In 1930, Prohibition had been the law of the land for ten years, and nearly everyone agreed it was a bad idea. Then people started collapsing. Some new chemical in seemingly legal liquor was to blame — but what?
Back then, alcohol wasn't only sold as a recreational substance. It formed the basis for a number of extracts, flavorings, and, most importantly, patent medicines. One of these medicines was the extract known as "Jamaica ginger." Although this was promoted as a cure for everything from headaches to flatulence, it cured precisely nothing.In fact, Jamaica ginger should never have been allowed to be sold as a medicine — but, because it was, the government couldn't clear it from the shelves simply because it happened to contain alcohol. It was a case of one bad policy getting in the way of another bad policy. People were legally able to sell ginger liquor.
The government responded to this situation by declaring that all tincture of ginger had to contain twice the current amount of solids. These solids didn't have to be chunks of ginger. They could include oils or resins, anything that remained after the liquid was boiled away — which is how the government spot tested bottles of Jamaica ginger. If the bottled liquid contained too few solids, anyone holding or selling it was under arrest. If it contained enough, the liquid would be so bitter and disgusting that almost no one could drink it.
Most people added other types of oil to bulk up the solid content of their Ginger Jake, but two men in Boston, Harry Gross and Max Reisman, wanted something less detectable. They went to an MIT chemist, and without telling him what the liquid would be used for, asked him how they could boost the solid content. He came up with tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate, or TOCP.
The TOCP was undetectable when put to the test, but the men's plan to slip under the radar backfired spectacularly. People across the country began losing control of their muscles. They'd have spectacular spasms. They'd collapse entirely and die. TOCP is an organophosphate, a poison that builds up over time. It causes upper motor neuron syndrome — lesions to the motor control section of the brain — which combines weakening muscles and a lack of fine muscle control with exaggerated deep tendon reflexes.
Reisman and Gross were caught and prosecuted, but only after hundreds of people had come down with Jake Leg — the distinctive wavering walk that characterized the early stages of the disease. Most were paralyzed. Many died.
In the 1970s, doctors in Tennessee did a forty-seven-year-review of the survivors of the disease. These tended to be the lucky ones, who survived not only the initial disease, but the subsequent years of being disabled during the Depression. Though one had a very mild case of Jake Leg and had lived a normal life, they all still had weak muscles and vastly exaggerated reflexes that still caused them to spasm.
Top Image: Orange County Archives