Gypsy’s Lament

Gypsy’s Lament

With her hands burned to a crisp and scarcely an inch of her body that is not frightfully charred Mrs. Mary Mills, commonly known as “Mother Mills,” lies at her home in the tenderloin district, on lower D street, suffering intense pain and with probably but a few more hours to live. “Mother Mills” is over eighty years old and now she is dying from injuries inflicted by a girl called “Gyp,” whom she has sheltered and given such a home as a First street house can afford.

— The San Bernardino County Sun (California), August 25, 1901

San Bernardino is a beautiful city in southern California, nestled in the San Bernardino Valley — “The Valley of the Cupped Hand of God” — as native peoples originally called it. The city dates to the 1860s, when pioneers arrived in covered wagons. Most of the travelers were male and soon a thriving business in prostitution was established in San Bernardino. For years city officials passed laws to try to control and even eliminate prostitution, but the laws were often ignored. Prostitution was popular with many of the citizens and it also provided an economic base and a “prime source of cash” for years, according to writer Harvey Kahn.

Prostitution also had countless human costs. It played a major role in a horrendous tragedy that occurred in San Bernardino in 1901.

 

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San Bernardino’s “D” street, ca.1905. California Historical Society Collection.

At about 8 p.m. on a sweltering Saturday night in late August, Mary “Mother” Mills ran screaming from an “assignation house” (see note at the end of the story) on D Street. Her head and clothing were covered in flames that were described as “cooking her flesh.” Born in Ireland, she was 76 years old and had owned a number of San Bernardino “sporting houses” over the course of her long career, which was said to date back to the early years of the city’s existence.

Mother Mills collapsed on the ground, writhing in pain. Help arrived shortly, but it was several minutes before the flames were completely extinguished. She was carried back into the house, laid carefully on a cot and a doctor was summoned. It took some time for him to locate an unburned section of her body in which to inject morphine in an effort to reduce her suffering from the burns that covered her body. Due to the extent of her injuries, she was not expected to recover.

The San Bernardino police took Gypsy Adams into custody that night and charged her with the attempted murder of Mother Mills. Gypsy or “Gyp” as she was known, was a middle-aged inmate of the brothel where Mother Mills also lived. She was known for her volatile temper and addictions to alcohol and opium. The other prostitutes in the house tried to prevent her from taking an oil lamp into her room, because she had a history of throwing things when she got angry. They feared that someday, in a fit of temper, she would burn the house down. Instead she apparently had thrown a lighted lamp at Mother Mills and burned her down. Mother Mills succumbed to her injuries the following day.

Gypsy had no lawyer at her arraignment a few days later, so she represented herself. One of the witnesses that day was 26-year-old Bessie Turner, who, according to the 1900 census was the head of the brothel where Gypsy lived. “You’re a dope fiend, ain’t you,” Gypsy inquired of Bessie. “No, I ain’t,” snapped Bessie, who one reporter described as having “blood in her eye, that even paled the rouge on her cheeks.” The women exchanged insults and curses, until finally Bessie grabbed the judge’s gavel and hurled it at Gypsy’s head. It missed Gypsy and landed on the leg of a police officer. However her demonstration of temper and willingness to throw objects in anger did not deflect suspicion for the murder from Gypsy to Bessie. Gypsy was charged with murdering Mother Mills and held for trial.

An African-American prostitute named Kate Parker, who lived in the brothel next door, was the first person on the scene after Mother Mills ran out of the house. She testified at Gypsy’s trial that Mother said “Gyp hit me with a lamp. Look at my forehead,” as Kate ran towards her to help. The testimony was objected to as hearsay and it wasn’t allowed at trial. However the judge allowed in statements allegedly made by Mother Mills about how she had befriended Gypsy when others had spurned her.

Gypsy testified that she had eaten about half a pound of opium and she was so crazed by the drug that she didn’t know what happened the night Mother Mills caught fire.

The jury was convinced of Gypsy’s guilt but was torn between whether it was first or second degree murder. First degree would have meant a mandatory death sentence. They chose instead to find her guilty of murder in the second degree with a recommendation for mercy. She was sentenced to 25 years in the California State Prison at San Quentin.

Born in Louisiana, Gypsy’s age at the time of her trial was reported to be somewhere between 28 and 37 years. No one knew much about her background and she disclosed very little about herself. Her real name was rumored to be Mary DeSilva and it was said that she was of Creole ancestry.

According to the 1900 and 1910 federal census records, Gypsy was born around 1863 in Louisiana to a Portuguese-born father and a mother born in Ireland. No one of that description appears on the 1870 census under the name “Mary DeSilva” or “Gypsy Adams” or any variations of those names. It’s possible her family slipped through the cracks and didn’t get counted or possibly both names were aliases.

Gypsy or Mary or whatever her name was, left Louisiana and wound up in Chicago. Using the name Maria Desylva she married Timothy McCarthy, a man she later claimed was her uncle, in March 1882. She and Timothy had a son, also named Timothy, in 1884. She stated later that her husband was a policeman and he was killed in the Haymarket riot on May 4, 1886, despite the fact no one of that name appears in the Illinois death index for that date. She had another child in 1888, George McCarthy, who only lived a few months. Obviously if her husband died in 1886 he could not have been the father of George. After George died, in 1888, Gypsy put her son Timothy in an orphanage and headed west.

Next there’s an eight year gap in her timeline, until she appeared in the news in 1896 when she was jailed as a “vagrant and lewd person” in San Pedro, California. Immediately after she was released from jail she went to Los Angeles where, under the name Mary Jacinta De Sylva, she married a Michigan native named William Tossell. Strangely William was employed as both a barber and jeweler. In 1899 he signed up to fight in the Spanish-American War which effectively ended the marriage — Gypsy claimed he’d abandoned her. By 1900 she’d moved to the San Bernardino brothel. She was divorced from William Tossell in 1902.

Gypsy Adams all

California State Archives, Sacramento, California. Department of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs 19075-19674.

Gypsy served ten years of her sentence and was paroled in December 1911. A few months later she wound up in the tenderloin district of Carson City, Nevada, where she got so drunk that the police were called. She had violated her parole and was returned to San Quentin. She said that she would rather be in prison, where she was sure of having food, clothing and shelter, than be free but without money or friends. She was released from prison in March 1917.  At that point the trail of her ill-fated life goes cold.

Note: I use the words “brothel” and “prostitute” for clarity but these words were not used at that time the events in this story took place. Instead euphemisms such as “assignation house,” “sporting house” or “resort” were used to for the place and  “soiled doves,” “women of the half-world” or simply “inmates” were the terms for those who worked in the place.

Featured photo: Gypsy Adams, inmate photo from the Photograph Album of San Quentin Prison, California State Archives; Sacramento, California.

Maid on the Make

Maid on the Make

Lizzie Muehlman, the prettiest, neatest and cleverest thief the Detective Bureau has entertained for a long time, was arrested to-day, but it took quite an aggregation of detectives to nab her. Credited with the job are Lieuts. Howry, a Greek; Unger, a Jew, and Dietsch, a German. They were assisted after the capture by a Swedish patrolman and an Irish sergeant.

The Evening World (New York City), August 9, 1907

That’s a lot of NYPD man-flesh needed to arrest one young girl who weighed in at 113 pounds and stood 5 feet 4 inches tall! Not to mention all the nationalities and religions that were required.

The detectives began searching for her after a woman came to police headquarters complaining about a girl she’d hired as a maid. The girl told her she’d left her references in her trunk at home and would bring them in the next day. Instead she vanished with some of her employer’s jewelry.

“She was so cunning, with her fresh complexion, her trusting eyes, her white snug shirtwaist, her little high-heeled patent leathers, that she always got the job. She never kept one for more than a day. If there was no loose jewelry around the house she would depart unobtrusively and her employer would wonder what happened to her. If there was loose jewelry she would depart just as unobtrusively and so would the jewelry,” noted one newspaper article describing the maid’s adventures.

She was a fast worker. In June Mrs. Elizabeth Sandorf of West Ninety-Third Street hired the “charming little girl” to work as her maid and in less than half an hour she made off with two diamond rings and a pair of diamond earrings worth $600. In late July she stole a $500 diamond brooch from another employer, a Mrs. Irving Van Loan of Seventh Avenue. She completed that job in under an hour. She immediately pawned the brooch in Harlem for $100. That kind of cash would have bought a working-class girl a lot of pretty shirtwaists and patent leather shoes, not to mention that fabulous hat!

Mrs. Van Loan went to the police and lodged a complaint. She gave them a description of the thief and detectives kept an eye out for her.

She was finally arrested after detectives noticed her “tripping in and out of apartment houses in the vicinity of 120th Street and Lenox Avenue.” She looked so innocent that the officers thought they’d made a mistake, especially after she put up a tearful protest. But once they got her to the police station she broke down and confessed to half a dozen robberies. The following day almost fifty women who’d been robbed came around to the station to see if they could identify the maid.

The maid’s name was Lizzie and her crime was listed as being a “dishonest servant.” She was 20 years old and born in New York. Frank Lennon, who was described as a “theatrical man,” was her live-in boyfriend. He was arrested as an accomplice, though the role he played in the crimes was not specified. The police searched the couple’s East Fourteenth Street flat and found twelve pocketbooks and ten pawn tickets. Lizzie had pawned some of the things she’d stolen and then sold some of the pawn tickets to a Third Avenue pawnbroker named Samuel Trigger. Trigger was charged with receiving stolen goods.

Lizzie and Frank were arraigned at the Harlem Police Court and locked up in the courthouse jail. Neither got a prison term, according to the records of New York State’s Governor’s Registers of Commitments to Prisons, 1842–1908, but they no doubt cooled their heels in jail for quite awhile.

Lizzie Muehlhauser back_marked

She told police that her last name was Muehlhauser (The Evening World paper got the spelling wrong), but I believe that wasn’t her real name. According to news reports Lizzie said her mother lived in Maspeth, Queens. There was a widowed German immigrant named Elizabeth Muehlhauser who lived in Queens and was the right age to be Lizzie’s mother, but she had no children.

Lizzie might have worked for Elizabeth at some point and didn’t like her, so she used her unusual surname as an alias — knowing it would be reported in the newspapers — to embarrass the older woman.

stjosephsasylumMy best guess for who she really was is a girl named Lizzie Mulgrent, who was born in New York in 1888. By 1900 she was either orphaned or an abandoned child because she lived at the St. Ann’s Home for Destitute Children on 89th Street and Avenue A in New York City (previously named St. Joseph’s Asylum). If I’m right, she was one of about 300 girls living at St. Ann’s. The orphanage was run by Catholic nuns and housed children primarily of Irish descent. Think Jane Eyre but move the setting from England to New York and you get the picture.

What happened to Lizzie after her release from jail is anyone’s guess. She isn’t listed on the 1910 federal census under the names Muehlhauser, Mulgrent or Lennon. But she looks like a girl who could fend for herself, doesn’t she?

Featured photos: Lizzie Muehlhauser, NYPD Bertillon card photos taken August 9, 1907. Collection of the author.

Tube Room Hustler

Tube Room Hustler

Detective Raphael of Police Headquarters late last night arrested Sadie Schoen, 18 years old, a saleswoman, of 728 East Ninth Street. According to Inspector McCafferty, the girl got $60 from a department store by a method that is new, and in this case effective.

The New York Times, June 27, 1908

The morning of April 25, 1908, began like any other day at the large dry goods store on Broadway in New York City. The store had been open for a while and was starting to get busy. Dorothy Fuller, the cashier in the millinery department, was at her register behind the counter when a young woman she didn’t recognize walked up to her and started a conversation.

“Mr. Eck told me to ask you how much cash you have on hand,” said the woman.

“Why there is just $60 here,” Dorothy replied after an inspection of her cash drawer.

“All right. Mr. Eck said you’re to give it to me. I’ll take it to him to check up.”

The store was a large one and Dorothy didn’t know all the employees but she knew Mr. Eck was the supervisor of the tube room. She also knew that sometimes he needed cash moved from one location to another in the store. The woman in front of her was confident and nicely dressed. Because of that, along with the fact that she wasn’t wearing a hat, Dorothy assumed she was a store employee and she handed over the money without question.

The woman thanked Dorothy and left, presumably headed to the tube room. Dorothy had a customer waiting so she got back to work.

Instead of going to the tube room, the woman went back to the saleswomen’s dressing room where she’d left her hat and coat, picked up her belongings and quickly left the store with the cash.

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The tube room in a Hartford department store, circa 1920. Connecticut Historical Society museum & library.

The tube room, located in the dark basement of the store, was where communication about customer payment went back and forth via a pneumatic tube system. The customer’s money or a request to pay by credit was sent to the centralized tube room. A tube room employee, usually a poorly paid young woman, checked the credit status of the customer using a card index and approved the purchase or not. The tube room girl also made change, prepared receipts and sent everything back via the tube to the salesperson. However cash registers like Dorothy’s were also used on the sales floor for customers who had cash, were in a hurry and didn’t need a receipt.

It took detectives two months to find the young woman who made off with the $60.

Sadie Schoen laughed when Detective Raphael of the NYPD visited her at home on June 25th and told her she was wanted for swindling. She told him he was mistaken. What she didn’t know was that he’d brought Dorothy Fuller along with him and Dorothy had identified Sadie as the woman who’d tricked her by pretending to be a tube room employee.

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Born in Austria to Yiddish-speaking parents, Sadie immigrated to the United States when she was two years old. The police photographed her in her beautiful hat and later she was arraigned for swindling at Centre Street Police Court in lower Manhattan.

By 1910, according to the federal census, Sadie boarded with an Austrian family in a lower east side tenement and worked as a feather duster maker. After her 1912 marriage she and her husband raised a family in the Bronx.

policeheadquarterspostcard

The police court where Sadie was criminally charged was in “The Police Building” at 240 Centre Street. Constructed in the Beaux-Arts style between 1905 and 1909, the building also housed NYPD headquarters until 1973. After sitting empty for 15 years it was converted into luxury residences. Now a popular home base for celebrities, an apartment there was recently listed for sale for $15,500,00, with a monthly maintenance fee of $12,533. That’s a whole lot of tube room cash.

Featured photo: Bertillon card of Sadie Schoen, June 25, 1908, New York Municipal Archives.

The Drop

The Drop

John Medlock is to hang tomorrow for the murder of Carrie Boyd, or McKinney, more than three years ago in the Gardiner coal camp. The Boyd woman was living with a negro named McKinney when Medlock won her somewhat fickle affections. She went to live with him but after a short time left him for another man.

Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, New Mexico), May 24, 1906

The murder occurred on the night of January 4, 1901. John Neeley (aka Medlock) went out looking for Carrie Boyd and he finally found her in the Gardiner saloon. Fueled with a jealous rage, he pulled out his pistol and shot her without warning. As she started to fall to the ground someone caught her and tried to hold her up. “Let her alone,” he yelled. “I want to see her drop.”

Witnessing the shooting sobered up the bystanders and most of them cleared out of the bar in fear for their own lives. Carrie died on the floor of the saloon. Her killer disappeared into the darkness. No one was foolish enough to try to stop him.

Gardiner was a mining town in Colfax County, New Mexico. James Gardiner, a geologist for the Sante Fe Railroad, discovered coal in nearby Dillon Canyon around 1881. Soon the Old Gardiner Mine swung into production. In 1896 the Raton Coal and Coke Company took over the mine and three railroad companies established coke ovens in town. Coal miners, both white and African-American, were drawn to the area for work.

With little to do in the evenings but drink, the saloon was a gathering place for the citizens of Gardiner. Hard drinking led to fighting. A few years after Carrie’s murder the partition that separated black and white drinkers in the saloon was smashed to bits during an altercation.

Coal mining was and still is a dangerous profession. John lost the sight in his right eye during a mine explosion. He also carried the scars on his forehead and right cheek from severe burns he got in the same accident. In addition he suffered from syphilis. Given how few women lived in New Mexico back then, venereal diseases were practically an occupational hazard for miners and cowboys.

After he murdered Carrie, John headed east to Indian Territory. He wouldn’t be caught for more than two years and when he was captured it was not for Carrie’s murder but for an assault on a woman who survived the attack. Under an alias — John Medlock — he was sentenced to three years at Leavenworth Penitentiary for the assault.

Before John was released from Leavenworth the New Mexico authorities realized he was the man who shot and killed Carrie Boyd. The sheriff of Colfax County, Marion Littrell, picked him up from the federal penitentiary on May 14, 1905, and took him to New Mexico to face the murder charge.

He was convicted of Carrie’s murder and sentenced to death by hanging. He didn’t fight the sentence.

The plan was for John and another man, David Arguello, who was convicted of the murder of a peace officer, to be hanged together on May 25, 1906. Two for the price of one saved the county some money. The sheriff was besieged with applications from people who wanted to witness the hangings. By law only 20 were allowed to attend.

The night before his execution John gave a statement confirming his guilt in Carrie’s murder. He said he regretted the crime and the bad company he kept when it happened. Then he went to bed and slept well. The next morning, after eating a good breakfast, he whistled and sang in his cell as he washed up.

Raton County Courthouse

After exchanging a few last words with his minister, John calmly mounted the scaffold that had been set up on the west side of the Raton County Courthouse. The trap was sprung at 10:15 a.m. but his neck wasn’t broken in the drop. He died of strangulation 13 minutes after his body went through the trap door.

The executions of John Neeley and David Arguello were the only legal hangings in Raton, New Mexico. Of course many lynchings also occurred in New Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

During the Great Depression the mines in Gardiner closed and after World War II the few families still there left. By 1954 Gardiner was a ghost town. Now the land is gated private property owned by media mogul Ted Turner. It’s part of Turner’s Vermejo Park Ranch and if you have a spare $450 you can book a night’s stay there.

Featured photo: John Neeley, alias Medlock, from his Leavenworth Penitentiary file. Collection of the National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.

Shooting Louis

Shooting Louis

Last night I called on Alice Martin, the girl I am to marry. I stayed at her home, No. 622 East Thirteenth street, until midnight. Then I went to a restaurant at Twelfth street and Third avenue for something to eat. Later I went to Meiser’s saloon, in Thirteenth street, between avenue B and C. Then I started for home.

— Statement of Louis Betsch, The Evening World (New York City), January 18, 1905

NYPD officer Anthony Muldoon was on his beat on the lower east side of Manhattan when he noticed two men loitering suspiciously in front of a house on Sixteenth Street. The time was about 2:45 in the morning. The men noticed Muldoon and ran off. Just moments later he heard the sound of breaking glass coming from the front of a nearby shoe store and a man stepped from the shadows of the doorway of the store.

“I told him to halt,” Muldoon told his captain, “and he ran. I followed, but he was fleeter than I. I drew my pistol and yelled that I would shoot. I fired above his head, but he continued to run. Just at this time I slipped on the ice in the street and fell and my revolver discharged accidently. The man fell in his tracks with a bullet in his back.”

Officers in the NYPD were first issued guns in 1895 by an order from Teddy Roosevelt after he became the New York City Police Commissioner. Prior to that time officers used their personal guns on the job. Standardizing the firearms carried by policemen was part of Roosevelt’s push to clean up the department.

The man Muldoon shot was Louis Betsch, a 23-year-old self-described “boilermaker.” He was taken to nearby Bellevue Hospital. There he made a statement under oath to the New York City Coroner proclaiming his innocence in any wrongdoing. The other men Muldoon saw near the shoe store were never located.

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Bellevue Hospital circa 1898, collection of the Wellcome Library

Louis lived in a rented room on Ninth Avenue and took his meals with his widowed mother and younger siblings at their apartment on Tenth Avenue. His mother, Lizzie, a German immigrant, told police her son was always “sober and steady.” She admitted that he’d been out of work for some time, but things, she said, were looking up for her oldest child, who told her that he’d recently found a job in an umbrella factory.

Alice Martin, Louis’s fiancé, was a 19-year-old button maker who told police she hadn’t seen Louis that evening. Alice lived with her Austrian immigrant parents and siblings in a tenement on East Thirteenth Street. She told the police that she’d been to a music lesson after dinner and after the lesson ended, around 9 p.m., she’d returned home and gone directly to bed. Her mother backed up her story.

“It’s absolutely untrue that Louis called on me last night,” said Miss Martin. “I have all the confidence in the world in him, but if he tells of having been with me last night he is hiding something.”

One thing Louis was hiding was that he’d been arrested for burglary on July 1, 1902. His arrest card, complete with photos, measurements and his description was in the NYPD’s vast rogues’ gallery collection. (“LB — RB” was tattooed on his left arm. Tattoos were considered to be a sign of inherent criminality, in addition to being a way to identify someone, so the police always took note of them.) Evidently no one figured out that Louis had a criminal record.

Louis Betsch_back_marked

Officer Muldoon was a 35-year-old Irishman who’d been on the force at least eight years. He’d received a medal for bravery the previous year after jumping into the icy East River in January to rescue a man from drowning. With his record it wasn’t a hard call for his boss, Captain Hussey, to declare the shooting accidental on the morning after the event. He told Muldoon to return to his post.

Gunshot wounds were often fatal in the years before reliable anesthesia, universal sterile technique, blood transfusions and antibiotics. Louis died of his injuries at the hospital later that day.

Featured photos: mugshots of Louis Betsch, NYPD Bertillon card, July 1, 1902. Collection of the author.

She Resisted

She Resisted

Alleged Shoplifters Held

Two women, both of whom are suspected of being professional shoplifters, were arraigned at the Central Police Court yesterday. The defendants said their names were Annie Mitchell and Ellen Joyce, but they refused to tell the magistrate where they lived. Detectives Swan and Knox of Marks Brothers’ Store arrested the women on Monday after they had, it is alleged, stolen several pairs of gloves and a silk skirt. They were held in $600 bail for trial.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 24, 1900

The news article supplies only a dash of information, however the remarkable photo of Ella Joyce, taken on January 22, 1900 when she was arrested, speaks volumes. She resisted having her picture made, so the arresting officers held her hair and chin to get a clear picture. Even then, Ella closed her eyes and stuck out her tongue to make sure to ruin the photo. Perhaps it was her comment on the police and their practice of photographing people who hadn’t been charged with wrongdoing, much less found guilty of a crime.

Ella Joyce_back_lowresThe back of Ella’s CDV card provides a few personal details. She was 27 years old, slender and tall — almost 5’8” — with black hair, blue eyes and a medium complexion. She was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania. She had a small scar above her right eyebrow and another on her right thumb. She worked as a domestic. Her Bertillon measurements were recorded on a separate piece of paper that was glued to the CDV.

When the federal census was taken on June 9, 1900, six months after her arrest, there was only one young woman named Ella Joyce living in Philadelphia. Ellen “Ella” O’Donnell Joyce was a married woman who lived with her husband, William, in East Germantown in the northwest section of the city. They’d been married four years and had no children. William worked as a gardener and Ella was a housewife. Both were American-born children of Irish immigrant parents.

There was no follow-up in the newspapers about the shoplifting case of Ella and her pal Annie. Marks Brothers, the store where Ella was arrested, was founded as a millinery shop and was well-known for its women’s goods. The store opened at the southwest corner of Eighth and Arch Street in the 1860s and the building was reconstructed after a fire in 1889. It closed for reorganization in 1902 and reopened at a different location in 1904.

Marks Brothers Store

Marks Brothers, undated photo by Frank H. Taylor, Free Library of Philadelphia

Officer Knox, one of the policemen who arrested Ella, was temporarily kicked off the force, in 1905, after he “got in trouble at a picnic.” Officer William Swan, the other policemen involved in Ella’s arrest, worked as a detective assigned to keep an eye on the Marks Brothers store between 1895 and 1902. The Philadelphia Inquirer is full of stories of Officer Swan’s exploits, such as the time he nabbed Samuel Hoffman, a boy still in knee breeches, for stealing the pocketbook of Mrs. Huldah Katz. A few months later he detained Mrs. Maud French and Mrs. Alice Incas for shoplifting coats and shoes. Both women had babies in their arms at the time. The young, the old and the female comprised the majority of those Officer Swan arrested at Marks Brothers.

Marks Brothers, unable to compete with larger stores in the vicinity of its new location, closed its doors forever in 1909.

Ella and William continued to live in the same East Germantown tenement and were still childless when a census worker recorded them in 1910. William was employed as a steamfitter and Ella was without a profession. On September 13, 1911 — the day before her 38th birthday — Ella died at home of cirrhosis of the liver and exhaustion.

It was a cold day in late January 1900, and Ella Joyce needed a pair of gloves and she wanted a silk skirt, but she couldn’t afford either. Or maybe it was a misunderstanding and she intended to pay. Though we’ll never know exactly what she was thinking when her mug shot was taken, as a piece of photographic history, it is priceless.

Featured photo: Ella Joyce’s CDV mugshot, collection of the author

Knock-out Drops

Knock-out Drops

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.

Dennis Houlihan_back

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.