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 by Nelson Taylor
Succeeded by William R. Roberts
Member of the New York Senate
from the 4th district
In office
January 1, 1878 – May 1, 1878
Preceded by James W. Gerard
Succeeded by Thomas Murphy
Member of the New York Senate
from the 4th district
In office
January 1, 1876 – December 31, 1877
Preceded by John Fox
Succeeded by Edward Hogan
Personal details
Born (1831-02-12)February 12, 1831
Templemore, County Tipperary, Ireland
Died May 1, 1878(1878-05-01) (aged 47)
Troy, New York
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Susie Smith
Children John Morrissey, Jr
Occupation Boxer, Gang leader, and Politician

John Morrissey (February 12, 1831 – May 1, 1878), also known as Old Smoke, was an Irish American bare-knuckle boxer and a Dead Rabbits gang criminal leader in New York City in the 1850s and later became a Democratic State Senator and U.S. Congressman from New York, backed by Tammany Hall. Morrissey began his bare-knuckle boxing career after a confrontation with a man known only as "Chroel" who was notorious for troubling his fellow townsmen. Although Morrissey was on the bitter end of his first bare knuckle bout, his display of bravery and fortitude earned himself the respect and historical acknowledgment of his peers.

Early life[edit]

Morrissey was born in Templemore, County Tipperary, Ireland in 1831. In 1833 his parents emigrated to the United States and settled in Troy, New York.

Desperate to escape poverty, he worked as a cargo thief and also as a collection agent for Irish crime bosses in the area, and before he was 18, he had been indicted twice for burglary, once for assault and battery, and once for assault with intent to kill. Along with his criminal and ferocious fighting abilities, Morrissey also displayed driving ambition, teaching himself to read and write while working as a bouncer at a South Troy brothel. After spending two months in jail, Morrissey left Troy for New York City.

During a fight with a gang member named Tom McCann, Morrissey was 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. The event earned him the nickname "Old Smoke," which stuck with him through the rest of his life.

After two years in New York, Morrissey sailed to San Francisco, seeking fortune during the California Gold Rush. 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. He knocked out George Thompson in the 11th round, earning $5,000. This success encouraged him to return to New York to fight the American Champion, Yankee Sullivan.

The Boxing Champion[edit]

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, called 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. 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 Corner, 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, and was supposedly viewed by over 3,000 spectators. Sullivan dominated the match for most of the fight, but Morrissey held his own, and the tough Irishman would not quit, though his face became distorted and unrecognizable. In the 37th round, more than an hour after the start of the fight, Sullivan lost after he knocked out Morrissey. There was a dispute over the rules. Sullivan had left thinking he'd won but was disqualified.

Dead Rabbits leader[edit]

Morrissey became involved in Democratic politics in New York City and 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. In 1854, Morrissey was hired to prevent Poole and his gang from seizing ballot boxes and rigging an election. As a reward for having stopped the ballot rigging, Morrissey and his gang, the Dead Rabbits, were permitted by Tammany Hall to open a gambling house without police interference.

Two of Morrissey's friends, Lew Baker and Jim Turner, shot and fatally wounded Bill the Butcher at a saloon on Broadway in 1855, following Morrisey's loss to Poole in a boxing match eight months earlier. 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 at the insistence of his wife, and returned to Troy, New York. Morrissey's business ventures were unsuccessful, and he returned to boxing in 1858 to defend his championship in Long Point, Ontario, against fellow Troy, New York native John C. Heenan. The fight lasted 11 rounds, with Morrissey knocking out Heenan, for several minutes, to defend his title. Heenan claimed the title on Morrissey's retirement from boxing in 1859.


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. He also established "The Club House", a casino in Saratoga that attracted such notable guests as Chester A. Arthur, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and Mark Twain.


After his retirement from boxing, Morrissey focused his attention on gambling establishments, owning stake in 16 casinos at one point. In 1866, he ran for Congress with the backing of Tammany Hall and served two terms (1867–1871) in the House, in the 40th and 41st United States Congress. 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 declaring that 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, 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. The state closed all offices and flags were flown at half-mast. The entire State Senate attended his funeral in Troy, and 20,000 mourners lined the streets to pay their last respects. He was buried in St. Peter's Cemetery, just outside Troy. At the time of his death, Morrissey's estate was valued at more than $2 million.


In 1996 he was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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 John 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 Villanova University Library.

There are a number of other ballads written about Morrissey including "Morrissey and the Black", "Morrissey Again in the Field", and "The Fight at Boston Corners". Three of these are referenced in the book, Songs of England, Ireland and Scotland: A Bonnie Bunch of Roses by Dan Milner (Oak Publications).

One of his descendants is Joseph D. Morrissey, a Virginia politician, thespian and lawyer previously convicted and subjected to disciplinary sanctions.[1][2][3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Virginia State Bar - News - VSB Disciplinary Board to Hear Morrissey Reinstatement Petition on April 22, 2011". 2011-02-24. Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  2. ^ Peter Vieth, "VSB charges Morrissey with cover-up of tryst" Virgnia Lawyers Weekly August 7. 2017 at pp.2, 5
  3. ^


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