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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of John Morrissey, Irish American Politician & Boxing Champion

John Morrissey, Irish American politician, bare-knuckle boxing champion and criminal also known as ‘Old Smoke,’ is born on February 12, 1831 at Templemore, County Tipperary.

Morrissey is the only son among eight children of Timothy Morrissey, factory worker, and Julia (or Mary) Morrissey. In 1834 the family emigrates to Canada and then the United States, settling at Troy, New York. From the age of ten he works, first in a mill, and then as an iron worker due to his size and strength. He becomes involved in various street gangs, developing a reputation as a pugilist of great strength and resolve. As leader of the Down-Town gang, he defeats six members of the rival Up-Town gang in a single afternoon in 1848. He takes work on a Hudson River steamer and marries Sarah Smith, daughter of the ship’s captain, around 1849. They have one child who dies before reaching adulthood.

In a New York saloon Morrissey challenges Charley ‘Dutch’ Duane to a prize fight and, when he is not to be found, with typical bravado he extends the challenge to everyone present. This impresses the owner, Isaiah Rynders, the Tammany Hall politician, and he employs Morrissey to help the Democratic Party, which involves intimidating voters at election time. A fistfight with gang rival Tom McCann earns him the nickname ‘Old Smoke.’ Mid-fight he is forced onto a bed of coals, but despite having his flesh burned, refuses to concede defeat. He fights his way back and beats McCann into unconsciousness. Stowing away to California to challenge other fighters, he begins a gambling house to raise money, and embarks on a privateering expedition to the Queen Charlotte Islands in a quixotic attempt to make his fortune.

In his first professional prize fight on August 21, 1852, Morrissey defeats George Thompson at Mare Island, California, in dubious circumstances, and begins calling himself the ‘champion of America.’ However, it is only on October 12, 1853 that he officially earns this title, when he wins the heavyweight championship of America in a bout at Boston Corner, New York, against Yankee Sullivan. The fight lasts thirty-seven rounds, and Morrissey has the worst of most of them, but he is awarded the contest after a free-for-all in the ring.

Increasingly involved in New York politics, Morrissey and his supporters fight street battles against the rival gang of William Poole, known as ‘Bill the Butcher,’ a Know Nothing politician later fictionalised in the film Gangs of New York (2002). On July 26, 1854 the two men fight on the docks, but Morrissey is beaten badly and forced to surrender. This marks the beginning of a bitter feud between the two parties, with heavy casualties on both sides, which climaxes on March 8, 1855 when Poole is murdered. Morrissey is indicted as a conspirator in the crime, but is soon released because of his political connections.

On October 20, 1858 Morrissey fights John C. Heenan (1835–73) in another heavyweight championship bout. Heenan breaks his hand early in the fight and is always at a disadvantage. After taking much punishment Morrissey finally makes his dominance count. There is a rematch on April 4, 1859, which Morrissey again wins, and after this he retires from the ring. Investing his prize money, he runs two saloons and a gambling house in New York. With the huge profits from his gambling empire he invests in real estate in Saratoga Springs, New York, opening the Saratoga Race Course there in 1863 which has endured to become America’s oldest major sports venue.

A political career beckons as a reward for Morrissey’s consistent support for the Democratic Party. He is elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1866 representing New York’s fifth district, is re-elected the following year, and serves until March 3, 1871. He supports President Andrew Johnson against demands for his impeachment and is skeptical about the Radicals’ plans for reconstruction in the south. In his final years he serves in the New York State Senate (1875–78).

After contracting pneumonia, Morrissey dies at the Adelphi Hotel, Saratoga Springs, on May 1, 1878, and is buried at Saint Peter’s Cemetery, Troy. On the day of his funeral, flags at New York City Hall are lowered to half-mast, while the National Police Gazette declares on May 4, 1878 that “few men of our day have arisen from beginnings so discouraging to a place so high in the general esteem of the community.” His name is included in the list of ‘pioneer’ inductees in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, and each year the John Morrissey Stakes are held at Saratoga Race Course in honour of its founder.

(Pictured: John Morrissey, U.S. Representative from New York, circa 1870s, source Library of Congress)


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Death of Dick Dowling, Confederate Commander

Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer LibraryRichard William “Dick” Dowling, the victorious confederate commander at the Second Battle of Sabine Pass in the American Civil War, dies of yellow fever in Houston, Texas on September 23, 1867.

Dowling is born in the townland of Knockballyvishteal, Milltown, County Galway on January 14, 1837, the second of eight children, born to tenant farmer Patrick and Bridget Dowling (née Qualter). Following the eviction of his family from their home in 1845, the first year of the Great Famine, nine-year-old Dowling leaves Ireland in 1846 with his older sister Honora, bound for New Orleans in the United States.

As a teenager, Dowling displays his entrepreneurial skills by successfully running the Continental Coffeehouse, a saloon in the fashionable French Quarter. His parents and siblings follow from Ireland in 1851, but the joy of reunion is short-lived. In 1853, a yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans takes the lives of his parents and one of his younger brothers. With rising anti-Irish feeling growing in New Orleans, following local elections which see a landslide victory for the “Know Nothing” party, Dowling moves to Houston in 1857.

In 1857 Dowling marries Elizabeth Ann Odlum, daughter of Benjamin Digby Odlum, a Kildare-born Irishman, who had fought in the Texas Revolution, being captured at the Battle of Refugio in 1836.

By 1860, Dowling owns a number of saloons. His most successful is named the Bank of Bacchus, located on Courthouse Square in downtown Houston. “The Bank” as it is known locally becomes Houston’s most popular social gathering place in the 1860s and is renowned for its hospitality. He is also involved in setting up Houston’s first gaslight company, and is first to have it installed in his home and “The Bank.” He is a founding member of Houston’s Hook and Ladder Company Number One fire department and is also involved in running the city’s first streetcar company.

Prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, Dowling makes a name for himself as an able and successful entrepreneur. Among other things, he is involved with a predominantly Irish militia company which serves a more social than military role in Houston society. Upon Secession, this militia company is mustered straight into the Confederate States Army, with Dowling being elected First Lieutenant. The unit names themselves the “Jefferson Davis Guards” in honor of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Davis Guards are initially part of a Texas State Troops/Confederate expedition sent to take over Union Army forts and arsenals along the border with Mexico. The expedition is successfully completed without a shot being fired. They participate in the Battle of Galveston on New Year’s Day 1863, following which they are assigned to a newly constructed artillery post near the mouth of the Sabine River called Fort Sabine.

Sabine Pass was important as a point of arrival and departure for blockade runners. It is suspected that the Union Army will attempt an invasion of Texas via Sabine Pass because of its value as a harbor for blockade runners and its proximity 18 miles southeast of Beaumont, which lies on the railroad between Houston and the eastern part of the Confederacy.

To negotiate Sabine Pass all vessels except small boats take one of the two river channels. No seagoing ship can traverse the Pass without great risk of running aground should it stray from one of the channels. The inevitable course of any steam-powered warship, including shallow-draft gunboats then common to the U.S. Navy, would use one of the channels, both of which are within fair range of the fort’s six smoothbores.

Dowling spends the summer of 1863 at the earthen fort instructing his men in gunnery. On September 8, 1863 a Union Navy flotilla of some 22 gunboats and transports with 5,000 men accompanied by cavalry and artillery arrive off the mouth of Sabine Pass. The plan of invasion is sound, but monumentally mismanaged. Four of the flanking gunboats are to steam up the pass at speed and draw the fire of the fort, two in each channel, a tactic which had been used successfully in subduing the defensive fortifications of Mobile and New Orleans prior to this. This time, however, Dowling’s artillery drills pay off as the Confederates pour a rapid and withering fire onto the incoming gunboats, disabling and capturing two, while the others retreat in disarray. The rest of the flotilla retreats from the mouth of the pass and returns ignominiously to New Orleans, leaving the disabled ships with no option but to surrender to Dowling. With a command of just 47 men, Dowling had thwarted an attempted invasion of Texas, in the process capturing two gunboats, some 350 prisoners and a large quantity of supplies and munitions.

The Confederate government offers its gratitude and admiration to Dowling, now promoted to Major, and his unit, as a result of their battlefield prowess. In gratitude, the ladies of Houston present the unit with specially struck medals, which are actually Mexican eight reale coins with both faces sanded down and inscribed “Sabine Pass, 1864” on one side and a Maltese cross with the letters D and G on the other. Because of the official recognition given to the action, it is now accepted that these Davis Guard Medals are the only medals of honor issued by the Confederate government, and consequently are collector’s items today.

After the battle of Sabine Pass Dowling is elevated to hero status in his hometown of Houston. He subsequently serves as a recruiter for the Confederacy and is personally commended for his action at the battle by Jefferson Davis. After the war he returns to his saloon business and quickly becomes one of the city’s leading businessmen.

Dowling’s promising future is cut short by another yellow fever epidemic which devastates Houston in the late summer of 1867, and he dies on September 23, 1867. He is buried at St. Vincent’s Catholic Cemetery, the oldest Catholic cemetery in Houston.