View Full Version : Rough & Tumble in Old New York

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Jack Rusher
2/18/2009 4:46pm,
At last I've gotten together some period documentation of an actual Rough & Tumble fight...


John 'Old Smoke' Morrissey (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Morrissey) was an Irish immigrant who lived most of his life in the US. He started off a bit rough, working as a cargo thief and collection agent for Irish crime bosses in Troy, NY, which led to his being indicted twice for burglary, once for assault and battery, and once for assault with intent to kill -- all before his 18th birthday. An ambitious lad, he also taught himself to read and write while working as a bouncer at a South Troy brothel. Eventually, after another stint in jail, he moved to New York City.

To give you a sense of Morrissey's character, he earned the nickname 'Old Smoke' when -- during a fight with another gangster called Tom McCann -- he was pinned on his back atop burning coals from an overturned stove, during which he kept fighting as his flesh burnt, finally gaining his feet and pounding McCann out while smoke floated up from his back.

Morrissey spent a couple years in NYC, then headed West to earn his fortune, but ended up gambling and bare-knuckle prize fighting, eventually earning a sizable purse for the 11th round KO of George Thompson. Thus encouraged, he returned to NYC to challenge then American champion Yankee Sullivan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yankee_Sullivan):

The excitement was intense during yesterday and last night, in all parts of the City, respecting the great prize fight for a wager of $2,000, between James, or "Yankee" Sullivan and John Morrissey [ ... ] The favorite was Morrissey, $100 to $70, and in some instances $100 to $50, before they came to blows.
They were both in good condition, and the six weeks training appeared to have improved each of them in both appearance and strength. They walked up face to face, good naturedly smiled, and took their positions apparently in the best feeling. They squared off, and the first blood was drawn by SULLIVAN with a swift tap on MORRISSEY's nose. He followed up his blows in quick succession, and the first round created considerable excitement among the spectators. The rounds were continued on to the Thirty-seventh, occupying fifty-five minutes, when MORRISSEY became very weak, and a general row was the result. Some persons rushed inside of the ring, and several of them received some severe punishment. The only blows SULLIVAN received was about the right side of his face, principally on his cheek bone, and the eye was much swollen.
The face of MORRISSEY was frightfully mutilated, and it is said by those who witnessed the affair, that he also received numerous severe blows on the body, which will no doubt render him disable for a long time.
There is now a dispute as to who was victorious in the contest, and we learn the Judges decided in favor MORRISSEY on the ground of "foul blows," and "not coming to time," &c, &c.
This decision is, however, claimed to be wrong by the opponents of it, and the stake-holder (Jim Hughes) was advised not to give up the $2,000 prize, which he has held in gold coin since the match was made.
It is rumored that SULLIVAN has agreed to place $1,000 additional to the sum already up, and fight the battle over again for the $4,000, in one day or sixty days.
From: New-York Daily Times, October 13, 1853

Winning the American championship, even by a dubious decision, made Morrissey a celebrity and a hero to the Irish-American community. He joined a downtown gang called the Dead Rabbits (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Rabbits) and got deep into Tammany Hall (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tammany_Hall) politics, ultimately becoming a Congressman and Senator. But not before...

William Poole
William 'Bill the Butcher' Poole's name should be familiar to anyone who has read Gangs of New York or seen the (quite bad) movie made therefrom. He was an actual butcher, a bareknuckle fighter, an enforcer for a rival gang called the Bowery Boys (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowery_Boys) and a backer of the Know Nothing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Know_Nothing) political movement.

To give you a sense of the man, here's a news clipping from October 22, 1851, entitled A Brutal Outrage in Broadway:

We learn that at an early hour yesterday morning, two noted pugilists entered Florence's Hotel, corner of Broadway and Howard street, and without any provocation seized the bar-keeper and beat his face to a jelly. It appears that Thomas Hyer, William Poole, and several others entered the above hotel, and while one of the party held Charles Owens (the bar-keeper) by the hair of his head, another of the gang beat him in the face to such an extent that his left eye was completely ruined and the flesh of his cheek mangled in the most shocking manner.
After thus accomplishing the heartless act, all of them made an effort to find Mr. John Florence, the proprietor of the hotel, with a view of serving him in the same manner, but not succedding in their latter design, they found the hat of Mr. Florence and wantonly cut it into strips, and trampled it under their feet. The desperadoes then left the house, and in the meantime Mr. Owens was placed under medical attendance [ ... ]
Since the above was written we have been reliably informed that the affray originated from the fact of the barkeeper having refused them drinks, after they had been furnished with them twice in succession.
From: New York Daily Times, October 23, 1851

Poole had bet on Sullivan in the aforementioned title fight, and had continued to speak badly of
Morrissey thereafter. This grew into a serious enmity between the two gentlemen, which was exacerbated by several run-ins, included Poole's beating of Morrissey's friend Charles Owens (above). After many taunts back and forth, he and Poole arranged to fight under 'Rough & Tumble' rules. Poole was the smaller man, but his skill in all-out fighting was much respected:

Great excitement was occasioned yesterday in all parts of the City, in consequence of a brutal rough and tumble fight, which took place between the noted pugilists, John Morrissey and William Poole, at the long Steamboat Wharf, foot of Amos street, North River.
It appears that for a long time past, POOLE and "Jim" Hughes have been at variance, and during Wednesday afternoon they accidentally met at the City Hotel, corner of Broadway and Howard street, where the matter was amicably arranged. While they were drinking at the bar to renew their friendship, MORRISSEY came in, accompanied by a number of friends.
As he approached the counter he looked up and exclaimed, "HUGHES, are you going to give up that stake money that I won on the fight with SULLIVAN?" Mr. HUGHES replied, "I'll give it up when you convince me you won the fight, and not before." To this MORRISSEY made some sarcastic reply.
Meanwhile POOLE stood still, looking intently at MORRISSEY, and finally remarked in a loud tone, "HUGHES, don't you give it up to him; spend it for rum before you give it to that ~~~~~~."
This action on the part of POOLE enraged MORRISSEY, and he retaliated by telling POOLE that he nor any other man should spend his money. The parties then entered into an exceedingly rough argument, when MORRISSEY asked him to fight; POOLE said he would not, that MORRISSEY was too big for him, but if MORRISSEY would bring himself to an equal weight, he would fight him. MORRISSEY said that he did not fight that way; but he had seen the time when he could lick him any way he could name, and then wanted to know how he would fight.
POOLE said he would fight with knives. At this answer, MORRISSEY called POOLE aside and told him that he had tried to avoid fighting in that way as much as possible, but as it was his wish he would do it. MORRISSEY then offered to go to Canada, each one to take a friend. This POOLE would not do. MORRISSEY then getting rather excited, told POOLE that he thought he was not doing the fair thing, and that he would like to fight him.
POOLE feeling rather vexed at this last answer, said that MORRISSEY had spent half his time in State Prison, and used harsh language. This led to some hard words on the part of MORRISSEY, who offered to bet one thousand dollars to fifty dollars that he could whip POOLE, and offered to fight him within twenty-four hours, at any place he named. This POOLE would not agree to.
MORRISSEY then offered to bet him fifty dollars that he dare not meet him in the morining at 7 o'clock, and fight. This POOLE agreed to; and it was settled to meet on the following morning at the foot of Amos street, North River.
The match being made bona fide, the parties separated and Mr. POOLE immediately proceeded to Hoboken with a few friends, to stay for the night, to avoid being arrested. At an early hour in the morning, POOLE was up and dressed, and to use his own language, "felt like a race-horse."

News of the intention of POOLE and MORRISSEY to fight spread like wildfire among the sporting hours during the evening, and heavy bets were made as to the result of the encounter. At 6 1/2 o'clock in the morning a crowd had assembled on Amos street wharf to witness the affray. There could not have been less then three hundred persons present during the progress of the fight, consisting mainly of the "fancy," and the friends and admirers of POOLE and MORRISSEY.
A little before 7 o'clock POOLE was rowed up to the dock in a small boat. There were no seconds or bottle-holders, it being understood that the fight was to be what is termed a "rough and tumble" - the advantage, of course, being in favor of the man who first got his opponent down.
Prize-fighers being usually before rather than behind time, (as the time had now reached 6 1/2) the prediction was expressed that MORRISSEY would not appear - that he had managed to be arrested by the Police, &c, &c. POOLE expressed a wish that he would come - that he "would fight him like a man" - and thought d~~~~d sight more of the fight than of the money.

In a few moments, however, all doubt was abandoned, as MORRISSEY walked down the dock, stripped for the occasion, where his antagonist stood to receive him. As he approached, the crowd opened to the right and left, and the shout went up, "Stand back! Let the two men meet!" To this some attention was paid, (perhaps as much as usual in such a fight,) when the parties met, "eagar for the fray."
"Where is POOLE? Here I am," exclaimed POOLE, and both squared, and each eyed his antagonist with a kind of calculating ferocity, moving about for a chance for a half minute, when morrissey put out his left hand, and simultaneously poole dropped, seized his adversary about the body and threw him. In this position they remained, POOLE uppermost, for about five minutes.
When MORRISSEY said, "enough," and the usual shout went up and the parties were speedily separated. the crowd, fearing the police would capture them all, hastily made their way off in various directions, and POOLE left in the same small boat he came across the river with.

MORRISSEY, supported by two strangers, left the ground apparently severely injured. Poor MORRISSEY was weakened to such a degree, that he required assistance to get him on his feet at the close of the encounter. His main friend, JOHNNY LING, had in the meantime attempted to draw a revolver from his pocket, but before he could accomplish it one of POOLE'S friends knocked him down.
The fight now became general, and for a time the wharf was a scene of the wildest confusion. The friends of POOLE being very numerous, beat MORRISSEY'S friends dreadfully, and LING was taken away almost insensible, and quite prostrated from the great loss of blood.
MORRISSEY was then left entirely destitute of friends to aid him in getting home. He finally got into a coach, and was driven to his house in Leonard street, near West Broadway, where he was attended by skillful physicians. He presented a shocking spectacle, and scarely could any of his friends recognize him. His eyes were closed and one of them was found to be gouged from one end of the socket, which injury will probably impair his sight for life. There were large bunches on all parts of his head. His face above and below the eyes is blackened by violent blows given on the bridge of his nose. There is a hole in his cheek, and his lips are chawed up in a frightful manner. He also sustained fearful injuries about his breast, arms, and back, where POOLE kicked him with heavy cow hide boots after he halloed enough.
So severe are MORRISSEY'S injuries, that (it) is very doubtful whether he walks in the street for the next six months.

... the article includes the testimony of an eye-witness:

Mr. POOLE, as far as regards size and weight, is much the inferior to MORRISSEY, but he possesses more activity, and is considered a tremendous "rough and tumble" fighter. [ ... ]

At 6 1/2 o'clock, MORRISSEY was seen coming down Amos street unattended and exclaimed, "Where is POOLE?" On being answered that he was on the pier, took off his coat, without taking the precaution of unbuttoning his shirt collar, until reminded to do so by one of his friends, he immediately repaired there.
POOLE stood ready to meet him. MORRISSEY struck out - a clinch ensued - MORRISSEY falling heavily with POOLE on top and who took advantage of his positon to deal tremendous blows on MORRISSEY's face, and before they had fought five minutes, MORRISSEY cried "enough." POOLE jumped into his boat, lying at the dock, and rowed away, while MORRISSEY, considerably chop-fallen and awfully bruised and beaten, was obliged to leave the ground amid the jeers and hootings of the assemblage.
From: New-York Daily Times, July 28, 1854

The winner by Ground & Pound: Bill the Butcher. Sadly for Bill, he was shot and beaten by a mob of Morrissey's friends shortly thereafter, the wounds from which killed him. The man who fired the shot was brought to justice, then acquitted by a jury of his Irish mobster peers.

2/18/2009 4:54pm,
Awesome read, thanks for digging that up.

2/18/2009 5:28pm,
Definitely worth the read. Two thumbs up.

2/18/2009 8:43pm,

2/18/2009 9:31pm,
If only they had an Octagon, none of this stuff (after Morrissey said "Enough") would have ever happened.

Snake Plissken
2/18/2009 11:38pm,
Can I ask, how did you find this article, Jack?

2/19/2009 12:00am,
Pushups. This is wicked. I love that it has a detailed, multi-eyewitness account of the specifics of the fight.

2/19/2009 2:45am,
Cool stuff. I didn't realize The Butcher was a real guy.

2/19/2009 3:46am,
They slightly re-named the character for the movie (as "Bill 'the Butcher' Cutting). IMO Daniel Day-Lewis' performance was the best reason to watch that picture; the rest of it would have been much more interesting as a documentary.

BTW, Asbury's book was re-published when the movie was released and is widely available now. It's not a novel, more like a 19th century version of a "true crime" paperback.

From Bell2Bell
2/19/2009 6:28am,
Great stuff!

Jack Rusher
2/19/2009 11:36am,
Awesome read, thanks for digging that up.

Cheers, everybody. I ran into this info awhile ago, but held on to it for the WMA forum.

IMO Daniel Day-Lewis' performance was the best reason to watch that picture

Or most any other in which he's featured. No one chews scenery like DDL.

Asbury's book [ ... is ... ] more like a 19th century version of a "true crime" paperback.

It's a cracking good read. I first heard of it in an essay where Jorge Luis Borges (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jorge_Luis_Borges) explained his inspiration for the story Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities (actual Monk Eastman here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monk_Eastman)). My understanding is that an adaptation of that story serves as the introduction to the new edition of Gangs of New York.

Can I ask, how did you find this article, Jack?

I was hunting down information on one of the earliest modern "boxing vs wrestling" contests, in which World Greco-Roman Champion William Muldoon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Muldoon) beat up a barekuckle boxer.

Muldoon is another fascinating character. He developed his wrestling in friendly matches at camp while serving during the American Civil War. Later, he went to Paris to serve as a volunteer in the French army during the Franco-Prussian war. While in France he learnt Greco-Roman, which became his main style thereafter.

When he returned to NYC he was appointed to the Police Department by John Morrissey (thus the connection to the above post). Muldoon served in the NYPD for five years, toward the end of which he won the world GR title and decided to go professional. He retired undefeated some years later and started working as a trainer for boxers and wrestlers, most famously getting John L. Sullivan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_L._Sullivan) in shape for his big fight against Jake Kilrain (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jake_Kilrain) (the final bareknuckle London Prize Rules match for the championship).

In 1921, after boxing was re-legalized (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walker_Law) in NY, Muldoon became the inaugural Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. There's a 1927 profile online (http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1927/07/16/1927_07_16_018_TNY_CARDS_000174304) at the New Yorker (subscription required), and the following year a biography was published for which Jack Dempsey wrote the foreword.

In any case, the text of the articles above is taken from a collection of historical news related to boxing at the website of the Vermont Boxing History & International Pugilist Review (http://esf.uvm.edu/vtbox/Historical.html); it's stuffed with savory morsels like these:

A most sanguinary battle for 100 guineas, and a subscription purse of twenty, in imitation of the London amateurs, was fought on Monday, in the presence of an immense concourse of spectators at Hazely common, Hants, between an Oxfordshire man of the name of Woodcock, and a professional bruiser of fame in the county of Somerset of the name of Tring, who was backed by the amateur Capt. Hicks. In the first round which lasted four minutes, Tring was knocked down after a dreadful conflict, and the two sebsequent rounds were as courageously maintained. In the fourth round both combatants were blind, and they fought in that state twenty minutes, when Tring[e] got a broken jaw, and was beaten nearly lifeless.
From: January 31, 1811, Boxing, Etc.

A fatal pugilistic contest took place on Wednesday sevennight, at Rollestone, near Burton upon Trent, in the county of Stafford. On the preceding evening, Charles Beale, a farmer from Strenton, and Stringer Tonks, a basket-maker, of Repton, having quarrelled, agreed to meet the next day at Rollestone, to decide their dispute. The constable of the parish was present as stakeholder! The combatants fought with a determination and courage seldom witnessed, until the 31st round, when Tonks struck Beale a dreadful blow under the ear, and death terminated the fight.
From: (Plattsburgh) Republican, May 31, 1811

2/19/2009 12:21pm,
Jack, if you're not already, you should be on the Bartitsu Forum email list - http://sports.groups.yahoo.com/group/Bartitsu_Forum/ . It's focused on Barton-Wright's system but there also are numerous discussions about Victorian-era street gangsterism, mixed-styles contests of the 19th and early 20th centuries, etc.

2/19/2009 12:23pm,
Seriously...how many of us who've fought amatuer or professionally have the sack to go for 31 rounds?

2/19/2009 12:27pm,
Seriously...how many of us who've fought amatuer or professionally have the sack to go for 31 rounds?

Bear in mind that under London Prize Ring rules, a round ended when either fighter hit the ground, and they were allowed to use standing throws as well as punching. Even so, there are records of bare-knuckle matches lasting several hours.

BTW, "bottom" was the 19th century slang for sack (as in, "Fitzsimmons showed great bottom in this round").

2/19/2009 12:29pm,
Bugger that.

2/19/2009 12:33pm,
Front paged this. Great stuff. I'm sincerely pleased that this forum is off to a good start.