Mickey Finn (1918)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Fri Dec 3 18:54:07 UTC 2004

On Fri, 3 Dec 2004 12:10:39 -0500, George Thompson
<george.thompson at NYU.EDU> wrote:

>The earliest appearance of this incident in the Chicago Tribune was also
>June 23, 1918.

Thanks for checking that.

>Evidently a writer named Ernest Jerrold had been writing a series of no
>doubt comic stories about a character named Mickey Finn who lived in an
>Irish district (in the U. S., I think).  Evidently this lead to the name
>being the stereotype name for a stereotype Irisher.  The Chicago Tribune
>also ran occasional comic strips featuring a troublesome little boy -- in
>the one I looked at, the boy chased a cat onto a pump; the cat climbed
>onto the pump handle which caused water to come out into the boy's face.
>This seemed to be unsigned.

Ernest Jarrold's "Mickey Finn" stories and other fictional characters may
have contributed to the name being associated with Irish stereotypes, but
the evidence given in RHHDAS and OED3 points to a real-life Mickey Finn
(from Chicago, of course) as the source of the term.  Here's the etymology
in the OED3 draft entry:

< the name of 'Mickey' Finn, a Chicago saloon-keeper of the late 19th and
early 20th cent. who was alleged to have drugged and robbed his customers:
see J. E. Lighter Hist. Dict. Amer. Slang (1997) II. 549 and the
  1903 Chicago Daily News 16 Dec. 1/7 The complete defense advanced by
'Mickey' Finn, proprietor of the Lone Star saloon..described..as the
scene of blood-curdling crimes through the agency of drugged liquor.
1903 Inter-Ocean (Chicago) 17 Dec. 1 (heading), Lone Star Saloon loses
its license. 'Mickey' Finn's alleged 'knock-out drops'..put him out of

>My recollections of seeing this term in print when a boy was that it was
>used as if synonymous with knockout drops -- as if it produced
>unconsciousness.  My father occasionally used the term in its correct
>meaning: a quick-acting laxative.  (Sorry to introduce a touch of
>prescriptivism here.)

Well, one of the 1918 cites says that tartar emetic was used, which would
suggest that it stimulated evacuation in the other direction.
Historically, chloral hydrate was used as the "knockout" type of Mickey.
For more on this, see James A. Inciardi's 1977 article, "The Changing Life
of Mickey Finn: Some Notes on Chloral Hydrate Down Through the Ages" J
Popular Culture 11(3):591-6, available online in PDF format:


Inciardi doesn't say anything about the 1918 case, but he does note that
tartar emetic would have been a newly available substance in 1918.  He
mentions this to refute Herb Caen's claim that tartar emetic, as opposed
to chloral hydrate, was used as a Mickey in 19th-century San Francisco.
(Caen argued that the "Mickey Finn" originated in San Francisco, not
Chicago, though there's no good evidence for this.)

--Ben Zimmer

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