He wasn’t really a mobster in the true sense, John Morrissey is best described as a tough. And probably within the top 5 for me.
Born in Templemore, County Tipperary, Ireland, came to the US as a child with his parents and settling in Troy, New York.
As a young man he worked a number of jobs, including steel mills, tough places where disputes were settled using fists.
It was in Troy where Morrissey first encountered Alexander Hamilton, a saloon owner who was looking for a new bouncer, he was so impressed with Morrissey that he did employ him.
Hamilton would be the catalyst that would drive Morrissey on to be one of the greats, in no small part thanks to his boasting about Morrissey.
The Americus Club on Park Avenue was a social political club owned by Captain Isaiah Rynders. Rynders at the time was aligned with the Know Nothing party, a Nativist political group, he would later switch sides and work with Tammany Hall.
While at the Americus Club, Hamilton was boasting about how great Morrissey was, this was heard by Bill the Butcher Poole, Dutch Charlie Duane, Tom Hyer, One Eyed Daly and a few others, they then proceeded to have a good laugh at Morrissey, particularly Dutch Charlie Duane, who they labelled The Farmer. Upon hearing this Hamilton let Morrissey know.
Morrissey said he needed an excuse to go to New York, he left Troy. He made his way to the Americus Club and Drew a deep breath and and walked in. Morrissey asked for Dutch Charlie Duane, who wasn’t there but Bill the Butcher, One Eyed Daly, Big Tom Burns and Captain Rynders were present.
Bill the Butcher burst into a loud laugh, I bet you’re the farmer from Troy. Morrissey responded with “Yes I’m from Troy” and followed with “But you look your mother is a dollar street walker”. That’s when the laughter stopped.
As Morrissey stood ready to fight Poole, he was hit from behind and within an instant they were all kicking, punching and beating him, Morrissey being a fighter himself fought back and held his own for a time but with so many beating him he couldn’t hold out for long.
After a time Captain Rynders called for them to stop but to no avail, Rynders then drew his knife and said get away, by God I’ll use this knife on you, they moved away from Morrissey who was by now unconscious. Rynders stood beside Morrissey and called for the bartenders to move him upstairs.
Morrissey was nursed back to health but Rynders was impressed with his spirit. Captain Rynders would eventually switched allegiance to Tammany Hall and would work with Morrissey and the Dead Rabbits.
“Bill the Butcher” and Morrissey would meet again, this time it was for the election of Fernando Wood as Mayor of New York. Captain Rynders was hoping he could convince Morrissey to join Bill the Butcher and his crew of thugs as a paid mercenary, however Morrissey would hear none of this, he hated Bill Poole and he hadnt forgotten the beating he received at the Americus Club. Morrissey also hadnt forgotten what Rynders had done for him but he refused him on principle.
The day before the election John Morrissey received a message from the Police Superintendent, when Morrissey went to the Superintendents office a man was waiting for him, Fernando Wood “Sit down Mr. Morrissey. You are just the man I want to see”. Wood Said “I am of course very anxious to win this election. As you know Mr. Morrissey, elections are not won by voters, but by the gentlemen who count the votes”
“I know all about that” said Morrissey “What do you want me to do?”
Wood – “Do you know Butcher Bill Poole”
Morrissey – Yes
Wood – “It seems Mr. Poole has announced his intention to raid polling places and destroy ballots. This would be most unfortunate”
Morrissey – “What would you have me do?”
Wood – “I want you to be tougher than Poole, do to him what he wants to do to us. It will be worth your while”
Morrissey laughed “Ill do it for free”
Morrissey went to the Five Points and gathered around 50 young men who looked tough as nails, he armed them with clubs and promised them a dollar each. The morning of election day Morrissey stationed some of his men around polling stations and the rest inside the polling stations. At noon Bill the Butcher arrived and rushed in the polling station, they had anticipated no trouble, however as they rushed in they were surrounded on three sides by the Five Points thugs, with Morrissey standing in the middle.
“Well” said Morrissey with his eyes fixed on Poole “what do you want” Poole stood silently with his eyes fixed on Morrissey, he didnt make a move, although Poole was brave and a great fighter he was no fool. Poole and his thugs left without any violence. Fernando Wood lost that election but it would set him up for the future when he would become Mayor of New York.
It would not be the last meeting between Bill the Butcher and John Morrissey, they would meet again in a bare knuckle boxing match, which turned chaotic and into a riot after the fight had taken place. Morrissey was also present the night Bill the Butcher was murdered by Lew Baker, one of Morrissey’s henchmen. Morrissey would stand trial for the murder but found not guilty. The funeral of Bill the Butcher was attended by thousands and was one of the biggest funerals at the time in New York. John Morrissey would go on to be a founder of Saratoga race course and a two term Congressman and a two time New York State Senator
From the book Brandy for Heroes – A Biography of the Honorable John Morrissey