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.
John 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.
Morrissey 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.
He 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.”
With 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 Morrissey’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.
Upon 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