Mickey Finn (1918)

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Fri Dec 3 22:30:58 UTC 2004

Jon Lighter (and Ben Zimmer) report that "In 1904, the Chicago authorities shut down a dive run by a crook whose name (or alias, the stories I've seen don't say) was "Mickey Finn."  He was shut down for administering knockout drops. Since the news reports draw no connection between Finn and the slang term, I assume that this incident was the origin of the phrase."

I had said "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.)"  Now, if in fact the historic Mickey Finn was using knockout drops, then the touch of prescriptivism proves to be ill-founded, as it so often is.  My father's notion of a Mickey Finn was more connected with the substance being used in the 1918 job-action.  "Mr. Hoyne had a report that waiters used a certain powder in the dishes of known opponents to the [tipping] system.  The powders, according to Mr. Hoyne, produced nausea and were known as "Mickey Finns."  My recollections are vague -- I don't recall father referring to Mickeys often, and don't come close to recalling specific words.  He would speak of a Mickey with reference to an imaginary someone rushing to the bathroom
, whether to vomit or to ease the bowels I don't recall.  Father was born and raised in Brooklyn and was well familiar with NYC lowlife, when he wasn't at sea as a merchant seaman.  I have his seaman's papers somewhere, and don't recall any voyages on the Great Lakes that would have made Chicago a port of call, but maybe there were some.  He would have been about 8 in 1904, anyway; 24 in 1918, and in the Army.

AS for whether the name of Mickey Finn, the historic barkeeper, was an alias: there is precedent that it could have been.  The noted bootlegger Dutch Schultz was really Arthur Flegenheimer (sp?) but his playmates when young called him Dutch Schultz after a beloved neighborhood thug.  I read a bio of Schultz that quoted him as regretting the nickname, thinking that if he had been using his proper polysyllabic name that was hard to remember and didn't fit into headlines, he would have been much less notorious and would have drawn much less attention from the cops.  Also: the Kid Twist who was going to inform on Albert Anastasia, Lepke Buchalter, Gurrah Shapiro et al., except that he jumped or was thrown from his police-guarded hotel room, was really Abe Reles.  The original Kid Twist was a gangster who was whacked in the 1900s.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

"We have seen the best of our time.  Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves."  King Lear, Act 1, scene 2 (Gloucester speaking).

More information about the Ads-l mailing list