Herbert Asbury is guilty of embellishment in his remarks [Chapter IX, Section 2] concerning a notorious Houston Street dive of the early 1870s. His source was Frank Moss’s 1897 book, The American Metropolis: From Knickerbocker Days to the Present Time, which deals with the subject in two sentences:
A nasty little place was that of Johnny “Camphene” at 19 Houston Street (corner of Mercer Street). He pretended to sell liquor, but when he ran short on several occasions he served camphene, and collected his price for it too — hence his sobriquet.
Asbury’s description was longer and, writing in 1927, he had to remind his readers what camphine/camphene was [Asbury preferred the -ine spelling]:
Johnny Camphine kept one of the most notorious dives in the city at Mercer and Houston streets, and in lieu of whiskey commonly sold colored camphine, or rectified oil of turpentine, which had its legitimate uses as a solvent for varnishes and as fuel for lamps. It has been said that at least a hundred men were driven insane by drinking Johnny Camphine’s beverage, and over a long period an average of two men a night were taken out of the place, howling with delerium tremens.
Was there a real Johnny Camphene, and did he serve deadly libations? So far, only one bit of documentation has surfaced: an October 31, 1872 item from the Boston Herald describing a bar brawl involving featherweight bare-knuckle champion George Seddons:
The site of Tommy Larkin’s dive–the corner of Houston and Mercer Streets, matches the location mentioned by Frank Moss. Nothing is known about Larkin (a very common name in Lower Manhattan at the time) other than what appears above. There are no reports that Larkin served his customers toxic drinks. Note that his nickname was simply “Camphene,” without “Johnny.”