A Warning to Knock-Out Men

In 1900, chloral hydrate poisoning was becoming endemic in large cities in the United States. More commonly known at the time by its street name, “knockout drops”, the drug was  were generally used to facilitate date rape. Unsuspecting women who visited saloons had to watch their drinks carefully, lest some creep add some knockout drops to their drink to incapacitate them.

Chloral hydrate is classified as a sedative and a hypnotic, and it has legitimate uses. In 1900, you could just walk into a drug store and buy a bottle. In 1900, it was used to alleviate cramps and insomnia.  It’s still available today, with a prescription. Chloral isn’t as widely used as many other drugs for the same indication – it’s a tricky substance. The effective dose is close to a fatal dose, and many deaths have been attributed to it. Chloral hydrate was one of the key factors in Marilyn Monroe’s death. It was also one of the 11 prescription drugs found in Anna Nicole’s system when she died.

This story is a bit atypical. On the evening of Thursday, November 15, 1900, three young men walked into Cohen & Lowenthal’s Saloon, on Third Street in San Francisco (across the street from present-day Yerba Buena Center for the Arts). Two of the men, Herman Isaacs and Charles Brady, were friendly with each other. The third man was a soldier named Frank Bowers.

The bartender, John Golden, noticed the group walk in and saw Bowers was fairly intoxicated before he even ordered a drink. A few minutes later, Herman Isaacs sat down next to the soldier. While Bowers was turned in his seat, Isaacs drew a small vial from his pocket and poured the substance into his comrade’s drink.

Bowers was reaching for the glass, but quick as a flash, Golden intercepted the glass. He gave it later to the police, who sent it off for analysis. When the results came back, it was plain that Golden’s quick thinking had saved Bowers’ life. There was easily enough chloral in the glass to kill a man.

The motive, apparently, was money. Isaacs and his accomplice Charles Brady merely intended to rob Bowers. On January 31, 1901, Isaacs stood before Judge Cook and pleaded guilty. He pleaded guilty to the charges against him and begged for mercy. He sobbed that he was sorry.

The judge watched Isaacs with some pity. “I feel sorry for the young man,” he said, “But I must make an example of him.” Had Isaacs pleaded Not Guilty and been found guilty by a jury, he faced a maximum of 10 years in prison. Judge Cook gave Isaacs 5 years in San Quentin prison.

Isaacs served about 3 1/2 years in San Quentin, but he was unchastened in spirit. AfterHe later did time in Folsom Prison and Tarrant County Jail in Texas. In 1911, he managed to escape, and a $75 reward was offered for his capture and return.

Herman Isaacs was surprisingly handsome, even when posing for his San Quentin mugshot. He looks a little like Elvis, doesn’t he?

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