One colorful story comes from a place called Chumley’s, located at 86 Bedford St. in New York. During the Prohibition, police would commonly raid businesses that sold liquor. According to the story, when Chumley’s was about to get raided, the police would call ahead, telling the proprietor to 86 his customers, meaning to send them out the door on Bedford street that said the address, 86, because the cops were going to come in through the back entrance.
Another origin theory is also about Chymley’s. It talks about people who were too shitfaced, getting thrown out the door on Bedford St. As they were lying on their back in the road, they could see the street number 86 on Chumley’s door as it closed behind them!
There’s a theory that 86 was a 1930s restaurant code meaning the kitchen was out of a certain item. This code may have shifted, meaning the restaurant could do without certain customers as well! Another theory says that in the old west, tavern owners would swap out 86 proof whiskey to drunk cowboys, cutting them off from the more potent stuff they’d been drinking! Yet another idea is that certain bars could only serve 85 people at a time. If you were the 86th one to show up, you were denied entry!
The military has a few possible origins as well. Apparently, in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, article 86 is about soldiers being ‘Absent without Leave’ or AWOL. There’s also the story of many naval vessels being decommissioned, dismantled, sold and scrapped after WWII. The many codes for this process were called the AT codes. The code AT-6, sounding very much like the number eighty-six, was the code for parts designated for disposal!
Are any of these the true origin? Who’s to say!
Thanks for reading!