Norman Selby, boxing in the middleweight and welterweight divisions as "Kid McCoy," lost only six fights in a 166-fight career at the turn of the twentieth century. By the time he retired at the age of 24 he’d made half a million dollars, often by cheating in the ring. He threw thumbtacks under the bare feet of one opponent and sprayed ammonia in the eyes of another. Once, fighting a deaf boxer, he pointed to the man’s corner, indicating that the round was over, and when the boxer turned, McCoy decked him.

McCoy said he arrived at his moniker The Real McCoy thus:

"I’m in a saloon with a charming young lady, as usual. A drunk is making passes at her. I try to brush him off without too much fuss. 'Beat it,’ I says, 'I’m Kid McCoy.’ He laughs and says, 'Yeah? Well I’m George Washington.’ I have to clip him a short one, and down he goes. He wakes up ten minutes later, rubs his jaw and says, 'Jeez, it was the real McCoy.'"

McCoy opened a club in New York with his earnings, but his short temper, saloon fights, and wandering eye soon cost him the club and his fortune. He was married eight times.

At the age of 51 he moved to Los Angeles where he played bit parts in movies—usually a bad guy—while he also worked as a security guard. Finally, on August 12, 1924, a drunken Kid McCoy killed his girlfriend, who happened to be married to an art and antiques dealer at the time .

After continuing to drink all night, McCoy decided to kill the husband too. He went to the husband’s shop, found the man to be out, and held eleven people hostage while he waited for his return. In the throes of a serious hangover, McCoy decided finally to go looking for a bit of the hair of the dog that bit him and was eventually shot and wounded by police after a chase through what is now MacArthur Park.

McCoy’s lawyer, the famous celebrity mouthpiece Jerry Giesler, got the conviction reduced to manslaughter and McCoy served eight years of a 24-year sentence. He was working on a prison chain gang one day near William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon mansion when an airplane crashed right in front of him. He helped save the injured pilot and was awarded an easier job—tour guide at San Quentin Penitentiary.

He was eventually pardoned after General Douglas MacArthur, actor Lionel Barrymore and others petitioned the governor on his behalf.

McCoy moved to Detroit in 1932 with his bride (his ninth wife), where he became "Athletic Director" for the Ford Motor Company. In 1935 he rescued several people whose boat had capsized on Lake Michigan.

In 1940, at the age of 66, Norman Selby AKA Kid McCoy committed suicide by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills. He left a note: "I can’t endure this world’s madness any longer."

In probably his most comfortable role—that of prison mentor and elder confidante— he had once warned a young convict:

"Remember that the bright lights go out the quickest. Kid McCoy knows."

"The Real McCoy" is such a popular, long-lived meme that it is very difficult to peg the exact origin. Two of the most popular suggested sources are the American boxer mentioned in riverrun's writeup and Canadian inventor Elijah McCoy. If you are displeased with the idea of linguistic drift (/memetic drift), then by all means, accept one of those sources. However be advised that you will be going against the Gospel According to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED believes that "the real McCoy" is an Americanisation1 of the Scottish phrase "the real MacKay" used in a letter by R.L. Stevenson in 1883. According to numerous Internet sources, he was appropriating the advertising slogan adopted by G. Mackay & Co. (a Edinburgh or Glasgow1 whisky distiller possibly established in 1856) in 1870. According to at least one source, Elijah McCoy didn't invent his oil dispenser till 1873.2

The two other reasonable sources I've read about are the The Hatfield and McCoy Family Feud and whisky smuggling during prohibition3. There are also a number of other theories that have not been reproduced, mostly involving product authenticity. It seems likely that this phrase was actually used in a number of contexts, reinforcing its popularity and obfuscating its origin.

1: The forementioned theories are probably the origin of the Americanisation but not the original source of the phrase.

2: Not a clear consensus. My searches for the company only return discussions of the topic of this node.

3: This is so close that it seems possible that the phrase was invented in two contexts simultaneously (like so many scientific discoveries). Clearly this issue requires an actual scholar's attention.

4: Warning: this entire writeup may be biased by the authors' fondness for stories of alcohol lore.

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