Saturday, May 8, 2010

California dreaming

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

Bottoms Up: New York's Distilling History

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.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Happy 179th birthday J.M. You're a lucky man to have the same birthday as my lovely wife!

Friday, January 29, 2010

How we played: A look back at the history of winter sports in New York

Editors note: This originally appeared in the Register-Star in a different form. I've edited the piece to only include winter activities that would have been popular during John Morrissey's lifetime. I've also included a different introduction.

New York City in the mid-19th century was often a place of abject despair, filled with disease and death. But even the poorer classes weren't above a snowball fight after a snow storm to enliven a desultory existence. Winter sports such as ice skating became hugely popular during Morrissey's lifetime, but had their beginnings years before.

When the Dutch settled New York they brought with them a number of winter sports, including ice skating and hockey.17th century skates were made of iron and wood and were often attached to the wearer’s shoes by leather straps. Skating matches were common, but in some areas skating was used as much for business as pleasure. Charles Wooley, an Englishman who visited New York in the 1670s said he found it admirable “to see men and women as it were flying upon their skates from place to place with markets upon their Heads and Backs.”

A form of ice hockey was also brought over from the Netherlands as well and, according to some, the word hockey is derived from the Dutch slang word for a goal—hokkie—which roughly translates as “doghouse.”

Ice skating had been around for thousands of years by the time the Dutch brought the sport to New York, but it would take the Industrial Revolution to popularize the sport. By the mid-19th century ice skating was becoming a craze among the middle and upper classes, so much so that many American artists began to paint images depicting the sport.

While some of the Dutch sports became part of the American fabric, other died out over the years, including a game that involved rolling a disk across the ice. “Cleverly thrown, it would roll a long distance. When it fell, it was thrown again. He who covered the most ground, in a certain number of throws, while the disc rolled upright won the game,” wrote Esther Singleton in her 1909 book “Dutch New York.”

Another game, brought to America by Scottish immigrants in the early 19th century, continues to be popular in many parts of the world and even parts of the United States, but has nearly died out in the Hudson Valley. The sport’s history goes back to the 1500s where it was played in Scotland and Holland, with the Scottish codifying its rules around 1807. According to the Ardsley Curling Club Web site, the game involves members of the team sliding 42 pound polished granite stones down a 146 foot long sheet of ice helped by the sweeping of teammates to melt the ice and control the distance and direction of the stone. The closest stones to the target score points. The typical game consists of eight innings. Located in Irvington, in Westchester County, the Ardsley Curling Club was formed in 1932 and is one of only a few clubs left in the region. Both New York City and Albany were centers for curling, both having large populations of Scottish stone masons, and small clubs remain in both cities today.

The late 1800s were curling’s heyday in New York with clubs up and down the state. But, according to John Kerr, writing in “Curling in Canada and the United States,” in 1909, the sport was beginning to wane within the state by the turn of the century.

“The younger generation don't seem to have the same sentiment, nor are they imbued with the same love for the traditions of the game, or the grand old land that has given to the whole world the best, the cleanest, and manliest of sports that is played outdoors,” he wrote. “There are a few of us left yet who are ready to make any reasonable sacrifice to the end that curling in the States is to go on and progress.”

Curling remains hugely popular in Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as Scotland and Canada and became an Olympic medal sport in 1998.

A winter sport that has risen in the United States from an obscure activity of California Gold Rush minors to a national pastime is snow skiing, especially the Alpine or down hill variety.
Skiing had been a part of Nordic cultures for thousands of years before making its way to the United States with Nordic and German immigrants.

In the 1850s skis were in use on the West Coast during the gold rush, but didn’t catch on until the next century.

Ice yachting, the sport of the Robber Barons, came into the fore during Morrissey's time. These wooden hulled machines were the apex of speed and style in the mid-19th century, able to reach speeds of 70 mph or more. The Hudson River Ice Yacht Club, formed in 1885 by John Aspinwall Roosevelt, uncle of 32nd U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, still exists today with around 60 members.

While not a sport per se, sleigh riding was popular in the area since the time of the founding of New Amsterdam. While sleighs served as transport they also served as a means to an end, with people taking rides out into the country for entertainment.

Sarah Kemble Knight writing of her visit to New York in 1707 commented on the variety and number of sleighs that were present on one excursion. “I believe we mett 50 or 60 slays that day — they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’le turn out of the path for none except a Loaden Cart,” she wrote. According to Singleton, the Dutch often made their sleighs into fantastic shapes, “such as animals, ships, fabulous monsters, or shells, carved, gilded, and brightly painted.”And while it has almost completely passed away every winter around the holidays the sounds and images of this pastime come to life through the classic carol that begins “dashing through the snow...”