Thursday, February 12, 2009

Mickey Finn Coins a Phrase


After Al Capone, Mickey Finn is probably the most famous criminal name in Chicago history. Between 1896 and 1903, he ran a saloon here at 527 S. State St. (with the 1911 renumbering, this is now 1101 S. State).

Finn was a diminutive Irishman who first came to Chicago to work graft during the influx of visitors drawn to the World's Fair in 1893. An expert pickpocket and a fence for stolen goods, he plied his trade on travelers arriving at Dearborn Station and throughout the Custom House Place levee district. Soon, he found work tending bar at a tough saloon in Little Cheyenne, where he began training others in his techniques, particularly the streetwalkers who frequented the bar and helped gentlemen select drinks.

But Mickey Finn is best known for his own bar, the Lone Star Saloon and Palm Garden, which he opened in 1896. For seven years, it held the reputation as the toughest joint in the city -- and it certainly served the strongest drinks. The Lone Star was populated by resident "house girls," who made it their job to encourage visitors to drink as much as possible, and to offer any other services that might be requested of them for a price.

In 1898, Mickey Finn met a mysterious voodoo priest named Dr. Hall, who made his living selling love potions and trinkets to the superstitious and uneducated folk of the red light district, and also supplying them with heroin and cocaine. From Dr. Hall, Finn purchased brown bottles filled with liquid and a white, powdery chemical detritus, which no one ever precisely identified, but which made Mickey Finn famous.

Back at his bar, Finn mixed Dr. Hall's concoction with snuff-tinged water and liquor to make "Mickey Finn Specials" -- which the house girls promoted unceasingly. Pity the poor fellow who was cajoled into proving his manhood by ordering this stiff drink though. Isabel Fyffe and "Gold Tooth" Mary, two of the Lone Star's house girls, later testified before an aldermanic committee about the effects of the drink:

When the victims drink this dopey stuff, they get talkative, walk around in a restless manner, and then fall into a deep sleep, and you can't arouse them until the effect of the drug wears off.

After falling prey to the knockout drink, the house girls and the bartender would drag the victim into one of the Lone Star's back rooms, which Mickey Finn referred to as the "operating room." There, he was stripped naked, and anything of any value was removed from his person, including his clothes if they were of sufficient quality. Later, his body would be dumped into the alleyway behind the saloon. When he awoke the next day, the victim usually had little memory of what had happened and how he ended up in a dirty levee alley.

Not all of Finn's victims suffered only robbery. Gold Tooth Mary testified:

I saw Finn take a gold watch and thirty-five dollars from Billy Miller, a trainman. Finn gave him dope and he lay in a stupor in the saloon for twelve hours. When he recovered he demanded his money, but Finn had gone...Miller was afterward found along the railroad tracks with his head cut off.

Like all saloon-keepers in the First Ward, Mickey Finn paid his protection money to the Aldermen/Vice lords Michael Kenna and John Coughlin, and he was convinced he would never be caught. But in 1903, the jig was up. Persistent reports of dopings at the Lone Star led the police to investigate the saloon more closely, and Gold Tooth Mary and some of the other house girls began to fear that one day, Finn would take their hard-earned savings. She told the city graft committee,
I was afraid I would be murdered for the two hundred dollars I had saved up, and I did not want to be a witness to any more of the horrible things I saw done there. I was afraid I would be arrested some time when some victims who had been fed on knockout drops would die. When I saw his wife put the drugged liquor to the lips of men I could not stand it, as bad as I am. Oh, it was just awful to see the way men were drugged and stripped of their clothing by Finn or his wife. Finn had an idea that most men wore belts about their waists to hide their money. He had robbed a man once who hid his money that way, and he never deglected searching the 'dead ones' to the skin.
Finn claimed that Mary was framing him, saying "I'd lose money in feeding 'dope' along with the big 'tubs' and the clams I dish out to the 'guys' that blow in here. I wouldn't get enough money out of their clothes in a year to pay for the 'dope'."

But on December 16, 1903, Mayor Carter Harrison ordered the closure of the Lone Star Saloon, and Mickey Finn wisely left town shortly thereafter. But not before he sold the formula for his famous drink to a number of other Southside saloons, who marketed it as a "Mickey Finn," or even just a "Mickey". The name eventually came into use as a generic term for any knockout drink, and to "slip a mickey" into someone's drink now means to secretly drug an unsuspecting victim.

Mickey Finn's saloon is long gone, replaced by a modern condominium building and a pet store fills the space where the Lone Star once beckoned to unsuspecting victims.

No comments: