Much Ado About... Saratoga

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When he died at the age of 67, the New York Times proclaimed William R. Travers "may have been the most popular man in New York."

He was, in a word, adored.

0014post-William Riggin Travers.jpgWe know Travers as a founder and the first President of the Saratoga Racing Association, and the namesake for the single longest actively running sporting event in America - The Travers Stakes.

We know him as the owner of Hall of Famer Kentucky, that race's first winner.

We know him as a brilliant financier on Wall Street.

But what you may not know, in spite of his wealth and success, Travers was arguably better known for his wit, charm and self-deprecating way.

A New York Times article published two years before his death noted his "wit never screens malice but it frequently stings, being at times near the truth." In his obituary, it added "his defect of speech, which is well known, added to the effectiveness of his utterances."

The former piece, published March 15, 1885, applauded Travers apologetic humor.  One could easily get the impression it made him more approachable and more endearing.
In short, Travers wasn't just another stuffed shirt with money.  Travers was a funny guy ... and he could take a hit too.

Take, for example, the story of him running into an old Baltimore acquaintance while walking on a street in New York City.

"Why, Bill, you stutter worse now than when you were in Baltimore," his friend said.
"H-h-have to," answered Mr. Travers.  "B-b-bigger city."

One day Travers saw John Morrissey, the man who built Saratoga Race Course, standing by a horse.  Morrissey fancied himself the type who could spot equine talent however his results on the track begged a different argument.

"W-w-what have you g-got there, John" he asked.
"A race horse" he replied with an air of satisfaction.
"A race horse!" Travers exclaimed.
"Yes, Sir, a race horse.  Are you going to bet on him?"
"Yes, I'll b-bet on him," Travers replied decidedly.
"How?" Morrissey asked, somewhat in doubt.
"I'll c-c-copper him.

0014post-traverssayings2.jpgOne can only imagine the look on Morrissey's face, mouth gaping and stunned at Travers shot across the bow.

Then there was the time he traveled to Brooklyn for the wedding of a friend's daughter who lived on Montague Street.  Travers apparently took a wrong turn somewhere in his travels and got lost.  He stopped a gentleman and asked for directions.

"I desire to reach M-m-montague Street," he said to a passerby.  "W-will you be k-kind enough to p-point the w-way?"
"You are g-going the wr-wrong w-way," he stuttered in his reply.  "That is M-montague Street."
"Are you m-making fun of m-me, m-mimicking me?" Travers asked sternly.
"N-no, I assure you" the man replied, with all due haste to repair an apparent lack of good manners.  "I-I am b-badly af-flicted with an ob-stru-struction of speech."
"Why d-don't you g-get c-cured?" Travers asked with mischief in his eyes.  "G-go to Dr. --- and g-get c-cured.  D-don't you see how w-well I talk?  He c-cured m-me."

Poor fella.  Probably had no idea what to make of him.

Enter Henry Clews, a banker who often boasted he is a self-made man.  Travers overheard him speak of this and fixed his eyes on Clews bald crown in a sort of daydream like state.

"Well, what's the matter, Travers?" he asked somewhat impatiently.
"H-henry," Travers inquired "d-didn't you say you we-were a self m-made m-an?"
"Certainly, I made myself" Clews replied warmly.
"Then, w-when you were ab-b-about it, w-why didn't you p-put m-more h-h-hair on the t-top of your h-head?"
Insert a well time DOH here.

Travers had been approached by Clews as he sought advice for the famous Vanderbilt ball; an affair of full costume dress.  Travers suggested:

"Clews, w-why d-don't you s-s-sugar coat your h-head and go as a p-pill?"
Travers, clearly, was not your run of the mill, well bred snooty sort.  Remember, he was quite capable of being on the other end of the jibe.

He was walking along the street with a bunch of brokers in tow.  He spots a man in front of St. Paul's church selling parrots.

"H-hold on b-boys," Travers said mysteriously.  "W-we'll have some f-fun."
Hailing the parrot seller and indicating one of the birds Travers asked "Can that p-parrot t-talk?"
"Talk?" the man replied with a contemptuous sneer.  "If he can't talk better than you I'll wring his blasted neck!"
"C-come on, b-boys," Travers called out; "th-this f-fun is p-post-p-poned until another day."

Naturally it is only fitting that the last of Travers' anecdotes shared here deal with a gambler in the Spa City.

A plunger named Walton was introduced to Travers at The Spa in the midst of his best two years playing the horses.  He suggested that he and the financier do business together.  Walton told him of how he has earned over $350,000 these past two years, and with Travers being a whiz in the stock market he thought they could share a couple of points to help each other out, and add to their fortunes.

"You m-made three hu-hundred and fifty th-thousand on h-horse racing?" Travers repeated.
"Yes, sir. $350,000 in two years," Walton said again.
"And you want m-me to g-give you a p-point on st-stocks?" Travers continued.
"Yes, if you please.  In return for my points on horses," Walton said.
"Well, I'll g-give you a first r-rate p-point," Travers said.  "You m-made three hu-hundred and fifty th-thousand d-dollars in t-two years.  Then st-stick to your b-business.  Th-that's a f-first r-rate p-point."

0014post-williamtraversdead.jpgTravers made a fortune on Wall Street.  He was one of the founders of Saratoga Race Course and it's first President.  He was a long-time President of the New York Athletic Club, a member of 27 private clubs, a backer of Sheepshead Bay Racetrack on Coney Island and he made up one-third of Annieswood Stable, racing champions such as Kentucky and Alarm.

All this barely scraped the surface of what he accomplished.

But above it all, above his fortunes, keen financial acumen, racing accomplishments, all those club memberships and elite status, William R. Travers was best known for his good nature and wit.

Ain't a bad way to go out, is it?

New York Times, March 15, 1885 Stories of Wm. R. Travers
New York Times, March 28, 1887 William Travers
Picture of Travers located at Barker Family Tree website

Richard Canfield was "the greatest gambling asset the United States had ever known." i   And unlike his casino's original proprietor John Morrissey, he had the respect and admiration of the well-bred.

009postRichardAlbertCanfield.jpgHe was born in 1855 in New Bedford, MA, and wasn't well educated, but had a bit more schooling than Morrissey.  He graduated from grammar school.  But he knew his success would come from the money of the rich, not the everyday gambling schlep.  In order to gain their approval he believed he needed to be able to mirror the sophistication of their lifestyles.

So he took to reading.  Frequently.

Married at 27 he got pinched for running a successful faro house and was sentenced to six months.  He used that time wisely, learning about fine art, literature, philosophy and religion.  He loved it.  All of it.  The more he read, the more interested he became.

In 1888 he teamed with gambler David Duff and opened a house close to popular restaurants. The play got so busy his partner couldn't handle it.  Duff would "turn up drunk and make a nuisance of himself, and Canfield bought him out." ii

He had his eyes set on Morrissey's old haunt, The Club House in Saratoga Springs, NY.  At the time it belonged to Albert Spencer and Charles Reed, a couple of gamblers from NYC.

Reed, eerily similar to Morrissey, was socially unacceptable and Spencer bought him out.

Spencer was more akin to the likes of Canfield.  He bought and sold fine art and the pair got along well.  A quarter of a million dollars later, Canfield bought the Club House in 1893.  He made significant changes, beginning with the name.  The Club House became The Casino.

"To be seen at the Casino would be a feather in the cap, a mark of distinction only the wealthy could afford." iii

He spent a small fortune on food and drink but many thought his efforts were "little more than constructing a veil to hide the evil inside." iv

They were wrong.  When he opened the doors in 1894, the Casino was a smashing success.

009postCanfieldCasinoParlorInterior1871.jpg Guests were expected to dress well, in their evening clothes and Canfield hired private detectives to ensure the safety of their jewels.

Always thinking ahead, he realized evening clothes may lead to a slight problem.  For example, if a gentleman were to be dressed in a tuxedo and tails large amounts of money held in their pockets could ruin the tailoring.

Well, we can't have that now can we?  Of course not!

His solution? Extend credit.

There were 10 other gambling houses in town and none of them would take such a risk. Hell, they thought Canfield was nuts.  Not to mention, he also kept a million bucks in his safe ... just in case.

Canfield believed paying guests in cash and extending credit made for happy customers.

Right again!

009postCanfieldCasinoHighStakesPokerRoom.jpgWhen he closed his first season he earned $250,000 in gambling profits - his initial investment in the Casino.

He was off to a flying start and 1894 was a good year for Saratoga.  Excitement for future seasons generated with enthusiasm.

But Canfield, in spite of this success, met with one struggle after another in the ensuing years.

In 1895 Reformists had every gaming house in the area closed, thus making his second season a bust.

The following year they opened, part in parcel to "many local residents [who] complained about the resulting economic loss, as they too sustained their livelihood either directly or indirectly from the gaming business." v

Canfield counted over $600,000 in profits that season and was the richest and most well known gambler in America.

He had arrived.

The affluent and social set welcomed him into the fold.  A desire Morrissey, almost literally, died trying to accomplish.

But Canfield's headaches continued.

Years later when the new District Attorney of New York, William Travers Jerome (nephew to racing's Leonard Jerome), had a bee in his bonnet and singled out Canfield as the one to swat.

Jerome found gambling paraphernalia in the wall of a defunct New York City casino belonging to Canfield and arrested him. However, he had little to get him on so they battled back and forth for two years.  The result after $100,000 in legal fees was a $1,000 fine and admission to a "common gambler" charge - a moniker that made Canfield shudder.

In 1903, he promised a lush and beautiful Italian Garden next to his Casino that would further enhance the splendor of Saratoga.  He did just that and it was lovely.  But, local officials feared that more attention from Reformists would make things difficult for the Casino.

009postCanfieldCasinoModernBallroom1902.jpgSo what did they do?  They ordered all houses in Saratoga to operate behind closed doors.

Canfield was fit to be tied.

"They gambled in the Garden of Eden and they will again if there's another one," he said. v

The restrictions held his gambling profits to about $400,000 that season.  Additional restrictions pressed Canfield to close his Casino in 1904.

1906 presented a problem when the Casino opened with more closed-door restrictions. Come August and the race meet, they shut down after friendly warnings from local sheriffs.

Enough is enough, thought Canfield.  He accomplished what he set out to do.

Fed up, he didn't open the Casino again and put it up for sale in 1907.  In 1911, the village of Saratoga Springs offered $150,000 and the deal was done.

009postRichardCanfieldKilledBy-a-Fall.JPGNow, fast forward seven years from his decision, the setting is a cold, icy, December day in Brooklyn.

Canfield slips and tumbles down a flight of stairs in a subway station.  He fractures his skull in the accident.  The following day, the once wealthiest and revered gambler of his time, dies.

Between the years of 1870 and 1907 The Club House and The Casino was seen as THE host to the wealthiest people ever to set foot on American soil.  In that day and age casino proprietors struggled to earn acceptance among the wealthy and well bred.

Canfield, through his love of the arts and as a collector, his passion for literature and his envied library along with his knowledge of religion and philosophy, appealed to the sort.

Morrissey, whose status as a championship prizefighter, bouncer and street thug followed him everywhere, didn't.  He died, a relatively young man at 47, knowing the one battle he fought all his life left him laying on the mat, counted out.

009postCanfieldCasino2009.jpgToday their building is called The Canfield Casino.

And wouldn't you know it, John Morrissey - the guy who built the damned thing - gets snubbed from the billing.


Poor Old Smoke.  He just couldn't get a break, could he?

The Canfield Casino serves a rich and fulfilling purpose to anyone with an affinity for Saratoga history.  She is the home to the Historical Society of Saratoga Springs.  And when you walk through her hallways - and I suggest you do - the rooms are adorned with scenes from lifetimes ago.

It takes little imagination to saunter through the rooms, at your own pace, and hear the noise of these blessed characters spinning a wheel or rolling the dice.  You can imagine the smell of rich cigars permeating the air, people laughing and maybe a few grunting with dismay.

Quite simply, with a single walk-thru you are taken back a hundred years in time.

And that is part of the beauty of Saratoga Springs.  A great part of her beauty.

Red Smith once wrote to get to Saratoga from New York City you drive north for about 175 miles, tun left onto Union Avenue and go back 100 years.

Drive another mile to Congress Park and tour the Canfield Casino to see for yourself.

I trust you'll find, like I do, that she is one of the more romantic and often thought of characters of the grand history that is Saratoga Springs.

# # #

i. They're Off ... At Saratoga, Edward Hotaling, p. 150
ii. Saratoga, A Saga of an Impious Era, George Waller, p. 226
iii. Saratoga, A Saga of an Impious Era, George Waller, p. 227
iv. Saratoga Lost: Images of Victorian America, Robert Joki, p. 146
v. Saratoga Lost: Images of Victorian America, Robert Joki, p. 147

Bibliographical Sources Used for Research:
 - Bartles, John, Saratoga Stories, Gangsters, Gamblers and Racing Legends, Eclipse Press, Blood Horse Publications, Lexington, KY 2007
 - Waller, George, Saratoga, A Saga of an Impious Era, FTB: Friar Tuck Bookshop, Ganesvoort, NY 1966
 - Hoatling, Edward Clinton They're Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY 1995
 - Joki, Robert Saratoga Lost, Images of Victorian America, Black Dome Press Corp., Hensonville, NY 1998

 - Richard Albert Canfield, - Waller, George, Saratoga, A Saga of an Impious Era, FTB: Friar Tuck Bookshop, Ganesvoort, NY 1966 p.225
 - Canfield Casino parlor interior (1871) - The Saratoga Springs History Museum website
 - The High Stakes Poker Room - The Saratoga Springs History Museum website
 - The Modern ballroom (1902) - The Saratoga Springs History Museum website
 - Richard Canfield Killed y a Fall - New York Times, December 12, 1914
 - The Canfield Casino, Patrick J. Kerrison Saratoga Collection

Part I of II

One was a pugilist. A roughneck, thief and gambler who made a reputation for himself socking people in the mouth and collecting money for mob bosses.

The other, a gambler who took to self-education in the arts, philosophy, religion and literature among other things in order to stand comfortable in discussion with the "well-bred".

Both shrewd gamblers. Both successful casino proprietors. Both known throughout their New York City gambling circles as one of Saratoga's leading constituents.

But the similarities of John Morrissey and Richard Canfield ended there.

fistsvswits02.jpgJohn Morrissey arrived in New York City from Ireland in 1831 at the age of two and his family moved north to Troy, NY.

At 12 he took his first job, working manual labor thru his adolescence. By 17 he led a group of street thugs called "Down Town," rivaling (naturally) the "Up Town" gang and their leader John O'Rourke, seven years Morrissey's senior.

One night at a local saloon the pair squared off and O'Rourke got his clock cleaned; but that was just the beginning. The rest of the Up Town gang took exception with the beating and took him on

One by one Morrissey met and defeated their challenges, going 9-0 that day.

One peer said of him:

"John never seemed to know when he was licked, and just as you got tired of thumping him, he kind o' got his second wind, and then you might as well tackle the devil as to try and make any headway against him."i

From there he held many "jobs" like cargo thief, debt collector for Irish crime bosses to name a couple. He'd been indicted on numerous charges including assault with intent to kill.

He taught himself to read and write while bouncing at a whorehouse and got into a scuffle with the Madame's old flame, because he took a liking to her.

During their bout a furnace was overturned, its embers spilled to the floor. Morrissey, pinned against them, refused to yield, thrusting his rival off himself.  He proceeded to beat the living daylights out of him and as smoke steamed off his back from the burning flesh, he was henceforth known as "Old Smoke."

He won his first bare-knuckled prize fight title in 1853 against Yankee Sullivan in a 37-round bout. It's a title he held until his retirement in 1858 when he won his final test against John C. Heenan.

morrisseyfromGreanvillepostDOTcom.jpgMorrissey was anxious to climb the next rung of society's ladder.

The Tammany Society, an Irish led group that evolved into a strong political faction in New York, gave Morrissey a "gambling franchise free from government interference."ii

The local police were kind enough to look in another direction and at one point, he owned a stake in 16 casinos throughout New York.

"A six-foot, broad shouldered, deep-chested, two-fisted, blackbrowed and fully bearded thirty-year old Irishman, Morrissey was the most notoriously prosperous gaming house proprietor in New York City."iii

In 1861 he and his wife Susie took a two week trip to Saratoga looking to open up a gambling house that "would rival those in Monte Carlo and a world-class racetrack."iv

Feeling free to cheat gullible gamblers in public games, he was a "scrupulously fair"v player in private games and Morrissey quickly became a gambler of great notoriety.

He shifted a portion of his tack, so to speak, into a home on Matilda Street (now Woodlawn Ave.) and opened for business.

In May of 1863 Morrissey put into action part two of his dream. The creation of a world class thoroughbred race meet.

He printed an advertisement in the papers calling for those who want to run their horses at a new race meet. It was for four days and to begin on August 3, 1863.

10July1875HarpersWeekly.jpgHe put up $2,700 of his own money for purses and paid the lease himself.  With admission costing a dollar and the estimates reaching 3,000 attendees, he likely made his money back.

Morrissey's public image was less than appealing to those in the Turf world.

He formed a relationship with Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt which yielded him entrance into the circles of William R. Travers and Leonard Jerome.

He hoped to overcome these obstacles by virtue of being in their company.

In fact, Morrissey relied on his relationship with Vanderbilt heavily.

"It was extremely unlikely that influential businessmen such as William Travers, Jay Gould, John Hunter and Leonard Jerome would associate with a man who had John Morrissey's background unless he had the backing of a stock market titan such as Cornelius Vanderbilt."vi

And he had.

Morrissey and Vanderbilt had a love of gambling and women in common and hit it off well. Vanderbilt enlisted Leonard Jerome into the thoroughbred racing fold.

While Morrissey joined Vanderbilt as a "political agent" to help build his Harlem Railroad, Jerome was the Commodore's partner.  The three were often seen together in circles, much to the disapproval of the well-bred social elite.

Jerome's business partner, Travers, was involved in horse racing having his own stable in partnership with Hunter and a Vanderbilt in-law, George Osgood.

The following season, The Saratoga Racing Association was formed by Jerome, Travers and Hunter, but without Morrissey's name on any official documentation.

Even though he put up most of the money for its construction he was not considered "sufficiently respectable for Saratoga"vii and was the proverbial "silent partner."

fistsvswits01.jpgWith several successful race meets under his belt, Morrissey ran for Congress in 1866 and won. From 1867 thru 1871 he served a pair of terms in the House.

While serving as a Congressman he opened the doors of The Club House in 1870.

A lush, beautiful gaming house which enabled modest bettors to play faro and roulette on the ground floor while the heavier bettors, the plungers, played poker upstairs. On the second floor stakes could escalate and there would be no interruption of play.

Retiring in 1871 from politics, he chose to enjoy the fruits of his labors in Saratoga, mingling and hobnobbing with the wealthy and well-bred

He believed, more than ever, he would win their favor and gain the social accreditation he sought.

In order to feel part of the circle the Morissey's decided to build a mansion of their own, to receive guests and play the role. Those in Boston, New York, Philly, etc. had all done so. He and Susie felt it was time.

So he ventured to his hometown of Troy only to be denied, despite generous offers, to purchase acreage.

They were told:

"A mixture of the descendants of the Hudson River aristocracy and the industrial rich, didn't want a professional gambler, particularly one with such a notorious past, living alongside them, and had agreed to resist all his attempts to settle in their fashionable section."viii
Morrissey responded by buying parcels of land where he knew frequent breezes would blow from the river to this fashionable section of Troy

So...what did he do?

He built a soap factory.

Now, we're not talking about the eye opener or refreshing scents here.  You can be assured that by no means was it an aromatic and sweet smelling soap that he manufactured.

It was a minor victory for Morrissey, but he and Susie struggled for acceptance.

In 1875 Morrissey revived his political career, elected as a State Senator from New York in the worst district imaginable. Two years later in 1877 he was elected to a more socially acceptable district.

The thought for sure their eligibility to be accepted into society will be granted at this point.

But he was wrong.

Their attempt had failed.


He fell ill that summer. A bad stomach, kidney problems and asthma, he and his bride went south to regain his strength.

Thumbnail image for MorrisseyBurial.JPGUpon his return to Saratoga he caught pneumonia.

On May 1, 1878, at the age of 47, John Morrissey, pugilist, gambler, casino operator, and architect of the grandest thoroughbred racetrack in North America, died.

It was then, and only then, he was openly adored.

The flag at City Hall in New York flew at half mast. There were multitudes of flattering columns written on his life and contributions.

In the city of Troy, where he was rebuffed to build his home, it is told 19,000 plus people ignored the downpours of rain and walked to the grave site for his burial.

After 47 years of fighting, scraping and clawing his way through life, it was only in death that John Morrissey had been deemed sufficiently respectable.

#       #       #

NOTE:  Thursday at Saratoga Race Course they will have the 7th running of The John Morrissey.  A race for three-year-olds and up, worth 70,000 going 61/2 furlongs.

i.    New York Daily Tribune, May 2, 1878 p.5
ii.   Saratoga Stories, John Bartles, p.20
iii.  Saratoga, A Saga of an Impious Era, George Waller, p. 119
iv.   Saratoga Stories, John Bartles, p.23
v.    Saratoga, A Saga of an Impious Era, George Waller, p. 122
vi.   Saratoga Stories, John Bartles, p.31
vii.  Saratoga Stories, John Bartles, p.34
viii. Saratoga, A Saga of an Impious Era, George Waller, p. 134

Bibliographical Sources Used for Research:
Bartles, John, Saratoga Stories, Gangsters, Gamblers and Racing Legends, Eclipse Press,
Blood Horse Publications, Lexington, KY 2007
Waller, George, Saratoga, A Saga of an Impious Era, FTB: Friar Tuck Bookshop,
Ganesvoort, NY 1966
Hoatling, Edward Clinton They're Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga, Syracuse University
Press, Syracuse, NY 1995
Joki, Robert Saratoga Lost, Images of Victorian America, Black Dome Press Corp.,
Hensonville, NY 1998

   -   Currier and Ives portrait of John Morrissey, Champion Boxer
   -   Located at the Greanville web site
   -   July 10, 1875 Harpers Weekly
   -   Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA; LC-BH832- 2094
   -   May 4, 1878 New York Times

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Patrick Kerrison

While most American men of Patrick's generation grew up talking to their Dad about baseball and the likes of Mantle, Ford, Berra and DiMaggio, he and his father covered the racing beat and talked of Ruffian, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and John Henry.

The son of a newspaperman, Patrick spent his summers a "spoiled" child, but not in the traditional sense. Spoiled because his August months were spent at Saratoga Race Course watching the best the game ever offered.

Breakfast in the mornings, races in the afternoons and the occasional party when kids were welcomed in the evenings, he has lived a privileged childhood. For better than 10 years Patrick worked in varied frontside positions in racing, "living the dream" as he calls it.

Today at age 41, he reverts back to his life as an eight year old with the same passion and love for the town of Saratoga he always had, but with the perspective of an adult. His appreciation for her history and his desire to go back in time revives every summer, while never forgetting the glorious life he lives today. Patrick and invite you to come back to Saratoga's 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries and a little bit about today, too.