- - Monday, June 27, 2016


By James C. Nicholson

University Press of Kentucky, $29.95, 224 pages, illustrated

It is not uncommon even in these more evolved times for those commenting on and even engaging in what passes for the rough and tumble of today’s political arena to talk about “taking the gloves off.” But this all but forgotten figure in American history, Rep. John Morrissey, New York Democrat, actually was a bare-knuckle boxer of considerable renown — the American champion no less. He then went on to employ, let us say, physical skills not unrelated to his fisticuff triumphs, as an enforcer for the notorious Tammany Hall machine in New York. This was only the beginning of a political career that involved two terms in the House of Representatives in Washington and another two in the state senate in Albany.

Yet, into a brief life — he was only 47 when he died in 1878 — Morrissey crammed much more than these achievements, remarkable enough in themselves but even more so in a poor Irish immigrant brought to this country as a child. He made the arduous journey via the Panama Isthmus to seek fame and fortune in California’s Gold Rush. He found plenty of the former as a boxer, burnishing his reputation when he came back east, but riches eluded him. They came later when he became a successful gambling and sporting impresario, establishing a casino in Saratoga Springs and then the famed racetrack there.

It must have been this crowning achievement that led James C. Nicholson, who has written books about both the Kentucky Derby and the English Epsom Derby, to write about this amazing man, but he certainly does justice to all the varied aspects of a remarkable life and career. Still, he is a passionate advocate for his subject as a seminal figure as a participant in and developer of sports as a national industry:

“As a racing disciplinarian he was without rival, and the reputation of the Saratoga course attests to his capacity as a manager. Those whom he has left to manage the track have only to move in the rut that Morrissey marked out to be successful.” he quotes The New York Times as saying, before going on to add that “As an athlete, a promoter, and a proprietor, Morrissey participated in and contributed to some of the most significant sporting events in the nineteenth century. Up to that time, no had done more to develop the commodification and commercialization of sports in America.”

Mr. Nicholson’s book leaves the reader in no doubt that the one-time street-fighting gang kid and brutal enforcer had metamorphosed into a canny entrepreneur and effective operator in many an arena besides the boxing one.

As a congressman, he sometimes disappointed his Democratic leaders by his habitual silence on the floor and his tendency to “occasionally stray from the Democratic Party line. One example was his vote to award a pension to Mary Todd Lincoln, which was in keeping with his lifelong tendency toward compassion for women and children and gave some credence to a line attributed to him: ‘[I] don’t care which party wins provided the thing comes out right.’ As he later told an interviewer, ‘While I am a staunch Democrat, I am so unquestionably [financially] sound that I could afford to vote in opposition to my party whenever I thought that mere partisanship diverted it from the paths of duty and right and patriotism.’ “

Clearly, his maturity and chivalry, as well as a great partnership with his wife, are in marked contrast to his fierceness as a no-holds-barred fighter, while his moral courage mirrors that exhibited in the ring.

Mr. Nicholson spares us none of the gory details of Morrissey’s fights, accounts not for the faint of heart even to read about. It’s not just blood flowing copiously and bones breaking. The lifelong nickname “Old Smoke” was acquired in an early bout in which he defeated Tom McCann, a “noted fighter,” even after “early in their skirmish a stove was knocked over, spilling hot coals on the floor. McCann managed to pin Morrissey to the ground atop the red-hot coals, searing his flesh.” Talk about fortitude.

One thing that was not knocked out of Morrissey in all the many blows he took to the head was good sense. As a New York state senator, Mr. Nicholson tells us, “He legitimately claimed a record of success in Albany, including helping to pass a series of laws that brought some improved efficiency and reduced redundancy to various government departments. Morrissey promised to look out for the interests of the working classes without alienating the wealthy by reminding the upper classes that if workers’ wages fell too low, they would be unable to pay their rents.”

Amid all the grandstanding and posturing of today’s politics, with all the talk about integrity and courage when much of what we see is precisely the opposite of those very qualities, it is especially heartening to be reminded of this great original, surely one of the most remarkable figures and great characters in our commercial and political history.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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