John Morrisey: a horse of a man
By Dave Hannigan
The story of how John Morrissey came by the nickname of ‘Old Smoke’ offers a glimpse of the life he led. During a brawl about the affections of a woman, Morrissey’s opponent Tom McCann pushed him down onto some burning coals and held him against them until his flesh began to sizzle.
His friends jumped to his assistance, poured cold water on the embers and he recovered enough to beat McCann senseless. Yet to turn 20, the legend of ‘Old Smoke’ was born.
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From July 25th, the attention of horseracing fans turns towards Saratoga for the opening day of a five-week long festival of thoroughbred racing. The centerpiece of the annual ritual will be the 132nd running of the Grade 11m Travers Stakes on Saturday, August 25th, the ‘mid-summer Derby’ where the top three year olds are tested over a mile and a quarter. A century and more after his death, this prestigious meet is the unique legacy of ‘Old Smoke’ to American sport.
Born in Templemore, County Tipperary on February 12th, 1831, Morrissey’s parents brought him to live in the town of Troy, New York three years later. In search of a better life, they handed their son his passport to an epic. By the time he died clutching a priest’s hand at the age of 47, his financing and construction of the Saratoga Racecourse would merit just a footnote in a rollicking obituary. A multi-faceted career that began inauspiciously as a child laborer in a cannonball foundry took in spells as hired thug, gold-miner, cat burglar, bare-knuckle fighter and esteemed politician.
Following a violent apprenticeship spent shaking down newly-arrived Irish emigrants at the New York piers, it was while running a gambling operation in California that Morrissey began his professional fighting career in earnest. After collecting $2,000 for a victory over George Thompson, he met Yankee Sullivan (a native of Bandon, County Cork whose real name was James Ambrose) in 1853 for the championship of America, an honor many considered the nearest thing to a legitimate world title at the time.
For 37 rounds, Sullivan, a far superior technician, pummeled Morrissey so bad that his nose would never recover its original shape. When battling supporters of both men spilled into the ring however, Sullivan failed to answer the bell for the start of the 38th in the required time and the referee awarded Morrissey a dubious victory.
Quickly parlaying his newfound fame into a certain type of prosperity, he opened a bar and a gambling parlor and gained renown as the promoter of cockfights. He also deepened his involvement in Tammany Hall politics, a vicious demi-monde where he could utilize his temper and physique to good effect.
As Morrissey and his wonderfully-named gang ‘The Dead Rabbits’ set about achieving hegemony in New York, only the timely interventions of well-connected friends kept him from serving jail time for a series of assaults and his role in masterminding the murder of William Poole, a political rival. For his part in facing down Poole’s anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant party, the Know-Nothings, he achieved mythic status within the Irish community.
Five years after his ‘defeat’ of Sullivan, Morrissey emerged from self-imposed retirement to fight John C. Heenan, the son of another Irish family in Troy. Again, Morrissey’s ability to absorb punches allowed him to stay in the ring with a more skilled opponent and when Heenan lost the use of his right hand after hitting it off a corner stake, ‘Old Smoke’ emerged victorious once more.
Unwilling to ride out what had already been a fortuitous boxing career any longer, he concentrated on his other interests from then on, quickly building a gambling empire around the card game ‘faro’. In 1861, he left the tumult of Manhattan behind and moved to the sleepy town of Saratoga, three hours away.
With $700,000 in cash, he underwent an image makeover, changing his ways to suit his new improved status and in the process, becoming a serious political force. He ran a plush, upscale casino called the Club House, which counted Civil War generals like Sherman and Grant among its regular clients, and was twice elected a Democratic member of the US Congress. His transformation was so complete that he eventually played a key role in bringing down Tammany Hall, the same political machine where he cut his teeth.
“As a politician, Morrissey maintained arms-length contact with the gangs, brothels, and saloons of his youth, though his personal manner had become quiet, even genteel,” writes Elliot J. Gorn in his fine book ‘The Manly Art; Bare-knuckle prize fighting in America.’
“Seeking not only power but respectability, he merged honor with expediency. Morrissey rode the rollercoaster of New York politics until he died, serving two terms in Congress and two in the State Senate. More important, his popularity with working men and his organizational skills made him a power broker in New York City politics. Most newspapers praised the former pugilist on his death, observing that he had transcended his rowdy youth to become a useful citizen, a man of shrewdness, rectitude, and generosity.”
Always conscious of his past though, Morrissey kept his own name off all official documents when opening Saratoga Racecourse in 1864. Reckoning that his checkered previous life might affect its chances of success, he appointed William Travers, a respected figure in the horse-breeding world, the venue’s first president and it is Travers who is commemorated in its flagship race every August. Still, close on 140 years after Morrissey had the wit, not only to build Saratoga but also to employ the new technology of the telegraph to facilitate off-course punters, his baby continues to thrive.
This year alone, up to one million spectators are expected to wager nearly $120m over the five weeks. Even if fifteen thousand watched Morrissey get buried in a graveyard in Troy, the gambler in ‘Old Smoke’ would surely consider that sort of betting at his own track the most fitting epitaph of all.