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Mickey Finn

Q From Chris Cone: I was wondering what the origin is of slipping someone a mickey, as in spiking a drink?

A The original and fuller form of the phrase is slip someone a Mickey Finn and does indeed refer to the action of drugging a drink for some nefarious purpose.

The drug has varied. These days, a Mickey Finn is usually taken to be knockout drops to render someone insensible so that they can be robbed. The drug most commonly mentioned is chloral hydrate, though American Speech in 1936 claimed that it was actually cigar ashes in a carbonated drink, a surprising concoction we can hardly believe was effective. But the drug has sometimes been said to have been a purgative or emetic, this being a quick way for staff to get an obnoxious drunk or violent patron out of a bar.

Another reason for slipping someone an emetic became a notorious case in Chicago in 1918. This is from the Washington Post of June in that year:

State’s Attorney Hoyne, acting on information as to coercive measures used by waiters to compel the giving of tips, arrested 100 waiters, members of Waiters’ Union, Local No. 7, today. Mr. Hoyne had a report that waiters used a certain powder in the dishes of known opponents to the system. The powders, according to Mr. Hoyne, produced nausea and were known as “Mickey Finns.” It is thought that many cases of supposed ptomaine poisoning reported after meals in downtown cafes and hotels may have been caused by the “Mickey Finns.”

The “certain powder” was later reported to be tartar emetic. So far as I know, this scandal is the first time that a Mickey Finn is mentioned in print. The case was widely reported and it seems to have been the stimulus for the term’s becoming widely known.

So who was Mickey Finn? There’s some doubt over the matter but he may have been the man of that name who ran the Lone Star Saloon and Palm Garden in Chicago from 1896 to December 1903. Most of what we know, or think we know, about Mr Finn’s activities comes from a 1940 book by Herbert Asbury called Gem of the Prairie (Mr Asbury also wrote The Gangs of New York, from which the Martin Scorsese film of 2002 was adapted). The establishment seems to have been a dive of the lowest kind, in which Finn fenced stolen goods, supervised pickpockets and ran prostitutes. He had a sideline, as Mr Asbury tells it, by which he drugged patrons with chloral hydrate, robbed them, and dumped them in an alley.

This is all rather circumstantial, not least because of the big gap between Finn’s supposed activities and the first recorded use of the term in 1918, not to mention the further 20 year gap before Mr Asbury wrote his account. However, Mr Finn certainly existed and his activities were recorded in the local press at the time. The Daily News wrote on 16 December 1903 about “‘Mickey’ Finn, proprietor of the Lone Star saloon”, which it reported as “the scene of blood-curdling crimes through the agency of drugged liquor” and the following day the Inter-Ocean headed a report: “Lone Star Saloon loses its license. ‘Mickey’ Finn’s alleged ‘knock-out drops’ ... put him out of business.” The Chicago locale for the 1918 scandal suggests that the term may have been circulating in the city underworld in the intervening years.

Mickey Finn, of course, is a common Irish name and in the 1890s an author named Ernest Jarrold had written stories about a character called that. They had become extremely popular; a book of them was published in 1899 under the title Mickey Finn Idylls, which was turned into a comic play in 1903. So the name would have been in the air at the time the real Mickey Finn was running his illegal business and the combination of the two might have caused it to stick in people’s minds.

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Page created 30 Dec 2006