Jake Will Cure Your Ache

When Mrs. Austin’s 13-year-old sister came to her complaining of cramps, big sis knew just what the doctor ordered: a healthy slug of Jamaica Ginger should make the pain, if not vanish, seem deliciously insignificant. The youngster was dosed, waited for relief, then complained anew. That’s when Mrs. Austin realized her mistake: the medicine she’d proffered was not Jamaica Ginger, but Arnica!

Convinced she had poisoned her sister and that the girl would surely die, Mrs. Austin telephoned for a doctor. Somehow the police were notified of a suicide at the address, and came to investigate. They found the crampy sister none the worse for wear for her dosing—which was a lucky break, since Arnica is rarely taken internally, and can cause illness or death–and Mrs. Austin most abashed.

 

(L.A. Times, May 28, 1896)

Jamaica Ginger has a long and fascinating history, in SRO Land and throughout America. A favorite remedy for pretty much anything that ailed you, this rocket-powered ginger jolt was packed to bursting with health-giving alcohol–around 150 proof.  All was well until the 18th Amendment was passed, and anti-drink regulators began requiring the addition of adulterants that made Jamaica Ginger, commonly and most affectionately called “jake,” taste horrible.

Many formulas were introduced in an attempt to produce a palatable, legal Jamaica Ginger recipe, among them Harry Gross’ and Max Reisman’s 1930 version, packed with delicious tri-ortho cresyl phosphate (TOCP), a plasticizer. Shortly after the new formula debuted, tens of thousands of jake drinkers began presenting at hospitals complaining of mysteriously drooping toes and other symptoms of paralysis. Upstanding citizens who had hitherto kept their benders on the down low were exposed by the easily recognized Jake-Leg Shuffle, a limp shared by many habitués of the concoction.

The poisonous formulation was soon discovered and taken off the shelves, but the damage had been done. While some jake abusers recovered, others suffered long term nerve damage.

For more on jake leg’s cruelties, and the syndrome’s role in the history of the Delta blues, see Dan Baum’s 2003 New Yorker feature (PDF download).

As for us, we’re sticking with Vernors!