The last couple of days I have been reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it. If you have Amazon Prime, you can read it free. Probably your local library has it, or you can buy it if you like.
Besides being a quite engaging novel, it gave me a perspective on the Depression era, Prohibition time. Of course, many people desire an altered consciousness, they always have and always will. The wealthier citizens were getting their booze from Canada, or bootleg brewers and distillers.
The less well-off sometimes resorted to sources of poisonous alcohol, like Sterno, a heating fluid, or rubbing alcohol. Various extracts that contained alcohol seemed to be a legal, yet non-poisonous option.. but in the case of “Jake” or Jamaican Ginger Extract, it proved to be a horrible choice.
"Jake" was not itself dangerous, but the U.S. Treasury Department, which administered the Prohibition laws, recognized its potential as an illicit alcohol source, and because of this, it required changes in the solids content of Jake to discourage drinking. The minimum requirement of ginger solids per cubic centimeter of alcohol resulted in a fluid that was extremely bitter and difficult to drink.
A pair of amateur chemists and bootleggers, Harry Gross and Max Reisman, worked to develop an alternative adulterant that would pass the tests, but still be somewhat palatable. They sought advice from a professor at MIT who did not realize it was meant for internal consumption. They settled on a plasticizer, tri-o-tolyl phosphate (also known as tri-ortho cresyl phosphate, TOCP, or Tricresyl phosphate), that was able to pass the Treasury Department's tests but preserved Jake's drinkability. TOCP was originally thought to be non-toxic; however, it was later determined to be a neurotoxin that causes axonal damage to the nerve cells in the nervous system of human beings, especially those located in the spinal cord. The resulting type of paralysis is now referred to as organophosphate-induced delayed neuropathy, or OPIDN.
In 1930, large numbers of Jake users began to lose the use of their hands and feet. 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.
Within a few months, the TOCP-adulterated Jake was identified as the cause of the paralysis, and the contaminated Jake was recovered. But by that time, it was too late for many victims. Some did recover full, or partial, use of their limbs. But for most, the loss was permanent. The total number of victims was never accurately determined, but is frequently quoted as between 30,000 and 50,000.
I never had heard about Jake Leg before. The book gives a very sympathetic portrayal of a sufferer, in the character named Camel. He’s just a circus roustabout who needs to drink to get along, in a time of imposed abstinence. I think there are lessons in the book for our time.