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.