Book Excerpt: Bare Knuckles & Saratoga Racing

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Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the new book “Bare Knuckles & Saratoga Racing: The Remarkable Life of John Morrissey” by Brien Bouyea, communications officer at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Published by The History Press, the book is available nationwide at,, and in store at numerous locations throughout Saratoga Springs, including the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, Lyrical Ballad, Barnes and Noble, Northshire Bookstore and Impressions of Saratoga.

The following excerpt details Morrissey’s days following his successful defense of the American boxing championship against John “The Benicia Boy” Heenan. Morrissey has stated his intention to retire from boxing and move on to other endeavors. The former champion pugilist had arrived in Saratoga Springs and was plotting the opening of a racetrack against the backdrop of the Civil War.


Chapter 8 – A Letter from Saratoga Springs

John Morrissey promised his wife, regardless of the outcome, his title defense against John Heenan would be the final time he would step in the ring. The Benicia Boy, his body and pride battered, was desperate to persuade Old Smoke to grant him another shot at the championship. There was tremendous public demand for a rematch and the prize money figured to be substantial. Morrissey, however, intended to keep his word and resisted the temptation to throw down with Heenan a second time.    

There were plenty of endeavors outside of the ring for Old Smoke to attend to. He now had several gambling houses of his own and was partners in numerous others throughout New York City. His duties in connection with Tammany Hall were rapidly expanding and his political influence had grown to the point where the police never interfered in any of his activities. Still, there was great pressure for Morrissey to fight Heenan a second time. Old Smoke received numerous death threats for continuing to refuse to take up the challenge. He responded with an open letter in the New York Tribune:

“Sir: Previous to my recent engagement with Mr. Heenan, I publicly announced that it would be my last fight. At its conclusion I proclaimed the same determination. Circumstances, seeming to me imperative, forced me into this contest. I considered myself obliged to make the match and fight it, determined by it to vindicate my honor and manhood, and to relieve myself from the persecution and assaults of my foes. I consider the first of these objects accomplished. No one has or can complain of the manner in which myself or my friends have conducted the fight. I had hopes that my second objective would also have been secured. I have no desire for further contest with any man. My duties to my family and myself require me to devote my time and efforts to purposes more laudable and advantageous. I hope to be permitted to do so without further interference from my late antagonist or his friends. I am aware of his published challenge and threat. It seems to be the determination to force me into another match, or assail me openly with violence. I now repeat that I shall never enter the prize-ring again, and those who know me will not misapprehend the motives for this resolution. It arises from no fear of any man, but from a desire to more fittingly discharge my duties to my family and society. Nor shall I be driven from this purpose by any threats of unlawful violence. I shall trust to the laws and the just influence of public sentiment to preserve me in the common privileges of an American citizen. If assaulted, I have no fear of my ability to defend myself, unless overcome, as I have been heretofore, by cowardly combinations. I shall exercise the right of defending myself, and trust to the countenance of all fair men to sustain me in my peaceable determination. Before the fight with Mr. Heenan, I declared publicly on the ground that if he vanquished me, I would take him by his hand and acknowledge my defeat without cherishing any animosity. My treatment of him and his friends after it was all over is well understood. It certainly was not illiberal or unkind. It is not for me to proclaim or boast of it, but I am entitled to say that it ought to protect me from all abuse from him or them.

While Morrissey’s declaration did not totally squelch the matter, it did temporarily quiet the voices of Heenan and his cronies. Old Smoke, while still maintaining some ties to the streets, now spent much of his time meeting on equal terms with captains of industry and finance such as Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt and Fernando Wood. He sought to distance himself from the likes of Dad Cunningham, Lew Baker, Awful Gardner and characters of that sort. Morrissey instead focused on spoiling his wife with beautiful gowns and sparkling jewels. They purchased a lavish home in New York City and Old Smoke looked to leave his violent past behind.

Along with John Petrie, Morrissey successfully partnered with the wealthy Matt Danser in a couple of gambling houses. He had also ventured out on his own with an establishment at 8 Barclay Street. Old Smoke’s Barclay Street house was elegantly furnished and catered only to the high rollers. Morrissey cleaned up with the place, earning more than a million dollars during the next few years. Along with his ownership stake in the gambling houses, Old Smoke became an accomplished poker player, emptying the pockets of many men with his skill at card games. Morrissey was known to play poker in binges that could last an entire day and night. In one of these marathon sessions he reportedly took $120,000 from Ben Wood, the owner of the Daily News and Fernando Wood’s brother.

Old Smoke continued to expand until he had stakes in at least sixteen gambling establishments throughout New York City. He took over the house at 5 West Twenty-fourth Street when owner Joe Hall lost all his money in bad investments and was forced to sell. It was the most popular gambling house in the city and the money flowed to Morrissey. There were numerous anti-gambling factions in the city, but none of these crusaders dared target Morrissey. The police would simply refuse to raid his houses. Old Smoke had all the right connections. His political clout was tremendous and he had influential friends ranging from Wall Street heavyweights to feared killers in the Dead Rabbits. As his business interests flourished, Morrissey began to dabble in the stock market. He had become a favorite of shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and prospered from the Commodore’s advice when it came to trading New York Central railroad stock. Old Smoke had become a millionaire.

However, not all of the news was good for Morrissey. In March 1860, Old Smoke received word his mother had died under mysterious circumstances. The New York Times reported from Troy:

“The body of Julia Morrissey, mother of John Morrissey, the known pugilist, was found yesterday morning about 6 o’clock, in the Poestenkill Creek, near the Second-street crossing. The body had the appearance of being in the water all night, and it is supported that in attempting to cross the Second-street bridge, she lost her way, walked into the creek and was drowned. Mrs. Morrissey was a woman of very unsteady habits, and has probably engrossed the attention of our police magistrates more than any other single person. She has repeatedly served terms in the penitentiary. During nearly a year past the unfortunate woman has been an inmate of the county home, which she left only a day or two ago, and has since been quite intoxicated. All efforts to reform her were beyond power. The inquest was held yesterday afternoon, and the jury brought in a verdict that Julia Morrissey came to her death by accidental drowning.”

Julia Morrissey was fifty-four years old at the time of her death. Tim Morrissey, meanwhile, was living in a boarding house in Troy. He was struggling with alcoholism and mental illness and had disconnected himself from his family. There was nothing John Morrissey could do to help his father. Tim Morrissey was a sick and bitter man worn down by life and he desired nothing other than booze.

Although he maintained the stance he was retired from the ring there were always rumors Morrissey was considering giving Heenan another opportunity. After much speculation – and more denials by Old Smoke – it appeared Morrissey had changed his mind. In July 1860, the New York Herald printed a letter signed by Morrissey that he would indeed come out of retirement and fight John Heenan once again. The Benicia Boy had recently returned from England after fighting to a draw with British champion Tom Sayers. The Herald reported:

“As John C. Heenan has now arrived home, and he has, when in Europe, expressed so fervent a wish to fight me again, I will not balk him in his wish now I have him on the spot. I will fight him in four months from signing articles for from ten dollars to ten thousand dollars a side, and as it seems paradoxical to me and my friends to see a man dubbed champion of the world who has never won a fight in the ring, I will give him the chance he wants. I will meet him when and where he likes – put up what forfeit he likes – I to choose a stakeholder to be agreeable to us both. I trust outsiders will not interfere to prevent this match at – least until the money is up, which I am prepared to stake at drawing of articles.

Heenan answered in the same publication two days later:

“I have noted with much satisfaction that John Morrissey declares that he will give me a second meeting in the ring. This in itself pays me for the time I spent in England, and I at once accept all the terms he offers, and choose for stakes the highest sum he names. I will place in any responsible man’s hands the sum of $2,500 for deposit for a match at $10,000 a side, pending the drawing of articles and selection of a stakeholder. I should have been pleased after my long stay abroad to have a few weeks of leisure to enjoy among my friends, but as there is no way in which I can be gratified so much as by being guaranteed an early match with Morrissey, I hope they will excuse me for this new occupation of my time. If Mr. Morrissey will send me word by note when and where he desires to see me for the arrangement of preliminaries I will meet him without delay, and the only further wish I now desire to state is that, like the stakes, the forfeit be large.

Morrissey, however, wrote the Herald to debunk the authenticity of the initial challenge issued in his name.

“Saratoga Springs,
June 17, 1860.

 My attention has been called to a challenge purporting to come from me to John C. Heenan in your issue of this day. I desire to say in answer that I am not the author of this challenge, nor have I authorized any person or persons to issue such a challenge in my name. Moreover, I am not training for any fight, but am here for my health, and have business of more importance on hand than preparing for such a contest.

Yours respectfully,

It was never discovered who authored the original challenge in Morrissey’s name. The champion intended to remain retired and did just that. He never fought Heenan, or anyone else, ever again. What was most interesting about Old Smoke’s response in the Herald was the location from which it originated. The infamous John Morrissey had come to Saratoga Springs, New York. The sleepy village would never be the same.

Old Smoke likely knew of Saratoga during his youth, as the resort town was less than thirty miles north of where he grew up in Troy. Located on the southern end of the Adirondack Mountains, Saratoga already had a proud history by the time Morrissey began casing the place in the early 1860s. American soldiers earned a decisive victory over John Burgoyne and his British regiment near Saratoga during the Revolutionary War in the autumn of 1777. The crucial events at Saratoga led to America receiving assistance from France in the war effort against England. Many historians regard what took place in the two Battles of Saratoga as being among the most significant occurrences in the American struggle for independence. By the mid-1840s, the town had become a popular destination in the summer months for some of the wealthiest families in the country. The New York Post described Saratoga in its August 7, 1843 edition by publishing a letter from a gentleman vacationing in the town:

“I arrived here yesterday … a hot day … sandwiched like a boiled beef between several quiet old gentlemen, who had melted into butter, and as many unquiet young ladies.

“Saratoga, meaning both the hotels and the village, I found, of course, crammed with people. The United States Hotel is literally bursting, every chink and cranny being stuffed, and every door and window forming an outlet merely for the mass pent up within.

“It is said there are more than four thousand strangers in the place, among them Mr. Van Buren. He is proud and plump as a partridge in the fall … no less attractive to the eyes of the ladies than those of the politicians. Persons of less note are here in endless variety. Jonathan Goodhue and A. T. Stewart keep up the dignity of the New York millionaires.

“Coming down from Utica yesterday we were in the same train as John Quincy Adams. I was glad to see that he was cordially received wherever we stopped, for the old man, I think, has never received as much popular demonstration as his abilities deserve.

“At about three the carriages began to appear in front of the hotels, and the owners made up the cavalcade, which started on the afternoon drive, usually to Saratoga Lake. What a sight it was to see carriage after carriage start out, with splendid, high stepping horses, harness covered with silver and gold plated monograms; drivers with spotless liveries, tight knee breeches, high top boots and tall hats; carriages shining as if newly vanished. The ladies were costumed in the gayest of fashionable colors, with bright parasols.”

The rich and famous came for the healing waters and the spas. Prior to becoming president, George Washington traveled through Saratoga on horseback in July 1783 and made inquiries about purchasing the entire place. Celebrated writers James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe later became regular visitors. It is even part of local lore than Poe composed a portion of “The Raven” in the woods near Revolutionary War hero Jacobus Barhyte’s popular tavern. The railroad arrived in 1831, making the town more accessible, and several of America’s grandest hotels – including the United States Hotel, Grand Union Hotel and Congress Hall – rose to national prominence. Those who came to Saratoga tended to fall in love with the place. John Morrissey was no exception. He also saw opportunity, envisioning a gambling and entertainment mecca, and profiting on the tourists during the warm summer months.

Old Smoke opened a gambling house in Saratoga on Matilda Street in 1861, setting the wheels in motion for the future. He was generally welcomed in Saratoga. To keep in the good graces of the town fathers, Morrissey generously donated a significant amount of money to local schools, churches and hospitals. He also restricted locals from venturing into his Matilda Street house. Old Smoke believed it would be bad business to dip into the pockets of the Saratoga residents when there was plenty of money to be made from the wealthy vacationing set. His Matilda Street establishment operated at night during the summer season and was a successful venture. Morrissey, however, never rested on his laurels and looked for additional ways to profit in Saratoga.

Meanwhile, there was a war going on. In April 1861, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina and the nation was suddenly tearing itself apart. During the next four years, more than six hundred thousand Americans were killed during the dark days of the Civil War. The fighting never reached New York City, but the war’s impact almost destroyed the city nonetheless.

By July 1863, tensions in New York City had boiled over. As the Civil War was at the height of its bloody carnage, the Draft Riots consumed New York. The culmination of working-class discontent with the new Congressional laws to draft men to fight in the war, the riots forced President Abraham Lincoln to divert several regiments of militia and volunteer troops following the Battle of Gettysburg to New York in an attempt to restore order. The rioters were predominantly common laborers who were unable to pay a $300 commutation fee to spare themselves from service in a war many of them knew or cared nothing about. The rioting and looting lasted four days and when the smoke finally cleared the death toll was listed at one hundred and nineteen. Homes, businesses, churches and even an orphanage were burned to the ground. Not all businesses were ransacked, however. Leonard Jerome, the “King of Wall Street,” defended the offices of the New York Times, of which he was a major stakeholder, with a Gatling Gun. Morrissey, meanwhile, enlisted his old friends in the Dead Rabbits to protect his gambling houses without significant incident.

It was a peculiar time for Old Smoke to be conceiving a plan to bring thoroughbred racing to Saratoga Springs, but that’s exactly what he was doing. Racing in New York had a checkered history and had been outlawed in the state for much of the first half of the nineteenth century. An 1802 law passed in New York read:


An Act to prevent Horse-Racing, and for other purposes therein mentioned:

Passed March 19th, 1802

Be it enacted by the People of the State of New York, represented in Senate and Assembly, that all racing and running, pacing and trotting of horses, mares or geldings, for any bet or stakes, in money, goods or chattels, or other valuable thing, shall be and hereby are declared to be common and public nuisances, and offences against this state; and the authors, bettors, stakers, stake-holders, parties, contrivers and abettors thereof, shall be proceeded against, and punished by fine or imprisonment at the discretion of any court having cognizance thereof; and all public officers concerned in the administration of justice are hereby strictly enjoined to cause this act to be faithfully executed.

The law was unpopular from the beginning. A petition to the New York State Senate in 1804 stated “the law against racing is so repugnant to the public sentiment that it is incapable of execution, and the unpunished violation of law has a tendency to bring into contempt the authority of government.” But there were always people looking for loopholes in the law and there were scattered reports of both running and trotting contests throughout New York during the ensuing years.

In 1821, Queens County was granted an exemption to the anti-racing law, but a similar request from Saratoga Springs was denied in 1825. George Cole and Alfonso Patten, a pair of Saratoga entrepreneurs, understood racing’s popularity and took advantage of the ambiguity of the law by introducing trotting events under the guise they were exhibitions of speed at the county fair.

With some financial assistance of a third party, the wealthy James Marvin, Cole and Patten built the Saratoga Trotting Course. On August 14, 1847, the immortal Lady Suffolk, known as “The Old Gray Mare” in Stephen Foster’s folk song, opened the action at the Saratoga Trotting Course with a sensational performance. Fourteen years old at the time, Lady Suffolk competed in what was supposed to be an exhibition to help promote the upcoming New York State Fair. The most famous horse in America, Lady Suffolk was a major drawing card, bringing in an estimated crowd of five thousand to Saratoga. Lady Suffolk easily defeated Moscow in a best-of-five series of heats before the enthusiastic Saratoga gathering. The trotting meet featured four more days of racing, including a second match between Lady Suffolk and Moscow. The Old Gray Mare once again trounced her overmatched foe.

A month later, the State Fair arrived at Saratoga. Five days of trotting events were a major part of the allure. Former American presidents Martin Van Buren and John Tyler were in attendance, as was Millard Fillmore, a future American president. A footnote in the reporting of the racing action confirmed the first thoroughbred race in Saratoga’s history was also part of the festivities. On September 16, 1847, Lady Digby defeated Disowned and Hopeful in three straight heats in an event for “running horses.”

Lady Suffolk returned to Saratoga in 1849 at the ripe old age of sixteen and was again victorious. She soldiered on to race with distinction through the age of twenty, compiling a record of ninety wins, fifty-six second-place finishes and only nine unplaced efforts in 163 official starts. The Old Gray Mare raced in seventeen states and was just as well known as John Morrissey later became. She was Saratoga’s first sports hero – and Morrissey was determined to be its second.

Racing in Saratoga between 1847 and 1862 was sporadic. Several small tracks seemed to sprout up out of nowhere and were gone just as quick, although the Saratoga Trotting Course remained and was used intermittently during this period. Then, in the summer of 1863, as America was engaged in war with itself, Old Smoke had a seemingly illogical idea of bringing organized thoroughbred racing into the mainstream. As was his self-assured nature, it was not unexpected Morrissey made no pretenses of cloaking his vision under the ruse of a fair or “exhibitions of speed.” Thanks to some obscure wording passed by the state April 15, 1854, Old Smoke was able to execute a race meeting under the perceptible legal basis of “incorporation of associations for improving the breed of horses.” He would get around to those pesky legal details of the actual incorporation in a couple years, but nobody seemed to object when advertisements in the Daily Saratogian from July 23 through July 27 announced Morrissey’s undertaking. The ad stated:


Running Races! AT SARATOGA.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday
AUGUST 3rd, 4th, 5th & 6th

Cards of Admission, $1.00

For particulars, see Posters and Bills of each day. All sections of the North and West, and some portions of the South will be represented by their best horses, and Canada will also contend for some of the various purses. Excellent racing is anticipated.



Morrissey had beaten the bushes and was well prepared for Saratoga’s inaugural thoroughbred meeting. Earlier in 1863, he had placed an ad in Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times to recruit stable owners to support his vision. Old Smoke had originally planned three days of racing, but the response he received was so favorable he was able to expand the program to include a fourth day. It was a remarkable achievement just to recruit enough stables to participate considering that organized thoroughbred racing had essentially gone dark throughout the country because of the war. The Union had requisitioned as many horses as it could for the war effort and racing had even been interrupted in Kentucky, the epicenter of the sport. In fact, the track at Lexington was occupied for a time as Edmund Kirby Smith’s Confederate troops camped on the dormant course in the months following the South’s victory in the nearby Battle of Richmond.

But these troubles never reached Saratoga. Morrissey had convinced some of the most prominent racehorse owners in America – including Kentucky’s John Clay, son of the famous politician Henry Clay – to bring their best steeds to compete on a trotting track in upstate New York. Old Smoke had once again gambled and bet on himself. It was another winning move.

On August 1, 1863, the Daily Saratogian reported: “String after string of the best racers in America have lately wended their way to the Springs, ridden by a man or boy in racing costume.” That same day, the Saratoga Republican added: “The Race Horses at the Course will pass in review in front of the principal hotels this morning. The ladies will thus have an opportunity of seeing the noble animals who will contend for the various prizes next week.”

In an exhibition of showmanship, the twenty-seven thoroughbreds expected to compete were paraded past the grand hotel piazzas along Broadway two days before the meeting was scheduled to open. The owners, horses, trainers, jockeys and stable workers came to Saratoga from all over. Fourteen stables, representing Kentucky, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Canada were in town. Expectations were lofty. John Morrissey was about to preside over a historic spectacle and usher in a new era of elegance and sporting tradition in Saratoga.