- The Notorious John Morrissey: How a Bare-Knuckle Brawler Became a Congressman and Founded Saratoga Race Course by James C. Nicholson
John Morrissey was a larger-than-life character whose upbringing made him temperamentally, and physically, a champion fighter in the making. As a teenager in Troy, New York, he worked for Irish gangsters and survived various indictments for assault and battery, as well as a short period in jail. He earned the nickname “Old Smoke” when, in a brouhaha with a gang member called Tom McCann, he was smashed against an overturned stove and the burning coals served as his branding iron. Morrissey knocked McCann out, and, although an unsuccessful prospector in the California Gold Rush, he made his fortune as a gambler and used these monies to prepare for his first bare-knuckle fight. He won it with an eleventh-round knockout.
James Nicholson’s subtitle for The Notorious John Morrissey is How a Bare-Knuckle Brawler Became a Congressman and Founded Saratoga Race Course. The subtitle highlights the fact that this biography is much more than an historical canvas depicting the bruising and bloody spectacle that was prize fighting in the 1850s. Yes, Nicholson devotes Chapter 3 to the epic 1858 bout in which Morrissey defended his title against John C. Heenan. Nicholson writes of a “[b]attered and bloody [Morrissey]. . . . His eye was nearly swollen shut, he had cuts around his mouth, and his nose was bashed in, flattened against his face” (56). However, the full lifelong picture, ably crafted by Nicholson, is of a celebrity fighter who parlayed his fistic feats into an astonishing array of business and political successes.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Saratoga was established as a premier tourist destination in America. Morrissey, always alert to any opportunity of making a lot of money as quickly as possible, organized a group of wealthy sponsors to purchase and set up the Saratoga Race Course. An integral part of the racetrack was a casino called “The Club House.” It attracted all manner of luminaries, including Rutherford B. Hayes, Ulysses S. Grant, John D. Rockefeller, and Mark Twain. According to the author, “His [Morrissey] fame and notoriety gave the track instant publicity but also helped him to maintain order among the track patrons” (84).
Morrissey’s ability as an entrepreneur—and the qualities that had seen him flourish as a boxer, a gang member, and a gambler—gave him the clout and confidence to run for political office. He was elected to two terms in the U. S. House of Representatives and two terms in the New York Senate.
James C. Nicholson’s previous books on horseracing, The Kentucky Derby (2012) and Never Say Die (2013), reveal his passion for the sport and his enthusiastic embrace of things equestrian. Correctly, Nicholson sees Morrissey’s major legacy as being the successful architect of America’s oldest major sports venue, the Saratoga race track.
The Notorious John Morrissey shows how much historical scholarship can benefit from crisp editing and a shorter, rather than a longer, accounting. Nicholson’s notes—twenty-nine pages—are a delight to scrutinize. They serve up a rich fare of primary sources, and a bonus for readers is that a significant number of the notes provide the author with an additional stage to expand on book themes. [End Page 120]
A final point: the University Press of Kentucky needs to be congratulated for the packaging, publishing, and presenting of this book. The bold and colorful dust cover is eye-catching.