I Got Them Old Jake Leg Blues – 1930

© Jerry F. Couch

ALCOHOL HAS LONG BEEN USED as a medium into which herbs and flowers will transfer their flavor and fragrance for extracts and perfumes.  During Prohibition (the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution), some people turned to flavorings, patent tonics, and perfumes or colognes as liquor substitutes.  Despite a very satisfactory alcohol content (as much as 70% in some cases), patent tonics could be very unsatisfactory because many of them contained powerful laxatives.  For people who could not read, the result might be a sudden and embarrassing surprise.


Though perfumes and colognes also had a high alcohol content, they cost too much and the taste probably would have knocked a charging rhino to its knees.  Flavorings, on the other hand, were cheap.  Pint bottles of lemon or vanilla flavoring cost as little as $1 in those days.  Flavorings were potent and even somewhat palatable if chugged down really fast.


In 1920, one Western Front retail merchant found himself in trouble after purchasing about $250 worth of “Jamaican Ginger Extract and other flavorings” from a Bristol wholesaler.  In affidavits from an old court case, the merchant stated that the wholesaler represented the flavorings as being perfectly legal to sell.  However, upon inspection by Prohibition authorities, they were found to have a higher alcohol content than permitted by law.  The flavorings were promptly confiscated.  The retail merchant then contended that because he was the “innocent purchaser” of the illegal products, he was under no obligation to pay the wholesaler for them.

It should be noted that with flavorings selling for $1 a pint in 1920, $250 worth would equal approximately 31 gallons.  That’s a LOT of flavorings.  On Saturday evenings, the Western Front would have been fragrant, indeed – like Elly May Clampett preparing for a date with Sonny Drysdale.

To close the Prohibition loophole relating to Jamaica Ginger, the following regulations became law in 1920.

Jamaica Ginger - J. E. Kennedy

But there’s more to the story:  As with any unpopular law, enforcement of Prohibition was a game of cat and mouse.  Prohibition officers were aware Jamaican Ginger extracts and tonics (colloquially referred to as “jake“) had become popular liquor substitutes.  They sought to counter the problem by making these products undrinkable.  Soon, manufacturers were required to adopt formulas which created a ratio of ginger-to-alcohol which rendered the extracts too bitter to drink.  Inspectors working for the Department of Agriculture monitored products and tested them for compliance by boiling off the liquid in the extracts, then measuring the weight of the remaining solids.  For a while – a short while – this worked.

Then, around 1930, a pair of entrepreneurs named Harry Gross and Max Reisman entered the picture.  They hired an MIT chemist to come up with an alternative substance which, when added to flavorings, would maintain the required ratio of solids without leaving consumers puckered up for days.  Unfortunately, the substance chosen was Tricresyl Phosphate, also known as TOCP.  

For people who ingested TOCP, the physical effects could be devastating.  They suffered neurological damage resulting in loss of the ability to control the muscles of their hands and feet.  Some people lost their ability to walk.  Others developed a peculiar gait referred to as “jake leg.”  Those afflicted with jake leg could not point their toes upward.  When taking a step they were forced to lift their legs high because their toes drooped down.  The toes contacted the ground first, then the heel.  Just try walking this way and you’ll discover how unpleasant and difficult it is.

The source of the malady was quickly discovered and the contaminated products were confiscated.  For those afflicted with jake leg (50,000 people by some estimates), it was too late.  In most cases, the damage was permanent. 

Men Loafing - Western Front watermarked
This 1920’s group shot was taken on St. Paul’s “Western Front.”  We hope the carefree gents pictured here were not subsequent victims of jake leg.  This picture is from an old photo album that belonged to Aunt Carrie Trent, my grandfather’s sister.  She was a well-known bootlegger in St. Paul for over 30 years.

In 1931, both Gross and Reisman stood trial for conspiracy to violate federal law and were subsequently convicted.  Each man was fined $1,000 and sentenced to serve two years in prison.  

A number of blues songs were written about jake leg.  One of them was entitled “Jake Leg Blues” and was recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks on OKEH Records on June 10, 1930. You can listen to the song on Youtube.  Here are some of the lyrics.

Jake Leg Blues - Mississippi Sheiks

Were local people affected by jake leg?  The answer is YES.   In 1930, two cases were reported at Dante, one at St. Paul, and several cases in Washington County and Bristol.   It was also reported that additional cases surely existed, but the victims were reluctant to come forth.  The reasons for this are obvious.  It’s one thing to take a few nips of illegal hooch on the sly.  It’s quite another to be stricken with a life-changing illness, and symptoms that are immediately recognizable to the “raised-eyebrow set.”

NOTE:  This article was originally published in the Clinch Valley Times in 2012.  Since then, continuing research has disclosed additional material.  The article has been revised to incorporate it.







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