In his 2003 New Yorker article, "Jake Leg: How the blues diagnosed a medical mystery," Dan Baum told the tale of John Morgan's quest to find medical meaning in the wide variety of "Jake Leg" songs recorded in the early-to-mid 20th century. Morgan, a self-described "pharmaco-ethnomusicologist," was interested in the mysterious ailment called "jake leg," a form of paralysis that was repeatedly alluded to in blues songs. Through methodical research, Morgan discovered the "jake" was "Jamaica Ginger Extract," a concoction that was marketed to cure "catarrh, flatulence, and 'late menstruation.'" It was 85% alcohol, and because it was a "medicine," it was legal to sell during Prohibition, and many bottles of Jamaica Ginger Extract were quaffed for reasons unrelated to the purported treatments it offered. Unfortunately, much of the Jamaica Ginger Extract was laced with a legal chemical called TOCP which often resulted in paralysis in those who drank it. Floppy legs with no feeling - jake legs - were the result. At its peak, jake leg affected thousands of mostly poor people, becoming an epidemic and filling hospitals in the 1920s. Eventually, the US Government got involved and figured out what was going on. It's a fascinating study, and there's a link to a reprint from Dan Baum's website below.
I can't eat, I can't talk
Drinking mean jake, Lord
I can't walk
- "Jake Walk Blues," recorded by the Allen Brothers, 1930
Barrie collects bottles, and has a number of very cool examples of glass containers in her collection. Including these two examples of Jamaica Ginger Extract. The photos were taken in her study early in the morning, with lamplight.
To read Dan Baum's article, click here (note: it opens a PDF file).