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Mysterious illness flows from Prohibition-era medicine bottles

June 2, 2015

Filed under Collections, Community and Domestic Life, Pennsylvania Treasures

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Jamaica Ginger was sold as a popular patent medicine throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries .In 1930, as more of the beverage was consumed, a mysterious sickness simultaneously swept the nation and baffled physicians.

Jamaica Ginger was sold as a popular patent medicine throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries .In 1930, as more of the beverage was consumed, a mysterious sickness simultaneously swept the nation and baffled physicians.

Sold as a popular patent medicine throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jamaica Ginger, commonly known as “jake,” was once touted as a safe remedy for a variety of common ailments including colds, menstrual cramps and digestive issues.

Nominated as this week’s Pennsylvania Treasure by CAP Curator Jennifer Gleim, this Jamaica Ginger bottle came from Burkholder Pharmacy of Newville, Penn., and was one of many artifacts which the pharmacy’s proprietors donated to the State Museum.

Due to its high alcohol content and ready availability, “jake” became a popular beverage among those looking to circumvent the Prohibition ban on alcoholic drinks. Sales of the product soared, raising the eyes of U.S. Treasury Department officials charged with enforcing the law. Producers of Jamaica Ginger sought ways to mask the product’s alcohol content by adding various substances to the formula. One such ingredient was triorthocresyl phosphate. The compound didn’t alter the taste of Jamaica Ginger. Rather, it masked the amount of alcohol the beverage contained.

In 1930, as more people consumed batches of “ jake,” a mysterious sickness simultaneously swept areas of the nation, baffling physicians. Patients reported muscle weakness, tingling and paralysis in their extremities. Some sufferers were forced to lift their leg high in the air when they walked so their paralyzed foot would clear the ground. Doctors soon learned that all of the afflicted patients had consumed varying quantities of “jake”. When the Jamaica Ginger was tested to determine its contents, doctors discovered the triorthocresyl phosphate, a powerful neurotoxin that damaged the neurons that control movement.

Jamaica Ginger was outlawed soon after. It’s still not clear how many Americans were affected by the poisonous drink, however, estimates ranged between 20,000 and 100,000. Those afflicted with permanent neurological damage came to be known as “jake leg.” The social stigma associated with their condition was particularly harmful and often prevented them from reporting their condition. Many believed the victims of “jake leg” were responsible for what had befallen them, and large numbers of sufferers were reportedly reduced to begging in the streets.

 

About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.