Every now and then I hear someone complain about being slipped a “Mickey” in a bar. But none of my bartender friends has any idea what a Mickey is or how to make one. How about some background and a recipe? –R.B., Las Vegas, Nevada

Bartenders in Las Vegas don’t know how to make a Mickey? Next you’ll be telling me butchers in Brooklyn don’t know how to put their thumbs on scales. Thank God there are still guys like me around to salvage these great national traditions.

That said, I’m obliged to note there’s no agreement on what goes in a Mickey (aka a Mickey Finn or Mickey Flynn), how it got its name, or even what it’s supposed to do. Most people think a Mickey is a dose of knockout drops, usually administered to some hapless barfly as a preamble to rolling him. But to some it means a purgative–an agent, as my dictionary drolly puts it, “tending to cause evacuation of the bowels.” One source goes so far as to say the original Mickey was a laxative for horses. This kind of Mickey you’d feed to a drunk to get rid of him.

As for what’s in it–well, take your pick. A 1931 magazine article says it’s croton oil, a purgative, while a slang dictionary says it’s chloral hydrate, a narcotic. To further confuse things, you sometimes see references to “croton chloral hydrate,” which from the sound of it accelerates business at one end of you while slowing it down at the other. Others say a Mickey is cigar ashes in a carbonated beverage, or merely an industrial strength drink.

Most word books say the origin of “Mickey Finn” is obscure. But Cecil has come across one colorful if not necessarily reliable explanation in Gem of the Prairie, a 1940 history of the Chicago underworld by Herbert Asbury. Asbury claims the original Mickey Finn was a notorious Chicago tavern proprietor in the South Loop, then as now a nest of hardened desperadoes. In 1896 Finn opened a dive named the Lone Star Saloon and Palm Garden, where he fenced stolen goods, supervised pickpockets and B-girls, and engaged in other equally wholesome enterprises.

Around 1898 Finn obtained a supply of “white stuff” that may have been chloral hydrate. He made this the basis of two knockout drinks: the “Mickey Finn Special,” consisting of raw alcohol, water in which snuff had been soaked, and a dollop of white stuff; and “Number Two,” beer mixed with a jolt of white plus the aforementioned snuff water. Lone Star patrons who tried either of these concoctions soon found themselves face down in the popcorn. At the end of the night they were dragged into a back room, stripped of their valuables (sometimes even their clothes), and dumped in an alley. When the victims awoke they could remember nothing.

Finn evidently paid off the cops but became such a nuisance even by Chicago standards that his joint was ordered shut down in 1903. He was never prosecuted, however, and after a brief hiatus returned to tending bar, having sold the recipes to other tavern owners. How lucky we are that no one sells things like that today.

What’s the difference between colleges and universities? My friend said that colleges are always private. I pointed out that there were community colleges and informed her that the distinction was that universities are research-oriented, whereas colleges are teaching-oriented. She had the nerve to ask me how the namers of institutions of higher learning went about determining what kind of orientation they had. So we turn to you. –A banker in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Stop, you’re both wrong. (Sounds like some kind of nihilist Certs commercial, doesn’t it?) A college is usually for undergraduates, whereas a university is a collection of one or more colleges plus a grad school and various professional schools. Since colleges mainly teach whereas universities, with their squads of grad students, place more emphasis on research, you’re arguably less wrong than your friend. But don’t push your luck.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.