The stuff came in little glassine packets, a dozen to an envelope. The waiters and bartenders bought the envelopes from a couple of guys down at the union hall and bided their time, the waiters for a regular customer who refused to tip, the barkeepers for an obstreperous, unmanageable drunk.
The envelope made it sound almost harmless. After the brand name of the stuff (it was branded the same way heroin is branded; the underground economy might be risky, but it’s not stupid), it identified the powder as “The great liquor antidote for drunkenness” and gave the following directions for use:
“One of these powders may be given in beer, tea, coffee, soup or any other liquid. Never give more than one powder a day. These powders are to be used by adults only.”
But when you slipped the contents of one of the packets into the nickel-squeezer’s coffee or the whiskey-tank’s Sazerac, it was “Look out below!” Sudden, severe gastrointestinal distress, the kind that lasts for hours and leaves you turned inside out and shaky for days.
Of course, this was not legal. We only know the wording on the envelope because in 1918 the Chicago District Attorney raided the headquarters of that city’s Waiters’ Union, acting on evidence collected by private detectives hired by the Hotel Sherman to investigate the suspicious number of customers getting sick in their dining room. Among those arrested were two of the gentlemen who kept the headquarters’ bar, along with the president of the subsidiary Bartenders’ Union, a bunch of Waiters’ and Cooks’ Union officials, and one W. Stuart Wood, who made the stuff.
The practice of putting something into a person’s drink to incapacitate them was nothing new; in fact, judging from police reports, getting dosed with “knock-out drops” or “knock-out powder” and then robbed had been a not-insignificant hazard of the drinking life since the 1890s. If you were on your own and looked like you had money, the guy standing next to you sipping a Scotch highball would come out with a “Hot enough for you?” or a “How about that Joe Gans—I don’t care what anyone says, I think he’s a hell of a fighter”, and next thing you know he’s pronouncing you a regular fellow and standing you a drink—most likely something tall and fizzy.
But before you can start in on your Mamie Taylor, “Hey, isn’t that Joe Gans’s manager?” he says, pointing behind you. When you turn back to the drink, you clink glasses and go on talking, but suddenly something’s not right. You need air. Your new friend helpfully escorts you outside. Next thing you know you’re in an alley, your watch gone and your pockets empty.
Now, once this hustle became known, the number of upstanding citizens who were drugged and found their money gone was far greater than the number who actually had chloral hydrate, the original drug in question, slipped into their drinks. After all, what’s a better story for your spouse, your employer, the police—this:
“I had a couple of Manhattan Cocktails at Chapin & Gore, then a couple of more at the Palmer House Bar, then I visited the ladies at the Everleigh House and drank a bottle of Champagne with them, and then I went to another saloon—I can’t for the life of me remember its name—for a nightcap, spent the rest of my money there and passed out in the corner, so they threw me out and I woke up in the gutter”?
“I was feeling warm and stopped in at the Tivoli Garden for a glass of lager and the respectable-looking fellow sitting next to me must have slipped knock-out drops into my beer because the next thing I know I was in a gutter on Dearborn St. and my money was gone”?
Nonetheless, it did happen, and sometimes, alas, the bartender was in on the hustle. In fact, sometimes the saloonkeeper himself was into it. None used the technique more enthusiastically than Michael Finn, of Chicago’s notorious Levee district. Born in Indiana in 1871 to Irish parents, Finn first made his mark in this world in the Windy City in 1893, when he was rolling drunks in town for the magnificent World Columbian Exposition.
The next year, Finn was behind the bar at Toronto Jim’s, on Custom House Place in the Levee. According to Herbert Asbury’s magisterial 1940 history of Chicago’s low life, Gem of the Prairie, he lost this job for fighting. At Toronto Jim’s, that was far from easy to do—all the bartenders fought, as did the customers. But popping a guy’s eye right out of his head with a bung-starter (the mallet bartenders used to whack beer kegs with to loosen the bung)—that was perceived as maybe going a bit far.
A year or two later “Mickey” Finn—he was probably called that ironically, after the lovable Irish scamp of that name popularized by humor writer Ernest Jerrold; this Finn was no scamp, unless one can stretch the term to include malevolent criminality and quasi-psychotic violence—opened the Lone Star Café and Palm Garden (there was a potted palm in the back room) along with his wife, Kate Roses.
The Lone Star was a rough “black-and-tan” (a bar where black and white patrons mingled, something not tolerated at the “better” saloons) on the corner of South State Street and Harmon Court (now E. 11th Street) in the heart of the Levee. It offered little but beer and whiskey and a staff of “house girls,” managed by Roses (among them Isabel “the Dummy” Fyffe and Mary “Gold Tooth” Thornton) to persuade you to buy more of them.
Then Finn met Dr. Hall. Hall, a drug dealer and whorehouse-quack who posed as a voodoo priest, sold him his first batch of knockout drops. Finn took to them like a kitten to a roll of toilet paper. In fact, according to Asbury, he even advertised them, after a fashion: “Try a Mickey Finn Special,” read the sign behind the bar. If you fell for it, as long as you had at least two dollars or looked like you did, you’d get a slug of raw alcohol colored with tobacco juice (basically, the standard dive-bar whiskey of the day), liberally dosed with Dr. Hall’s mixture. If you thought it best to stick to beer, he had a solution for that: “Number Two,” which was simply beer spiked with the same.
Once the drug took effect, the victim would be left to doze until the bar was empty of civilians and then Finn’s bartender (“the Patsy,” as he was known) and a couple of girls would drag him into one of Finn’s “operating rooms,” a pair of small storerooms at the back of the “palm court.” Finn would then don a white apron, grab his bung starter (in case the victim began to stir) and he and Roses would strip the poor bastard naked, take anything of value, even including his clothes, and throw him into the alley.
In December, 1903, Gold Tooth and the Dummy ratted Finn and Roses out and the authorities closed the joint. Finn ran a couple more places before fading from sight. But he must have been a legend in the Chicago underworld, because the brand name that W. Stuart Wood put on the envelopes of salt of antimony heated with potassium tartrate, which together make “Tartar emetic,” that he was selling to the waiters and bartenders in 1918 was “Mickey Finn Powder.”
Finn’s arrest in 1903 was a purely local story, worth a few columns in the Chicago papers. The union bust, however, was national news, and it made “Mickey Finn” a household phrase, part of the new, snappy American vernacular that was being cobbled together from underworld terms of art, immigrant’s lingua franca, campus slang and a dozen other sources and disseminated in movies and comic strips and pulp fiction.
Mickey Finns—the gastric version, not the knock-out version—remained a part of the unscrupulous bartender’s tool kit throughout Prohibition, and not just the thoroughly unscrupulous one: after all, a speakeasy couldn’t really call the cops when a customer started acting up, nor could it sling an unconscious customer out on the sidewalk. One still hears of the Mickey Finn from time to time in the 1930s and 1940s, but by the 1950s it had faded away.
Unfortunately, obstreperous drunks and lousy customers are still with us. While I wouldn’t want to see anyone get poisoned, there are times, I will confess, when I wish the bartender had something surefire in his or her vest pocket, or at least the threat that he or she just might. As master bartender Jack Kelly put it in a poem on the Mickey Finn he included in his 1946 book, the Roving Bartender,
“If you like to bawl out waiters,
Squawk for service, beef and roar,
Take my tip and do not do it,
You may make the brother sore.
And a MICKEY in your coffee
Don’t improve the stuff a bit.
You may wish to tear his heart out
But you won’t, you’ll only (quit?).”