American Mobsters – John Morrissey (Old Smoke)

Johnny Morrissey started out as a feared bare-knuckles boxer, but later became a gang member and leg breaker for the politicians of Tammany Hall.

Morrissey was born in Templemore, County Tipperary, Ireland in 1831. The famed 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. Not being educated, 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 Troy brothel, Morrissey taught himself how to read and write. Realizing his future was limited in Troy, Morrissey made the short trek to New York City. There he made his name as a rough hooligan fighting often in various bars and piers, just for sport.

One day he engaged in a impromptu fight with Tom McCann, at the indoor pistol gallery under the St. Charles Hotel. McCann was getting the best of Morrissey, when a powerful punch drove Morrissey over the coals from a hot stove, which had been overturned. Morrissey’s clothes and flesh were badly burning, and with smoke comes from his backside, he leaped forward and battered McCann senseless. Hence, the nickname “Old Smoke.”

After winning a few more battles inside and outside the ring, Morrissey challenged world champion Yankee Sullivan for the world title. The fight took place on October 12, 1853, at Boston Corners, on the border of 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 newfound fistic fame and now a member of the Dead Rabbits, a feared street gang, Morrissey was hired by Tammany Hall to protect the polling places from the Bowery Boy’s gang, led by Butcher Bill Poole. Poole and his pals terrorized the polling places 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 headed to a certain local election 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 Superintendent of Police, they assembled a gang of over fifty Dead Rabbits. They and stood in wait at the polling place for Poole’s arrival.

A man of his word, Poole arrived the polling place and he and his gang entered, looking to do as much damage as possible. Immediately Poole realized his group was vastly outnumbered by Morrissey and the Dead Rabbits. Poole met Morrissey in the center of the room, and after staring menacingly at each other for a few moments, without saying a word, Poole abruptly turned and left, taking his gang with him. Tammany Hall was so overjoyed by Morrissey’s heroics, they gave him a free gambling house, under the protection of the police, of course.

In 1855, Morrissey changed Poole to a bare-knuckles fight on a pier near Christopher Street. Poole accepted, but instead of fighting with his fist, Poole tried to crush Morrissey to death, which he almost did. A few months later, Poole was shot and killed by Morrissey’s close friend Lew Baker, at Stanwix Hall, a bar on Broadway near Prince Street. Both Baker and Morrissey were arrested for the murder of Poole, but after three mistrials (rumor had it that Tammany Hall influenced some jurors in Morrissey and Baker’s favor), the charges were finally dropped.

In 1857, after he retired from boxing, Morrissey opened 16 gambling house, including an exceptionally profitable one in Sarasota Springs. With the backing of Tammany Hall, he was elected United States Congressman from New York from 1867-71. In 1873, tired of Tammany Hall’s illegal tactics, which were only surpassed by the illegal tactics Morrissey employed himself in Congress, Morrissey testified against Tammany Hall chief 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, a.k.a. “Old Smoke,” was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

American Mobsters – The Murder of Herman "Beansy" Rosenthal

It was common knowledge, the policeman of the early 20th Century was “on the take” more often than not. Yet no cop was more ostensibly crooked than Police Lieutenant Charles Becker, head of the “Strong Arm Squad” in New York City in the early 1900’s. While Becker and his crew were supposed to be ridding the city of vices, such as gambling and prostitution, he was, in fact, making deals with the proprietors of such illegal establishments, where he’d receive substantial amounts of cash from them, and in return, he would turn a blind eye to their activities. It was reported, that even though Becker ‘s annual salary was only $2,250, he had amassed a fortune of over $100,000.

Herman “Beansy” Rosenthal was a small-time crook of very little distinction, and even less pull on the streets. Every time Rosenthal opened a gambling house, it was closed down in a matter of weeks. Finally, Rosenthal found the place of his dreams on West 45th Street near Broadway. But this time, Rosenthal finally saw the light, and he took in as a partner, none other than Police Lieutenant Charles Becker. This arrangement went quite well for awhile, but New York Mayor William Jay Gaynor began hearing rumors that maybe Becker was not quite doing his job in a proper manner. Mayor Gaynor started putting the screws to Becker, so Becker decided he had to make a big splash, therefore displaying his proper allegiance to the law. Becker knew no one would care less what happened to the un-connected Rosenthal, so he raided Rosenthal’s gambling den, which was part Becker’s, and even arrested Rosenthal’s nephew to boot.

Rosenthal told Becker this was not the correct way for a “partner” to be acting. Becker said not to worry; that it was all a show for the Mayor. Becker promised that Rosenthal’s nephew would soon be released, and that the joint would be back in working order in no time. Yet District Attorney Charles Whitman felt different. He immediately indicted Rosenthal, Rosenthal’s nephew and several employees of Rosenthal’s gambling den. Rosenthal saw right through the double-cross. He ran straight to Whitman and spilled the beans about his connections to Becker. At first, Whitman turned a deaf ear to Rosenthal, so Rosenthal repeated his story to Herbert Bayard Swope, a crime reporter for “The New York World.” Swope wrote several articles parroting what Rosenthal had said about the actions of the New York City police department, which forced Whitman to finally take strong action.

On July 16, 1912, Rosenthal was scheduled to testify before a grand jury. Becker knew he was in dire danger of going to jail for a long time, so he contacted Big Jack Zelig, whom the police considered “The Most Dangerous Man in New York City,” to take care of the Rosenthal situation. The price was $1000, and Zelig sub-contracted out the work to four of his best men; Harry “Gyp the Blood” Horowitz, Frank “Whitey Lewis” Muller, Lewis “Lefty” Rosenberg and Frank “Dago Frank” Ciroficci.

At 2 am on the morning he was set to testify, Rosenthal had just finished eating in the dining room of the Hotel Metropole on West 43rd Street. As he stepped outside into the warm night air, the four gunmen shot Rosenthal dead with lead, then escaped in a getaway car. Within an hour, Swopes woke Becker from a deep sleep, and Becker immediately launched an investigation into Rosenthal’s murder. The first one arrested was Zelig, and he spilled the beans immediately, implicating Becker. The four gunmen went into hiding, but were captured a few weeks later.

On July 29, 1912, based on Zelig’s testimony, Becker was arrested for murder of Herman “Beansy” Rosenthal. But even from jail, Becker had long tentacles. His next move was to make sure Zelig didn’t testify against him in court. On October 5, 1912, the day before he was set to tattle on Becker officially, Zelig, now to Becker, “The Most Dangerous Rat in New York City,” was shot dead on a street car by “Red Phil” Davidson.

Even without Zelig, the case against Becker and the four killers was just too strong. All five were tried, convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison. The four gunmen were put to death on April 13, 1914, but Becker would not give up without a fight. His last chance at saving his life was an appeal of clemency to the new Governor, who just happened to be the same Charles Whitman, who had arrested Becker and prosecuted his case. Whitman refused to commute his sentence and Becker was electrocuted in July of 1915.

Becker tried to have the last word from his grave, when he ordered his wife to attach a silver plate to his coffin that said: “Charles Becker. Murdered July 13, 1915. By Governor Whitman.”

Before Becker’s body was lowered into the ground, the silver plate was removed by the state police.