Nashville Memories: The Worried Wife of Deer Park

by Carter G. Baker.

Back in the boom years of the 1920s when Prohibition was the law of the land, it was impossible to have a real cocktail party legally.  The liquor had to be bought from a bootlegger, and there was always the chance that it might be contaminated with an additive that could cause serious problems of a neurological nature.  One possible result was called “jake leg” or “iron foot” because of the way the victim staggered along looking as if he’d had a stroke.

However, knowledgeable Nashvillians had a way to protect themselves from unintentionally poisoning their guests – or themselves – with bad whiskey.  A cheap insurance policy came in the form of an old sot who hung around on West End or Elliston Place in the Vanderbilt area.  This fellow would drink anything that had alcohol in it, and he had turned his unique talent into a source of income.  For fifty cents or a dollar, he would taste a sample of your bootleg liquor or sip from the jar of moonshine your cousin had brought in from the country.  You might hope it hadn’t been distilled through an old car radiator full of lead, but you didn’t know for sure.  The tester would take a few swallows and give you an opinion of the quality of your cocktail makings.

One memorable Saturday evening a well-known Nashville lawyer and his wife hosted a dinner party at their lovely Belle Meade home.  The food was delicious and the bar, stocked with taste-tested Bedford County moonshine, was well-attended.  These elite citizens of a much smaller Nashville, where everyone knew everyone, had a wonderful time and left in a happy mood, singing the praises of the host couple.

But the next Wednesday morning as the wife drove along West End Avenue in her big Packard automobile, she saw a most disturbing sight. The old booze tester was limping along looking for all the world as though he had a bad case of jake leg.  Mrs. Lawyer panicked, found the first pay phone she could, and called her husband to tell him that they’d given their guests bad whiskey, and that he needed to get down there right away and find out what was going on.

The husband made his excuses to the client sitting in front of him – a man who had, in fact, attended the party – and raced out toward Centennial Park looking for his quarry.  He found the old-timer sitting on the stone wall in front of the park rubbing his foot and looking rather feeble. A few questions quickly lifted the curtain of fear as the old boy said that he didn’t have the jake, but only a bad corn on the ball of his foot.  With a sigh of relief, the lawyer handed him a quarter and sent him off to buy some corn plasters.

The lawyer immediately drove to Kensington Place where his wife waited at a friend’s home, fearing the worst. He set her mind at ease with the good news and they went on their way, a much happier couple.  Still, they resolved that night never to serve corn liquor at a party again.  From that day forward, they spent a few more dollars and bought the bonded blends shipped down from Canada and sold through a reputable bootlegger.