John Morrissey (February 12, 1831 – May 1, 1878), also known as Old Smoke, was a bare-knuckle boxer and a gang member in New York in the 1850s and later became a Democratic State Senator and U.S. Congressman from New York, backed by Tammany Hall. Morrissey began his bare knuckle boxing career after a confrontation with a man known only as "Chroel" who was notorious for troubling his fellow townsmen. Although Morrissey was on the bitter end of his first bare knuckle bout, his display of bravery and fortitude earned himself the respect and historical acknowledgment of his peers.
John was born in Templemore, County Tipperary, Ireland in 1831. In 1833 his parents emigrated to the United States and settled in Troy, New York.
John's father Tim worked on the docks along the Hudson River earning a dollar per day. Early in his life, young John Morrissey developed a reputation with the local authorities as a near'do'well. Desperate to escape poverty, he worked as a cargo thief and also as a collection agent for Irish crime bosses in the area, and before he was 18, he had been indicted twice for burglary, once for assault and battery, and once for assault with intent to kill. Along with his criminal and ferocious fighting abilities, Morrissey also displayed driving ambition, teaching himself to read and write while working as a bouncer at a South Troy brothel. After spending two months in jail, Morrissey left Troy for New York City.
During a fight with a gang member named Tom McCann, Morrissey was 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. The event earned him the nickname "Old Smoke," which stuck with him through the rest of his life.
After two years in New York, Morrissey sailed to San Francisco, seeking fortune during the California Gold Rush. While he didn't have any luck in that endeavor, Morrissey became a renowned gambler and made a fortune winning gold from prospectors. It was also during this time that Morrissey appeared for the first time in a professional prizefighting ring. He knocked out George Thompson in the 11th round, earning $5,000. 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, called 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. Fights usually lasted for 20-30 rounds. Rounds continued until one fighter touched the ground with his knee, or simply fell down. The fight was scheduled for October 12, 1853, in the village of Boston Corners, New York. The area's mountainous terrain made it difficult for police to find the village, providing a good location for the illegal match. The fight took place in a field, and was supposedly viewed by over 3,000 spectators. Sullivan dominated the match for most of the fight, but Morrissey held his own, and the tough Irishman would not quit, though his face became distorted and unrecognizable. In the 37th round, more than an hour after the start of the fight, a riot broke out when Yankee Sullivan struck Morrissey while he was on his knees. Crowds started jumping into the ring, and after the chaos had been quelled, the referee awarded the fight and American Championship to Old Smoke. The victory made him a national celebrity, and hero to the Irish.
Morrissey became involved in Democratic politics in New York City and a rivalry with William Poole, also known as "Bill the Butcher". Poole was an enforcer for the Know-Nothing Party, leader of the Bowery Boys, and a boxer. In 1854, Morrissey was hired to prevent Poole and his gang from seizing ballot boxes and rigging an election. After Morrissey and his gang, the Dead Rabbits, did, Tammany Hall allowed him to open a gambling house without police interference. One of Morrissey's friends, Lew Baker, shot and fatally wounded Bill the Butcher at a saloon on Broadway in 1855, following Morrisey's loss to Poole in a boxing match a few weeks earlier. Morrissey and Baker were indicted for the murder, but the charges were dropped after three trials resulting in hung juries. Morrissey then retired from boxing at the insistence of his wife, and returned to Troy, New York. Morrissey's business ventures were unsuccessful, and he returned to boxing in 1858 to defend his championship in Long Point, Ontario, against fellow Troy, New York native John C. Heenan. The fight lasted 11 rounds, with Morrissey knocking out Heenan, for several minutes, to defend his title. Heenan claimed the title on Morrissey's retirement from boxing in 1859.
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. He also established "The Club House," a casino in Saratoga that attracted such notable guests as Chester A. Arthur, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller, and Mark Twain.
After his retirement from boxing, Morrissey focused his attention on gambling establishments, owning stake in 16 casinos at one point. In 1866 he ran for Congress with the backing of Tammany Hall and served two terms in the House (1867-1871). 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 declaring that he could "lick any man in the House." He eventually grew tired of the rampant corruption within Tammany Hall and left the House after his second term. He eventually testified against William Tweed, which helped put the notorious boss in prison. Following his service in Congress, Morrissey was elected to the New York State Senate in 1875 and was re-elected in 1877, serving in that capacity until his death in 1878.
Morrissey contracted pneumonia and died on May 1, 1878 at the age of 47. The state closed all offices and flags were flown at half-mast. The entire State Senate attended his funeral in Troy, and 20,000 mourners lined the streets to pay their last respects. He was buried in St. Peter's Cemetery, just outside of Troy. At the time of his death, Morrissey's estate was valued at more than $2 million.