I can’t eat, I can’t talk
Been drinkin’ mean Jake
Lord, now can’t walk
Ain’t got nothin’ now to lose
Cause I’m a Jake walkin’ papa
with the Jake walk blues.
– The Allen Brothers, The Jake Walk Blues (1930)
During America’s Great Depression, the patent medicine Jamaica Ginger was adulterated with a toxic substance that could cause death and paralysis. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people became afflicted, leaving survivors with lasting physical disability, limited economic opportunity, and social stigmas. The nature of paralysis often left survivors with a distinctive gait, known colloquially as the ‘Jake Walk’ or ‘Jake Leg.’
After the Jake Walk outbreak, survivors and their families organized action groups, tested remedies, and pushed for legal recourse, while the federal government attempted bring the perpetrators to justice. Understanding public and institutional reactions to this outbreak and its lasting cultural impact will help to increase our understandings of disability, health, regulation, activism, and stigma.