John Morrissey was born in Ireland in 1831 and immigrated with his parents to Troy, New York in 1834. John did not learn to read and write until he was 18 or 19 and spent his youth involved with street gangs. He was arrested several times for burglary and assault with intent to kill and served time in jail, all before age 18. John earned a reputation in Troy as a tough street fighter and his gang, the Downtowns, were constantly at war with another gang, the Uptowns.
He began to think of pursuing a career as a professional prizefighter and moved to New York City in 1849.
Morrissey paid a visit to Captain Isaiah Rynders’ Empire Club on Park Row and immediately started fighting with the occupants in the bar. Rynders, a Tammany Hall politician was so impressed by his fighting skills that he hired Morrissey as a shoulder-hitter and immigrant runner. Morrissey also earned money as an immigrant runner for a boarding house. A boarding house runner boarded ships bringing in new immigrants in order to induce them to take lodging in the boarding house they represented. The idea was to charge exorbitant prices and cheat the newly arrived immigrants out of their money and sometimes even their luggage. His duties as an immigrant runner for Isaiah Rynders involved bringing in new immigrants to cast their votes for the Tammany Hall candidate. In the capacity of shoulder-hitter, Morrissey enforced the will of his political boss, Rynders, by using threats or violence. Usually this involved persuading voters to make the “correct” choice at election time.
Morrissey wanted to see the west and decided to travel to San Francisco, California in 1851.
He soon established himself as a gambler and set up a Faro game. Morrissey was very adroit at cheating suckers with his dishonest game and managed to acquire a large bank roll. While he was in California, Morrissey appeared in the professional prizefighter ring for the first time, earning $4,000 plus a side bet of $1,000. He returned to New York in 1853 and went on to become the American boxing champion by defeating Yankee Sullivan.
Upon his return to New York City, Morrissey resumed working for Captain Rynders and Tammany Hall. He organized a gang of shoulder-hitters and began an ongoing battle with William Poole (Bill the Butcher) and his Washington Street gang (representing the American Natives or also called Know-Nothing political party). William Poole humiliated Morrissey by beating him in a fight in July of 1854 at Amos Dock, New York. After his defeat, Morrissey and his friends planned on the ultimate demise of Bill the Butcher. Their battles came to a climax on Feb. 25, 1855 at Stanwix Hall, a saloon on Broadway, where Bill was mortally wounded by Lew Baker, a friend of Morrissey. Poole died on March 8, 1855. Although Morrissey was believed to have been the mastermind behind Poole’s murder, he was not convicted of the crime, nor was Lew Baker.
Morrissey went on to open up gambling houses and over time amassed a sizeable fortune in those days of 1.5 million. Saratoga Club House, in Saratoga Springs, was his biggest gambling house, drawing visitors from all over the world. Unfortunately, Morrissey and his wife tried, in vain, to become members of the aristocratic society and took the advice of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, only to lose a large sum in the stock market. Morrissey, due to his reputation as a gambler and fighter, never was accepted by the aristocratic society but he did manage to become elected twice to Congress and enjoyed the fruits of political power. He died in 1878 of pneumonia.
This article was written by Frances Carle (Asbury) and may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, copied or redistributed in any form without permission. The background information came from New York City newspapers and Herbert Asbury’s “Sucker’s Progress”, 1938.