Mickey Finn, The Bartender Who First "Slipped a Mickey"

(Mark Jay Goebel/Getty Images)

You might have heard the name Mickey Finn, but you probably didn't realize he was a person. It's a name synonymous with drugging drinks, which is exactly what Finn did as a bartender in Chicago so he could incapacitate and rob his patrons. He was so successful that other bartenders in the city also began "slipping a mickey" to their customers.

Who Was Mickey Finn?

Michael Finn, whose Irish parents called him Mickey, was born in Indiana in 1871 and had a habit of getting into trouble as a young lad. He learned from an early age that a drunk target was an easy target, picking the pockets of bar patrons. At some point, Finn and his wife moved to Chicago, where he managed the Lone Star Saloon and Palm Garden Restaurant on the Loop's South State Street from 1896 to 1903.

By most accounts, Finn hatched his poisonous plan in response to some wealthy but ungenerous tippers. Toward the end of a night, Finn mixed a powerful sedative called chloral hydrate, which he procured from a local witch doctor, into his victims' drinks. When they passed out, others in the bar just assumed they'd had a few too many. After the conscious customers filed out, he dragged his victim into a back room, took their stuff, and left them in some dark alley, where they'd wake up the next day and assume they'd been robbed on the street.

State Street, late 19th century. (New York Public Library/Wikimedia Commons)

The Mickey Finn Special

Finn may have begun by targeting bad tippers, but he enjoyed his newfound riches so much that he expanded his efforts to include adequate tippers as well. With the help of a few "house girls" (sex workers he paid to flirt with customers and persuade them to buy more drinks), he identified the well-off patrons and robbed everyone worth robbing. When other area bartenders got wind of his intriguing scheme, Finn started selling them small envelopes of chloral hydrate that he called the "Mickey Finn Special" so they could try it out for themselves.

Dining room of the University of Chicago Club, 1909. (The World Today Magazine/Wikimedia Commons)

The Downfall Of Mickey Finn

But the gravy train couldn't roll forever. When two of Finn's house girls were arrested, they ratted him out to get their own charges dropped. He served a surprisingly short sentence, but he was ordered to close his saloon in 1903. By then, however, the problem was much bigger than him. Throughout the 1910s, bartenders "slipping a mickey" to their patrons was a citywide scourge, and in 1918, bartenders serving a banquet for the University Club of Chicago poisoned more than 100 guests, three of whom died. The city began performing routine mickey raids on local bars and restaurants, and after several years, the problem subsided, though we still use the phrase "slipping a mickey" to refer to someone spiking a drink to incapacitate the unsuspecting drinker.