It goes by the name of ‘potcheen’ in Ireland, ‘hooch’ or ‘moonshine’ in North America and batti sarai in India. History is littered with those who wish to make a fast buck by producing illicit liquor and those who are ready to take a chance by drinking it to get high. This normally takes the form of a cottage industry but, during the crazy Prohibition era in America, the distilling of illegal alcohol became a multi-million dollar business.
The iconic image of the era is the speakeasy, a joint where people drank and danced, listening to jazz while trying to keep one step ahead of the law. On the street things weren’t quite so glamorous and a brew called Ginger Jake was much in demand. Although the laws of Prohibition had the intention of banning all alcoholic beverages, there were several medicines which had to be diluted in alcohol to make them palatable. This was to prove a very big loophole and ultimately drove a horse and cart through the legislation.
An extract of Jamaican ginger had been sold as an aid to digestion in America since the 1860s and to dissolve the powdered root of the plant, a high concentration of alcohol was required. Demand for the tincture mushroomed, outstripping supply, and the price skyrocketed. In January 1930, hoping to make easy money, chemist Harry Gross of Boston decided to add a component of varnish to the hooch. The ingredient, triorthocresylphosphate, was cheap, plentiful and, most importantly, legal.
Gross mixed the brew himself and shipped it across the USA. But what he was shipping was slow poison, as the brew attacked cells in the spinal column. Blues songs of the day picked up on this, describing sufferers as having ‘Jake leg’ some years before the medical profession noticed that anything was amiss.
When: Late 1920s onwards
Toll: Sufferers probably numbered in the hundreds of thousands but, because they were largely street people with all sorts of other problems, no one really counted.
You should know: ‘Jake leg’ wasn’t fatal, it just meant that sufferers had to walk with a cane and their speech was slurred. In the words of one of the songs of the day ‘I can’t eat, l can’t talk – Been drinkin’ mean jake. Lord, now can’t walk-Ain’t got nothin’.