Name:  John Morrissey

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Born:  February 12, 1831
Died:  May 1, 1878
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
John Morrissey was a prizefighter, gambling house proprietor, congressman, and a leading figure in the Democratic machine politics of New York City and State. He was born in Templemore, Ireland, to Julia (or Mary; maiden name unknown) Morrissey and Timothy Morrissey, a factory worker. In 1834, the Morrissey family immigrated to Canada, and then moved to Troy, New York. As a youth in Troy, Morrissey was employed briefly by an iron works and a wallpaper factory. As a member of street gangs, and leader of a gang called the Downtowns, he was involved in numerous brawls. When at age 17, he single-handedly defeated six boys from the rival gang, the Uptowns, he started to think about becoming a prizefighter. In the meantime, he worked as a deck hand aboard a Hudson River steamboat. He married the captain’s daughter, Sarah Smith, in 1849; their only offspring died in childhood.

In 1849, Morrissey ventured to New York City to challenge prizefighter Charley Duane. When Duane ignored him, and no other prizefighters were present at Isaiah Rynder’s Empire Club saloon, Morrissey took on the house in fisticuffs. Rynders, a Tammany Hall politician, was so impressed that he hired Morrissey as a “shoulder hitter” (a fighter who enforced the will of a political-machine boss by intimidation or violence). Morrissey was nicknamed “Old Smoke” after a saloon brawl in which he and his opponent knocked over a stove and Morrissey was pinned over the coals, with smoke from his smoldering clothes permeating the room. Morrissey persevered to win the fight.

In 1851, Morrissey journeyed to California, where he won a lot of money gambling and first appeared as a professional prizefighter, earning a $4,000 purse and $1,000 from a side bet. He was unsuccessful, though, in his attempt to conquer the gold-rich Queen Charlotte Islands, off the coast of British Columbia, with an armed schooner and a crew of hoodlums. Back in New York in 1853, Morrissey became the boxing “Champion of America” by defeating Yankee Sullivan in 37 rounds. (At the time, prizefights were bare-knuckle events, with rounds lasting until one man fell down, and the match ending only when one boxer could did not return on his feet to the center of the ring.)

Working again for Tammany Hall, Morrissey organized a gang of shoulder-hitters, which primarily battled Bill Poole's American Party (Know-Nothing) gang. In July 1854, Poole defeated Morrissey in a boxing match. Street fights between the two gangs continued, resulting in the deaths of several members, including Poole in March 1855. Morrissey was charged with the murder, but released. In a well-publicized prizefight in October 1858, Morrissey defeated John “Benicia Boy” Heenan at Long Point, Canada, before a crowd of 2,000, and pocketed $5,000 from a side bet. After the Heenan bout, Morrissey retired from the boxing ring as the champion.

Morrissey became the owner of several successful saloons and gambling houses, paying the police to ignore his illegal gambling operations, and reportedly earning a million-dollar profit within five years. He invested his money in real estate and, in 1863, the Saratoga Springs racing track, where he helped revitalize horseracing in the Civil War North. Morrissey also turned his attention to politics in a more serious way. In 1866, he was elected as a Democrat to the first of two terms in Congress (1867-1871). He broke with Tammany Hall’s boss, William M. Tweed, and did not seek reelection in 1870. In the mid-1870s, he battled Tweed’s successor, John Kelly, for control of the Democratic Party in New York City, taking part in the establishment of a rival political machine, Irving Hall (nicknamed the Swallowtails). In 1875 and 1877, Morrissey was elected to the state senate, where he served until his death on May 1, 1878.

Sources consulted: American National Biography; Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress; Oliver Allen, The Tiger: The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall; Foster Rhea Dulles, America Learns to Play; and, Steven A. Reiss, Sport in Industrial America: 1850-1920.





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