Jake Leg

In the 2006 novel Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, the central character, Jacob, is befriended by Camel, an old man with a severe drink problem. Without spoiling the plot too much if you haven’t read it yet, Camel consumes copius quantities of Jamaican ginger extract when he can’t find anything else. This continues until he loses control of his legs and becomes incapacitated.

The novel is set in the US during the prohibition era when the sale, manufacture and distribution of beverages with an alcohol content greater than 0.5% was banned. Initially, Jamaican ginger extract, with an alcohol content between 70% and 80%, escaped the ban by virtue of it being classed as a patent medicine. This “medicine”, known in the USA by the slang name Jake, had been available since the late 19th century to combat such ailments as headaches, catarrh and flatulence.

It didn’t take long for the authorities to realise that Jake was being used as a source of alcohol rather than as a medicine. They issued a ruling which stated that Jake could only continue to be sold if the ginger solid content was doubled. This made the drink unpalatable straight from the bottle and required diluting before consumption.

In order to retain their previous profit levels, bootleggers started to replace the increased ginger solid content with a smaller amount of ginger topped up with molasses, caster oil or glycerin. This had the effect of making Jake palatable once again without having to dilute the original alcohol level.

Taking this aduleration one step further, a couple of amateur chemists and bootleggers from Boston, Harry Gross and Max Reisman, replaced the increased ginger solid content with a plasticizer called tri-ortho cresyl phosphate (or TOCP). TOCP was thought to have the twin-benefit of being non-toxic and undetectable to the authorities. In reality, as well as being a compound which was added to plastics to prevent them becoming brittle, it was discovered later that it is a neurotoxin which attacks the nerve cells in the spinal cord.

By early 1930, an increasing number of Jake drinkers reported that they were losing the use of their legs, hands and toes. Tests by officials in Oklahoma City, one of the early outbreak centres, proved inconclusive. Some doctors blamed the symptoms on a batch of mould-covered ginger, others on an unspecified source of lead poisoning. Identifying the cause of the problem was made more difficult by the wide range of adulerated Jakes appearing on the black market. One version, reported by the Lewiston Daily Sun (29/03/1930), contained crude carbolic acid of creosote and alcohol flavoured with ginger. An official described this variant as “little better than ‘sheep dip’ used to disinfect flocks of sheep”. By now the affliction had become known as Jake Leg, with the earliest known uses of the term being found in blues songs.

By mid 1930, the Washington-based Bureau of Industrial Alcohol had identified TOCP as the neurotoxic adulterant responsible. Unfortunately cases of Jake Leg continued to appear until 1932 when it was estimated that anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people had been affected with 5,000 of those paralysed, many for the rest of their lives.

Gross and Reisman were convicted in 1932 for violation of both the Prohibition Act and the Pure Food and Drugs Act. They both received two years imprisonment suspended with two years probation. Gross broke the terms of his probation and served his two years in prison.

Although the tragedy of the Jamaica ginger/TOCP incident led to the enactment of the 1938 Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, inappropriate use of TOCP has continued to occur around the world. In Morocco in 1959, cooking oil was deliberately contaminated with lubricating oil (legally containing TOCP) which affected 10,000 people, and in India in 1988, 600 people were affected by ingesting rapeseed oil adulterated with TOCP.

Follow us on Twitter