John Morrissey (called Old Smoke) was on the pig’s back, as the saying goes, retired from his boxing career as a champion, acquitted of all charges in the murder of his criminal rival, William “Bill the Butcher” Poole. He was able to focus on his illegal gambling establishments and build his fortune. With his reputation and following he operated, for the most part, without obsruction. Gang wars were still prevalent in Five Points because of the lack of any type of law enforcement and the number of criminal gangs in the area.
Since the early 1840s, Captain Rynders was the most powerful of all the mob bosses in New York. He had used saloons and gambling operations to fund his own political organization, The Empire Club. In 1844, his political influence made certain that James Polk was elected president, someone he felt would treat him and his followers favorably.
Rynders was not the only one to use voter fraud and election tampering, it was a common practice in all the political parties and occured at all levels of government at the time. Captain Rynders, however, was a master at it.
He and his followers had created the powerful political machine that was known as Tammany Hall. His success was well known, and he was asked to visit cities such as Philidelphia, Baltimore, and as far away as New Orleans to educate Democrats in the winning tactics of Tammany Hall style politics. Rynders main obstacle in Five Points was that he wasn’t Irish or more precisely, he wasn’t Irish-Catholic, in a place where the rank and file of the underworld was largely made up of newly arrived Irish immigrants.
By July 4, 1857, tensions between the rival gangs came to a head, resulting in riotous fighting in the streets of New York. At this time, the city had two rival police forces, The Municipals, who were loyal to the local Democrats, and The Metropolitans, the Republicans police force. The two factions did little else besides fight with one another, allowing the gangsters to operate with impunity.
The Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys
On the evening of the Fourth of July, the rivalry between the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys, which had been brewing for over a decade, erupted. The Dead Rabbits, supported by other gangs, attacked the clubhouse of the Bowery Boys.
The bloody battle, with hundreds of combatants on both sides, went on through the night and into the next day. Without
police interference, they fought with all manner of weapons, including guns. The dead and wounded littered the blood soaked streets, as the two groups took turns charging and retreating from one another.
Finally, late in the afternoon of the fifth, the police moved in, viciously attacking all involved. Around 7PM, they reached out to Rynders, believing him to have influence over both sides.
When he arrived at the barricade to defuse the riot, he was met with a barrage of rocks and debris forcing him from the scene. From this point on, Rynders’ power and influence in the Sixth Ward was over.
After everything settled, Old Smoke stepped right up to fill the vacancy, and in the process expanded his gambling operations and other enterprises, increasing his power. Morrissey had two types gambling operations, one catered to the poor, and the other to the wealthy and powerful men of New York. Through his upscale establishments, he was able to rub shoulders with all manner of influential people in business and government.
One of his best ideas was the opening of The Saratoga Club House in the resort town of Saratoga Springs, just north of New York City. Here the well to do of the city went to relax in the natural hot springs and escape the bustle of the city. Morrissey was correct in surmising that the town would be a lucrative place for a gaming house.
The Saratoga Club was soon known as “the finest gaming establishment in America.” Some of the more famous clients included Rutherford B. Hayes, Ulysses S. Grant, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller and Mark Twain.
Morrissey had made a fortune and liked to present himself as such; gold and diamond jewlery and accessories, outlandish dress and being driven about in a custom built gold embellished carriage reputed to have cost him $2000. His wealth and clientele, however, did not gain him the social status he craved.
It was a shock and disappointment to him when he realised that he was still considered a mobster and not an equal to those he aspired to be accepted by. To gain that status and inclusion, he surmised, politics was the way to go.
In 1868, he called in all the favors owed him as the reigning Irish mob boss and gambling king of New York and was elected to Congress. He aligned himself with William Tweed, an alderman that rose to become the boss of Tammany Hall. Morrissey’s endorsement of Tweed five years earlier had made that possible. In congress, Morrissey’s interests benefitted himself and the Irish immigrants that helped put him there.
Between the years 1863 and 1871, Boss Tweed and his inner circle stole and looted the city of New York like no one in politics had done before or since. He became a billionaire, through kickbacks, bribery, rigged bidding and awarding of city contracts and embezzlement. He ran prostitution and gambling houses while filling police and fire departments, city staff and officials and ward bosses with his people.
The Irish benefited greatly from all of this illegal activity, and soon the rest of the citizens of the city took notice; they had enough of Tweed and his cronies. Multiple corruption indictments and numerous accusations were brought against him. Tweed fled the country, fearing lengthy prison time.
He was apprehended in Spain and extradited back to the U.S. to face the charges. Behind bars, he reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and turned on his old friend and supporter, John Morrissey. He told everything he knew about Morrissey’s gambling enterprises and other criminal activity.
Morrissey’s political career should have been over, instead he broke from Tammany Hall, citing the corruption, and started his own political organization, called The Young Democracy. In 1875, he was elected to the senate and re-elected to a second term.
His personal life was in dire straits however, alcohol and an early form of dementia brought about by the years of physical abuse he endured as a fighter had weakened him severely. He contracted pneumonia in mid-April of 1877 and passed away on the first of May, at the age of forty-seven.
There are many ways to look back at the life of John Morrissey, and many lessons to be learned. A boxing enthusiast may see the career of Old Smoke as an American success story, a small time Irish street fighter who becomes America’s champion. A criminologist might see the rise of a street punk to New York City’s top mob boss.
Hopefully all of us can see what politics should never be. I am sure those that benefited from his actions saw only what they wanted to see, and chose to ignore the tactics he used to get his way. John Morrissey may not have gained the social status and admiration he desired, but he has gone down in history as America’s first Irish mob boss.
*Bob Carney is a student of Irish history and language and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish wolfhound and irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Rían and Aisling and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org