Arts Entertainments

American Mobsters – John Morrissey (Old Smoke)

Johnny Morrissey started out as a feared bare-knuckle boxer, but later became a gang member and leg-breaker for Tammany Hall politicians.

Morrissey was born in Templemore, County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1831. The famous potato famine was in his infancy, but his parents saw the writing on the wall. They emigrated to the United States in 1833, settling in Troy, New York. Uneducated but good with his fists, Morrissey was relegated to working as a collection agent for local Irish crime bosses. While working as a doorman in a Troy brothel, Morrissey taught himself to read and write. Realizing that his future was limited to Troy, Morrissey made the short trip to New York City. There he made a name for himself as a tough thug fighting often in various bars and piers, just for sport.

One day he got into an impromptu fight with Tom McCann, in the indoor gun gallery below the St. Charles Hotel. McCann was getting the better of Morrissey, when a powerful punch sent Morrissey onto the embers of a hot stove, which had been overturned. Morrissey’s clothing and flesh were badly burned, and with smoke billowing from his behind, he leaped forward and pummeled McCann senseless. Hence the nickname “Old Smoke”.

After winning a few more battles in and out of the ring, Morrissey challenged world champion Yankee Sullivan for the world title. The fight took place on October 12, 1853, in Boston Corners, on the border of Massachusetts and New York. Morrissey was beaten throughout the fight, but won via disqualification in the 37th round, when Sullivan punched him while he was down.

Buoyed by his newfound pugilistic fame and now a member of the Dead Rabbits, a feared street gang, Morrissey is hired by Tammany Hall to protect the polling places from the Bowery Boy gang, led by Butcher Bill Poole. Poole and his friends terrorized polling places on election days for the Know-Nothing or Native American political party. On Election Day 1854, Poole announced that he and thirty of his Bowery Boys were on their way to a certain local election place to destroy the ballot boxes. Tammany Hall asked Morrissey to protect his interests, and together with John A. Kennedy, who would later become the New York City Police Superintendent, they formed a gang of over fifty Dead Rabbits. They and waited at the polling place for Poole’s arrival.

A man of his word, Poole arrived at the polling place and he and his gang entered, looking to do as much damage as possible. Immediately, Poole realized that Morrissey and the Dead Rabbits outnumbered his group. Poole places Morrissey in the center of the room, and after glaring at each other for a few moments, without saying a word, Poole abruptly turned and left, taking his gang with him. Tammany Hall was so overjoyed by Morrissey’s heroism that they gave him a free gambling den, under the protection of the police, of course.

In 1855, Morrissey turned Poole into a bare-knuckle fight on a wharf near Christopher Street. Poole agreed, but instead of fighting with his fist, Poole tried to smash Morrissey to death, which he almost did. A few months later, Poole was shot and killed by Morrissey’s close friend, Lew Baker, at Stanwix Hall, a bar on Broadway near Prince Street. Both Baker and Morrissey were arrested for Poole’s murder, but after three mistrials (Tammany Hall was rumored to have swayed some jurors in favor of Morrissey and Baker), charges were eventually dropped.

In 1857, after retiring from boxing, Morrissey opened 16 gambling houses, including an exceptionally profitable one in Sarasota Springs. With the endorsement of Tammany Hall, he was elected United States Congressman from New York from 1867 to 1871. In 1873, tired of Tammany Hall’s illegal tactics, second only to the illegal tactics Morrissey employed in Congress, Morrissey testified against Tammany Hall boss Boss Tweed. Tweed was convicted and sent to prison, where he subsequently died. As a reward for his service to his country, Morrissey was elected to the New York State Senate in 1875. He was still a senator when he died of pneumonia in 1878, at the age of 47.

In 1999, Morrissey, also known as “Old Smoke”, was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.