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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.

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)
Saratoga Springs, New York
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Susie Smith
ChildrenJohn Morrissey, Jr
OccupationBoxer, Gang leader, and Politician

Early lifeEdit

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.

Winning the heavyweight championshipEdit

John Morrissey as a boxer

It was during his time in California 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.

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.

Articles for the fight between Sullivan and Morrissey were signed on 1 September 1853.[10] The stake money was $1,000 a-side and it was specified that the new rules of the London Prize Ring would be applied. Morrissey went into training 2 days after signing the articles, Orville Gardner being selected as his trainer. The fight between Morrissey and Sullivan took place on 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. The fight continued until the 37th round, when a struggle between the fighters on the ropes developed into hostilities between Sullivan and Morrissey's seconds and a "general riot" when elements of the crowd broke into the ring.[10] The referee gave the decision to Morrissey, although it was not clear at the time why he made his verdict. One report said that it was because Sullivan had struck Morrissey with a "foul blow", [10] another stated it was because of a "foul blow" and "not coming to time",[11] whilst another stated that it was because Sullivan had stepped out of the ring before the referee had given his decision.[12] The fight had lasted 55 minutes.[11]

Morrissey did not escape legal retribution for the fight, however, as the Grand Jury of Berkshire County prepared a bill against him. When he surrendered to the court, he was fined $1,200.[13]

Murder of Bill PooleEdit

Bill Poole, nativist gang-leader was involved in a fatal rivalry with Morrissey

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 leader of the rival Bowery Boys, who were enforcers for the Know-Nothing Party, and a boxer.[14][15] On 8 August 1854, a fight was arranged between Poole and Morrissey at the corner of "West and Amos-street".[16] According to a newspaper report, after some sparring, Poole threw Morrissey to the ground and was on top of him in an instant "pounding, gouging, bucking and biting", forcing Morrissey to concede the fight to Poole.[16]

In February 1855, two of Morrissey's friends, Lew Baker and Jim Turner, shot and fatally wounded Bill the Butcher at Stanwix Hall, a saloon on Broadway.[17] Morrissey and Baker were indicted for the murder, but the charges were dropped after three trials resulting in hung juries.

Final prizefightEdit

Morrissey had apparently retired from prizefighting and had returned to Troy, New York. However, the appearance of fellow Troy, New York native John C. Heenan in New York in the fall of 1857 brought about a return to the ring.[18] Heenan, who had been in California, had earned the reputation of being a formidable fighting man among the followers of boxing.[19] In December 1857, Heenan appeared before a New York audience as part of a sparring exhibition.[19] In July 1858, a prizefight was arranged between Morrissey and Heenan, set for 20 October 1858, with the venue of the fight being specified as in Canada. The fight took place on the island of Long Point, Ontario.[18] In the days before the fight, Heenan had been troubled with a sore in his leg which interrupted his training.[20] According to one ringside observer, Heenan had the better of the first three rounds but then started to tire.[20] By the 11th and final round, Heenan was unable to defend himself and Morrissey struck a knockout blow, thereby retaining his title.[18] [21] Heenan claimed the title on Morrissey's retirement from boxing in 1859. Although this was Morrissey's last fight, he did not lose interest in prizefighting, and in the spring of 1860, he crossed the Atlantic to witness the fight between Heenan and English champion Tom Sayers.[22] Arriving in England on 26 March 1860, Morrissey visited the offices of the sporting newspaper, Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle. He not only placed a £600 on Sayers to win the fight, he also visited Sayers at his training quarters where he was said to have given the Englishman "valuable advice".[23] On his return to America towards the end of April 1860, Morrissey was able to spend a few hours at Queenstown, County Cork, waiting to go aboard the steamship. Here he attracted a "large circle of admirers" and was presented with a "handsome blackthorne stick, grown on the soil of Tipperary".[24]

Involvement in Gambling and the Saratoga RacetrackEdit

After his retirement from boxing, Morrissey focused his attention on gambling establishments, allegedly owning stakes in 16 casinos at one point. In August 1860, it was estimated that he was worth $200,000, "all of which he had gained at hazard".[25] 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.[26] 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.[27] The first races were held in August 1863.[28] 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,[29] 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,[30] and 20,000 mourners lined the streets to pay their last respects. He was buried in St. Peter's Cemetery, just outside Troy.

Boxing career recordEdit

3 Wins, No Losses, No Draws
Result Opponent Date Location Duration
Win George Thompson 1852-08-31 Mare Island, California 11 rounds
Win Yankee Sullivan 1853-10-12 Boston Corners, Massachusetts 37 rounds
Win John C. Heenan 1858-10-20 Long Point Island, Canada 11 rounds


In 1996 he was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the "Pioneer" category[31] 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 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.[32]

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.[33][34][35]

See alsoEdit


  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. ^ a b c "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. ^ a b "The prize fight between Morrissey and Sullivan". The Jackson Standard. 27 October 1853. p. 2. Retrieved 24 June 2019 – via Library of Congress.
  12. ^ "Prize fight between Sullivan and Morrissey". Daily Evening Star. 14 October 1853. p. 2. Retrieved 24 June 2019 – via Library of Congress.
  13. ^ "Morrissey's Trial". New York Clipper. 22 July 1854. Retrieved 2019-07-07 – via Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections.
  14. ^ Erickson, Hal (2017). Any Resemblance to Actual Persons: The Real People Behind 400+ Fictional Movie Characters. Jefferson: McFarland. p. 311. ISBN 9781476629308.
  15. ^ Burnett, Eric (2008). History Through Film: Volume 1. Raleigh, NC, USA: Lulu Press. p. 82. ISBN 9781435714823.
  16. ^ a b "Prize Fight in New York". The Lancaster Ledger. Library of Congress. 9 August 1854. p. 2. Retrieved 21 November 2018.
  17. ^ "Terrible encounter of pugilists". The New York herald. 26 February 1855. p. 1. Retrieved 20 November 2018 – via Library of Congress.
  18. ^ a b c "The Championship of America". New York Clipper. 30 October 1858. p. 222. Retrieved 9 October 2018.
  19. ^ a b "Sparring". New York Clipper. 19 December 1857. p. 274. Retrieved 2019-07-02 – via Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections.
  20. ^ a b Dowling, F (1860). The Championship of England. Being a Continuation of “Fights for the Championship.” To which is Added a Brief History of Tom Sayers and (J. C. Heenan) the Benicia Boy, and an Account of Their Chief Prize Battles. London: "Bell's Life"Office. pp. 74–80.
  21. ^ "The Great Prize Fight.MORRISSEY THE VICTOR, AND STILL THE"AMERICAN CHAMPION"". Springfield Weekly Republican.
  22. ^ Johnston, William Edward; Johnston, Robert Matteson (1907). Memoirs of "Malakoff" [pseud.] : being extracts from the correspondence of the late William Edward Johnston. London: Hutchinson. pp. 291–318.
  23. ^ "The Arrival of John Morrissey". The British Newspaper Archive. 1 April 1860. p. 6. Retrieved 22 July 2019 – via Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle.
  24. ^ "Morrissey, the american pugilist". Cork Examiner. 30 April 1860. p. 3. Retrieved 22 July 2019 – via The British Newspaper Archive.
  25. ^ "John Morrissey as a Sporting Man". New Orleans Daily Crescent. 1860-08-31. ISSN 2334-5802. Retrieved 2019-07-15.
  26. ^ "Losses of Gambling - A Caution". Chicago Daily Tribune. Library of Congress. 22 January 1862. p. 1. Retrieved 21 November 2018.
  27. ^ 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.
  28. ^ Hotaling, Edward (1995). They're Off!: Horse Racing at Saratoga. Syracuse University Press. pp. 41–50. ISBN 9780815603504.
  29. ^ "John Morrissey, the New York gambler". Delaware Gazette. 1866-11-09. p. 2. ISSN 2379-1454. Retrieved 2018-11-27.
  30. ^ "The funeral of John Morrissey". The Toledo Chronicle. 1878-05-09. p. 1. Retrieved 2019-01-31.
  31. ^ "John Morrissey". Retrieved 2019-03-08.
  32. ^ "Wayback Machine". 29 August 2006.
  33. ^ "Virginia State Bar to Hear Morrissey Reinstatement Petition on April 22, 2011". 2011-02-24. Retrieved 2011-11-02.
  34. ^ Peter Vieth, "VSB charges Morrissey with cover-up of tryst" Virgnia Lawyers Weekly August 7. 2017 at pp.2, 5
  35. ^ "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 linksEdit