Illustration from the article “Jake Leg,” by Dan Baum, The New Yorker, Sept. 15, 2003

My father would occasionally describe some man as a “jake leg,” followed by the man’s occupation, such as jake-leg lawyer, jake-leg preacher or jake-leg salesman.  As a child growing up in south Texas I only knew that it was a man that he held in great contempt and would have run him off the place if he ever came around.  He died at age 86 without my ever asking him what it really meant.  Years later an article, “Jake Leg,” by Dan Baum in the September 15, 2003 issue of The New Yorker gave me the answer.

Jamaica Ginger(nicknamed jake) was a medicinal product (rather like our over-the-counter products today) of the late 19th century touted to cure arthritis, colds, stomach disorders, late menstruation and almost anything else.  When the Volstead Act of 1919 brought in Prohibition, it became quite popular because of its cheap price, high alcohol content and availability.  Jake was harmless even if it did not cure much of anything expect a thirst for alcohol.  It was sold legally almost everywhere, from drug and grocery stores to roadside stands.  Since it was cheap and readily available, it became the drink of choice for the down and out and lower classes across the country as hints of the Depression began, especially in the South where blacks had little else they could afford either.  The prosperous could always manage to find good illegal liquor.

As Prohibition progressed the federal government began cracking down on the product as it became more popular.  To get around this a couple of enterprising bootleggers found a chemist who supplied them with a plasticizer, tri-ortho-cresyl-phosphate (TOPC) that was added to fool the inspectors.

Soon men who drank this new version of Jamaica Ginger began having paralysis of their legs and sometimes their arms.  The legs went rubbery and useless.  If they could walk at all, it was with a flopping, struggling gait.  In the early 1930s a doctor in Oklahoma City began seeing patients with these symptoms and started a personal investigation.  The common thread among the men was their consumption of Jamaica Ginger.  Analysis of jake eventually led to the discovery that it contained the harmful TOPC.  The TOPC effected the nerve cells, especially those in the spinal area. Some recovered, some did not.  Impotence often accompanied the affliction; the distinguishing gait made it almost impossible to hide.

The government was able to determine the origin of the bad jake and stop the process and sales.  The affected  were mainly the poor, but the government seemed to do little to help the men (and a few women) and their families. As Dan Baum wrote, “The jake-leg epidemic broke out during the last golden moments of the Republican Elysium before the full effect of the crash set in when the country was feverishly denying how poor it was getting.”  Neither did they receive much sympathy as many thought they only got what they deserved for their behavior.  According to Baum, one preacher put it this way, “God is hanging out a red flag as a danger sign to those who violate His law.”  Those responsible for the responsible jake got little punishment.

Black men with jake-leg were rarely mentioned at the time.  Most of the record comes from songs written by black blues musicians during this period and often mentioned jake-leg that confirmed its presence among that group.  Loss of a physical love life caused by a “limber leg”  was often lamented in the songs.  More recently jake -leg was mentioned in the book and movie, Water for Elephants, that was set in the Depression of the 1930s.  One of the characters, Camel, who worked as a laborer in the circus came down with jake-leg.

Apparently the term also came to mean a person who lacks the skills or training to do a job properly or who is unscrupulous, dishonest or without standards.  My father’s use of the epithet, jake-leg, was more derogatory than I knew.  He had experienced the Depression as a young man and may have seen some of the debilitating results of the tainted beverage.

I wish I had asked him about jake-leg before he died in 1997.  There are many things I should have asked him about.

36 thoughts on “Jake-leg

  1. I wonder how my ignorant folks got “Jack Leg” out of Jake leg? Ha Ha. I heard the description often as a kid, but it was never with any real contempt. However, everybody knew that the “Jack Leg” in question wasn’t very good at whatever he did. Thanks for another fascinating post.


      • I never knew where the description came from, but it was a common one where I grew up. I was delighted to learn the origin of it. I had heard of Jake Leg, but didn’t, for some reason, connect it to “Jack Leg”. Sometimes, I wonder how my brain works! Ha Ha
        Thanks for the post.


    • I believe it is mostly a southern saying, but I have not heard it in years. Only old-timers like me even remember! Thank you so very much for the nomination!! I will check out your post and the other nominees.


  2. I had never heard this expression before. I thank you, Jonel, for enlightening me. While not the happiest of topics, I found much of what you had to say very interesting; though incredibly sad for the many people who believed the drink to cure them of ailments. We have come far in so many respects, and fallen back in others. I wish I could say that, because we know more about how our bodies react to alcohol and toxins, we do more to take better care of ourselves, but it just isn’t so — not in many cases, anyway. I do pray you don’t feel any regret for unasked questions. Logically, there is nothing you can do to change the past, and harboring feelings of regret isn’t heathy for YOU!

    Hope you’re well, my friend,

    ~ Cara


    • It is an out-dated saying and mainly used in the South. You are much too young to have ever heard of it! And I certainly don’t hear it today. I hesitated before posting it because as you said it is not the happiest of topics, but perhaps it will remind us to be grateful for what we have and have compassion for those less fortunate. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and concerns! Take care of yourself!


  3. I actually read a book a couple of summers back, cannot for the life of me remember the name, about this girl in the Depression who ran off with an older man..they traveled around the south sneaking onto trains and he became an alcoholic and was afflicted with Jake-leg! The book was just so,so, but there were many vivid descriptions of his ailments.


  4. Very interesting! I first heard the term several years ago and did some research into it. From what I learned within just a few months 30,000 to 100,000 people were affected. Rather than receiving sympathy and help, these people were scorned. Sad, but an interesting part of our history.

    I have been blessed with a family that loves to tell stories and I try to absorb as much as I can. Thank you for the reminder to never let an opportunity pass me by!


    • Yes, it was a rather sad. Today there were have been lawsuits! Hopefully we are a bit more tolerant and understanding today. But it was still an interesting period. And I did hear many stories from my parents also – I just need to write them down! Thanks for your interest and comment.


  5. Hi! First of all, thanks for visiting my blog today. I thought I’d come over and have a look around “at your place”. Regarding your post, I always heard my mom and grandmother refer to it as “jack-leg” too, but I never knew the history. Very interesting post!


    • Thanks for dropping by my part of the blog world. Someone else said their family used jack-leg too and I forgot to mention that in the post. I never knew the origin either until I read the article in 2003. I am glad you now know the history too. Stop by any time.


  6. Thank you – I miss him but do have some wonderful stories he shared. Yes, there are still products out there that promise more than they deliver and companies willing to cut corners for a profit.


  7. Deborah Blum is the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook. It takes place during the same time period and follows the beginnings of forensic science. It was very interesting to read about all the things people did to get around prohibition. Many people died from the alcohol alternatives that they were drinking. Just thought I would mention it just in case you were interested. 🙂


  8. Fascinating account. I was aware of bathtub gin and of course there are a number of wealthy Canadian families & businesses that owe their start to selling their legal stuff to the Americans.


    • I knew that wealthy Americans got their legal stuff (good quality) from Canada but did not know that it made Canadians wealthy. But what are neighbors for? It was an interesting period. Thanks for commenting!


      • Check out Sleeman Beer -Notoriously Good Since 1834 campaign . Their most recent commercial is about speakeasies . An earlier one is about Al Capone. If you go to their web site and visit about you can find the full history of the company. Quite fascinating as is the history of Seagram’s Canadian Whisky . 😀


Comments are always welcome!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s