Johnny Morrissey started out as a barefoot combat boxer, but later became a gang member and leg breaker for Tamani Hall politicians.
Morrissey was born in Templemore, Tipperary County, Ireland in 1831. The hungry potato famine was in its infancy, but his parents saw the writing on the wall. They immigrated to America in 1833 and settled in Troy, New York. Uneducated but good with his fists, Morrissey was left to work as an agent to collect local Irish crime bosses. While working as a bartender in Troy, Morrissey learned how to read and write. Realizing that his future was limited to Troy, Morrissey made the short trip to New York. There he made his name as a rude bully who often fights in various bars and quarters just for sports.
One day he became involved in an impromptu battle with Tom McCann, in the gallery of indoor pistols under the St. Charles Hotel. McCann got the best of Morrissey when a powerful blow propelled Morrissey over the coals of a hot stove that had been turned over. Morrissey's clothes and flesh burned badly, and with smoke coming from his back, he leaped forward and knocked McCann senseless. Hence the nickname "Old Smoke".
After winning several more battles inside and outside the ring, Morrissey challenged world champion Yankee Sullivan to the world title. The battle took place on October 12, 1853, in the Boston Angles, on the border of Massachusetts and New York. Morrissey was beaten throughout the match but won by disqualification in the 37th round when Sullivan hit him while he was taken down.
Purchased from her new phystical fame and now a member of the Dead Rabbits, a fearsome street gang, Morrissey was hired by Tamani Hall to defend the polls from the Bowery Boy gang led by butcher Bill Poole. Poole and his friends terrorized polling stations on election days in favor of the Native American Party or the Know-New political party. On election day 1854, Poole announces that he and thirty of his Bowery boys are heading to a designated local election location to destroy the ballot box. Tamani Hall called on Morrissey to protect their interests, and with John A. Kennedy, who later became police chief in New York, they assembled a gang of over fifty dead rabbits. They were waiting at the polling station for Poole's arrival.
Poole arrived at the urn and he and his band came in, wanting to do as much damage as possible. Immediately, Poole realized that his group was much larger than Morrissey and the Dead Rabbits. Poole met Morrissey in the center of the room, and after staring at each other threateningly for a few minutes without saying a word, Poole turned sharply and left, taking his gang with him. Tamani Hall was so pleased with Morrissey's heroics that they gave him a free gambling house, under police protection, of course.
In 1855, Morrissey replaced Poole in a battle with his bare bones on the pier near Christopher Street. Poole accepted, but instead of fighting his fist, Poole tried to crush Morrissey to death, which he almost did. A few months later Poole was shot dead by a close friend of Morrissey's Lew Baker at Stanwix Hall, a Broadway bar near Prince Street. Both Baker and Morrissey were arrested for Poole's murder, but after three magistrates (rumors that Tamani Hall influenced some of the jurors in favor of Morrissey and Baker), the charges were eventually dropped.
In 1857, after retiring from boxing, Morrissey opened a 16 gambling house, including a very profitable one in Sarasota Springs. With the support of Tamani Hall, he was elected US Congressman from New York from 1867-71. In 1873, tired of Tamani Hall's illegal tactics, which was surpassed only by the illegal tactics that Morrissey had hired alone in Congress, Morrissey testified against Tamani Hall boss Boss Tweed. Twidd was sentenced and sent to prison, where he later died. As a reward for his service, Morrissey was elected to the Senate of New York in 1875. He is still a senator when he died of pneumonia in 1878, at the age of 47.
In 1999, Morrissey, also known as "Old Smoke", was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.