John "Old Smoke" Morrissey (1831-1878) was an Irish-born American politician, a bare-knuckle boxer and a gangster who led the Dead Rabbits during the mid-late 19th century. He was the first Irish Mob Boss in American history, possibly the first Mob Boss as well.
John Morrissey was born in Ireland in 1831. In 1833, he and his family emigrated to America, before the Great Potato Famine struck Ireland. Living in Troy, New York, he first worked cargo thief and a collection agent for local Irish crime bosses. He even worked as a bouncer at a South Troy brothel. Before he was 18, he had been arrested twice for burglary, once for assault and battery, and once for assault with intent to kill.
Morrissey learned how to read and write and became a bare-knuckle boxer, which was illegal back then.
Marching into the Empire Club in NYC, he declared himself "the toughest pugilist in the Eastern seaboard and I'm here to prove it." A fight ensued, and while Morrissey managed to hold his own for a while, the Irishman was soon knocked out. The leader of Tammany Hall and the Club, Isaiah Rynders, was impressed by the young man's audacity and hired him as a political organizer.
During a fight with a gang member named Tom McCann in New York City, Morrissey was pinned on his back atop burning coals from a stove that had been overturned. Morrissey endured the pain as his flesh burned, fought off McCann, and got back on his feet. Enraged, Morrissey beat McCann senseless as smoke from his burning flesh rose up from his back. The event earned him the nickname "Old Smoke," which stuck with him through the rest of his life.
The money he earned as a boxer, he used it to build gambling parlors in the Five Points, coming popular and becoming the de facto leader of the Irish immigrants. In 1857, a riot broke out with the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits. When Rynders attempted to end the riot, he was chased out of town and Morrissey took over the Dead Rabbits, becoming the first Mob Boss in American history.
His first act as boss was to expand his vast gambling empire. In 1863, he forged a partnership with William Tweed, the Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall. Morrissey opened gambling parlors, whore houses, speak easeys and gave a cut to Tweed. In 1868 he was elected to Congress.
Morrissey tried to be accepted by the WASP elite aristocracy, but he was rejected.
In 1878, he died of pneumonia at age 47. "Old Smoke" had "laid the groundwork and proved that an Irishman from the gutter could take on the world".
- John Morrissey on Wikipedia
- Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish-American Gangster on Youtube, based on the book by T.J. English