Q&A with Jamie Nicholson, Author of ‘The Notorious John Morrissey’

Pop Culture
(University Press of Kentucky photo)

James C. “Jamie” Nicholson is a historian and author of “The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event” and “Never Say Die: A Kentucky Colt, the Epsom Derby, and the Rise of the Modern Thoroughbred Industry.” The focus of the Lexington native’s recent release is John Morrissey, the gambler, prizefighter, criminal and U.S. congressman who founded Saratoga Race Course.

Published in May, “The Notorious John Morrissey: How a Bare-Knuckle Brawler Became a Congressman and Founded Saratoga Race Course” digs into the story of the hard-nosed entrepreneur who organized the first Thoroughbred horse racing meet at the venue that would become Saratoga Race Course.

Nicholson took some time to chat with David Hill about his introduction to the sport of horse racing, how he became interested in Morrissey’s story and the difficulties he encountered in researching the subject.

Hill: This isn’t your first book. You’ve written about horse racing before, right?

Nicholson: Yeah, my first one was about the Kentucky Derby [“The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event”]. That started as a paper in grad school. I was doing history in a grad program at [University of Kentucky] and it started as a semester paper and ended up being a Ph.D dissertation. I was trying to explain how the Derby became a big deal culturally. And the second one was kind of a biography of a horse called Never Say Die who was the first Kentucky colt to win the Epsom Derby [“Never Say Die: A Kentucky Colt, the Epsom Derby, and the Rise of the Modern Thoroughbred Industry”]. It kind of explored some of the characters around that horse’s career and put his accomplishments in context in terms of the globalization of the sport and the industry.

Hill: Do you have a background in the sport? What brought you to horse racing?

Nicholson: I grew up around it, grew up on my grandparents Thoroughbred farm in Lexington. My parents lived on the farm, and I worked there on the weekends from my teens until they sold it. I started college in Virginia, and then I came back to Kentucky. But I worked in the summers for Fasig-Tipton doing sales in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. It was my first introduction to that town.

Hill: And that’s where you discovered the story of John Morrissey?

Nicholson: It wasn’t really a direct discovery. It was more of just a curiosity — the racetrack being right there in town, the sense of history. It was kind of given that there was a long history of horse racing and gambling in Saratoga Springs. But I found that in conversations with people, the timelines of history seemed to be blurred. People would talk about 150 years ago just like they would about 50 years ago, and there was a sense that there were some powerful characters involved. But, it wasn’t something that the racetrack really advertised or embraced. That’s changed a little bit since then, but that was where I first became aware that there was a history.

Hill: I read that you actually had some trouble researching the early parts of the book because so much of Morrissey’s involvement in the founding of Saratoga Race Course was intentionally obscured.

Nicholson: After his death — it was definitely intentional — the leaders of racing really did try to write him out of the story, and it’s understandable to a certain degree. I mean, there was an uncomfortable relationship between racing and gambling from the beginning, but in New York and really across the country … in late 1800s and early 1900s it was really becoming a problem that the progressive reformers were really serious about: doing away with gambling and horse racing. And so, to embrace a man that was clearly linked to gambling and to the underworld was something that organizers just couldn’t afford to do.

But even during his life there was a mythical element to Morrissey’s story. And a lot of the information that survived is difficult to parse fact from fiction from myth and legend. So, it was challenge. It was easier once he became a congressman, for example. There was much more of a paper trail. Morrissey was basically illiterate. He didn’t do a lot of letter writing, didn’t leave the kind of paper trail that many would have. Or that would facilitate, you know, a later researcher. So it was a challenge, and I was questioning for a long time whether it was worth the effort. But his story, to me, is interesting enough to justify that. And his contributions to racing and to sports, more broadly, justify the work that went into telling his story.

Hill: What exactly was the effort? Talk to me a little bit about how you researched this book.

Nicholson: Well, by the time he died he was definitely … you could categorize him as a celebrity, as a legitimate public curiosity, as a political figure. His obituary in the major papers … a lot of them were really detailed by that point. There was the [New York] Times and the New York Herald and those kinds of papers, but during his lifetime the sports magazines, sports newspapers, I guess, they would cover his fights extensively. There were some gray areas at that time between the organized fights and just street brawls, and so a lot of times those incidents would be picked up by the sporting press. When his activities drifted toward the criminal, that would make appearances in newspapers. So, it was a process of picking through what was there.

I wish I knew more about his day-to-day schedule or habits. But some people ask me “why don’t you just write historical fiction, wouldn’t that be interesting?” But that’s a different endeavor. It wasn’t what I wanted to write, but someone could do a lot with that.

Hill: Someone did, right? They made the movie “Gangs of New York.”

Nicholson: Yeah, exactly. Which is useful when someone says, “who is this guy? When did he live?” And I say, “well, have you seen Gangs of New York?”

Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was — to say loosely based is maybe even a stretch. But there’s  clearly an element of Morrissey to the story. At least in terms of his rivalry with Bill “The Butcher” [Cutting], it is clear that there was some consideration of Morrissey, especially given like [Director Martin] Scorcese said that the book “Gangs of New York” was major source material and Morrissey was a major figure in that book

Hill: Morrisey, in addition to being a prize fighter, which clearly meant something a lot different then than it does now, was also a gang leader in five points, which also meant something a lot different back then than it does now, right? 

Nicholson: There was a more direct tie to political parties and the political election apparatus than there is now. I’ve seen small biographical sketches of Morrissey that are trying to explain the time and the politics, and they’ll get confused as to how a particular leader could be affiliated with one gang or group or party one year and a different one the next. It just wasn’t as ideologically binary as things are today. People did what they needed to get what they wanted accomplished, and a lot of times these gangs were just tools in that sense.

Hill: It’s clear to me that Morrissey wasn’t that ideological of an operator because even though he was sort of loyal to the democrats, not only did he go back and forth with Boss Tweed, but his tenure in Congress he didn’t seem really motivated to do any serious political work.

Nicholson: No, you’re right it seems — especially in Congress. He arrived there because of Tammany Hall and was just clearly following the party line. If you wanted to find something about Morrissey’s ideology, I think you should look at his time in the New York state legislature. He seemed to adopt some pro-worker stances and seemed to have some type of a political philosophy.

Hill: In the chapter about him being a congressman, it just felt like such a sudden move. I didn’t really understand why he even wanted to be in Congress. He was so wealthy and he was sitting in the catbird seat in Saratoga, making lots of money, running the track, and respected by important people even though, like you said before, they went to great lengths to kind of obscure his importance or role. But it seemed like he was dragged into running for Congress. Whereas when he ran for assembly years later, after he had a public break with Tammany Hall, suddenly he has a sense of mission that was different from before, right? Maybe he was more motivated to do good work, to prove he was his own man?

Nicholson: When Morrissey got to Congress, though, he did — multiple times, people would ask on the record, what the hell are you doing? And he did say, whether it was genuine or not, that he was doing it for his son. He said now whenever they mention him, whenever they write about John Morrissey, they’ll have to put a “MC” member of Congress, after his name. And the political press just loved the idea of “The Honorable John Morrissey,” which, if, I would’ve named the book, I’d have preferred “The Honorable John Morrissey” rather than “The Notorious.”

Hill: Would you put the scare quotes around “honorable” the way that the press did?

Jamie Nicholson (University Press of Kentucky photo)

Nicholson: I wouldn’t have used scare quotes because I think that ultimately, on some level, he achieved something and has a lasting legacy and a lot of supporters. There’s the racetrack, his time in the assembly, his involvement in the reform movement, which maybe a lot of is personal, but he did get really involved in that. And I think it’s possible that, as he got more involved in policy debates or political discussions, maybe he developed his own viewpoints or political interests at that stage. Because that is a turning point when he moves away from the Tweed ring and at that point there’s some political chaos or vacuum, and he has to have some purpose for running for office, or at least articulate a purpose. I think a lot of it for him was wanting revenge and wanting to show that he can do it on his own and beat those fat cats (or whatever you want to call them) on their own turf.

Hill: One of the things I thought was interesting about his run for Congress in the book is that it seemed like just him running challenged this idea that we should pick our legislators from aristocrats. Even though he was a rich man at that point, he was still considered so rough around the edges, because he had a criminal past and he was involved in gambling. People were even saying Boss Tweed had gone too far by asking this guy to be a congressperson.

Nicholson: It was almost disbelief, like how in the hell is this happening. This guy is a criminal and a boxer at a time when that wasn’t just an athlete, it was a lifestyle, a cultural choice. It was unfathomable to the political journalists.

Hill: But they were also resigned to the fact that, of course he was going to win and there was nothing anyone can do about it. And he did win pretty decisively, even though he didn’t even live in the fifth congressional district, which I thought was kind of a riot. So do you think the people in the fifth district were excited to have Morrissey as their congressman?

Nicholson: I think machine politics would have been enough. But he was, in certain circles, as famous as anybody in the city. I’m sure that for some people who did vote, and the voting process was much less antiseptic than it is now, but I’d say that his supporters were clearly interested in and captivated by him. I think ultimately whoever the machine was going to put in there, in that environment that would that would have been enough.

Hill: But the fact that he was not just a celebrity but also was this renowned tough guy who even said he could whip anybody in Congress, I’m sure that those were qualities that a lot of folks in that district liked in their representative.

Nicholson: I would think so, yeah. I mean you can’t separate his tough guy reputation from anything that that he did, and I definitely think it was part of the equation for his success. Even in Saratoga, when gamblers knew that that he would he would remove them if they were up to no good. I can only imagine that that he held the same appeal for constituents who sent him to Congress. He was known as the guy who could make things happen.

Hill: He suffered no fool.

Nicholson: Right.

Hill: But what has clearly has been his major contribution to American history wasn’t so much political. He made a huge contribution to the world of American sports even outside of horse racing, right?

Nicholson: He demonstrated the economic significance of commercialized sports. He showed that bringing a sporting event to your town is good for the town, that the benefits are more broad that just the people playing or having a good time or the gamblers doing their business. He wasn’t just doing that for the town’s benefit. It was understood that he wanted to ultimately bring people to his casinos. But if we think about the billion-dollar business that sports has become or think about in an Olympic year how is just a matter of fact that cities, or even whole countries, want big sporting events, you see how he was a visionary in that sense.

Hill: It’s hard for a modern audience to understand the context. I found it hard to wrap my head around even just the idea that there was like a question about whether newspapers should even run sporting news in the newspaper, right?

Nicholson: Yeah, they had to hold their nose early on. The respectable press clearly thought that this was beneath them. It was just a deal with a devil that they could sell more stories, but they didn’t see that sports was the opposite of news or at least significant, important news.

Hill: Is it safe to say that he was one of the first American athletes to become a national celebrity?

Nicholson: I’m sure there were jockeys and horses, there were boxers who achieved fame or notoriety outside of their sport, but it was because of their sporting accomplishments. I don’t know of anybody who achieved as much outside of their sport. Granted, he achieved much of it largely on the reputation he won in the prize ring, but I think he did more with that fame than anyone else had before. That’s a long way of answering a simple question. I can’t say with certainty that there wasn’t anyone else, but nobody comes to mind. For one thing there just wasn’t the amount of commercialized sports there is today. There was just baseball. But when he was gaining fame in the ring, they were still playing baseball in, you know, Hoboken. Before the Civil War, baseball didn’t have a national presence. So, there weren’t too many athletes to choose from if you’re trying to say who was the first. He was partially a beneficiary of the development of a sporting press and a national following for boxing, even though it was still in its infancy. But this was when people started to come out for sparring exhibitions and things like that. So, he was the right guy at the right time for being able to capitalize on his fame. If he wasn’t the first, he was the best in terms of what he accomplished on riding the wave of his athletic achievements.

Hill: How much does Saratoga and does horse racing recognize Morrissey’s role in the development of the sport today versus when you first discovered his story or even when you first started writing the book?

Nicholson: Saratoga Springs had a pretty big celebration on the 150th anniversary of the track’s founding a few years ago. That brought Morrissey out of the total shadows. I think the level of his recognition is more than none, which it was 15 years ago. But he is not a household name, even among people in the horse racing industry. I think that’s probably too bad. Then again, a lot of people don’t know the administrators, the organizers of the sport in general. They just don’t tend to get the recognition that the athletes or the horses do. To me, a good indication of to what degree they embrace or don’t embrace someone is whether there is a race named after them. Morrissey does have a race named after him. It’s a minor New York state-bred race as opposed to the Whitney or the Vanderbilt or the Travers [Stakes], and I think he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those guys in terms of contributions to the track, but I’d have to think it’d be unlikely that he will get a graded stakes named in his honor.

Hill: But it does seem kind of fitting, right? Even in the early days of the track, those guys took all the credit and Morrissey was relegated to a background role or downplayed, even as it was happening.

Nicholson: As he moved from the street-level operations and election running and things like that and started rubbing shoulders with the bankers and the financiers and the wall street operators, I think he wanted to be accepted by those groups, or at least to not be completely ignored. Nobody likes to have somebody turn their nose up at them and there was plenty of that, even when he had the personal relationships with some of those guys. And even though he was as rich as many of those guys.

Hill: How long did it take you to write this book?

Nicholson: I put it on the shelf at one point, but I think it was about 3 years. There were times when I was like, “I can’t do this,” different stages where I was like, “I can’t finish this.” This guy is a murderer and a hardened gangster criminal — not a very sweet guy. That was how I felt when I first looked into him. Not that you can’t write about a bad guy, but I just thought, “no one’s going to want to hear about this.” Then, there was the question of the lack of public records to tell the story and give it enough substance to make it worthwhile. But you look at the characters and their struggle and what they go through, and you end up finding plenty to respect about him. It’s easy for people to categorize somebody as a gangster or outlaw and set that person aside. But Morrissey’s contributions to sports and society were bigger than those categories.

Hill: Well, I’m glad that you took it off the shelf and finished it because it was a really good read. I hope people read your book, and I hope that it contributes to Morrissey becoming more of a household name, at least among the fans of horse racing who hopefully will be reading this interview.

Nicholson: Thanks, Dave. I think it’s an important chapter in sports history.

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