If you watched the second episode of The Alienist on TNT recently, you may have wondered about the harrowing experience of John Moore (played by Luke Evans) after knock-out drops were put in his drink.
Moore, a newspaper crime illustrator and friend of the alienist, Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, takes a trip alone to the “boy whorehouse” in lower Manhattan, where Giorgio Santorelli, the teenage victim whose brutal murder Kreizler is investigating, worked before his death. He hopes to interview Giorgio’s employers and coworkers in an effort to prove his detective skills to Kreizler. However he gets more than he bargained for when the bartender spikes his drink with a powder. The episode ends with Moore falling paralyzed on a bed, unable to move or speak, as the brothel’s young male prostitutes swarm over him.
Is there any truth to this part of the plotline in the show? Did bartenders actually spike their patrons’ drinks with paralytic drugs?
Crooked bartenders did, in fact, spike drinks with knock-out drops or powders (probably chloral hydrate) during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, usually for the purpose of robbing the victim. A case in point is a bartender named Dennis Houlihan, also known as “Happy Hooligan” and “Knock out” who was active in Fort Wayne, Indiana in August 1901.
Dennis, an Irishman with a florid complexion, was described in the news as a “grafter, dispenser of knock-out drugs and all round thing man.” He worked as a bartender at the Shamrock Saloon, a tavern owned by a man named Jack Cain. Dennis was arrested on suspicion of having “relieved the pocket” of Shamrock customer Thomas Otis of $17. However Thomas, who’d had plenty to drink, along with possibly a bit of the old knock-out powder, wasn’t able to say for certain where his money went missing, so the case against Dennis was dismissed.
Police were informed that Dennis and Jack previously ran a notorious “joint” in Cleveland, where sailors were regularly given knock-out drops and robbed of their cash. Unwilling to let Dennis off scott-free, they immediately rearrested him for “flim flamming” a man out of a twenty-dollar bill at a different bar. This time the charges stuck and “Knock out” got what was described as the stiffest sentence ever handed out in Fort Wayne — $200 and six months in the workhouse. If unable to pay the fine, which is quite likely, he became the guest of the Fort Wayne police for a whopping 495 days.
Police suspected Dennis might move his operations elsewhere, so they shared his details with police detective bureaus in other cities. The card that survived (back shown below) is from St. Paul, Minnesota.
A final story about Dennis appeared in an Indianapolis newspaper, in 1907, after he was arrested for knocking down a drunken friend, stealing the man’s watch and pawning it. Initially he denied the accusation but later he admitted his guilt. “A man will do anything when drunk,” he commented, “even to his best friend.” And as John Moore discovers in The Alienist, a sober bartender’s enemy suffers the most severe consequences of all.
Featured photos: Dennis Houlihan’s mugshots from his Bertillon card dated August 12, 1901. Collection of the author.