A bottle of Jamaica Ginger

“Ghosts of the Jake Walk: Surviving Jamaica Ginger Paralysis” — Dr. Stephen Mawdsley (University of Bristol)

3:30pm - 5:00pm / Wednesday 7th February 2018
Type: Seminar / Category: Department / Series: History Seminar Series
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During America's Great Depression and before Prohibition was repealed, the popular patent medicine, Jamaica Ginger (JG), became adulterated with a toxic substance that could cause limb paralysis or death. Contaminated JG affected many, including poor white and African American sharecroppers and mill workers, who sought the medicine during Prohibition due to its high alcohol content. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people became afflicted with Jamaica Ginger Paralysis (JGP), leaving survivors with lasting physical disability, limited economic opportunity, and severe social stigmas.

This paper will trace the little-known story of why people consumed the patent medicine and how survivors experienced paralysis and negotiated a society discomforted by their condition. Although the memories of survivors were shaped by time, age, and community, they provide a remarkable window into their experiences. The paper argues that although most survivors faced prejudice, poverty, and disability, they showed remarkable determination in rebuilding their lives, testing new therapies, and adapting to manual labour.