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Of all the longshots that have achieved unlikely glory in the storied history of thoroughbred racing in the Spa City, perhaps there is no greater rags-to-riches odyssey than that of the founding father of Saratoga Race Course, the remarkable John Morrissey.
Morrissey was many things during his turbulent and triumphant life. In his early years, he was an illiterate street brawler, gang member, cargo thief, brothel bouncer, and low-level political enforcer. He eventually parlayed the power in his sledgehammer fists into riches and fame as the undefeated American heavyweight boxing champion.
Striving to become more than a bare-knuckle barbarian, the uneducated Morrissey taught himself to read and write. He then found success as the owner and operator of numerous gambling establishments in New York City. Finally, he became one of the most improbable politicians in American history, serving with distinction in both the United States Congress and the New York state Senate.
And somehow Morrissey also found the time to orchestrate the inaugural thoroughbred racing meet in Saratoga Springs at the age of 32, build one of the sport’s most iconic venues a year later, and preside over it with an iron first to make sure that his endeavor would thrive. With his fists, Morrissey became a legendary gladiator who was capable of bashing the skull of anyone who got in his way. With his ambition, intelligence, and entrepreneurial vision, he established a tradition of thoroughbred racing excellence that remains the standard of the sport almost 150 years later.
John Morrissey was born on Feb. 5, 1831, in Templemore, County Tipperary, Ireland. His family arrived in America three years later, seeking to escape the poverty and famine that ravaged Ireland. They settled in Troy, but life wasn’t much different than in Templemore. Morrissey's father, Tim, worked odd jobs along the docks of the Hudson River for meager wages. While his father struggled to keep the family afloat financially, young John Morrissey was busy developing a reputation with the local authorities as a menace to society.
By the time he was 18, Morrissey stood six feet tall and weighed a chiseled 175 pounds, measurements that were uncommon for the time. He was an intimidating figure with a propensity for violence.
As a teenager, Morrissey worked as a cargo thief and collection agent for the Irish crime lords in Troy. He also taught himself to read and write during this time. After spending two months in an Albany penitentiary for burglary and assault with intent to kill just before his 18th birthday, Morrissey set out for New York City, the great metropolis 160 miles to the south where immigrants were arriving in droves.
In New York, Morrissey quickly earned the moniker “Old Smoke,” which stuck with him throughout his life. The nickname was a badge of honor, a testament to Morrissey’s unbreakable will and phenomenal courage. During a fight with an underworld goon named Tom McCann at an indoor pistol gallery, Morrissey was pinned on his back atop burning coals from a stove that had overturned during the melee. As the glowing coals burned his flesh, Morrissey hurled McCann across the room and rose to his feet.
As flames, black smoke, and the scent of his scorched skin filled the air, an enraged Morrissey proceeded to thrash McCann until his face was a dreadful sight, almost killing him in the process. Word of his exploits quickly made the rounds and Morrissey became one of the most feared men in New York. Old Smoke was a force to be reckoned with in the big city.
Morrissey decided to venture to California with hopes of making a fortune at the height of the gold rush. In his travels on the West Coast, Morrissey became a renowned gambler and set up several lucrative faro dens (faro was a popular card game of the time). He was skilled on the gaming tables and acquired a sizeable bankroll by bilking prospectors of their gold. Morrissey also won his professional boxing debut while in California, and began to believe he could defeat any fighter in the country, including the American champion, Yankee Sullivan.
Sullivan agreed to step into the ring with Old Smoke on Oct. 12, 1853. The fighters traveled to the tiny village of Boston Corners to determine American fistic supremacy. Nestled in the Taconic Hills, Boston Corners bordered New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. It was difficult for police to navigate through the hills to reach the village, making it an ideal location for the clandestine affair. Boxing, although wildly popular, was illegal at the time.
A simple ring of four posts and rope was set up in a field. People climbed trees to seek out the best possible vantage point to view the historic event. More than 5,000 people were in attendance, an incredible number for a contest that was supposed to be shrouded in secrecy to avoid any entanglements with the authorities.
Morrissey and Sullivan engaged in a bloody battle for the ages. The 22-year-old Morrissey, a heavy betting favorite, was much bigger and stronger than the 40-year-old Sullivan. But as the saying goes, styles make fights. Although Sullivan was only 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds, the champion was a mean and dirty pugilist who knew every trick in the book. Sullivan used his ring savvy to abuse the youthful challenger for much of the fight. While Morrissey had hoped for a street brawl, Sullivan resisted the urge of going toe-to-toe and gained the upper hand by sticking and moving.
Sullivan, however, could not put the stubborn Morrissey away. As the rounds progressed, Morrissey’s incredible will and stamina began to turn the tide. In the 37th round, Morrissey seized control. He pummeled Sullivan with a dozen consecutive blows and was on the verge of finishing the champ off when a riot broke out among the drunken spectators at ringside. The referee awarded the fight — and the American championship — to Morrissey.
Old Smoke became a national celebrity and was idolized by the huge immigrant population, especially the Irish. He became immersed in New York’s seedy political scene and developed a deadly rivalry with feared gang leader Bill “The Butcher” Poole, a political enforcer for the infamous Know-Nothing Party (so dubbed because its members answered all questions about the movement with the phrase “I know nothing”).
Poole and his men bitterly opposed Irish-Catholic immigrants because they were cheap laborers competing for jobs the natives had traditionally held. Loathing the politicians who pandered for the immigrant vote, Poole and his men planned to seize the ballot boxes and rig a city election in 1854.
Some honest citizens, knowing the police would not enforce the election law, retained Morrissey to assure the results would be legitimate. Before the polls opened, Morrissey stationed more than 50 members of his gang, the Dead Rabbits, in the building where the ballots were kept.
In his book “The Gangs of New York,” Herbert Asbury wrote that “Morrissey let it be known that there would be no adverse criticism if Poole’s bullies were maimed, and that ears and noses would be highly regarded as souvenirs of an interesting occasion.”
Poole and his men attempted to storm the building, but upon observing Morrissey and his blood-thirsty welcoming party, Poole realized he was considerably outnumbered and wisely decided to retreat. Morrissey’s reputation was further enhanced. The powerful Tammany Hall political machine, which benefited from Morrissey’s muscle, permitted him to open several gambling houses without any police interference. One of Morrissey’s associates later murdered Poole. Although he was suspected of masterminding the hit, Morrissey was never convicted.
Calls for Morrissey to defend his boxing title became rampant as a great young challenger began to emerge.
“I shall have to fight to vindicate my character for honor and manhood, and to relieve myself from the persecution and assaults of my foes,” Morrissey said in 1858.
The top contender for Morrissey’s championship was 23-year-old John Camel Heenan, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound physical marvel who, like Morrissey, grew up on the streets of Troy. Morrissey and Heenan agreed to slug it out on Oct. 20, 1858, at Long Point, Canada, just across the border from Buffalo.
Knowing it would be his most challenging fight, Morrissey poured his heart and soul into his training. He was lauded by writers as being in the best physical condition of his life. Contemporary accounts said Morrissey was “a magnificent animal” and “one of the most splendid specimens of human development we have witnessed.”
The bigger and younger Heenan was a slight betting favorite and overpowered the 27-year-old Morrissey early in the contest. In fact, Heenan hit Morrissey with such force and frequency that one writer noted “Heenan would have knocked out any man in the United States — except Morrissey.”
Old Smoke, however, weathered the storm and began to clobber Heenan. Morrissey grew stronger as the rounds progressed, while Heenan faded badly. Morrissey ended the encounter with a vicious knockout in the 11th round, inflicting so much damage that Heenan was crumpled up in the dirt completely motionless for several minutes. Morrissey retired from the ring after successfully defending his championship, leaving the sport at the peak of his physical skills.
John Morrissey; photo courtesy of the National Museum of Racing
After establishing a popular gaming house in Saratoga in 1861, Morrissey contemplated other ways to increase his wealth and stature even more. The most popular sport in the country at the time was horse racing, so Morrissey set up a four-day experimental thoroughbred meeting at the Saratoga Trotting Course in August of 1863. The track was the site of Lady Suffolk’s famous victory over Moscow in Saratoga’s first official race, a harness event, in 1847. Similar to his other undertakings, Morrissey found a way to make thoroughbred racing in Saratoga a striking success.
Just one month before Morrissey’s inaugural Saratoga meeting, Union soldiers won two of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, respectively. To secure victory, the Union requisitioned every healthy horse it could find. Morrissey, meanwhile, somehow managed to convince several wealthy sportsmen to support racing at Saratoga. While war raged elsewhere, Morrissey rounded up 26 quality thoroughbreds to run at the old trotting grounds.
On what was described as a “shimmering summer day” by an old newspaper account, thousands of spectators witnessed a 3-year-old filly named Lizzie W. with a one-eyed jockey in the irons defeat a colt named Captain Moore in a series of one-mile heats in the first official thoroughbred race at Saratoga.
The date was Aug. 3, 1863.
As a result of Morrissey’s ambition and resolve, thoroughbred racing had arrived at Saratoga. There were only eight races in the four-day meeting that summer, but the foundation for future success was in place. John Morrissey had delivered another winner.
The first organized races at Saratoga were so successful that Morrissey enlisted three partners — sportsmen William Travers, Leonard Jerome, and William Hunter — and financed construction of a grand racecourse across the street from the original track. Morrissey purchased 125 acres of land, and in 1864 Saratoga Race Course opened its gates for the first time. Morrissey described his new track as “the most classic racecourse in this country, located among the pines, beautiful to the eye and rejuvenating to the horse.”
The new track was a resounding success, but Morrissey didn’t sit back and rest on his laurels. He opened his Club House in 1870, a gambling palace in Congress Park that attracted individuals from all walks of life. The first floor was open to the public and offered faro and roulette, while the second floor was much more discriminating, accessible only to the rich and famous with deep pockets.
Morrissey’s “Elegant Hell,” as it was dubbed, attracted all sorts of characters, including presidents Chester A. Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes, and future president Ulysses S. Grant, who was a celebrated former Civil War general at the time. Business tycoons such as Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and John Rockefeller were also among Morrissey’s guests, as was a young writer named Samuel Clemens, who later became better known as Mark Twain.
With his fighting days behind him and his business interests flourishing, Morrissey set his sights on the political arena. Tammany Hall backed Old Smoke in a successful run for the U.S. Congress in 1866, but Morrissey eventually grew tired of the corrupt Tammany leadership that had robbed more than $200 million of public funds.
Morrissey served two terms in Congress before an ugly split from Tammany. He eventually played a key role in sending Tammany’s corrupt leader, Boss Tweed, to prison.
Although he was not known as a great orator, Morrissey was a charismatic and respected politician. On the rare occasions he didn’t get what he desired, Morrissey was known to revert to his strong-arm tactics to sway the opinions of those who opposed him politically. After two terms in Congress, he was elected to the New York state Senate in 1875 and re-elected in 1877.
Morrissey, however, became ill at the beginning of his second term in the state Senate and died of pneumonia on May 1, 1878, at the Adelphi Hotel. He was 47. Morrissey’s estate was estimated to be worth more than $2 million at the time of his death. The entire state Senate attended funeral services in Troy and Morrissey was laid to rest at St. Peter’s Cemetery. In a cold rain, more than 20,000 mourners lined the streets of Troy to pay their final respects to a man who had occupied center stage in life, in numerous roles, for more than two decades.
Morrissey left behind a most interesting legacy. He was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996 and the John Morrissey Stakes for New York-breds is run in his honor each summer at the historic track he conceptualized and brought to prominence. The Club House, now known as the Canfield Casino, remains in Congress Park and serves as the home of the Historical Society of Saratoga Springs.
Although his origins were humble, what Morrissey accomplished in boxing, business, gambling, politics, and thoroughbred racing secured him a legacy as one of the most unique American figures of the 19th century. A success in each of those diverse arenas, John Morrissey proved that the possibility of the American dream did in fact exist. All he needed to realize his ambitions was a fighting chance, or a chance to fight.
Brien Bouyea is the communications officer at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs. Prior to joining the Museum in 2010, he spent 10 years as a sports writer and editor in the Capital Region. A graduate of The College of Saint Rose, his writing has earned several national and state awards from various organizations, including the Associated Press Sports Editors.
PHOTO CREDIT: Cover photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Saratoga Springs
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