Feature Articles

January 2001

The Legend of Old Smoke Morrissey

By John William Tuohy

     We'll never see the like's of him again. At three hundred and fifty pounds, with broken fists and scarred face, mangled grammar and base ways, John Morrissey was probably Tammany Halls most outrageous experiment in political control and mismanagement.

     Born in Tipperary, Morrissey was brought to the United States as an infant by his father, a hapless day laborer. By age 12, Morrissey was already an experienced hand in a wall paper factory, where, if he was paid at all, earned less than a dollar a day. It was a typical childhood for New York's exploited and poverty-stricken Irish and Italian children then.

     By age 17, Morrissey, who now stood well over six feet and weighed, was working as a bar room bouncer and cargo handler. He was also known as a top notch cargo thief who worked for the highest bidder. Eventually, the Irish crime bosses who ruled over the cities docks promoted the oversized Irishman to enforcer for local gamblers and then made him a "land shark," the name given to the extortionist who specialized in terrorizing Irish immigrants. Between all this, Morrissey taught himself to read and write.

     At age 19, Morrissey graduated from dockside brawls to professional prize fighting where earned his nick name "Old Smoke" after he entered a prize fight held in up state New York. During one of the round's Morrissey was knocked into stove and the hot coals caught Morrissey shirt tails afire. Undaunted and on fire, Morrissey kept swinging and knocked out his opponent.

     In 1853, at age 22, Morrissey won what was commonly recognized as the world heavyweight championship from "Yankee" Sullivan, a liverpool-born Irishman. But Morrissey paid a price for the tittle. Yankee Sullivan was a mean, experienced pugilist who took 37 rounds to hit the canvass but before going down, he cut Morrissey into a bloody mess, leaving him with facial scares and a broken nose that would alter his appearance for the rest of his life.

     For all the hype Morrissey was given as a world class Pugilist, he was really little more then Bowery drunk and a derelict (be it a deadly one) who leaped at the every command of his boss, Tammany crony John Kennedy, a thief on a massive scale who was appointed the cities Police Commissioner. In a strange twist of fate, Kennedy was accidently murdered in the New York City draft riots by the Irish workmen he commanded.

     A year after Morrissey won the tittle, his reputation as the toughest fighter in the world was seriously questioned when he allowed himself be to be chased out of barroom by a one hundred and a twenty- pound thug named Billy Mulligan, who was sponsored by the anti-Immigrant, anti-Catholic Know Nothing party. A year after chasing Morrissey out of bar, Mulligan ventured West to San Francisco and became a deputy sheriff under David Scannel, a former member of the enormous Bowery Boy gang and saloon keeper. Under Scannel's control, Mulligans chief duty was to control the towns voting polls and run a massive prostitution racket.

     Still, Morrissey was important to Tammany since he could provide the bosses with enough Irish thugs and killers to counter the growing power of a Know Nothing organization called the Lone Oak Club, which was underwritten by an eccentric millionaire named George Law, who, by 1855 was already planning to have himself elected as the Know Nothing's Presidential nomination. Vindictive, petty and ruthless, Law was a second generation Ulster Irishman who had crawled his way up from a job as a cow manure bag-packer to one of the nation's wealthiest men within a decade and became almost the definition of Robber Baron. In 1847, Law played an important role in the economic take over of the tiny Central America nation of Nicaragua by virtually underwriting the U.S Warships that attacked the central city of Graytown. For his reward, Law was handed the exclusive rights to all US Mail services into Central America by steamship.

     Not content with simply owning the central American seas, Law made a stab at controlling the entire Central American region when he armed local nationalist insurgents against the awesome local power of the Vanderbilt's. However, the equally ruthless Vanderbilts' proved to be to much for Law, who soon gave up the effort. He tried another tactic instead and flooded the waters with 16 cargo ships to wrestle the lucrative Panama-California steamship traffic from under Vanderbilt's control, but he lost that effort as well. He did manage to take some revenge on Vanderbilt when Law ended up owning the Staten Island ferry company which he bought from State legislators with millions in bribes. Laws first act in taking over the Ferry system was to fire all of Vanderbilt's employees who were running the system at the time. Outraged, Vanderbilt took his case to Tammany Hall. Vanderbilt said that he owned the Ferry system and that he had paid out millions in good honest bribes to city authorities for the franchise. The Tammany bosses admitted to taking the money but pointed out that the Ferry system was controlled by the State Government and not by them.

     Law eventually became the largest private landholder in all of central America and Columbia South America and he all but completely underwrote the cost of the Panama Railroad.

     With the rest of his money, he branched off in to canal and bridge construction, commercial real estate, banking, railroads and steamship construction all across the United States.

     In the 1850's, Law had his first run in with official Washington, now under control of fellow bigot and Catholic hate monger President Milliard Fillmore. What had happened was that the Captain of one of Laws steamships had been accused of spreading rumors about Cuba's Governor General. In retaliation, the Governor refused to allow any of Laws ships enter Cuban waters, under penalty of seizure. Law took his case to President Fillmore and demanded US intervention in his problem. Nevertheless, Fillmore refused to get himself, or the United States government involved and suggested that Law simply have his Captain make a public apology to the Governor.

     This may have been the issue that Law was looking for to help his own political career. Law blew the issue up in his newspaper and kept it there for almost six months calling the issue a matter of "national honor" and earning himself as reputation with the Jingoistic minded American public at the time, as a fearless, American Nationalist at a time when it was good to be fearless American Nationalist.

     Law decided to push his weight and sent his ships into Cuban waters anyway, hoping for an assault by Cuban troops on the American flag, but the Cuban government looked the other way and stole Laws hopes for international fame. Still, the issue had given Law just what he wanted, national sympathy and fleeting fame, and popularity with the growing and very powerful Know Nothing voting segment. All he needed now was a political operation behind him in his power base of New York City and hence the formation of the Lone Oak Club.

     Now in 1855, Commissioner Kennedy had his orders from the Bosses at Tammany. Laws Lone Oak Club, with membership in the hundreds, was growing too powerful. The bosses wanted it busted up and closed down.

     For the most part, Kennedy left the operation in the hands of the none-to-bright Morrissey who rounded up a gang of several hundred sluggers and then called a press conference and announced to the world what it was he and his boys intended to do.

     Law quickly countered by hiring a group of thugs from Issac Rynder's Park Street Club, who joined forces with a deadly Know Nothing gang called the Plug Uglies.

     Heading the Plug Uglies was a young psychopath named "Big" Bill Poole who was considered the deadliest man in all of the very deadly Bowery. Poole, who ran his own gang of killers called the Atlantic Guards, could throw a butcher's knife through an inch thick pine plank at 20 feet, although he preferred in close knife fights where he was noted for biting off his opponents ears and nose's, cutting out their eyes or testicles with kicks from his hob nailed boots. He was also a specialist in burning ballot boxes and terrorizing Tammany candidates.

     It so happened that one day, right after Morrissey's press conference, Poole and several members of his goon squads caught up with Morrissey at the Park street club where Morrissey's band was beaten and forced to run away, leaving Morrissey trapped in the club alone. Poole and his boys beat Morrissey nearly to death. In fact, that he wasn't killed at all was probably a professional oversight, and a mistake that would eventually cost Poole his own life.

     Three months later, when Morrissey could walk again, Kennedy ordered him to guard the voting booths in his own district. Arriving with his gang to the polls several hours early, Morrissey built up a stockade fence around the voting booth and stored up piles of rocks, sticks and broken glass to shower down on Poole Know Nothing when, and, if they arrived. Within a few hours they did arrive, led by Big Bill Poole himself. However, this time, Poole was caught completely off guard and was forced to retreat. Pleased with the actions of field general Morrissey, the Tammany bosses gave him his own gambling den franchise and the start to a very long career.

     By now, the newspaper, New York had dozens of them back then, turned the battle into a personnel fight between two of the most deadly killers in the city, Old Smoke Morrissey and Big Bill Poole. Believing his own press clipping, and blessed with more guts then brains, Morrissey, in early January of 1855, challenged Poole to a fight to the death to be held within heart of Poole's own stronghold, the Christopher street wharf. Morrissey even provided the time and date that he would there...alone.

     Poole was no fool, but he did know a fool's offer when he saw one. He accepted Morrissey's proposal and when the Irishmen showed up for the fight, Poole and an army of thugs beat him for a full 15 minutes before Morrissey life was saved by a stroke of questionable Irish luck; a squad of Tammany reinforcements showed up and saved the day.

     Remarkably, Morrissey was up on his feet within a month. On February 24th, 1855, as Morrissey sat in Stanwix pool halls with Mack "King of the newsboys" McGuire and in walked Big Bill Poole, alone. Astounded by his stroke of incredible luck, Morrissey stood up from his chair, strolled over to Poole, pulled his colt revolver and pointed it to Poole's temple and squeezed the trigger three times. Nothing happened. The gun jammed or it was empty.

     Delighted, Poole pulled out his own revolver and pointed it at Morrissey, who did what anyone would do in that same situation, he fell to his knees, screamed and begged for his life. As Poole was about to shoot Mack McGuire called out to Poole "You can't shoot an unarmed man"

     Poole considered that the Tammany boys controlled the Police and Courts and most of the juries as well, and decided that "self -protection" would make a better defense then murder and put his gun away. Poole strolled over to the free lunch bar and picked up two butchers knifes, his favorite weapons, and handed one to Morrissey.

     As Morrissey stood to his feet, and faced what was certain death at Poole's hand, several Tammany regulars entered the pool hall and jumped Poole and beat him. At that moment, two policemen happened into the pool hall, and remarkably, ordered Poole to go home.

     Poole left the billiards pallor, but returned within a few minutes, armed to the teeth. As the gangster stood in the middle of the room, gun drawn, one of Morrissey men, a young man named Lew Baker, walked up to Poole, spit in his face and then pulled a Colt, stepped back and then accidently shot himself in the arm. However as Baker fell to the floor, he let off one shot into Poole's leg, dropping him to the floor. Both men picked themselves up off the floor. Baker, gun in hand, stood first and pistol-whipped Poole back down onto his knees and then fired a shot into his stomach and his upper chest.

     A fighter till the end, Poole hung onto life for two full weeks before he finally died, at home, surrounded by his boys and John Law.

     However, Poole would be more of problem in death then he was in life. Supposedly his last word s were "Goodbye boys. I die an American!" Those words became a rallying cry for Know Nothings every where.

     At Poole's elaborate and super patriotic funeral march, the thug was sent to his grave in a ceremony usually reserved for departed heads of state. Five thousand mourners rode in black draped carriages or walked silently behind Poole's flag-draped coffin as it crossed the East River by boat to the Greenwood cemetery in Brooklyn. Six full bands, all playing the national anthem, dotted the procession route. Leading it all was John Law and his guests, the leaders of the cities 60 Know Nothing related secret societies. There was William H. Patten leader of the 10,000 strong Order of the American star there was F.C Wagner the Arch Grand Sachem of the Arch Chancery of the Secret Order of Americans, next to him sat State Senator Thomas R. Whitney, above them was a flag showing a hand strangling the neck of the coiled snake of Roman Catholicism. Behind them, and most impressive of all, rode James W. Barker, "The King of the Know Nothings".

     Thousands lined the sidewalks, including all of the cities Know Nothing inspired street gangs in full regalia, there were the Atlantic Guards the Five Pointers, the Black Snakes, the Tigers, the Rough Skins, the Red Necks, the Thunderbolts, the Gladiators, the Embolts, the Little Fellows, the Rip Raps, the Rip Saws, the Screw Bolts, the Screw Boats, the Stay Late's, the Hard Timers, the Dips, the Plug Uglies and of course the Blood Tubs.

     The spirit of Big Bill lived on long after he was buried. Dozens of plays sprung up with a much improved version of Big Bill as the hero, always falling to his knees at the end of the play with the death words "Goodbye Boys, I die a true American!"

     As for Poole's killer, Lew Baker, things had grown so hot in the city that even Tammany wasn't able to help him. He hid out in New Jersey for a while and then made a escape aboard a ship bound to the Canaries Islands. John Law was not about to let that happen and gave New York city Police his own cruiser to chase Baker down. The police took Law up on his offer and gave chase and caught up with Baker at sea, less then 100 miles west of the Canaries islands. The cops hauled Baker to New York where he stood trail for Big Bill's murder and (of course) was found not guilty by a Tammany judge.

     John Morrissey retired from New York city a few years later, a hero in the Irish-American community as the man who faced down the Know-Nothings. Loaded down with $700,000 in profits from his gambling casino's and extortion rackets, Morrissey moved to Saratoga Springs in up state New York and opened a first rate gambling saloon and worked to improve himself. He started to wear fine clothes, expensive jewelry and sparklers on the front of his shirts. He became good friends of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who backed the Irishman on the stock exchange. He was the toast of the states cultural and business elite but he never did conquer his great love of whore's and gambling.

     The Irish loved and admired him and often mistakenly gave him credit for the murder of Big Bill Poole. He amassed and lost several fortunes, served two terms as Tammany's man in the State senate and later served two terms in the United States House of Representatives. His nomination understandably outraged the Editors of the New York Tribune which wrote "the public decency and the dignity of the national legislature have seldom been so boldly outraged is, in itself, disgraceful enough to nominate an ex prizefighter but worse yet, someone who would owe his soul to the Tammany machine"

     Morrissey had a religious conversion toward the end of his life and he died in 1878, holding the hand of parish Priest. the estimated size of his estate was over two million dollars. Some 15,000 mourners and 50 carriages took the poor boy from Tipperary to his grave in Troy New York.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached at

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