The Jake Walk Blues: intoxicants, disability and stigma in America


  • Dr Stephen Mawdsley

    University of Strathclyde

Project summary

During America's Great Depression, the patent medicine Jamaica Ginger was adulterated with a toxic chemical that could cause limb paralysis. Contaminated Jamaica Ginger affected white and African American sharecroppers and mill workers, who sought the medicine during Prohibition due to its availability and high alcohol content. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people became afflicted, leaving survivors with lasting physical disability, limited economic opportunity, and severe social stigmas. Survivors and their families organised action groups, tested remedies, and pushed for legal recourse, while the federal government tried to bring the perpetrators to justice. 

Drawing on a rich collection of archival records, oral histories, blues music, literature, and historical newspapers, Stephen's project will explore the legacy of this forgotten episode in American history.