European Social Science History Conference 2016

The European Social Science History Conference is organized by the International Institute of Social History (IISH), an institute of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts & Sciences. The ESSHC 2016 was held in Valencia, Spain, from 30 March up to and including 2 April 2016.

Stephen Mawdsley presented paper ‘Ghosts of the Jake Walk’ during the Session ‘Narratives, Experiences and Understandings of Work, Job Loss and Health in the Twentieth Century’ at the conference.


Ghosts of the Jake Walk: Oral History and Jamaica Ginger Paralysis


During America’s Great Depression, an estimated 50,000 white and black Americans became ill and suffered physical disability after consuming an adulterated patent medicine, known as Jamaica Ginger – or colloquially as Jake. Although it was marketed as a cure-all and routinely prescribed by doctors, Jamaica Ginger was also favoured by poor agricultural and mill workers due to its very high alcohol content and low cost. When Prohibition was in force between 1920 and 1933, some manufacturers adulterated Jamaica Ginger with the colourless and flavourless chemical, Tricresyl phosphate, to enable it to pass increasingly stringent government alcohol testing. However, the additive was soon discovered to be a neurotoxin, causing paralysis of the limbs and resulting in a distinctive gait, known as the Jake Walk.

For survivors of Jamaica Ginger paralysis, the social stigma, loss of mobility and livelihood at a time of limited economic opportunity posed significant challenges. Since there was no cure for paralysis and money for medical care was scarce, many survivors sought home care and experimented with a range of interventions. Although most of these therapies were unsuccessful, some resourceful individuals organized citizen action groups to seek compensation and government intervention.

How were interviews with survivors undertaken? In what ways did the interviewer-interviewee relationship shape these recollections? What challenges do historians face when attempting to resurrect ‘subaltern’ voices? By drawing on archival records and oral histories collected during the 1930s and 1970s, this paper will explore the problems of locating, analysing, and incorporating oral histories concerned with the experiences of marginalized populations.