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The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster
Blood at the Root
John Morrissey was a young ruffian -- a teenage, Irish punk with no job, no money, and few possessions other than the clothes on his back. The year was 1849, and Morrissey had just arrived in New York City from the upstate town of Troy, where he had been raised after moving from Ireland with his parents at the age of three. In Troy, Morrissey developed a reputation as a brawler and a troublemaker. He'd been indicted for burglary, assault, and assault with intent to kill; served a sixty-day stint in the county jail; and was under constant harassment from local authorities. They said eighteen-year-old Morrissey was a gangster, but the young man knew in his heart that his ambitions were too great for that two-horse town. And so, possessing a restless energy that could not be contained in the placid, confined roads of small-town America, he set out for the great metropolis 160 miles to the south, where pilgrims, immigrants, and refugees were presently arriving in droves.
Morrissey knew exactly where he needed to go: the Empire Club, a gambling parlor and political clubhouse that was famous throughout the state. Located on Park Row in lower Manhattan, the club was the home base of Captain Isaiah Rynders, legendary sporting man, gambling impresario, and political fixer for the Democratic party. Rynders was the employer of hundreds of political operatives, gambling club workers, saloon keepers, and gangsters; his organization was at the heart of a political machine that made the great city hum. Morrissey -- hungry, hard-headed, and propelled by the desires of youth -- was determined to harness the power of Rynders's organization to raise himself out of the ghetto and make his mark in the world.
He arrived at the Empire Club on one June afternoon, stood overlooking the gaming tables and declared, "I'm here to say I can lick any man in this place."
Captain Rynders himself, presiding at a gaming table, looked up at the intrepid young man -- five-foot-eleven inches tall, maybe 175 pounds, with a barrel chest and hands the size of meat hooks; impressive, yes, but not so imposing that he could intimidate with sheer physical presence alone.
"And who might you be?" Rynders asked the young Irishman.
"My name is John Morrissey, and I'm the toughest pugilist on the eastern seaboard. I'm here to prove it."
Rynders pursed his lips in an enigmatic Mona Lisa-smile for which he was famous and glanced around at his fellow club members. He assessed the brash youngster, looking him over from head to toe, then nodded for his underlings to advance. They descended upon the young punk with fists, bottles, chairs, slung shots, and other weapons. Morrissey more than held his own until Big Tom Burns smacked him behind the ear with a spittoon, knocking the young hooligan unconscious.
When Morrissey awoke he was laying on a cot in the back of the Empire Club with a knot the size of an acorn on the crown of his skull. Captain Rynders, dressed in finery the likes of which Morrissey had never seen before, stood over the bruiser and said, "You're a bold, young bastard."
Morrissey felt the lump on his head and said nothing.
"I want you to come work for me. You'll make a fine shoulder-hitter for the organization. You can stay at my boarding house and work the docks."
And so began the political career of young John Morrissey.
He was put to work as an immigrant runner, one of hundreds who worked Castle Garden wharf in lower Manhattan, where the immigrant ships disgorged their human cargo. Each day he watched the arrival of his countrymen, and his heart ached at what he saw.
Having been born in Templemore, County Tipperary in 1831 and raised in an Irish slum in America, Morrissey knew a thing or two about poverty. In Troy, whenever his father was able to find work, it had been at the local wallpaper factory or on the docks alongside other Irish laborers. Young John had grown up believing his family was dirt poor, but what he saw at Castle Garden made him reassess his circumstances. Gaunt, haunted Irish peasants arrived by the boatload, weak from dropsy and gout, clinging to satchels that contained all that they owned. They told shocking tales of the Great Famine that had ravaged the Old Country over the last few years and of the horrific, disease-ridden journey across the ocean in hopes of a better future.
It was Morrissey's job to greet these new arrivals and direct them to soup kitchens and boarding houses controlled by the Rynders organization. Mixed in among the many legitimate immigrant runners were dozens of con artists and "land sharks," men who preyed upon the ignorant new arrivals. Later accounts of the era often characterized the job of the immigrant runner as that of a parasite, which may have been a bit harsh. Certainly the position straddled the line between charity and exploitation. Among runners, Morrissey developed a reputation as a tough though fair man who directed hundreds of desperate immigrants to food and lodging. In exchange, they signed voter cards and pledged their support to the political organization that Morrissey represented. On election day, it was Morrissey's job to see that these people delivered on their pledge -- under the threat of violence, if necessary.
Along with tens of thousands of other Irish immigrants arriving in New York City on a monthly basis, Morrissey found lodging in Five Points, the infamous slum neighborhood that dominated the Sixth Ward at the lower tip of Manhattan island. For a time, he lived in a boarding house on Cherry Street and frequented a grog shop, or speakeasy, on lower Broadway known as the Gem Saloon.
Five Points was a lively area though the physical conditions of the district were awful. Laid out on top of what had once been a sewage pond known as the Collect, Five Points had evolved ...Paddy Whacked
The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster. Copyright © by T. English. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.