Listening to an old episode of Bonanza while working in my office, and I heard mention of “tarantula juice” , so I did a quick look up during leftover taco lunch, and it is more interesting than I’d hoped.
“For those settlers, miners and prospectors living on the east slope of the Sierra Nevada, the local drink of choice was “Tarantula Juice.” This home-brewed beverage imparted a nasty “bite” due to the strychnine added to it. Strychnine is a poison, but in the early 19th century French scientists had promoted a diluted strychnine/prussic acid mixture as a cure for pulmonary disorders. In lethal doses, strychnine kills quickly.
In Carson Valley, traders purchased a strychnine solution in Placerville, California and then added it to what they called “gin.” Carson Valley gin was wood grain alcohol made from turpentine, oil of vitriol, rosin and essence of laurel. Sometime around 1852, local Nevada fiddle player “Dutch Nick” Ambrose added prussic acid as well as tobacco oil to his concoction and called it Tarantula Juice.
Strychnine is an alkaloid and probably produced an effect similar to the drug methamphetamine. The erratic bursts of nervous energy coupled with heavy alcohol consumption often resulted in violence. The moniker “Tarantula” alluded to more than the drink’s bite.
Historian C.W. Bayer wrote, “As the pleasurable effects of the strychnine whiskey wore off, muscle spasms set in and the celebrant’s skin would crawl as if covered by dozens of baby tarantulas. The name seems to have derived because men ordered two tumblers. The second tumbler remained for early morning — so as to combat the muscle spasms, the lockjaw. Left upon the table until midnight, a spare tumbler of the ‘juice’ killed off the baby tarantulas — that feeling of small hairy arms creeping upon the flesh as limbs began to stiffen.”
Mark Twain mentions miners afflicted with these “spiders” in his book “Roughing It.”
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