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Jake was an early 20th century slang term used in the United States for Jamacian ginger extract. It was a patent medicine that provided a convenient way to bypass Prohibition laws, since it contained as much as 85% ethyl alcohol.
Jake in itself was not dangerous beyond its alcohol content, but when the U.S. Treasury Department, which administered the Prohibition laws, recognized its use as an illicit alcohol source, it required changes in the solids content of jake. Such jake was extremely bitter and quite difficult to drink.
A pair of amateur chemists worked to develop a non-toxic adulterant that would fool the test, and thought they had succeeded. They settled on a plasticizer, tri-o-tolyl phosphate (also known as tri-ortho cresyl phosphate or TOCP), that fooled the test, preserved jake's drinkability, and was thought to be non-toxic.
Actually, tri-o-tolyl phosphate is a potent killer of certain cells in the nervous system in human beings, especially in the spinal cord. This type of paralysis is now referred to as organophosphate-induced delayed neuropathy (OPIDN). Large numbers of jake users began to lose the use of their feet and sometimes their hands. Lucky users recovered full or partial use, but for most, the loss was permanent.
Some victims could walk, but the muscles controlling their feet did not work, and so they walked by throwing their legs high in the air and flopping their feet onto the ground. This very peculiar gait became known as the jake walk and those afflicted were known to have jake leg. The first cases were observed in early 1930, and it was very rapidly appreciated that jake was involved. Within a few months, the contaminant was identified and the contaminated jake was recovered, but it was too late for many victims. The total number of victims was never determined, but is frequently quoted as 30,000 to 50,000.
Many victims were migrants and most (but not all) were poor and consequently had little influence. They received very little in the way of assistance, and aside from being the subject of a few blues songs in the early 1930s, they were almost completely forgotten.