East Tennessee History: Jake Leg

Published 5:09 pm Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Throughout its history America has always had a love-hate relationship with alcohol. When the founded fathers first landed at Jamestown, the first thing they probably did was build a still. There are people who accept it as part of their moral and spiritual beliefs and others who say it will the be downfall of the nation and cry for it banning from American store shelves.
In 1920, those who said alcohol was a ruin of civilization as we know it won an amendment to the Constitution that banned the manufacture, possession and consumption of any alcoholic product. It was called Prohibition, and America would never be the same.
Yes, banning alcohol did lower the rate of divorce, domestic violence and poverty, but it encouraged organized crime because people wanted alcohol, and they were going to get it one way or the other.
At the time when many American citizens could not get legal alcohol, many turned to patent medicines to fill the void of alcohol. These medicines were mostly alcohol, but each had an ingredient that made them a medicine.
People would buy these “medicines,” which were about 80% alcohol, and take them for almost every ailment. One of the more popular of these medicines was made from an extract of Jamaican Ginger.
It is May of 1930, and Prohibition was in full force. People were drinking Jamaican Ginger for the alcohol content all over the South, and suddenly doctors saw that it was harming anyone who drank it.
Doctors kept seeing patients who were suffering from a type of paralysis in the patient’s legs. Doctors could not explain what was happening as people from all walks of life began walking with a strange gait. Rich people, poor people, preachers, deacons, businessmen, all started walking a particular walk that was the tall tell sign of someone with this strange disease. Eventually, they would name it the Jake Leg.
You knew you had the disease if you started walking with a particular step. Your legs could not hold you, and they would tremble as you placed weight on them. It might take you several minutes to walk to your mailbox and back or walk a short distance and the entire time your legs shook under you.
Some became bed-ridden with it, and still others were confined to a wheelchair for the rest of their lives.
Some said it was a form of Polio, but Polio did not give the individual gait patients suffered. Others knew it was a sign of drinking Jamaican Ginger and using it for the alcohol content and to get a high from it.
Doctors tried, but there was no cure for the Jake Leg. The people who got this had it for the rest of their lives and eventually died with it.
In total, the Jake Leg took its toll on around 50,000 people, mostly men, from Oklahoma to east Tennessee. Most lived with the shame of it until the day they died, and eventually left this world suffering from the Jake Leg.
It wouldn’t take long for Jamaican Ginger to be outlawed and almost all of the Jamaican Ginger bottles were destroyed. If you find one at a flea market or yard sale, buy it as a symbol of an America that used to be before Jamaican Ginger.
Eventually Prohibition would be repealed in 1933, and President Franklin Roosevelt said that now “all America needs is a good stiff drink.” But, in east Tennessee and a thousand other rural communities, the Jake Leg had taken its toll and had left a scar on many in society that would never heal.
Today we are living through a global pandemic that is taking thousands of lives, but take a few moments to remember a time when people were confused and did not know where to turn. They turned to Jamaican Ginger and paid a high price.

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