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The Forgotten Plague During Prohibition

When the 18th Amendment made booze illegal in the US, people went to great lengths to get something alcoholic to drink. Industrial methanol found its way into bootleg liquor, leaving behind blind or even dead drinkers by the thousands over the period known as Prohibition. Dr. W.H. Miles of the Oklahoma City Health Board was familiar with methanol poisoning, but he and his assistant Dr. Ephraim Goldfain began seeing cases of paralysis in 1930 that they suspected were from drinking alcohol, yet the symptoms differed from anything they'd seen before.  

But the strange paralysis exhibited by Dr. Miles and Dr. Goldfain’s patients was something completely new. After tracking down and investigating more than 60 cases, the pair soon noticed an intriguing pattern: all the victims were regular users of Jamaica Ginger, a popular brand of Patent Medicine. Patent Medicines were a type of proprietary cure-all sold over-the-counter in most drugstores. These could contain all kinds of substances, including herbal extracts, opium, cocaine, turpentine, and mineral oil, but not – strangely enough – actual snake oil. But one ingredient nearly all brands had in common was copious amounts of alcohol – up to 90% in certain cases. This had made Patent Medicines a popular source of alcohol in dry counties for decades. Jamaica Ginger was especially popular among poor labourers in the South. Boasting a 90% alcohol content and costing only 35 cents a bottle, it was typically mixed with soft drinks at soda fountains to help cut down its strong bitter flavour. Among drinkers the concoction was commonly known as ‘Jake’, and the paralysis it caused soon came to be known as ‘Jake Leg’ or ‘Jake Walk’.

But while the link between Jake consumption and paralysis was convincing, it was also puzzling. Jamaica Ginger had been sold since 1863 without any negative effects. What had changed?

The story as it unraveled revealed shenanigans with regulatory systems and the way manufacturers tried to get around them, which you can read at Today I Found Out.

(Image source: Library of Congress)

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