Though there won’t be another historic Triple Crown win at Belmont Park this year, racing history looms large in New York state. Just north of Elmont—where the Belmont Stakes are run—is Saratoga Springs, home of the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame and Saratoga Race Course.
The third oldest racetrack in the United States, Saratoga Springs saw its first thoroughbred race card on August 3, 1863, organized by John Morrissey, who was at the time operating a gambling house in the resort town. An Irish immigrant, an enforcer for Tamany Hall, a professional boxer, and a prodigious gambler, John Morrissey was—if nothing else—an unlikely candidate to become one of the most important figures in the history of Thoroughbred racing. But despite being the kind of man who made a fortune in the Gold Rush, won fame as a prizefighter, found political success through Boss Tweed’s machine, and challenged William Poole (better known as “Bill the Butcher”), Morrissey’s name has escaped many history books.
Now, James C. Nicholson (author of The Kentucky Derby and Never Say Die), finally does justice to this rags-to-riches story in The Notorious John Morrissey: How a Bare-Knuckle Brawler Became a Congressman and Founded Saratoga Race Course. Nicholson traces Morrissey’s remarkable life while also shedding light on fascinating issues of the era, such as the underground prizefighting economy, the rancorous debate over immigration, and labor laws that protected owners more than workers. He digs most deeply, however, into the business of Thoroughbred racing and Morrissey’s role as the founder of Saratoga Race Course.
In advance of this year’s Belmont Stakes, and the start of Saratoga’s racing schedule, we spoke with Nicholson about Morrissey’s improbable life and why Saratoga and its founder are instrumental to understanding of horse racing’s history.
How did you first get introduced to Saratoga Race Course and John Morrissey’s story?
I worked at the horse auctions in Saratoga for a few summers during college and grad school. Unglamorously, my most important duty was helping remove horse manure from the facility. After work, some of my fellow “muck crew” members and I would often trot over to the nearby racetrack to catch a race or two. I was fascinated by the little pieces of folklore and anecdotes about “the old days” that were casually passed around by racegoers, but it was difficult to know if someone was talking about 150 years ago or fifteen years ago. Some of those stories included vague allusions to John Morrissey, who, I learned, had operated the casino at the center of town and had been responsible for bringing Thoroughbred racing to Saratoga. He sounded like an intriguing character, and, in doing research for my first two books, I was surprised to learn that relatively little had been written about him in over a century.
What led Morrissey to begin his career as a political enforcer and his involvement with gang violence?
Morrissey came to the United States from Ireland as a small child, and he grew up quite poor in the lively little town of Troy, New York, on the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal, with seven sisters, an alcoholic mother, and an unskilled father. He was an ambitious young man and realized early on that his ability to endure a beating was perhaps his greatest personal asset. In addition to jobs in factories as a preteen, Morrissey was a bouncer in a tavern and worked on riverboats as a deckhand. He was surrounded by rough crowds throughout his adolescence, when fighting was both entertainment and a means of survival for many young men in upstate New York. After moving to New York City in his late teens, Morrissey’s toughness continued to serve him well. He worked as a political enforcer for the Tammany Hall political machine and as an immigrant runner, meeting new arrivals on the docks and helping to find them work and shelter in exchange for political allegiance to Tammany.
Morrissey had several encounters with William Poole, who was portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in the film The Gangs of New York. Can you describe their relationship?
Poole was a butcher by trade, and he led a New York City gang called the Bowery Boys. Leonardo DiCaprio played the rival of Daniel Day-Lewis’s character. DiCaprio’s character contains elements of John Morrissey. Morrissey, an Irish-Catholic Democrat, and Poole, a “native” American Protestant Know-Nothing, were bitter rivals within the ethnically and politically charged environment of mid-nineteenth-century Manhattan. The two men had tense encounters within the saloon and sporting circles in which they operated, and Poole beat Morrissey nearly to death in a well publicized encounter months before Poole was killed by Morrissey’s associates in a Broadway tavern.
It would be a stretch to call the film historically accurate, but it does capture some of the spirit of that era. The film does a good job conveying the notion that New York’s Five Points district was a hotbed of violence, poverty, and corruption, and it effectively depicts the deadly hostility between nativists and immigrants, as well as the political power of Tammany Hall. But the film plays rather loose with historical events and historical figures. Perhaps the most glaring creative liberty taken is the fact that Poole was actually murdered in 1855 following a barroom dispute with Morrissey, while, in the film, the Poole character is killed in the New York City draft riots of 1863. But Gangs of New York does accurately portray Poole as a virulent nativist who wielded serious local power.
Morrissey turned from criminal to prizefighter, eventually becoming national champion. Today boxing has various sanctioning organizations and clearly defined weight classes. That wasn’t the case in Morrissey’s time, can you elaborate on the differences?
When Morrissey entered the American boxing scene, fights were governed by the London Prize Ring rules, which were far more permissive than the Marquess of Queensbury rules (published in 1867) that modern boxing fans would recognize. In Morrissey’s era, fights were conducted without gloves (“bareknuckle”), and the rules permitted grasping and throwing, but not gouging, biting, or low blows. A round was completed when one fighter was knocked to the ground, and there were no limits as to the length of a fight—some lasted well over 100 rounds. There were no official weight classes, and prizefights had to be conducted in semi-clandestine fashion, as the sport was outlawed nearly everywhere in the United States.
There were also no formal boxing federations like the ones that would emerge in the twentieth century. Championships were largely determined by public acclaim and recognition by the sporting press. That process was less unwieldy than it might sound, however, as the sports community was relatively small and insular by modern standards, and a large percentage of the major figures in American boxing could be found in one of a handful of New York saloons that catered to the sporting crowd. In 1849, Tom Hyer was universally acknowledged as the finest fighter in the nation, earning the informal title of Champion of America following his victory over Yankee Sullivan. When Hyer retired in the early 1850s, Sullivan staked a dubious claim to Hyer’s title by virtue of having been the last fighter to lose to the champion. When Morrissey beat Sullivan, he took the title. Morrissey’s defeat of Hyer’s hand-picked challenger, John C. Heenan, in 1858, cemented his claim to the American championship, as well as his place of honor in the annals of boxing history.
How much of Morrissey’s past was brought up in his campaign, did this have a large effect on his chances? Was it unusual to have that kind of background as a politician in that era?
No one had ever seen someone with Morrissey’s checkered past and deep involvement with boxing and gambling rise so quickly in American politics. Journalists were highly critical of his candidacy for Congress, but, much like what we have recently seen with Donald Trump, the attention that newspapers paid to Morrissey only added to his status as a celebrity and ultimately helped him to appeal to voters.
Describe Morrissey’s connections to Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall? Without their backing do you think it would have been possible for him to win?
Tammany Hall was the major power broker in New York City Democratic politics from the 1850s well into the twentieth century. Morrissey had ingratiated himself to Tammany leadership by providing muscle in local elections. Those relationships facilitated his subsequent election to U.S. Congress. Morrissey eventually had a falling out with Boss Tweed and the Tammany Democrats, and he led an insurrection that contributed to Tweed’s downfall. But without Tammany’s early support there would have been no way a man with Morrissey’s past could be a congressman.
What makes Saratoga such an important facet in the American Thoroughbred industry?
One of the most appealing aspects of horseracing, in addition to the wide variety of participants and enthusiasts it attracts, is its connection to the past. Nowhere is that connection more tangible than in Saratoga. Generations of racing fans have made Saratoga an annual destination, and the well-preserved Victorian architecture there provides a tangible link to a bygone era. The presence of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame right across the street from the racetrack serves as a reminder of the deep history of racing at Saratoga, which, for over 150 years, has attracted wealthy industrialists and financiers, itinerate gamblers, vacationing families, and vagabond horsemen. This hodgepodge of humanity was an integral part of the festive atmosphere at Saratoga race meets 150 years ago, and it remains so today.
James C. Nicholson is the author of The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event and Never Say Die: A Kentucky Colt, the Epsom Derby, and the Rise of the Modern Thoroughbred Industry. His newest book, The Notorious John Morrissey: How a Bare-Knuckle Brawler Became a Congressman and Founded Saratoga Race Course is available now.