Saturday, April 18, 2020

Ginger Joints, Jake and Jamaica Ginger

In 1901 the Delmar Maryland side of town decided to vote for the repeal of the sale of liquor.  The vote passed, and Delmar Maryland was dry.  Mr Vessey who owned the hotel and bar in Delmar Maryland had to shut the bar down.  He built a new hotel and bar across the street in Delaware.  In 1906 the Delmar, Delaware side of town voted to go “dry,” Leaving both sides of town without a legal place to drink.  Several other towns in lower Sussex county voted to go dry also.

With no legal place to buy liquor the populous had to turn to illegal “bootleggers” or legal “over the counter” drug tonics with a high alcohol content.  One such tonic was extract of Jamaica Ginger, a tonic to settle your stomach problems. 

Extract or Essences of Jamaica Ginger was made by maceration of Ginger root in cognac and that was distilled once again.  The tonic it produced came in at 150 proof.  In it’s popularity instead of referring to it as Jamaica ginger it was given the slang name of “Jake”.  A 4 ounce bottle could be purchased at a drug store or general store for about twenty-five cents.  Drank straight or mixed with a soft drink it was in common use.

Those places in which Jake was sold more as an alcohol beverage instead of a tonic became known as “Ginger Joints”. 

In 1912 the State of Maryland tried to prohibit the sale of Jamaica ginger.  It was not successful.  In the below article you will notice Delmar is mentioned at end.  

In 1920 when national prohibition hit the United States Jake was a favorite with low income people who could not afford the bootlegger liquor.  The federal government in an attempt to make the Jamaica ginger tonic taste worst required the manufacturer to add a certain amount of solids from the ginger root to the tonic.  This made it taste very bitter.  The government ran a test of the tonic by boiling off the alcohol and weighting the solids to see if it was the correct ratio.  In order to get around this the manufacturer decided to add other things beside ginger root to the tonic to make up the solid weight and retain the taste.  

The manufacturer, actually two Boston brother-in-laws bootleggers named Max Reisman and Harry Gross, decided to add triortho cresyl phosphate to the product to replace the “solids”.  The chemical is used as a solvent in industry.  This proved to cause a paralysis of the legs and feet and 30,000 to 50,000 people developed it from drinking the tonic.  The condition was referred to as Jake-Leg Shuffle due to the limp all of them had.  Many victims of this lived another 40 years with the walk using canes to walk with.

The end result for Jamaica Ginger tonic was no one wanted to drink it as they could not be sure it was the good stuff or the bad stuff.

However Jake Leg became a popular subject for Blues songs and is even mention in the book “Grapes of Wrath.”

“Then he would eat of some craved food until he was sick; or he would drink  Jake or whiskey until he was a shaken paralytic with red wet eyes.”
-- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

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