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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 the politicians in Tammany Hall.
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 America in 1833 and settled in Troy, New York. Uneducated but good with his fists, Morrissey was relegated to working as a collection agent for the local Irish crime bosses. While working as a bouncer in a brothel in Troy, Morrissey taught himself to read and write. Realizing his future was limited in Troy, Morrissey made the short trip to New York City. There he established his name as a tough hooligan who often fought in various bars and piers, just for the sake of sport.
One day he engaged in an impromptu fight with Tom McCann in the indoor gun gallery under St. Charles Hotel. McCann got the best of Morrissey when a powerful punch sent Morrissey over the coals of a hot stove which had been knocked over. Morrissey’s clothes and flesh burned fiercely, and with the smoke from his back, he leaped forward and knocked McCann senseless. Hence the nickname “Old Smoke.”
After winning a few more matches in and out of the ring, Morrissey challenged World Champion Yankee Sullivan for the World Championship. The battle took place on October 12, 1853 at Boston Corners, on the border between Massachusetts and New York. Morrissey was battered throughout the fight but won by disqualification in the 37th round when Sullivan hit him while he was down.
Buoyed by his new-found feisty fame and now a member of the Dead Rabbits, a feared street gang, Morrissey was hired by Tammany Hall to protect the polls against the Bowery Boy’s gang, led by butcher Bill Poole. Poole and his friends terrorized the polling stations on election days in favor of the Native American or Know-Nothing political party. On Election Day 1854, Poole announced that he and thirty of his Bowery Boys were on their way to a particular polling place to destroy the ballot boxes. Tammany Hall called on Morrissey to protect their interests, and with John A. Kennedy, who later became New York City’s police inspector, they assembled a gang of over fifty dead rabbits. They were waiting at the polling station for Poole’s arrival.
A man of his word, Poole arrived at the polling station and he and his gang set out to do as much damage as possible. Immediately Poole realized that his group was vastly outnumbered by Morrissey and the dead rabbits. Poole met Morrissey in the middle of the room, and after staring menacingly at each other for a few moments without saying a word, Poole turned abruptly and left, taking his gang with him. Tammany Hall was so delighted by Morrissey’s heroics that they gave him a free gig, under police protection of course.
In 1855, Morrissey changed Poole to a bare-knuckle fight on a pier near Christopher Street. Poole accepted, but instead of fighting with his fists, Poole tried to crush Morrissey to death, which he almost did. A few months later, Poole was shot dead by Morrissey’s close friend Lew Baker in Stanwix Hall, a bar on Broadway near Prince Street. Both Baker and Morrissey were arrested for Poole’s murder, but after three trials (rumors said Tammany Hall swayed some jurors in Morrissey’s and Baker’s favor), the charges were finally dropped.
In 1857, after he retired from boxing, Morrissey opened 16 gambling houses, including an unusually profitable one in Sarasota Springs. With the backing of Tammany Hall, he was elected to the United States Congress from New York from 1867-71. In 1873, tired of Tammany Hall’s illegal tactics, surpassed only by the illegal tactics Morrissey used on himself 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, aka “Old Smoke”, was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
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