Sleeping potions, i.e. liquid sedatives, date to antiquity, but Herbert Asbury (and, twenty years earlier, the NYPD) would have us believe that their criminal use began in the late nineteenth-century. Asbury (Chapter IX, Section 3) credits one man as the inventor of the idea of drugging and robbing saloon-goers. He states: “…no effective use of drugs for the sole purpose of robbery was made in New York until a California crook, Peter Sawyer, appeared in 1866, and aroused such a furor in police and criminal circles that the former honored him by calling the practitioners of his art peter players.”
There are two likely candidates for being Asbury’s source on Peter Sawyer: Thomas Byrnes’s 1895 edition of Professional Criminals of America and New York newspaper articles appearing in early 1894 citing police detectives. Byrnes, during the time those articles appeared, was the NYPD Superintendent. However, two years earlier, articles had appeared in New York and elsewhere that introduced the term “peter,” referring to the drops used by a crook named Fred Halse. Vials found on Halse were discovered to contain chloral hydrate, which soon was established as the preferred “knockout” drug.
Even earlier, in 1889, three reporters for the New York World published a piece accusing three saloons as being notorious for drugging their customers: the Golden Horn on 13th Street; Tom McKeon’s place on Hester Street; and Jack Pye’s joint on Houston and Thompson Streets. They accused the police of colluding with the dive owners. Indeed, the police department responded to the article by denying that drugging was taking place. The drugs used in this case were not identified, nor was the term “peter” used.
Chloral hydrate was not widely marketed until the 1870s, but quickly became a preferred sedative. It was frequently used in suicides; and also heavily employed in hospitals and asylums. Even so, in the days before prescribed medicines, it could be purchased by the public from any drug store. Given its availability, the only surprise is that it took so long for evidence to appear that it had been discovered by criminals.
There does appear to be indications that drugging drinks was a practice that was refined by thieves in the port cities of California. Before chloral hydrate, the drugs used were laudanum, a tincture of opium with a strong bitter taste; or drops of the more powerful morphine.
Chloral hydrate’s more popular nickname is a “Mickey Finn,” named after the owner of a Chicago dive of the late 1890s and early 1900s. In fact, the credit for making this association goes to none other than Herbert Asbury, who wrote it up in Gem of the Prairie, his 1940 book about Chicago’s underworld history.
As for Peter Sawyer, no criminal by that name appears in New York newspapers or anywhere else. Nor does he appear in any New York prison records. It seems convenient that the NYPD found a out-of-state crook to blame for importing the practice–one that they originally denied existed.