Old Smoke Just Got No Respect
John Morrissey in Saratoga Springs
John Morrissy – Old Smoke
It is one of the ironic facts of high society life that superior imagination will never, in the final analysis, gain equal footing with superior reserves of inherited cash.
By Kenneth Salzmann
However much acclaim, or money, the artists, sportsmen and entrepreneurs who provide amusement for the very rich may accumulate in life, when the Blue Book goes to press there can be no mistaking just who is holding all the face cards.
For some, that is a painful, stubbornly resisted lesson. John Morrissey, for one, never really did learn it. As much as any other person, Morrissey built the framework for modern Saratoga Springs, introducing both horse racing and casino gambling to the Spa City. Neither did he neglect to mind his own interests, amassing a personal fortune and pursuing a successful, if somewhat suspect, political career in the service of New York City’s Tammany Hall machine. But for all his money, for his seat in the United States House of Representatives (and later in the New York State Senate), and for his pivotal
role in the development of Saratoga’s principal summer attractions, Morrissey never was able to gain what was finally his fondest goal—acceptance into the finest social circles for his beloved wife, Susie, if not for himself.
The best people, after all, had only to look at John Morrissey’s more-than-tainted background to see that he was only in the Club House because he owned it. Morrissey, the son of Irish immigrants, had grown up in Troy during the 1830s and 40s and largely on the streets. Schooled principally in such pursuits as street-fighting and hustling, he did not learn how to read or write until his nineteenth year. But he had by that time already developed his more basic skills to an exceptional degree, earning a reputation as a very
tough young man and, on several occasions, attracting the attention of local law enforcement officials over matters ranging from assault and battery to assault with intent to kill.
From Troy, Morrissey moved on to New York City where he went to work for Tammany Hall as leader of that organization’s Dead Rabbit Gang, a band of toughs charged with keeping a careful eye on New York voting trends. In the spirit of the day’s politics, he and his colleagues were charged by the bosses with re-educating dissident voters whenever necessary by beating them to within an inch of their lives. It would appear that the young Trojan excelled at his work, because his rise through Tammany ranks was rapid.
At the same time, he was able to use those talents to pursue an athletic career, taking time out from politics to become the heavyweight boxing champion of the United States. In the unrelenting and illegal version of the sport that was then practiced, fighters punched and grappled, bare-knuckled, to the finish, and each round ended not by a bell but by a decisive knock-down.
Morrissey secured the championship in 1853 in a still-legendary 37-round brawl with title-holder Yankee Sullivan at Boston Corners, New York, near the Massachusetts line. It was a fight he probably lost by most measures, but one he won on a technicality in the midst of mayhem. “Old Smoke,” as he was nicknamed after a barroom fight landed him on top of smoldering coals and convinced his audience he was impervious to pain, continued to fight until 1859.
With all that, Morrissey was still in his thirties when he was elected to a term in Congress representing Tammany turf. The Congressional Record indicates that the Irish pugilist contributed little to the turbulent political landscape of the 1860s, however. He is perhaps best remembered, in terms of that chapter in his career, for his offer in the course of a heated debate on the floor of the House to “lick any man in Congress.” By that time,
though, John Morrissey had established himself, and distinguished himself, in other pursuits as well.
Beginning with a small gambling house in New York City, he had developed a growing gambling empire. About the same time that much of the nation was focused on the outbreak of the Civil War, Morrissey was casting his sights north to the already thriving resort of Saratoga, where he was determined to offer games of chance to the Spa’s prosperous, bathing vacationers.
His first casino there proved to be a formidable temptation for the well-heeled summer folk. It was followed in short order by the town’s first race track and, before the end of the decade, by the much grander Club House, which for many years set the pace for Saratoga gaming emporia, to be surpassed only by the Canfield Casino.
At about the same time, John and Susie Morrissey, settling into middle age, found themselves as strongly attracted to the forms and functions of society life as were the socialites to the track and Club House. Some of Mr. Morrissey’s rougher edges had already been polished away and his facile Irish charm went a long way to hide the others. For her part, Mrs. Morrissey was of gentler birth and possessed in abundance whatever social skills her husband lacked.
Still, time and again, the couple was ostracized by the very society that turned to them for amusement each summer. When they went looking to purchase a suitable estate in Morrissey’s native Troy, a sparkling center of industrial wealth, they found that none among the city’s elite would sell to them at any price. (In retaliation, they built a soap factory between the Hudson River and the fashionable neighborhood they aspired to, causing the gentle river breezes to turn acrid.) When invitations went out, the Morrisseys—common if very rich gamblers—were repeatedly snubbed. As it turned out, it was not
until John Morrissey’s death in 1878, when he was only 47 years old, that the society to which he had contributed so much paused to notice what were after all the remarkable accomplishments of the once impoverished and illiterate child of immigrants. The New York Times eulogized him at length while the flag at City Hall flew at half-mast, and 19,000 Trojans who would not have their native son as their neighbor in life marched somberly behind his coffin as the springtime rains fell.
Copyright 2006 by Kenneth A. Salzmann
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