Jake leg blues may be one of the oddest musical jags ever recorded. At the height of the Great Depression a sudden rush of lame-leg songs hit the music scene, all referring to the same mysterious disease that appeared and disappeared all within a decade.
The disease in question, known colloquially as jake leg or jake foot, was first clinically recorded by an Oklahoma City doctor named Ephraim Goldfain. On February 27th, 1930, a man stumbled his way into Dr. Goldfain’s clinic. The man walked with a funny, slapping rhythm – he told the doctor that his feet had gone numb the week before and eventually just gave out completely. An examination confirmed what the man had said – he had lost nearly all muscle control in his lower legs. It wasn’t polio; though the was still a common threat at the time, the man was far older than the typical polio patient and he seemed comfortable enough. He didn’t have a fever and he was in no pain. The man thought he might have strained something lifting a car earlier that week.
Dr. Goldfain originally suspected lead poisoning, but before he could get any tests results other cases began to pour through his door. Four more men presented with limber leg in the first day alone. One of Dr. Goldfain’s contacts gave him a list of over sixty affected patients in Oklahoma City alone. Within a few months, thousands of similar cases were identified.
The identity of the patients contained a clue to the cause. Nearly all of the patients were men, adult, poor, and single. Many of them were veterans and many belonged to ethnic minorities. They usually lived alone, unemployed, killing the days with Prohibition-era bootleg liquor.
It was this liquor that was killing them. Without proper distilleries – they had been banned in 1920 to try to outlaw alcohol consumption – people turned to homemade, illegal, or ‘medicinal’ remedies. Jake, shorthand for Jamaica ginger extract, was a such a ‘medicine’. Sold as a tonic, the medicine was a mixture of ginger solids and alcohol. Its alcohol content could be as high as 85% (170-proof) which made it a very popular legal alternative to moonshine.
However, not all of it was as healthy as its manufacturers claimed. A pair of industrious bootleggers named Harry Gross and Max Reisman, in an effort to further increase the alcohol content, had been replacing the original ginger elements with other chemicals, including one called tri-ortho cresyl phosphate (TOCP). At the time, TOCP was thought to be harmless.
Turns out that drinking TOCP can lead to a host of nervous system problems. The chemical congregates in the drinker’s spinal cord, slowly killing nerve cells, which can lead to paralysis and, most embarrassingly impotence. Not everyone struck with jake leg recovered. Many were crippled for the rest of their lives
The allure of jamaican ginger died off with the repeal of prohibition and better clinical knowledge of the dangers of TOCP prevented (most) new outbreaks. Today, jake leg only survives in songs – such as this modern version of one by the band Double Decker.