John Morrissey

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John Morrissey
John Morrissey (engraving circa 1860).jpg
John Morrissey, engraving, circa 1860
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 5th district
In office
March 4, 1867 – March 4, 1871
Preceded byNelson Taylor
Succeeded byWilliam R. Roberts
Member of the New York Senate
from the 4th district
In office
January 1, 1878 – May 1, 1878
Preceded byJames W. Gerard
Succeeded byThomas Murphy
Member of the New York Senate
from the 4th district
In office
January 1, 1876 – December 31, 1877
Preceded byJohn Fox
Succeeded byEdward Hogan
Personal details
Born(1831-02-12)February 12, 1831
Templemore, County Tipperary, Ireland
DiedMay 1, 1878(1878-05-01) (aged 47)
Troy, New York
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Susie Smith
ChildrenJohn Morrissey, Jr
OccupationBoxer, Gang leader, and Politician

John Morrissey (February 12, 1831 – May 1, 1878), also known as Old Smoke, was an Irish-born American, whose parents moved to New York State when he was a young child. In the early 1850s he went to San Francisco at the time of the California Gold Rush. In California he became a bare-knuckle boxer and on his return to New York, he challenged and defeated "Yankee Sullivan", who was then recognized as the American boxing champion. He became a professional gambler, owning gambling houses in New York City in the 1850s and 1860s. He became a U.S. Congressman from New York, between 1867–1871, backed by Tammany Hall. However, he later fell out with the Tammany Hall political machine and became Democratic State Senator for New York between 1876 and 1878, running as an anti-Tammany candidate.

Early life[edit]

Morrissey was born in Templemore, County Tipperary, Ireland on February 12, 1831.[1] Around 1833 his parents emigrated to the United States and settled in or near Troy, New York. According to a newspaper obituary, Morrissey's father, Timothy, worked as a labourer to support his large family, having 7 daughters to support in addition to his only son, John.[2] The same source states that after little formal education, Morrissey started work at the age of 12 in a wall-paper factory. He subsequently worked at an iron-works and a stove foundry.[2] By 1848, Morrissey was taking a leading part in factional fighting in Troy between the "Down-Town" and "Up-Town" gangs.[2] Morrissey reportedly became the "king-pin" of the faction "hailing from the lower part of the city" and was involved in fighting the rival group's leader, Jack O'Rourke as well as "most of the up-town" mob.[3]

Morrissey moved to New York City in 1848, becoming a deck-hand on a steamer running between Albany and New York.[3] He married the daughter of a ship's captain, Sarah Smith, around 1849.[1][4] It was during his time in New York that he is said to acquired his nickname, "Old Smoke" as a result of a fight.[5] According to one story, during a fight with Thomas McCann, a noted rough-and-tumble fighter, Morrissey was said to have been pinned on his back atop burning coals from a stove that had been overturned. Morrissey endured the pain as his flesh burned, fought off McCann, and got back on his feet. Enraged, Morrissey beat McCann senseless as smoke from his burning flesh rose up from his back.[6] The event earned him the nickname "Old Smoke", which stuck with him through the rest of his life.

In 1851 Morrissey sailed to San Francisco, seeking fortune during the California Gold Rush.[7] While he didn't have any luck in that endeavor, Morrissey became a renowned gambler and made a fortune winning gold from prospectors. It was also during this time that Morrissey appeared for the first time in a professional prizefighting ring. On 31 August 1852 he defeated George Thompson at Mare Island, California in the 11th round, earning $5,000.[7][8] This success encouraged him to return to New York to fight the American Champion, Yankee Sullivan.

The Boxing Champion[edit]

John Morrissey as a boxer

Morrissey returned to New York and challenged Sullivan repeatedly until the latter finally agreed. Due to the violent nature of the sport, boxing was illegal in most places during the 1850s. The first boxing rules, which were developed in the 19th century into the London Prize Ring Rules, were introduced by heavyweight champion Jack Broughton in 1743 to protect fighters in the ring where deaths sometimes occurred. Under these rules, if a man went down and could not continue after a count of 30 seconds, the fight was over. Hitting a downed fighter and grasping below the waist were prohibited.[9] Fights usually lasted for 20-30 rounds. Rounds continued until one fighter touched the ground with his knee, or simply fell down.

The fight between Morrissey and Sullivan was scheduled for October 12, 1853, in the hamlet of Boston Corners, which was then in Massachusetts, but out of reach of its authorities, and thus a good location for the illegal match. The fight took place in a field, reportedly viewed by over 3,000 spectators. Sullivan dominated the match for most of the fight, but Morrissey held his own. In the 37th round, more than an hour after the start of the fight, Sullivan lost after he was adjudged to have struck Morrissey with a "foul blow".[10] There was a dispute over the rules. Sullivan had left thinking he had won but was disqualified.[why?]

Murder of Bill Poole[edit]

Morrissey became involved in Democratic politics in New York City and developed a rivalry with William Poole, also known as "Bill the Butcher". Poole was an enforcer for the Know-Nothing Party, leader of the Bowery Boys, and a boxer.[11][12] Two of Morrissey's friends, Lew Baker and Jim Turner, shot and fatally wounded Bill the Butcher at Stanwix Hall, a saloon on Broadway, in February 1855, following Morrissey's loss to Poole in a boxing match eight months earlier.[13][14] Morrissey and Baker were indicted for the murder, but the charges were dropped after three trials resulting in hung juries.

Morrissey then retired from boxing and returned to Troy, New York. He returned to boxing in 1858 to defend his championship in Long Point, Ontario, Canada against fellow Troy, New York native John C. Heenan. The fight lasted 11 rounds, with Morrissey knocking out Heenan to defend his title.[15] [16] Heenan claimed the title on Morrissey's retirement from boxing in 1859.

Involvement in Gambling and the Saratoga Racetrack[edit]

After his retirement from boxing, Morrissey focused his attention on gambling establishments, allegedly owning stakes in 16 casinos at one point. In 1862, a police raid on one of his gambling establishments in New York revealed that the house had made over £2000 in December 1861.[17] After establishing a successful gaming house in Saratoga Springs, New York, Morrissey created the Saratoga Race Course with the help of William R. Travers, John R. Hunter and Leonard Jerome.[18] The first races were held in August 1863.[19] He also established "The Club House", a casino in Saratoga that attracted such notable guests as Chester A. Arthur, Rutherford B. Hayes, Ulysses S. Grant, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and Mark Twain.


In 1866, Morrissey ran for Congress with the backing of Tammany Hall. Despite his political rivals pointing out his numerous indictments and some convictions for various crimes,[20] he became a Congressman and served two terms (1867–1871) in the House, in the 40th and 41st United States Congress.[4] As a Congressman, he always looked out for the interests of the Irish, and was known to use strong-arm tactics to accomplish his legislative goals, at one point allegedly declaring he could "lick any man in the House".

He eventually grew tired of the rampant corruption in Tammany Hall and left the House after his second term. Morrissey eventually testified against William Tweed, which helped put the latter in prison. He was elected as an Anti-Tammany Democrat to the New York State Senate in 1875 and was re-elected in 1877,[4] sitting in the 99th, 100th and 101st New York State Legislatures.

Morrissey contracted pneumonia and died on May 1, 1878 at the age of 47.[2] The state closed all offices and flags were flown at half-mast. The entire State Senate attended his funeral in Troy, held on 4 May 1878,[21] and 20,000 mourners lined the streets to pay their last respects. He was buried in St. Peter's Cemetery, just outside Troy.


In 1996 he was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the "Pioneer" category[22] Morrissey was featured on a portion of the History Channel documentary, Paddy Whacked, The History of the Irish Mob as the first Irish mob boss in American history.

Prizefighter "Johnny Morrissey" is the hero in a popular Irish ballad called "Morrissey and the Russian Sailor". Although the ballad has several variations, most versions include some phrases that connect the song's hero with the historical Morrissey: his Irish birthplace in Templemore, County Tipperary; his status as a champion fighter, signified by a prize belt; his defeat of Thompson/Thomson[who?] and of 'the Yankee', among others. The main story in the ballad, however — a prizefight against a Russian sailor in Tierra del Fuego, however, does not seem to be historically documented. One version of the song was printed as a broadsheet by E.C. Yeats's Cuala Press in 1911; a digitized image of it has been posted by the Villanova University Library.[23]

Joseph D. Morrissey, a Virginia politician, has claimed to be a descendant of John Morrissey, but cannot be a linear descendant as John Morrissey apparently had only one child, a son, who did not marry and died young.[24][25][26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Carlisle, Rodney P. Morrissey, John (1831-1878), gambler, prizefighter, and U.S. congressman. American National Biography Online. Oxford University Press.
  2. ^ a b c d "John Morrissey". Chicago Daily Tribune. 1878-05-03. p. 7. ISSN 2572-9985. Retrieved 2019-01-21.
  3. ^ a b "Death of John Morrissey". New York Clipper. 1878-05-11. Retrieved 2019-03-12 – via Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections.
  4. ^ a b c "MORRISSEY, John (1831-1878)". US Congress. Retrieved 2018-09-24.
  5. ^ "Senator Morrissey Dead". The Sun. 1878-05-02. p. 1. ISSN 1940-7831. Retrieved 2019-01-22.
  6. ^ Nicholson, James C. (2016-03-25). The Notorious John Morrissey: How a Bare-Knuckle Brawler Became a Congressman and Founded Saratoga Race Course. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. p. 14. ISBN 9780813167527.
  7. ^ a b "Rambler follows story of Morrissey to West Coast scenes". Evening Star. 3 October 1926. p. 3. Retrieved 29 November 2018 – via Library of Congress.
  8. ^ "Morrissey rose from boxer to Congessman". The Bridgeport Evening Farmer. 31 August 1917. p. 4. Retrieved 29 November 2018 – via Library of Congress.
  9. ^ Henning, Fred W. J (1902). Fights for the championship : the men and their times. 1. London: Licensed Victuallers' Gazette. pp. 32–33. Retrieved 28 January 2019.
  10. ^ "Full particulars of the great fight between Morrisey and Sullivan". New York Clipper. 15 October 1853. Retrieved 21 September 2018 – via Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection.
  11. ^ Erickson, Hal (2017). Any Resemblance to Actual Persons: The Real People Behind 400+ Fictional Movie Characters. Jefferson: McFarland. p. 311. ISBN 9781476629308.
  12. ^ Burnett, Eric (2008). History Through Film: Volume 1. Raleigh, NC, USA: Lulu Press. p. 82. ISBN 9781435714823.
  13. ^ "Prize Fight in New York". The Lancaster Ledger. Library of Congress. 9 August 1854. p. 2. Retrieved 21 November 2018.
  14. ^ "Terrible encounter of pugilists". The New York herald. 26 February 1855. p. 1. Retrieved 20 November 2018 – via Library of Congress.
  15. ^ "The Championship of America". New York Clipper. 30 October 1858. p. 222. Retrieved 9 October 2018.
  16. ^ "The Great Prize Fight.MORRISSEY THE VICTOR, AND STILL THE"AMERICAN CHAMPION"". Springfield Weekly Republican.
  17. ^ "Losses of Gambling - A Caution". Chicago Daily Tribune. Library of Congress. 22 January 1862. p. 1. Retrieved 21 November 2018.
  18. ^ Nicholson, James C. (2016-03-25). The Notorious John Morrissey: How a Bare-Knuckle Brawler Became a Congressman and Founded Saratoga Race Course. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. pp. 61–84. ISBN 9780813167527.
  19. ^ Hotaling, Edward (1995). They're Off!: Horse Racing at Saratoga. Syracuse University Press. pp. 41–50. ISBN 9780815603504.
  20. ^ "John Morrissey, the New York gambler". Delaware Gazette. 1866-11-09. p. 2. ISSN 2379-1454. Retrieved 2018-11-27.
  21. ^ "The funeral of John Morrissey". The Toledo Chronicle. 1878-05-09. p. 1. Retrieved 2019-01-31.
  22. ^ "John Morrissey". Retrieved 2019-03-08.
  23. ^ "Wayback Machine". 29 August 2006.
  24. ^ "Virginia State Bar to Hear Morrissey Reinstatement Petition on April 22, 2011". 2011-02-24. Retrieved 2011-11-02.
  25. ^ Peter Vieth, "VSB charges Morrissey with cover-up of tryst" Virgnia Lawyers Weekly August 7. 2017 at pp.2, 5
  26. ^ "Irregular Joe: A pugnacious Virginia pol lands in hot water". July 11, 2014. Retrieved December 27, 2017.


  • Charlton T. Lewis (ed.), Harper's Book of Facts, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1906
  • Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York, Arrow, New edition 2003, ISBN 978-0099436744
  • John C. Kofoed, Brandy For Heroes: A Biography Of The Honorable John Morrissey, Champion Heavyweight Of America And State Senator, Literary Licensing, LLC, 2011, ISBN 978-1258167691
  • Brien Bouyea, "The Legend of Old Smoke", a newspaper article appearing in the Troy Record.
  • Brien Bouyea, "Bare Knuckles and Saratoga Racing: The Remarkable Life of John Morrissey" Charleston, South Carolina [The History Press], 2016

External links[edit]

Sporting positions
Preceded by
Yankee Sullivan
Heavyweight boxing champion
Succeeded by
John Carmel Heenan
U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Nelson Taylor
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 5th congressional district

Succeeded by
William R. Roberts
New York State Senate
Preceded by
John Fox
New York State Senate
4th District

Succeeded by
Edward Hogan
Preceded by
James W. Gerard
New York State Senate
7th District

Succeeded by
Thomas Murphy