The Tipperary 'gangs of New York' fighter who became Champion of America

Extraordinary Emigrants: John Morrissey went on to become a US senator

This weekly series for Irish Times Abroad profiles an Extraordinary Emigrant from Irish history, based on entries from the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.

A fighting spirit will get you a long way in politics, as John Morrissey’s life shows.

He was born in 1831 in Co Tipperary, the family emigrating shortly afterwards to settle in Troy, New York. It was here that Morrissey became involved in street gangs. Defeating six members of a rival gang in a single afternoon in 1848 prompted him to abandon his job at the Burden iron works, and become a fighter.

Morrissey challenged Charley "Dutch" Duane to a fight and, when he didn't show up, extended the challenge to everyone present. This impressed saloon owner Isaiah Rynders, who also happened to be a Tammany Hall politician. He employed Morrissey to help the Democratic Party, which involved Morrissey in intimidating voters at election time.

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A fist-fight was to earn him the nickname “Old Smoke”. Having been forced on to a bed of coals by his opponent, Tom McCann, Morrissey refused to admit defeat, and fought back to beat McCann despite his burns.

He started a gambling house to raise money. In his first professional prize-fight in 1852 he defeated George Thompson, and began calling himself the champion of America. It was only on October 12th, 1853 that he officially earned this title, when he won the heavyweight championship at Boston Corners, New York, against "Yankee" Sullivan. The fight lasted 37 rounds, and Morrissey was finally awarded the contest after a free-for-all in the ring.

Increasingly involved in New York politics, he and his supporters fought street battles against the rival gang of Bill Poole, known as "Bill the Butcher", who was later fictionalised in the film The Gangs of New York. When Poole was murdered in 1855, Morrissey was indicted as a conspirator, but was released because of his political connections.

In October 1858 he fought John C Heenan in another heavyweight championship bout, but Heenan broke his hand early in the fight and lost. Morrissey also won the rematch in 1859, and retired from the ring. Investing his prize-money, he ran two saloons in New York as well as a gambling house on Barclay Street. With these profits he invested in real estate in Saratoga and opened a racetrack there in 1863.

A political career beckoned as a reward for his support for the Democratic Party. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1866 representing New York's fifth district, and served until March 3rd, 1871. He supported president Andrew Johnson against demands for his impeachment and served as a US senator for New York State from 1875 to 1878.

Morrissey died at the Adelphi Hotel, Saratoga Springs, on May 1st, 1878. Having survived all that violence, he was beaten in the end by pneumonia.

Based on Patrick M Geoghegan’s biography of John Morrissey (edited for this article by Clare McCarthy) in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.