American Gangsters – John Morrissey (Old Smoke)

Johnny Morrissey started out as a dreaded bare-knuckled boxer, but later became a gang member and broke legs for the Tammany Hall politicians.

Morrissey was born in Templemore, County Tipperary, Ireland in 1831. The famous potato famine was in its infancy, but his parents saw the writing on the wall. They immigrated to the United States in 1833 and settled in Troy, New York. Unpolite, but good with his fists, Morrissey was relegated to working as a collection agent for local Irish crime bosses. While working as a janitor at a Troy brothel, Morrissey taught himself to read and write. Realizing that his future was limited in Troy, Morrissey made the short trip to New York City. There he made a name for himself as a badass hooligan who often fought in various bars and docks, just for sport.

One day he got into an impromptu fight with Tom McCann, in the indoor gun gallery of the St. Charles Hotel. McCann was getting the better of Morrissey when a powerful blow pushed Morrissey over the embers of a hot stove, which had been overturned. Morrissey’s clothing and flesh were badly burned, and with smoke billowing from his butt, he leapt forward and struck 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 hit throughout the fight, but won by disqualification in round 37, when Sullivan hit him while he was on the ground.

Encouraged by his newfound fist fame and now a member of Dead Rabbits, a feared street gang, Morrissey was hired by Tammany Hall to protect polling places from the Bowery Boy gang, led by Butcher Bill Poole. Poole and his friends terrorized the polls on election days in favor of the Native American political party, or Know-Nothing. On Election Day 1854, Poole announced that he and thirty of his Bowery Boys were heading to a certain local polling place to destroy the ballot boxes. Tammany Hall asked Morrissey to protect their interests, and together with John A. Kennedy, who later became the New York City Police Superintendent, they formed a gang of more than fifty dead rabbits. They and waited at the polling place for Poole to arrive.

A man of his word, Poole arrived at the polling place and he and his gang entered, seeking to do as much damage as possible. Poole immediately realized that Morrissey and the dead rabbits outnumbered his group. Poole met Morrissey in the center of the room, and after looking menacingly 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 happy about Morrissey’s heroics that they gave him a free gambling house, under the protection of the police, of course.

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

In 1857, after retiring from boxing, Morrissey opened 16 gambling dens, including an exceptionally profitable one in Sarasota Springs. With the backing 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, which were only surpassed by the illegal tactics Morrissey employed in Congress, Morrissey testified against Tammany Hall boss Boss Tweed. Tweed was convicted and sent to prison, where he later 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.