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 generally used to facilitate date rape. Unsuspecting women who visited saloons had to watch their beverages carefully, lest some creep add some knockout drops to their drink to incapacitate them.

Chloral hydrate is classified as a sedative and a hypnotic. It has legitimate uses and is still available today, with a prescription. In 1900, you could just walk into a drug store and buy a bottle. It’s most often used to treat insomnia. 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 because the drug was used with the intent to incapacitate and rob a man. 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, saw the group walk in and noticed 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 the soldier’s drink.

Bowers was reaching for the glass but quick as a flash, Golden intercepted the glass. He gave it 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.


Isaacs and his accomplice Charles Brady merely intended to rob Bowers. On January 31, 1901, Isaacs stood before Judge Cook and pleaded guilty. He sobbed and begged the judge for mercy.

Judge Cook watched Isaacs with some pity. “I feel sorry for the young man,” he said, “But I must make an example of him.” Isaacs was sentenced to five years in San Quentin State Prison. It was a comparatively easy sentence. Had he been found guilty by a jury, he faced a maximum of 10 years in prison.

Isaacs served about 3 1/2 years of his sentence, but he was unchastened in spirit. He 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?