rough and Rowdy Ways, a compendium of (per the subtitle) "Early American Rural Music Badman Ballads and Hellraising Songs."

One of my favorites on the CD is a song called Got the Jake Leg Too, recorded in 1930 by the Ray Brothers, Will on fiddle and Vardaman on guitar, from Choctaw County in central Mississippi:
I went to bed last night, feelin’ mighty fine,
Two o’clock this morning, the Jake Leg went down my spine,
I had the Jake Leg too, I had the Jake Leg too.
I woke up this morning, I couldn’t get out of my bed,
This stuff they call Jake Leg had me nearly dead,
It was the Jake Leg too, it was the Jake Leg too.

The lyrics suggested that Jake Leg was some sort of alcohol poisoning, and the liner notes seemed to confirm this:
Got the Jake Leg refers to a deadly Prohibition-era drink substituter [sic] called Jamaica Ginger. Health authorities in 1929 and 1930 began to hear widespread reports of illness and death of desperate drinkers, and of the development of a muscle palsy which several songs refer to as "shakes" or "wobbles."

I then discovered that I had another "Jake Leg" song in my collection: Alcohol and Jake Blues, recorded by Tommy Johnson in December 1929.

It turns out there's quite a story behind Jake Leg, as this article from a Hospital and Health Magazine explains:
In the 1920s . . . low-income working-class people (especially men) in rural areas in the Midwest and South were hard-pressed to find affordable alcohol. One available product was a patent medicine, Jamaican Ginger, colloquially known as “Jake,” which contained ginger extract and 70 percent to 85 percent ethyl alcohol; it was a popular cure for nausea and diarrhea. It was also a popular cure for the Prohibition-induced shortage of booze. Federal authorities soon caught on and required that the amount of ginger in Jake be increased to the point that the stuff was undrinkable except in very small quantities, which was appropriate if it was really only being used as a medication.

However, demand for the more potent and drinkable stuff was still there, so Jake manufacturers tried to find adulterants that would make the product appear legitimate, but would allow for more alcohol and would mask the taste of the ginger. In 1930, a couple of Boston chemists-turned-bootleggers, Harry Gross and Max Reisman, hit upon the perfect adulterant: triorthocresyl phosphate (TOCP). An odorless, colorless, tasteless industrial chemical, it fit the bill precisely. Their firm, Hub Products, churned out hundreds of thousands of bottles of this adulterated Jake, which were widely distributed.

TOCP is a central nervous system poison.

Between 50,000 and 100,000 Americans, mostly low-income white and African-American men, drank enough of the bad Jake to develop partial paralysis. They lost control of the muscles in at least one leg, which forced them to walk by lifting the leg and slapping it down as though they were operating a puppet. This became known as the “Jake walk” or “Jake leg.” Most victims never recovered, and few, if any, received optimal medical care or even much sympathy because the gait was so distinctive that it was evident in their often-conservative communities how they had become disabled.

In 1931, Gross and Reisman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate federal law and were each fined $1,000 and sentenced to two years in prison. They avoided prison time by promising to help find some alleged New York bootleggers whom they claimed had really manufactured the tainted Jake. That claim was eventually proved to be bogus, and Gross was ordered to serve his term; Reisman never did.

See also this article, and there's a Wikipedia article as well.

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