Its title sounds like it should be the private diary of, say, Lucrezia Borgia–but Deborah Blum’s excellent 2010 book The Poisoner’s Handbook has a self-explanatory subtitle: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. It traces the careers, beginning in 1918, of medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler, two of the earliest and most successful forensic investigators of crime.
Not all the book is devoted to person-on-person murder and mayhem, though; a goodly portion is devoted to the lengths Prohibitionists went to try to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, which tried–and spectacularly failed–to make the United States the driest country on earth, metaphorically speaking. One of the most infamous lengths involves a liquid patent medicine (most of which have always had a high alcohol content) known as Jamaica Ginger, and the numbers of people left incapacitated when two “scientists” added an ingredient to it that would skirt government regulations on alcohol but leave the stuff fit to drink.
I first heard of the Jamaica Ginger scandal in an article in a country music encyclopedia about the Allen Brothers, one of country music’s earliest “brother acts”. Austin and Lee Allen were natives of Suwanee, Tennessee, who played an eclectic mix of country and blues. Between 1926 and 1934, they recorded a total of eighty-nine “sides” for three different recording companies.
The one that caught my eye, however, was a 1930 release called “Jake Walk Blues”, the title of which was followed by this parenthetical description: “about the Jamaica Ginger poisoning scare, 1930.”
So, with no other books at hand to refer to at the time, I went to Wiki. And the story that emerged there was terrifying, to say the least.
The most famous of all patent medicines, those quack curealls, was probably one from the 1940s, Hadacol, which was the source of the sort of jokes in its day that were told in the early days of Viagra in ours. Hadacol was merely one of many, though, and it’s worth noting that many contained 70 to 80% alcohol–in short, they might not cure you, but you’d get a hell of a buzz trying to get well. Better yet, patent medicines sold CHEAP–most for less than a dollar a bottle–far more cheaply than prescription medication and most bootleg booze.
During Prohibition (1920-1933), of course, the country went wild, with a tremendous amount of violence surrounding the production and distribution of illegal liquor. (I might add that we’ve always had a history of illegal stills in Southern Appalachia, so the only thing it really meant to us was that there were more of them pesky revenooers around–only, instead of breaking up stills for producing untaxed whiskey, they were tearing them up to try to keep people from drinking–a noble attempt, but doomed from the outset.)
The Treasury Department of the US government, which was in charge of the Prohibition agenda, realized early on the potential for abuse of the high-alcohol patent medicines, and took steps to make them less appealing. The makers of one such, called Jamaica Ginger (because it was flavored with that spice) were induced by the Feds to add so much ginger to the solids content of its composition that it was virtually undrinkable. Some producers got around this by adding small amounts of ginger and replacing the rest with molasses, which made it somewhat more palatable.
Here’s where things get hinky. A pair of bootleggers and amateur chemists named Harry Gross and Max Reisman, looking for adulterants that would pass the department’s tests but make Jamaica Ginger (often called by a sort of street name, Ginger Jake) still fit to drink, added a compound called tri-o-lolyl phosphate (a plasticizer, normally used to add fluidity to concrete and other building materials). And–significantly–it was initially thought to be safe for human consumption.
In 1930, however, people who used Jamaica Ginger began to show alarming nerve damage, initially losing the use of their hands and feet, progressing on up to full paralysis. The most characteristic feature of this damage was the so-called “jake walk” which Wiki describes as follows:
. . .Some victims could walk, but they had no control over the muscles which would normally have enabled them to point their toes upward. Therefore, they would raise their feet high with the toes flopping downward, which would touch the pavement first followed by their heels. The toe first, heel second pattern made a distinctive “tap-click, tap-click” sound as they walked. This very peculiar gait became known as the jake walk and those afflicted were said to have jake leg, jake foot, or jake paralysis. Additionally, the calves of the legs would soften and hang down and the muscles between the thumbs and fingers would atrophy.
The toxin affected the nerves of the spinal cord in particular, which led to these effects.
Within a few months, the toxin was traced to Jamaica Ginger contaminated with TOCP and all of it was recovered and destroyed. Some people eventually regained the use of their limbs; many more did not. It is estimated that as many as thirty to fifty thousand people were left permanently impaired by the brief use of TOCP in this patent medicine.
Sadly, most of the consumers of Jamaica Ginger were migrants to the US. Poor and without political, financial or social influence, they received little or no assistance from any quarter, and today their stories are virtually forgotten, preserved only in a few songs from the time, like the one performed by the Allen Brothers.
I can’t eat, I can’t talk
Been drinkin’ mean jake, Lord, now can’t walk
Ain’t got nothin’ now to lose
Cause I’m a jake walkin’ papa with the jake walk blues.
In our day, there would be lawsuits, congressional hearings, mass recalls, and breathless media coverage. Then, there was nothing–save perhaps the self-righteous calling it just punishment.