The Great Fight For The Championship of America Between John Morrissey And John C Heenan Famous Fights Past and Present Newspaper

The Great Fight For The Championship of America Between John Morrissey And John C Heenan Famous Fights Past and Present Newspaper

Front cover action sketch and inside page fight report on the great fight for the Championship of America between John Morrissey and John C. Heenan, Famous Fights Past and Present Newspaper (16 pages) Vol VII - No. 86.

20th October 1858 - Long Point, Ontario, Canada.
John Morrissey accepted a challenge from John C. Heenan, the "Benecia Boy." Heenan was tall (6’2"), handsome, strong from swinging a sledgehammer in the Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s Benecia, California, repair works, irresponsible, foul tempered, and had a reputation from fighting on the tough streets of San Francisco. He, like Morrissey, was raised by an immigrant Irish family in Troy, New York. Heenan, however, was born in America, making him a candidate acceptable to the Native American dominated New York boxing establishment. (Morrissey, Heenan, and earlier champion Paddy Ryan all grew up in the same small, manufacturing community). Arrangements were made on July 3, 1858, for a title bout to be fought for $5,000 a side. It would be held on October 20, 1858, somewhere in Canada.

It’s hard to imagine today, at a time when we have TV, radio, newspaper coverage, magazines, Internet and a constant table full of professional sports, how much enthusiasm a championship fight could generate in the mid-1800’s. Speculation about such an event filled sporting papers and barroom conversation for months. Interest reached fever pitch as Morrissey and Heenan concluded their very serious training. Both lined up trainers who could teach ring tactics while applying the conditioning rules as laid down by the famous Captain Barclay of Great Britain. Morrissey hired Jim Kelly, the Australian champion. Heenan used Aaron Jones, a seasoned English fighter.

The fight took place on a forlorn stretch of beach on a peninsula jutting into Lake Erie. It could hardly be reached by land from Canada. It was reached, for the thousands of spectators, by chartered steamer from Buffalo, New York. Morrissey had hacked years of soft living from his frame. He weighed in at 176. He was sighted by sports writers as being in the best physical condition of his life. Others claimed he was "a magnificent animal," and one of the most "splendid specimens of human development we have witnessed." John had learned some boxing skills in training, but his principle weapon still would be his ability to withstand punishment. Heenan was to rely on his superior punching power.

Heenan had taken his training more lightly than Morrissey. He still had some "blubber" around his midsection. He was ill with chills and fever at least twice during training. Worst of all he developed a sore on his right leg that seriously impaired his quickness. Rather than risk the ridicule a request for a delay would cause, Heenan forged ahead.

Press coverage for this spectacle exceeded anything ever witnessed prior to this bout. Even "respectable" dailies, like the New York Herald, sent emissaries to report. A new record for wagering, estimated at "at least $250,000," accompanied the national, and international enthusiasm. The fight crowd was thus described – "Probably no human eye will ever look upon so much rowdyism, villainy, scoundrelism and boiled down viciousness, concentrated upon so small a space as was compressed into the few feet of viewing room around the ring of the Morrissey and Heenan fight of October 20, 1858."

After all ringside bets were accounted (including Morrissey’s own personal wagers) the fight was on. Morrissey and Heenan seemed to put aside all training skills and settle into a slugfest. Heenan drew "first blood" and punished Morrissey heavily. Morrissey was almost instantly a "spurting claret." During the first round Heenan hit Morrissey so frequently and hard that one observer noted that he would have "knocked out any man in the United States except Morrissey."

At the start of Round Two both fighters were blowing hard from fatigue. Morrissey seemed dazed. Heenan, however, had a far more serious problem. During Round One he had hit a ring stake during a wild miss and broke two knuckles on his left hand. In spite of the handicap, Heenan was able to keep Morrissey off him with his longer reach and continued to rain powerful punches on the champion. Morrissey barely made it to "scratch" for Round Three. Round Four saw Heenan showing serious fatigue. Morrissey began to reach him. Both were bleeding heavily as Morrissey threw Heenan to the ground to end the round. Heenan was carried back to his corner.

With shaking legs Heenan began round five. He had trouble keeping a guard up. Morrissey damaged his head and body with heavy blows. Heenan was completely turned around by a terrible blow. Heenan tried to clench. Morrissey broke free. Heenan caught him with a blow to the jaw that took Morrissey off his feet and down to finish the round.

The knockdown seemed to focus Morrissey’s energy. His famous "bottom" began to tell in round six. Heenan was growing weaker and showing signs of defeat. Heenan fell from exhaustion in round eight. The end was now predictable. It came in round eleven. Morrissey dealt Heenan a heavy blow on the neck. Heenan went down on the hard sand where he stayed completely motionless for an uncomfortable length of time. Morrissey was declared the victor and still American Champion.


*The Great Fight for the American Championship between John Morrissey and John C. Heenan.

*The Thrilling Story of the Two Desperate Fights between Bob Travers and Bob Brettle.

*Leaves from Our Notebook.

*The Fierce and Foul Fight between Jem Burn and Pat Magee.

*Peter Crawley.
A Brief Memoir of an Old-Time Favourite.

*Leaves from our Note Book.

*Our Portrait Gallery of Present Day Pugilists.
"Jewey" Cooke.

Famous Fights-Past and Present was a weekly sporting newspaper published out of London, England, from March 4, 1901 to 1904, and edited by Harold Furniss. There were a total of 156 issues of a "Police Budget" edition of the newspaper, 16 pages in each. There was also the Shurey's Edition which had 24 pages, with contents reordered.

The newspaper covered the history of bare knuckle boxing, with rare inclusions of gloved fights. It also had a regular section on leading gloved boxers of early 20th century, called "Our portrait gallery of present day pugilists."

Although Harold Furniss is listed as the editor, he couldn't have been the author of the majority of the articles (Furniss was born in 1856, while the lead author mentioned that he had been nineteen years old in 1853). Based on research by John Adcock in Yesterday's Papers, one of the authors was Joseph Frank Bradley, later the editor of The Mirror of Life and Boxing World. Bradley was born in September 1857, so he doesn't fit the details given out by the lead author. Another contributor was W. Willmott Dixon (author of several books, under the pen name Thormanby). He was born on December 17, 1843, so his age doesn't fit the age of the lead author either. In March 1907, the Sporting Life mentioned J. W. Butler as being connected with the Famous Fights.

Many of the stories had previously appeared (albeit shorter and without drawings) in The Illustrated Police Budget, another London weekly newspaper, under the title of "Records of the ring. By an Old-time Sportsman." The last issue of the Famous Fights contained an announcement that the prize fights recollections would be continued in the Illustrated Police Budget, starting with Bishop Sharpe-Bob Hall bout.

Condition very good (staples disintegrated over time, minor edge wear/tear & creasing/foxing)

Price: £35

Please view shipping amounts or please contact us for any other enquiries.

Shipping Amount:   £

John Morrissey (February 12, 1831 – May 1, 1878), also known as Old Smoke, was an Irish-born American, whose parents moved to New York State when he was a young child. In the early 1850s he went to San Francisco at the time of the California Gold Rush. In California he became a bare knuckle boxer and on his return to New York, he challenged and defeated "Yankee Sullivan", who was then recognized as the American boxing champion. He became a professional gambler, owning gambling houses in New York City in the 1850s and 1860s. He became a U.S. Congressman from New York, between 1867–1871, backed by Tammany Hall. However, he later fell out with the Tammany Hall political machine and became Democratic State Senator for New York between 1876 and 1878, running as an anti-Tammany candidate.

Early Life
Morrissey was born in Templemore, County Tipperary, Ireland on February 12, 1831. Around 1833 his parents emigrated to the United States and settled in or near Troy, New York. According to a newspaper obituary, Morrissey's father, Timothy, worked as a labourer to support his large family, having 7 daughters to support in addition to his only son, John. The same source states that after little formal education, Morrissey started work at the age of 12 in a wall paper factory. He subsequently worked at an iron works and a stove foundry. By 1848, Morrissey was taking a leading part in factional fighting in Troy between the "Down-Town" and "Up-Town" gangs. Morrissey reportedly became the "king-pin" of the faction "hailing from the lower part of the city" and was involved in fighting the rival group's leader, Jack O'Rourke as well as "most of the up-town" mob.

Morrissey moved to New York City in 1848, becoming a deck hand on a steamer running between Albany and New York. He married the daughter of a ship's captain, Sarah Smith, around 1849. It was during his time in New York that he is said to acquired his nickname, "Old Smoke" as a result of a fight. According to one story, during a fight with Thomas McCann, a noted rough-and-tumble fighter, Morrissey was said to have been 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.

In 1851 Morrissey sailed to San Francisco, seeking fortune during the California Gold Rush. While he didn't have any luck in that endeavor, Morrissey became a renowned gambler and made a fortune winning gold from prospectors. It was also during this time that Morrissey appeared for the first time in a professional prize fighting ring. On 31 August 1852 he defeated George Thompson at Mare Island, California in the 11th round, earning $5,000. This success encouraged him to return to New York to fight the American Champion, Yankee Sullivan.

The Boxing Champion
Morrissey returned to New York and challenged Sullivan repeatedly until the latter finally agreed. Due to the violent nature of the sport, boxing was illegal in most places during the 1850s. The first boxing rules, which were developed in the 19th century into the London Prize Ring Rules, were introduced by heavyweight champion Jack Broughton in 1743 to protect fighters in the ring where deaths sometimes occurred. Under these rules, if a man went down and could not continue after a count of 30 seconds, the fight was over. Hitting a downed fighter and grasping below the waist were prohibited. Fights usually lasted for 20-30 rounds. Rounds continued until one fighter touched the ground with his knee, or simply fell down.

The fight between Morrissey and Sullivan was scheduled for October 12, 1853, in the hamlet of Boston Corners, which was then in Massachusetts, but out of reach of its authorities, and thus a good location for the illegal match. The fight took place in a field, reportedly viewed by over 3,000 spectators. Sullivan dominated the match for most of the fight, but Morrissey held his own. In the 37th round, more than an hour after the start of the fight, Sullivan lost after he was adjudged to have struck Morrissey with a "foul blow". There was a dispute over the rules. Sullivan had left thinking he had won but was disqualified.

Murder Of Bill Poole
Morrissey became involved in Democratic politics in New York City and developed a rivalry with William Poole, also known as "Bill the Butcher". Poole was an enforcer for the Know-Nothing Party, leader of the Bowery Boys, and a boxer. Two of Morrissey's friends, Lew Baker and Jim Turner, shot and fatally wounded Bill the Butcher at Stanwix Hall, a saloon on Broadway, in February 1855, following Morrissey's loss to Poole in a boxing match eight months earlier. Morrissey and Baker were indicted for the murder, but the charges were dropped after three trials resulting in hung juries.

Morrissey then retired from boxing and returned to Troy, New York. He returned to boxing in 1858 to defend his championship in Long Point, Ontario, Canada against fellow Troy, New York native John C. Heenan. The fight lasted 11 rounds, with Morrissey knocking out Heenan to defend his title. Heenan claimed the title on Morrissey's retirement from boxing in 1859.

Involvement In Gambling And The Saratoga Racetrack
After his retirement from boxing, Morrissey focused his attention on gambling establishments, allegedly owning stakes in 16 casinos at one point. In 1862, a police raid on one of his gambling establishments in New York revealed that the house had made over £2000 in December 1861. After establishing a successful gaming house in Saratoga Springs, New York, Morrissey created the Saratoga Race Course with the help of William R. Travers, John R. Hunter and Leonard Jerome. The first races were held in August 1863. He also established "The Club House", a casino in Saratoga that attracted such notable guests as Chester A. Arthur, Rutherford B. Hayes, Ulysses S. Grant, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and Mark Twain.

In 1866, Morrissey ran for Congress with the backing of Tammany Hall. Despite his political rivals pointing out his numerous indictments and some convictions for various crimes, he became a Congressman and served two terms (1867–1871) in the House, in the 40th and 41st United States Congress. As a Congressman, he always looked out for the interests of the Irish, and was known to use strong arm tactics to accomplish his legislative goals, at one point allegedly declaring he could "lick any man in the House".

He eventually grew tired of the rampant corruption in Tammany Hall and left the House after his second term. Morrissey eventually testified against William Tweed, which helped put the latter in prison. He was elected as an Anti-Tammany Democrat to the New York State Senate in 1875 and was re-elected in 1877, sitting in the 99th, 100th and 101st New York State Legislatures.

Morrissey contracted pneumonia and died on May 1, 1878 at the age of 47. The state closed all offices and flags were flown at half mast. The entire State Senate attended his funeral in Troy, held on 4 May 1878, and 20,000 mourners lined the streets to pay their last respects. He was buried in St. Peter's Cemetery, just outside Troy.

In 1996 he was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the "Pioneer" category. Morrissey was featured on a portion of the History Channel documentary, Paddy Whacked, The History of the Irish Mob as the first Irish mob boss in American history.

Prize fighter "Johnny Morrissey" is the hero in a popular Irish ballad called "Morrissey and the Russian Sailor". Although the ballad has several variations, most versions include some phrases that connect the song's hero with the historical Morrissey: his Irish birthplace in Templemore, County Tipperary; his status as a champion fighter, signified by a prize belt; his defeat of Thompson/Thomson and of 'the Yankee', among others. The main story in the ballad, however — a prize fight against a Russian sailor in Tierra del Fuego, however, does not seem to be historically documented. One version of the song was printed as a broadsheet by E.C. Yeats's Cuala Press in 1911; a digitized image of it has been posted by the Villanova University Library.

Joseph D. Morrissey, a Virginia politician, has claimed to be a descendant of John Morrissey, but cannot be a linear descendant as John Morrissey apparently had only one child, a son, who did not marry and died young.

John Carmel Heenan (May 2, 1835 – October 28, 1873) was an American bare-knuckle fighter born in Troy NY. He boxed under the name "The Benicia Boy" (from his residence in California). His career lasted from 1858 until 1863.

Heenan's parents were Irish immigrants. He was born and grew up in New York City at a time when the city docklands was dominated by Irish gangland rivalry. One of the most feared gang-leaders was a young man called John Morrissey. Heenan witnessed, on more than one occasion, Morrissey exercise his brutal methods of extorting protection money. By a twist of fate, these two would meet again years later in the prize-ring.

Heenan left New York in his early teens and made his way to California. At first he worked as a foundry-man in an engineering company. Later, he would join the Californian gold-rush as a miner. He was never destined to make a living finding gold, but his naturally powerful athletic build brought him a lot of attention, particularly from the bullies that would attempt to victimise pan-handlers into handing over their finds. Heenan of course had seen it all before in New York and was not about to be intimidated. He rapidly established an ever-growing reputation as a prize-fighter with a penchant for putting bullies in their place. So much so he was eventually paid by the mine-owners to seek bullies out and challenge them to a prize-fight.

It is said that during this period he never lost a fight.

Despite never having a formal education, Heenan was literate to the point of being reasonably well-read; something of an exception in the Californian gold mines. He was also witty and comfortable with an audience and became a fixture in the mining town piano-bars, noted for his singing and entertaining.

It was inevitable that this popular and successful fighter would come to the attention of the organised prize-fight community.

Sure enough, in 1858 without ever having fought a recognised contender, Heenan was matched against the heavyweight champion of the USA. This champion was none other than John Morrissey.

The fight took place in Long Point, Canada, to avoid the US police. Prize-fighting was as illegal in the USA as it was in Britain. Heenan fought under two handicaps. Firstly, some weeks before the fight, he injured his leg with a pick-axe whilst mining. This prevented him from training for the fight. Despite this he gave Morrissey a beating for 6 rounds. However, in the 6th round, he suffered his 2nd handicap. He struck a ring-post and broke his right hand. Morrissey supporters exacerbated the injury by stepping on Heenan's hand when he fell over. Heenan continued to jab his way through the fight with his left with some success, but Morrissey eventually caught up with Heenan and knocked him out. Witnesses say the knockout was more through exhaustion than Morrissey's blow.

Contemporary accounts were so favourable to Heenan and against the unpopular Morrissey that, when Heenan arrived in New York days later, he was given a hero's welcome and acknowledged as the true champion of America. A claim underlined by Morrissey's refusal to give Heenan a rematch.

His other most notable fights were against British champion Thomas Sayers and subsequent British champion Tom King.

The fight against Tom Sayers in 1860 is widely regarded as the first ever heavyweight contest to decide the World champion.

The other fight that could be considered as such is the Tom Cribb vs. Tom Molineux fight in 1815. Although Tom Cribb was undisputably the Heavyweight champion of England (just like Sayers), the American Molineux was a complete unknown with no real record that led to any recognisable title.

Heenan officially claimed John Morrissey's title after the latter retired from boxing in 1859. Many believed Morrissey retired to avoid giving Heenan a rematch. Morrissey remained bitter and hateful towards Heenan for the rest of his life, always citing that Heenan's popularity was down to his looks rather than his boxing ability. Morrissey's jealousy was compounded when he hired three heavies to beat Heenan up before Heenan left for England. Morrissey wanted to scupper Heenan's lucrative fight with Sayers, furious that he was never given such a chance.

Unfortunately for Morrissey, things could not have turned out worse. Heenan bettered his three attackers, leaving them unconscious on the ground and leaving no-one on any doubt about his fighting prowess.

Heenan's claim to being heavyweight champion of America was acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic. When he arrived in England 3 months before the fight, he quickly gained popularity due to his 'witty and engaging personality'. This was in stark contrast to Tom Sayers, who, whilst respected, was known as a humourless, rather dour man. When the fight took place in Farnborough, Hampshire, some accounts say there was as much support for Heenan as there was for Sayers, though this is unlikely. It is much claimed by Americans that Heenan was winning that fight when Sayer's supporters entered the ring, causing the contest to be disbanded and declared a draw. This is not true. Whilst Sayers supporters did indeed cut the ropes when it looked like their man was about to lose, this was not the end of the fight. In fact, the ring was re-constructed moments later and the fight continued for another five rounds.

It was the intervention of the Police that brought the fight to an inconclusive end. Following the draw Champion belts were made for both fighters. The bout is memorable in the history of pugilism and incidentally was the cause of putting an end to bare-fist prize fighting in England. Heenan was later acclaimed as the English Heavyweight Champion.

According to Lord Redesdale, who witnessed the fight, Sayers was winning when the Americans rescued Heenan by interrupting the fight. Lord Redesdale described these Americans as 'a very low class, and I am bound to say I did not see an American gentleman among them. The men whom I knew afterwards in New York would have been as disgusted as I was'.

The fight was one of the most brutal in prizefight history.

Heenan's facial injuries were such that his eyes completely closed and he was as good as blind for nearly a week afterwards. Sayers dislocated his right shoulder or broke his right forearm, depending on which account is believed. Either way, he fought much of the fight one-handed. It is a little known fact that Sayers never quite recovered the full range of movement in his arm. The fame of the contest was such that many journalists travelled across Europe to cover the event, even though they had never witnessed a prizefight before.

Prizefighting was really a sport for the English-speaking nations and considered plebian by countries such as France and Germany. One French journalist wrote after the fight "this is my first and last witness to such a barbaric ritual. England and America your shame". This feeling was shared by many English journalists who joined in the clamour to ban prizefighting.

Heenan spent the next three months in England, in exhibition matches and theatrical commitments, some of them with Tom Sayers. The two had become friends and Sayers would always speak generously of Heenan, saying Heenan was the most difficult opponent he ever faced.

Although Heenan trained extremely hard for the Sayers fight, he could not be called a dedicated boxer and confined himself to side-shows, carnivals and theatre to make an appreciative living, but showed little interest in defending his title.

Heenan's championship was claimed by Joe Coburn in 1862 after Heenan refused to defend it against Coburn. Instead Heenan returned to England. Most accounts to be found today say he came back to challenge Tom King, the new heavyweight champion of England. However, Heenan spent nearly all of his time establishing a gambling business as a gentleman-bookie. He also spent time with Tom Sayers and re-newed an old friendship.

Heenan did finally challenge Tom King and King accepted. If Heenan had faced King in anything like the condition he faced Sayers, he would have been too much for King. Instead, he was woefully out of condition. Though this is clearly due to Heenan's lack of dedication, much of it is put down to the fact that he asked Tom Sayers to be his chief second and trainer.

This was a terrible mistake. Sayers, during his time as an active fighter, was a very dedicated trainer, far more than any other top fighter of the day. In retirement though, his methods were antiquated to the point of quaint. Sayers, never the most intelligent of men, could not adapt to changing times. In addition, Sayers was suffering from untreated diabetes. He was always tired and constantly suffered from a raging thirst which he would often quench with brandy. Subsequently his faculties were dulled and he was of no help at all to Heenan during his fight with King. Heenan lost in 24 rounds: in later rounds he was constantly sick and vomiting. One journalist speculated that Heenan had been poisoned. Others that he caught a mysterious virus. In retrospect, it's most likely he reacted to some of Sayers' strange preparations, including supplying Heenan with a drink of boiled down stock and ale before the fight.

Nothing is written about Heenan's relationship with Sayers after that, though the two were never seen together again. Heenan would spend the next few years in England and was in the country when Sayers died. He did not attend the funeral.

After his fight with Morrissey, Heenan met and married Adah Menken, the sensationalist actress appearing in New York at the time. The two were married in secret (completely against type for the publicity-loving Menken), much to the chagrin of the press. Though Heenan was emphatuated with Menken, observers were more cynical about her feelings for him.

Menken's acting was receiving (and would continue to receive) scathing criticism at the time. Many felt that the only way she could continue to work is through her marriage to Heenan. This is a harsh observation as Menken did have her own following, despite her low-standing as an actress. In the last days of her life she maintained that John Heenan was the only true love of her life. The marriage lasted little more than a year.

Heenan died at Green River Station, Wyoming in 1873.