The Short, Tragic Life of the Eight-Ball Jacket

Amazon
Amazon

After opening North Beach Leather in San Francisco in the late 1960s, designer Michael Hoban earned the business of Jimi Hendrix, Cher, and Mick Jagger; a late-stage, corpulent Elvis Presley asked for customized 40-inch-waist jumpsuits; Jackie Onassis placed orders. So did Eddie Murphy. Through word-of-mouth, North Beach became a beacon for leather lovers, who bought everything from sweaters to skirts.

Despite his star clientele, Hoban’s lasting contribution to fashion is a result of visiting a bowling alley—and being part of the wardrobe on Seinfeld.

The designer was at the lanes in 1986 when inspiration struck: Noticing the distinctive shoe sizes affixed to the back sides of bowling shoes, Hoban returned to work and designed a premium leather jacket that used the numerical stamp as a focal point for the shoulders and sleeves. Playing with the amusement motif, he also created sister designs featuring playing cards and dice.

The coats sold well, but Hoban didn’t achieve pop culture immortality until 1990, when he used the eight-ball—the final ball pocketed in a game of pool—to perfect the design. Almost immediately, ambitious young adults gravitated toward the subtext (they were winners), and the $775 jackets became a fixture in music videos and on television. Hoban was doing such brisk business that he saw no reason to give any away, with one exception: Arsenio Hall, who appeared on a hit television show that was construed as free advertising.

The jackets proved so popular that several murders and assaults were blamed on them in major metropolitan areas; New York City Mayor David Dinkins used some of the robberies as ammunition for his argument that crime was on the rise, petitioning for $1.8 billion to fund 9000 additional police officers. Some stores even refused to stock them, fearful it would make them a target for robberies.

Hoban was under siege in a different way: The success of the eight-ball jacket led to an endless parade of copycat manufacturers who could sell the design for less than $300 thanks to cheaper materials and overseas labor. He was aggressive in contesting the infringement, settling out of court with eight defendants and partnering with others for “approved” knock-offs.

Because of their popularity in retail and on MTV, It wasn’t long before the market was diluted and the coats lost their cache. By 1998, the jacket had atrophied to become a punchline on Seinfeld, where Elaine’s boyfriend, David Puddy, wore one. Like "The Puffy Shirt," it was clothing meant to shame everyone in its proximity.

North Beach closed its doors in 2002. Manufacturers like Stüssy still roll out the eight-ball design, sometimes affixing it to sneakers or T-shirts and knowing full well it’s being enjoyed ironically. Patrick Warburton, the actor who portrayed Puddy, lamented to the New York Post in 2010 that he failed to purchase his character's jacket when he had the chance.

“The wardrobe people said they’d sell it to me for $100,” he recalled. “I said, ‘You can keep it.’”

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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When a Long Island Housewife Handed Out Arsenic to Kids on Halloween

This Halloween procession in Massachusetts was poison-free.
This Halloween procession in Massachusetts was poison-free.
Douglas DeNatale, Lowell Folklife Project Collection, American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

On October 31, 1964, 13-year-old Elsie Drucker and her 15-year-old sister Irene returned to their Long Island home after an evening of trick-or-treating and dumped their spoils onto the table. Among the assortment of bite-sized sweets were two items that looked like bottle caps and bore the warning: “Poison. Keep away from children and animals.”

It wasn’t an ill-conceived, Halloween-themed marketing ploy—the tablets were “ant buttons,” which contained arsenic and could help rid a house of insects and other pests. They could also seriously threaten the life of any small child who accidentally swallowed one.

Alarmed, the girls’ father called the police.

A Criminally Bad Joke

The authorities notified the community, and people immediately began spreading the word and inspecting their own candy bags, unearthing another 19 ant buttons around town. Meanwhile, Elsie and Irene helped the police trace the toxic treats to 43 Salem Ridge Drive, where a 47-year-old housewife named Helen Pfeil lived with her husband and children.

Once other trick-or-treaters confirmed that Pfeil had indeed doled out the poison—and police discovered empty boxes of ant buttons in her kitchen—she was arrested. Fortunately, none of her would-be victims ingested any hazardous material, which meant that Pfeil was only charged with child endangerment. If convicted, however, she could still face prison time.

At her arraignment on November 2, Pfeil tried to explain to a baffled courtroom that she “didn’t mean it maliciously.” After having spent most of Halloween bestowing actual candy on costumed kids, Pfeil had started to feel like some of them should’ve already aged out of the activity.

“Aren’t you a little old to be trick-or-treating?” she had asked the Druckers, according to the New York Post.

So Pfeil had assembled unsavory packages of ant buttons, dog biscuits, and steel wool, and dropped those into the bags of anyone she deemed “a little old” to be trick-or-treating. She maintained that it was a joke, and her husband, Elmer, reiterated her claim to reporters at the courthouse. While she had been “terribly thoughtless and she may have used awfully bad judgment,” he said, she hadn’t planned to cause harm. Elmer himself wasn’t in on the scheme; at the time, he had been out trick-or-treating with their two sons—who, ironically, were both teenagers.

Her spouse may have been sympathetic, but Judge Victor Orgera was not. “It is hard for me to understand how any woman with sense or reason could give this to a child,” he said, and ordered her to spend 60 days in a psychiatric hospital.

Dumb, Not Dangerous

The following April, Pfeil went on trial in Riverhead, New York, and switched her plea from “Not guilty” to “Guilty” when proceedings were already underway. With about two months until her sentencing date—and the possibility of up to two years in prison looming overhead—Pfeil’s neighbors got busy writing character references to send to the judge.

Though Judge Thomas M. Stark was just as bewildered by Pfeil’s indiscretion as everyone else, the letters convinced him that she was not a danger to society, and he suspended her sentence. “I don’t understand why she had done such a stupid thing as this,” Stark said, “but I feel incarceration is not the answer.”

So Pfeil got off with nothing more than a guilty conscience, and Long Island teenagers continued to pound the pavement for Halloweens to come. But the misguided ruse did scare at least one child into giving it up forever: Little Elsie Drucker never went trick-or-treating again.