Sunday, November 4, 2012
Monday, January 2, 2012
In my quest for information on John Morrissey I spend a lot of time looking through newspapers of yesteryear and often get so drawn into unrelated stories it takes me much longer than I’d like to get my research done. I thought I’d share one from the New York Times of Aug. 3, 1858 as way of explanation for my wandering eyes.
The U.S. Marshall’s Office busted two men for counterfeiting Aug. 2 after staking out a Duane Street (Lower Manhattan) company that specialized in metal plating. The electroplating technique was fairly new having come over from England in the 1840s, so our two criminals — Charles Howard and James Ryal — were somewhat innovative. The marshals arrested the men, who were working together, but came into the shop at separate times, each carrying about 100 bogus coins that resembled half-dollars.
Nothing was said about the proprietor of the establishment who, it would seem, had to be in on the scheme.
The two marshals, after locking the men up in the Tombs, Manhattan’s infamous jail, went to the men’s base of operations on Eighth Avenue, slipped in through a window and discovered the counterfeiters’ tools, along with fake coins in various stages of manufacture as well as burglary equipment.
There was no mention on whether the marshals had a warrant when they broke into the apartment through a skylight.
Unfortunately, there was no follow up story so the fates of our two alleged criminals have been lost to history.
If you liked this tiny slice of life from the annals of crime, check out my newest blog “Old Time Crime.”
Monday, May 30, 2011
Faro was the name of the game and it made John Morrissey a lot of money, enough — along with his winnings from boxing — to help bankroll the biggest gambling house and horse racing operation in the East: Saratoga Springs, New York.
Faro was a card game of pure chance that originated in France in the late-17th century when it was known as Pharaon, which when it found its way to England not long after was shortened to Pharo. In the United States it was known as Faro or Farobank and was the most popular card game of the 19th century. The game's popularity was due to its simple rules and fairly good odds of winning as compared with other games such as Black Jack.
The odds were so good that nearly every game was rigged, and yet the suckers kept on coming back for another go at "bucking the tiger."
The game consisted of a playing board and a faro box, a mechanical device from which playing cards were dealt.
The board, about three feet long by 1 1/2 feet wide and covered in green felt, had the 13 cards of a single suit — often spades — painted on it.
Players, known as punters, would choose which card to lay their money on and place chips on the painted version in hopes that the corresponding card (it could be of a different suit) would come up.
The dealer, called the banker, would place a deck of cards face-up inside the faro box (which had a cutaway that revealed the top card) and pull three cards. The first was called the Soda, which was discarded to the left of the faro box. The second was known as the loser and any money placed on that card went to the banker, with one exception.
Players could choose to bet on what they believed would be the losing card by "coppering," that is placing a copper washer, purchased, as were the regular chips, from the banker, on the appropriate space. The banker and player would then split the pot.
The third card was the the winner. Anyone lucky enough to have placed their chips on that card would double their money.
If two of the same cards were both winner and loser in a particular hand, called a "split"— say two aces, queens, etc. — the banker would get half the chips staked on them.
This was the dealer's advantage, but was apparently not one lucrative enough to keep the house from using a variety of techniques to cheat players.
There were several ways of cheating, two main ways of which involved the faro box.
The first involved convincing a mark to be the banker, with the players in on the scam. A rigged faro box would be used that produced cards with a distinctive "tell," using either sanded or slightly misshapen cards, that clued the players in as to which card would win for them and which for the bank.
The methods employed by bankers to cheat the players also often involved gaffed boxes that allowed the dealer to spit out whatever card they chose. This was apparently a very expensive device to buy.
The practice of using gaffed boxes was so widespread there were mail-order companies that specialized in them. But not all dealers used crooked boxes, many employed the old-fashioned method of card manipulation, which, while requiring some skill, didn't require the outlay of cash for a gaffed box.
The trick was to ensure that the banker came up with as many splits as possible, since they allowed the banker to keep half the winnings. A specific way of shuffling that helped guarantee splits was known as "the faro dealer's shuffle." For more information as to specifics go to the Sharps and Flats website.
In 1850, 19-year-old John Morrissey sailed for California with the vague intention of prospecting for gold, but instead he and his friend Daniel Cunningham set up a faro bank and let the gold come to them without nary a pick in the dirt. After returning to New York, he continued in the gambling business and eventually owned a number of high-class dens throughout the city, before turning his sights to creating a gambling mecca in Saratoga.
While faro remained popular for more than a century it had died out with the shuttering of the last faro bank in Nevada in 1985.
Monday, January 17, 2011
After an extended hiatus from posting here I've decided it was high time to get back into writing for Old Smoke Bio on a much more regular basis. While away, I have been working on the actual book fairly regularly, but with a year that included the death of my father, moving my mother across the country and a thousand other things pulling me in other directions, it's been a challenge. I've begun doing a radio show on oral history, Difficult Histories, plus two other blogs,the true sentence, and look,read,listen, not to mention holding down my regular job as a crime reporter. Anyhow, I'm including a teaser for a piece I wrote for a local magazine called "Columbia County History & Heritage," about Morrissey's role in bringing down William "Boss" Tweed. The article also includes the part played by Samuel Tilden, the man who should have been America's 19th president, but was cheated out of the job in a back-room deal. The magazine can be purchased for $5.00 U.S. here, or if you can stand the wait, it is supposed to be archived on the site for a free download, but it may be awhile before that happens.
On October 28, 1871 William “Boss” Tweed sat behind his desk in New York City waiting for the sheriff to arrest him. Once Tweed was one of the most powerful men in America, his office the epicenter of a vast political network, the tendrils—and associated earnings—of which always led back to Tweed. But now he was about to be arrested like a common thief. It seemed that the city which was once his personal fiefdom now assailed him from all sides, starting with the newspapers and the cartoonist Thomas Nast, with his “damned pictures.” But of all his enemies Tweed had special enmity for John Morrissey, his former compatriot.
Born on February 12, 1831, John was the only son of Julia and Timothy Morrissey. The couple was of the poorer classes of Templemore, a town of about 5,000 souls in County Tipperary, Ireland. Poverty and a feeling of being hobbled in their own country may have helped in the Morrissey’s decision to immigrate to Troy, New York three years after John was born.
Morrissey began working full-time at age twelve. His father was a poor laborer and he needed John to help feed the family that included seven sisters. The boy’s many jobs included one where he transferred red-hot iron from the fire to a water trough at Burden’s Iron Works. He would make a name for himself as a local brawler, which he would eventually parlay into a career as a boxer. He won the title of “Champion of America” in 1853 in a 37-round fight that took place on a tiny triangle of land known as “Hell’s Acres."
Morrissey held on to his title for six years and went out on top, beating John C. Heenan, known as the Benicia Boy, in 11 rounds that took just under 30 minutes on a marshy point of land jutting into Lake Erie called Long Point in Ontario, Canada. It was Morrissey’s last fight; his wife, Susie, finally won out. She had bigger plans for John. It was time for him to parlay his fighting career into a political one. Morrissey the politician was born.
Morrissey’s relationship with Tammany and Tweed stretched back to before his boxing career had begun, to the late 1840s when he had come from Troy to seek his fortune. He became a “shoulder hitter” for the political organization, dragging voters to the polls to ensure that the Tammany Democrats won the day. He moved up in the organization and was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1866 with Tammany’s backing, which, according to him, he paid for handsomely. But, said Morrissey, he did not have to buy the voters, telling a reporter years later that except for drinks he did not spend a penny. Instead he won the electorate over by meeting as many of them as humanly possible. If he encountered a man who was not planning on voting for him he would continue visiting him until he would. One can imagine the effect on wavering voters of being stalked by a well-known boxer, whose first job in New York City was a shoulder–hitter.
Reelected in 1868, he had by then earned the respect of his fellow House members who found him considerate, keenly interested in the important issues of the day, and, above all, honest. He was well regarded within in his own party as well as by Republicans. It was at this time that Morrissey’s relationship with Tammany, and more specifically with Tweed’s ring, began to falter.
William Maeger Tweed was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Scotch Irish parents in 1823. Tweed was an apprentice in his father’s chair factory before joining the Americus, also known as the Big 6, volunteer Fire Company, eventually becoming its foreman. In nineteenth-century New York one could not even consider a career in politics without ties to the volunteer fireman who held the power of preserving a city filled with wooden structures that were always one matchstick away from conflagration.
Tweed held some fairly important political posts in the 1850s—He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1852 and the New York City Board of Advisors in 1856. However, it was being named the "Grand Sachem" of Tammany Hall in 1858 that opened the floodgates of power and wealth for him. In his position as Grand Sachem he could name whom he wanted to positions in the city government, for which many were willing to pay handsomely. He thus began to build upon the already well-established practice of patronage.
The Sons of St. Tammany was born of fellowship and patriotism in 1786 but soon found a new reason for being: politics. By 1798 Tammany was aligned with the Jeffersonians, under the leadership of Aaron Burr. Its true power and longevity developed through patronage, which Tweed perfected. Tammany’s political ideology was simple; keep politics friendly and provide jobs, patronage, and even citizenship to those willing to vote “early and often.” Their courting of newly arrived immigrants, especially the Irish, who were pouring in starting in the 1840s due to the potato famine, gave them a huge electoral power base. If that did not work they could always stuff the ballots.
With Tweed at its helm Tammany and the city government was soon populated with a number of men willing to break the law for personal gain on a level that had not been seen before. Among these were New York City Comptroller, Richard "Slippery Dick" Connolly, Mayor Abraham Oakey Hall, known as "Elegant Oakey,” and Peter B. Sweeny, the city’s corporation counsel. From 1854 to 1871 it is estimated that between $30 and $200 million was sucked out of the city’s coffers by Tweed and his ring, which in today’s terms would mean over a billion dollars. Their main scam was quite simple. They would overpay by up to 10 times on goods and services with companies that were in on it and take their cut from the inflated portion of the bill. Their crowning achievement may have been the county courthouse, which cost twelve million to build, with two-thirds of that cost being fraudulent.
In April 1870 the New York City charter was pushed through Albany giving Tweed and his gang full control of the city’s treasury. It allowed Mayor Hall to appoint all city officials as well. The charter also made it possible for Tammany to reduce the city taxes by 2 percent of assessed property value. As a result this move doubled the city’s debt to $90 million in a two-year period, between 1869 and 1871. Tilden said that the New York City Charter was sprung upon him but that he was virulently against it. He gave a speech in front of Tweed, by then a state senator, and the rest of the Senate before the bill’s passage, in which he railed against the charter’s potential abuses. But still he did not act.
Morrissey was one of the first Tammany politicians to break with Tweed, splitting in 1868 during his second term in Congress, helping to form a new group of New York Democrats called the Young Democracy. They had plans to ouster Tweed from Tammany Hall but Tweed learned of the plan and used policemen to prevent Young Democracy members from entering the building on the night of the planned coup in March 1870. While the political coup was unsuccessful, pressures from other corners would soon assist in the Ring’s unraveling. Among these was a German-born cartoonist named Thomas Nast. He was born in Landau, Germany in 1840, the son of an army trombonist. He immigrated to New York City with his family six years later. He would become the most celebrated, and influential, cartoonist of his day through his association with Harper's Weekly, where he worked from 1859 to 1860 and from 1862 until 1886. The stalwart Republican tended to see everything in stark black or white and around 1869 he turned his gaze, and pen, toward Tweed and his ring. With the onslaught of satirical cartoons and anti-Tammany editorials from New York City papers the tide was beginning to turn.
On October 28, 1871, it was Tweed’s turn to be brought to bear for his past misdeeds. At 12:30 PM Wheeler Hazard Peckham, a special prosecutor for the state, walked into the sheriff’s office and handed a deputy the arrest order for Tweed on charges filed by Marshall Champlain, New York State Attorney General. An hour later Sheriff Matthew Brennan, who had replaced O’Brian, walked into Tweed’s office at the Public Works building—Tweed had been appointed commissioner by Mayor Hall the year before—and served the papers. “Good morning, Mr. Tweed,” he said pleasantly.
“Good morning,” Tweed replied softly. “Mr. Tweed, I have an order for your arrest,” the sheriff told him. “I expected it,” Tweed replied, “but not quite so soon.”
Convicted in December 1873 on 204 charges of misdemeanor criminal fraud , Tweed served one year of a 12-year prison sentence and was immediately rearrested on civil charges upon his release. In 1875 Tweed fled to Cuba and eventually Spain. He was caught, due, in part, to his being recognized through one of Nast’s cartoons featuring Tweed. The cartoon showed Tweed holding two boys by the collar with one hand, and holding a billy club in the other and stating: "If all the people want is to have somebody arrested, I'll have you plunderers convicted. You will be allowed to escape; nobody will be hurt; and then Tilden will go to the White House, and I to Albany as Governor." A Spanish official, unable to read English, apparently thought Tweed was a child kidnapper.
By this time Morrissey had been elected to the New York State Senate in 1875, running on an anti-Tammany platform, known as the “Irving Hall Democracy.” After Tweed’s downfall Morrissey shared power with ”Honest” John Kelly, but was eventually ousted in a power play by his former political ally. Morrissey fought back, winning Tweed’s old district and helping to break Tammany’s hold on the city, at least for a few years.
Morrissey won a second term in the state senate but practically killed himself in the process. He went down south for several months, hoping that the balmier weather would improve his health but it did not. During this same time Tweed, back in jail after his Spanish adventure, was also close to death. Tweed died in the Ludlow Street prison in Manhattan on April 18, 1878. Although he had severe pneumonia, as did Morrissey, it was his heart that killed him. His family had practically abandoned him by now but one of his daughters, Elizabeth, was by his side. He mumbled out a number of his enemy’s names and said that they would probably be happy now that he was dead. Morrissey died shortly thereafter. On May 1, 1878, Morrissey’s wife, Susie, and a few of their servants stood nearby. When Morrissey finally succumbed, the entire state mourned his death. Tammany, however, continued to maintain a stranglehold on New York City until the 1960s.
Saturday, May 8, 2010
A rag-tag fleet of boats converged on Mare Island, just outside of Vallejo, California. The steamship Red Jacket, carrying John Morrissey—the contender—and his friends pulled alongside the West Point where George Thompson, newly crowned Champion of California, waited with his entourage. It was a broiling August day and the mosquitoes that plagued the mile wide strip of land named for a Spanish general’s horse were swarming in huge numbers. It was time for the bout that would help put California on the pugilistic map and the 900 men pouring off the various vessels were, like the insects hovering around their heads, ready for blood…
So began Morrissey’s plunge into the world of professional boxing, at least as professional as mid-19th century boxing got, which wasn’t very. Speaking of professional, I’ve been doing research on Morrissey’s time in California and the boxing scene there and have found that the newspapers of the era were rather slapdash affairs, filled with vague reports and rumors, unless they actually had a reporter on the scene. When they did have a writer there, the stories contain reams of minutia (which I of course prefer) written in the florid prose of the day.
For instance, the first professional fight in San Francisco that was well publicized came off in 1850 between a fighter named James Kelly and another man simply known as “McGee.”
This casual attitude extended to other parts of life in old California. On my quest to track down more information on “A man named McGee,” which was apparently his full title, I came across a criminal case involving the Kelly-McGee match. It seems that after Kelly was bested by McGee, he was consoled with $500 from the door. He immediately got drunk with his friend, referred to by everyone as "The Bear Hunter" and was robbed of the money. In the ensuing investigation, handled by the Committee of Vigilance, McGee’s first name never comes up.
As an aside, Kelly found out who robbed him and, upon threats of death, recouped his loss by becoming the new proprietor of a bar called “The Port Phillip House.”
My search for the elusive first name of Mr. McGee continues…
On another note, I’ve found a number of incorrect dates at to when the Morrissey-Thompson fight occurred. It was Aug. 20, 1852, a Friday. Morrissey won.
Monday, March 15, 2010
John Morrissey was known as a drinker, a habit that got him into a number of tussles in his youth and may have contributed, in part, to his early death. So what was his poison? He tended to drink wine and brandy, but wasn't above imbibing in whiskey and later, as his star began to rise, champagne.
While much of the wine and related inebriates were imported from Europe during Morrissey's time, distilled alcohol was mostly produced stateside and quite a lot was produced in New York, which had a long distilling history.
The distilling of grains and fruits to produce alcohol has been intimately entwined with the history of America, from George Washington plying his soldiers with spirits to the rise of a national movement that temporarily banned alcohol across the country in the 1920s and gave rise to the bootlegger. New York State once had a thriving distilling industry, but it was the temperance movement and prohibition that helped kill it.
Beginning in the early-1600s with the Dutch colonization of what is now New York State, alcohol played an important part in the lives of the settlers. The Dutch in particular enjoyed their tippling and drank heartily of beer, brandy and eventually, rum.
“Weddings and funerals and all occasions of feasts and merry-making were opportunities for hard drinking, of which the guests took full advantage,” wrote Esther Singleton in her 1909 book “Dutch New York.”
Alcohol, and the tavern, played such a central role in the lives of the colonists that the law took drunkenness into consideration in contractual agreements and even criminal cases. A man had 24-hours to sober up after making a drunken deal, repudiating his actions the day after they were made.
While the Dutch West India Company, the chartered Dutch trade organization that held dominion over part of North America, imported much of the hard liquor to the colony, It didn’t take long for the newcomers to begin distilling their own alcohol.
Willem Kieft, the director general for the colony from 1638 to 1647, before being fired for mismanagement, was distilling brandy in Long Island, apparently encroaching on his employer’s privilege to control the product.
According to Harvey W. Wiley, writing in 1919, it was likely that what was referred to as brandy during this period in North America was not distilled from grapes, but rather from grain and would be considered a whiskey today.
By the mid-1600s New Amsterdam (New York City) and the Hudson Valley saw a number of distilleries of both brandy and gin begin production.
Gin was considered to be a drink of the lower classes, but was none-the-less popular. Home-grown liquor was also plentiful, and inventive, being made from peaches, pears, sweet potatoes and apples.
Dutch colonist Adrian Van der Donck, writing in the mid-1600s, claimed that the English even made a liquor from watermelons. But all these would soon be eclipsed by a product being produced in the neighboring English colony to the east—“that cussed liquor, Rhum, rumbullion, or kill-devil.”
The above was how 17th century New England colonist John Josselyn described rum, distilled from molasses, which began to be produced in huge quantities in New England by the 1670s.
Molasses from the West Indies came to New England where it was converted to rum, shipped to Africa and traded for slaves.
By this time New Netherland was firmly in the hands of the British, and as such, rum became popular, and rum production, although small in comparison with Massachusetts, came to New York.
If gin and brandy defined the Dutch era in New York and rum that of the revolutionary period, it was whiskey that exemplified the young country, and New York.
By the early-1800s the continued strife with England, specifically the War of 1812, dried up the country’s supply of molasses and so Americans turned to whiskey produced from native grains and corn.
Early whiskey distilling used water power to grind the grains or corn, with the stills nearby. Creating the mash used to produce the final product was mixed by hand. Most whiskey at the time was raw, unaged and fiery.
George Washington helped the whiskey industry take off in America by becoming a distiller himself after retiring from public life. He operated the largest distillery in America at the time, producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey in 1799 at his farm at Mount Vernon.
By 1825, New York State had more than a thousand small distilleries, and produced a large quantity of the nation's whiskey. But the country’s thirst appeared to be on the wane.
Hunt’s merchant magazine of 1842 decried the decline in the whiskey trade that year.
“A most remarkable reduction has taken place in the demand for this article during the past twelve months. The demand was much reduced a year ago; but now it is not half what it was then,” wrote Freeman Hunt. “The distillers, four or five years since, were running their works night and day, pressed with the demand for whiskey, and consuming rye and corn in immense quantities; at one time four thousand five hundred bushels daily. Now the consumption is less than two thousand bushels daily, and is rapidly diminishing.”
This decline coincided with the rise of the temperance movement.
As early as the Dutch period, people complained of the drunkenness prevalent in the colony and it only got worse.
The government cracked down on drunkenness, forcing taverns to close at nine at night and shuttering them during church services.
In Massachusetts, Increase Mather, a Puritan minister influential in the colony’s government, complained in 1686 that “it is an unhappy thing that in later years a kind of drink called Rum has been common among us. They that are poor, and wicked too, can for a penny or two-pence make themselves drunk.”
That colony also took steps to try and stave the inebriation, with little result.
The mid-19th century saw the strongest backlash against drinking with a number of New England ministers and reformers take up the teetotaling banner, with barnstorming lectures across the country.
Soon a number of well-organized groups were formed—The Prohibition Party in 1869, the Women's Christian Temperance Foundation in 1874 and the Anti-Saloon League of America in 1893, among many.
In fiscal year 1917 New York State was in the top seven producers of distilled spirits in the country, but two years later, with the passing of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Prohibition began and New York’s distilling industry died.