Thursday, November 27, 2008

John Morrissey ready for action

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The library and a sinking ship

I spent what I felt was a fairly unproductive day in the New York State Library in Albany Monday, but honestly, for me a day in that library, or any other, is a day well spent.

While the day-to-day history of Troy, New York whirled past me on the microfiche machine—an experience that I can only compare to being slightly seasick or doing too many shots back-to-back—an interesting item caught my eye.

In the early morning hours of July 16, 1853 the 1,000-passenger steamboat Empire of Troy was on its way down the Hudson River to New York City from Troy. It was six miles below Poughkeepsie when it was rammed by an 180-ton sloop, the General Livingston. The Empire's boiler and paddle wheel were instantly sheared off, sending a torrent of boiling water and scalding steam onto both ships. Captain Levi Smith of the Empire, who had been sleeping at the time, instantly woke up and ran upstairs to see what had happened. Many of the passengers did the same. Several rushed into the saloon and were instantly burned by the super-heated steam that powered the vessel.Others were burned topside by boiling water. Several crew members from the Gen. Livingston were also injured.

John Morrissey, a passenger on the Empire, had just gone to bed when the accident occurred. He met up with his soon to be father-in-law, Capt. Smith and they aided several people who had been burned. They then rushed aft. "[We] found two men overboard, whom we rescued," remembered Morrissey after the accident.He and Capt. Smith calmed the rest of the passengers and kept them from jumping overboard. A fire started on board, but was put out soon after it began.

Eight people died and 14 were seriously burned that morning, but its possible more would have died by drowning if not for Morrissey and Capt. Smith. An investigation laid the blame of the accident on the captain of the General Livingston, Jacob Hollenbeck of Athens,NY., for allowing Casper Van Heusen to pilot the ship. Van Heusen was a 21-year old, who was also from Athens and had been on board for less than a week. According to Capt. Smith it was a clear night and you could see for about a mile-and-a-half. Van Heusen, in his defense, had never piloted a boat before. He said he saw some lights on the water up ahead but didn't know what they were. The first mate, who was supposed to be watching out from the forward position, may have been drunk or merely sleeping. He was severely burned in the accident.

Morrissey was the last man on the ship, which eventually sank, but not before all the passengers were rescued. The Empire was raised, but the damage was so severe the owners decided to scrap it.

The Empire's short career (it was only in service for 10 years, from 1843 to 1853) was rife with accidents. It crashed into a New York City pier in a pea soup fog in 1845. In 1849 the ship sank after a similar accident to the one in 1853. The owners raised it, refitted it and sent it back to work until the ill-fated morning in 1853.

Capt.Smith wasn't to blame for any of the Empire's misfortunes. He wasn't the captain in 1845 and, when made captain of the Empire, couldn't rightly keep other ships from bashing into his. Morrissey had been a deck hand for the Captain and would marry his daughter Susan Smith a little over a year after the accident.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bill "the Butcher" Poole gets offed

I spent last week killing off Bill “The Butcher” Poole. He was a right hard bastard, hanging on for weeks after taking a bullet in the chest. Here’s a taste of the events leading up to that day 153 years and nine months ago. Mind you this is only a taste. You’ll have to wait for the book to read the more detailed version of what happened…

John Morrissey sat drinking with friends in the back room of Stanwix Hall, located at 579 Broadway, between Houston and Prince Streets. It was just after 9 p.m. February 24, 1855. The wine was flowing as Morrissey talked with several acquaintances that evening, including Samuel Suydam, Major Morten Fairchild and Captain Lorenzo Lewis of
the Louisiana Cavalry. Morrissey had come in after the others. Suydam, a gambling house proprietor, invited Morrissey to have a drink or two. They settled in and thew3e3wine began to flow. 15 minutes later William “Bill the Butcher” Poole walked in.

Poole was a nativist, hating all things Irish, including Morrissey. The 34-year old was a butcher by trade and had a stall down at the Washington market. He had a lot of patronage and did well for himself, owning a bar as well as a bank exchange. He was a notorious brawler but not a professional boxer. Morrissey and Poole’s mutual dislike for one another began when Morrissey made his permanent home in New York City in 1852. Morrissey was working for Tammany Hall, while Poole was working against them for the nativist Know Nothing party. They wrangled on more than one occasion, but never officialy fought in the ring.

The back room of Stanwix Hall was separated from the bar at the front by a piece of cloth hanging in the doorway. Morrissey didn’t see Poole and his cohorts enter the bar. Knowing that Morrissey and Poole had a longstanding feud, Suydam tried to distract his friend. “Morrissey was sideways to the barroom; I saw Poole before Morrissey did,” Suydam stated during a deposition. He poured Morrissey some more wine and began to sing a song. Morrissey sang accompaniment. The distraction didn’t last long. When Morrissey saw Poole he got up and moved towards the bar. Suydam tried to talk his friend down, begging Morrissey to let him settle the matter between the two men for him. “I have been badly treated by that person and cannot do it,” he responded. Another man, drinking alone, also tried to stop Morrissey. “Let me alone. I know what I’m doing,” said Morrissey. A few seconds later the clamor of loud voices drifted into the back room, which promptly emptied out.

“There you are you cowardly son of a bitch,” said Morrissey across the crowded room filled with close to 60 people. He walked up to Poole who stood at the counter with his friends. “You’ve tasted my mutton before. How do you like it?” responded Poole, a cold smile on his lips. The remark was a reference to a beating Morrissey had taken at the hands of Poole and his cronies the previous summer at the docks at Amos Street. It cut Morrissey to the quick. He rushed at Poole but was held back by several people including James Irving, a friend of both men who tried to ease the situation, but to no avail. Poole pulled a pistol from inside his coat and jumped up on the bar. He made a loud farting noise with his mouth as he stood there, gun loosely aimed at Morrissey. Morrissey backed away in the direction of the front door and shouted for a weapon. Several tense seconds passed. Poole jumped back off the bar and stood where he had been before. Suddenly Morrissey had an old revolver and was aiming it in Poole’s direction. A friend had secreted it to him. Poole looked at Morrissey with complete disdain. “Go ahead you coward, shoot,” he said with his gun still trained on him. A crush of people rushed at Morrissey trying to wrestle the gun away. Morrissey got his arm free and snapped the hammer on the ancient pistol. Nothing happened. He tried twice more, but the gun continued to misfire. Irving pulled the gun from Morrissey’s hand. “You damned fool, what are you doing?” Irvin shouted at Morrissey. “I had to. He would have killed me,” responded the visibly shaken fighter. Friends of Poole would later claim in court that Poole didn’t have a weapon. No guns were presented in court as evidence.

Two police officers from the 17th Ward, friends of Morrissey, took him outside. “Go home,” Officer John Rue told him. “I swear on my honor and by all that is sacred, I’ll go home,” said Morrissey, before promptly walking into a bar, Charlie Abel’s, just down the street from Stanwix Hall. Rue followed him. They were there for less than five minutes. Rue dragged Morrissey out after one drink and they continued walking down Broadway. Morrissey stumbled into the City Hotel further south on Broadway a few minutes after 10 p.m. He was still in the company of Rue. This was the second bar they had stopped in since leaving Stanwix Hall. George Harpell, the proprietor, took notice of how drunk Morrissey seemed, thinking he was drunker than he had ever seen him before. Lewis Baker, Thomas McLaughlin, known as Pargene, and John Hyler, all friends of Morrissey, soon came in as well, kicking up a racket as they entered. Morrissey went to two other bars that night before finally making it to his father-in-law’s house on Hudson Street around 1 a.m. and passing out.

While Morrissey slept a group of his friends went back to Stanwix Hall. Baker, Pargene, Hyler, Charles Van Pelt, Jim Turner and Cornelius Linn entered the bar, unaware that Poole and several of his friends, including Cyrus Shay, Charles Lozier and Jacob Acker, had come back after the earlier incident and were once again drinking there. It was 1:30 a.m. Baker walked up to the bar and ordered a round of drinks. Pargene came up as well, and whether by intention or accident, bumped into Poole. Poole gave him a cold look. Pargene infuriated grabbed him by his collar. “You are a pretty American fighting son of a bitch,” Pargene said in a thick Irish brogue, his face inches away from Poole’s. “Ain’t you a pretty American.”

“I’m their standard bearer,” said Poole proudly.

“I want to fight you.” Pargene said. Poole just laughed.

“Don’t mind him Bill, he’s just drunk,” Turner told Poole. Van Pelt came up behind Pargene and tried to separate the two men. Pargene backhanded him. Van Pelt, angry and embarrassed, walked out of Stanwix Hall. Pargene, still holding onto Poole, spit in his face. Poole broke away and moved farther back into the room, pulling a pistol from beneath his coat. Turner, seeing this, pulled his own gun and moved towards Poole. “You mean to shoot?” asked Turner, pushing Pargene aside. “Then draw, damn you.” He rested his gun on his other arm, took aim and fired, but somehow managed to hit himself in the arm. He dropped to the ground screaming in pain. Another shot from Turner’s revolver hit Poole in the left leg just above the knee. Poole staggered and grabbed Baker who had moved towards him. Both men tumbled to the ground. Shots were fired from several guns. Lozier was hit in the head, probably from the gun of his friend Poole. The bullet grazed Lozier but it was enough to drop him. A second shot hit Lozier in the thigh. Baker and Poole continued wrestling. Baker was hit by two bullets—one in the abdomen and one across the forehead. Poole was shot in the chest, just under the left nipple. Shay got hold of Baker’s pistol, but it went off, burning his left hand, the bullet going into the wooden bar. Baker then made a break for the door. He was stopped momentarily by Acker, but struggled free and was gone. Shay took several shots at him and missed. The rest also made their escape.

Poole stood up and stumbled towards the door, pale and shaken. “Bill, come sit down, you’ve been terribly wounded,” Shay told him. “ No, I was only hit in the knee, I think,” responded Poole. Shay then explained to him that he had been hit in the chest. A few minutes later Poole collapsed. Poole was placed in a carriage and driven to his residence in Christopher Street. Doctors were unable to find the bullet that had pierced his heart.

Poole lived for more than two weeks before finally dying around 5 p.m. on March 8. He laid the blame on Morrissey. “I think I’m a goner,” he said on his deathbed. “If I die, I die a true American; what grieves me most is to think I was murdered by a set of Irish—by Morrissey in particular.”

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The tale of the bogus countess

I often come across strange little news items while researching John Morrissey’s life. Recently I found one that piqued my interest. I discovered a story about a bogus Countess, which was stuck in the midst of a long list of drowning victims, petit larcenies and attempted suicides crammed together under the heading "General City News" from the Aug. 27, 1860 edition of the New York Times.
The Countess had been living rent free at several Manhattan apartments and hotels by telling the proprietors a story of illicit love and banishment.

The lady in question went by the name Senora Dona Pedro and claimed she was the only child of a Portuguese royal named Don Pedro. She also said she was the cousin of Prince De Joinville.

François-Ferdinand-Philippe-Louis-Marie d'Orléans, prince de Joinville (1818 - 1900) was the third son of Louis Philippe, ruler of France during the July Monarchy and the last king of that country. Joinville was an admiral of the French Navy and an essayist.

According to Dona Pedro she was banished from her homeland for marrying an Englishman who later died. She was living in New York on $3000 yearly, a little over $52,000 in today’s dollars.

She also claimed to have an estate on Staten Island worth $25,000 ($436,000), with a fine carriage and horses to boot.
The Senora was busted when William Grigg of 1051 Broadway finally got tired of not getting his rent from the Senora. She hadn’t paid in four months.

She has been leasing 884 Broadway at the price of $75 per month and didn’t seem too concerned about the owing.
Come to find out the Senora was actually named Sarah J. Corkery and was a “procuress of loose women for fast men” aka a Madame. She had been swindling hotelkeepers and the like for upwards of nine years.

After her arrest several people came forward to tell how they had been had. Apparently hotelkeepers didn’t talk much amongst themselves in the mid-19th century.

One woman who came forward, Mrs. Susan Ramsey, the proprietress of the European House on Broadway, fell for the same story. After a few weeks with nary a penny from the Countess Ramsey's suspicions became aroused. She asked to see the "charming place" on Staten Island. The two women took a ferry to the island and the Countess pointed out her place, one might assume at random. The house actually belonged to Thomas Monroe, a Manhattan merchant. Ramsey, ever the skeptic, asked to go inside. "No," replied the Countess. "I don't like to put the occupants to the inconvenience of showing it."
Ramsey, apparently satisfied with the answer would later regret not pushing the matter further. She was out $425 for her troubles.

There were two more stories on the case, but after that the paper trail went cold. The last dispatch had our Senora sitting in jail waiting on a lawyer that was indisposed.

Monday, August 25, 2008

From the proposal for Old Smoke: A Tale of Pugilism, Power and Politics

Morrissey’s is the quintessential 19th Century American tale of pluck and perseverance. Born into poverty in Ireland he literally fought his way to the American dream of wealth, power and popularity. He was involved in the iconic events and institutions that shaped the country and still haunt our imagination—the immigration of the Irish, the gangs of New York, bare-knuckle boxing, the California gold rush, Tammany Hall politics and the birth of the gambling industry. By the end of his life he had made a fortune and had been a two-term United States Congressman and state senator. When he died, all the state offices in New York closed for the day and flags were flown at half-mast. 20,000 mourners attended his funeral.

How it started

John Morrissey stumbled into my life one day while I was doing research for my monthly column on the history of Columbia and Dutchess Counties (NY) called "History Happened Here." Morrissey won the title of "Champion of America" in 1853 in the hamlet of Boston Corners located in the far eastern corner of Columbia County and abutting Massachusetts. I wrote a little something on the fight in October of 2006 and forgot about it.

Several weeks after the piece ran I received an email message from a reader asking whether I would consider writing more on the subject. His father had been a big Morrissey memorabilia collector and apparently had reams of information. Somehow the two of us never connected and as the months passed I once again let Morrissey drift from my mind. But he never totally left.

One early morning I woke up and told my wife that I was going to write a biography of Morrissey. She thought it was a great idea and with her behind an idea it will see the light of day. So here we are.

This blog is probably as much for me as for anyone else interested in Morrissey, history, sports, politics, gangs, horse racing or the process one goes through while trying to gather these various sundry and vastly different areas into a coherent narrative.

You can plan on finding a journal on my day to day research for the book as well as interesting tidbits and side notes not directly related to Morrissey, but that I find too interesting, funny or weird not to include.