“The ‘Short-Hair’ and ‘Swallow-Tail’ Fight”

July 10, 1875

Thomas Nast

“The ‘Short-Hair’ and ‘Swallow-Tail’ Fight”

New York City, Government/Politics; Tammany Hall, John Kelly; Tammany Hall, John Morrissey;

Morrissey, John;

New York City;

Making the "Swallows" Homeward Fly.

During the mid-1870s, John Morrissey (pictured here) battled John Kelly for control of the Democratic Party in New York City.  In 1872, Kelly succeeded William Tweed as the “reform” boss of the Tammany Hall political machine after the latter was ousted and jailed on corruption charges.  In 1875, Morrissey broke with Kelly and Tammany Hall to form his own political machine, which would become known as Irving Hall.  

Morrissey was a gambling house proprietor, former prizefighter (note his broken nose), and former congressman.  His closely cropped hair inspired Harper's Weekly to nickname his faction the "short-hairs" in 1875, while associating his rivals with the exclusive Manhattan Club and labeling them "swallow-tails" after their formal evening tail coats.  The term "short-hair" did not stick, however, and it was Morrissey's Irving Hall faction that became known as the "swallowtails."  Harper's Weekly, though, continued to link Morrissey with Tammany Hall in 1876 in order to a tar his ally, Democratic presidential nominee Samuel Tilden, with the corruption of Tammany Hall through guilt by association.

Morrissey was born in Ireland in 1831 and immigrated as a young child with his family to Troy, New York, where as a youth he worked as a factory laborer and joined a street gang.  His prowess in gang fights motivated him to move to New York City in 1849 and pursue a career as a professional prizefighter.  He was taken under the wing of Isaiah Rynders, a Tammany Hall politician, who made Morrissey a "shoulder-hitter" (a fighter who enforced the will of a political boss by intimidation or violence).  Morrissey was nicknamed “Old Smoke” after a saloon brawl in which he and his opponent knocked over a stove and Morrissey was pinned over the coals, with smoke from his smoldering clothes permeating the room.  Morrissey persevered to win the fight.

In 1851, Morrissey journeyed to California, where he won a lot of money at gambling and first appeared as a professional prizefighter, earning a $4,000 purse and $1,000 from a side bet.  He was unsuccessful, though, in his attempt to conquer the gold-rich Queen Charlotte Islands, off the coast of British Columbia, with an armed schooner and a crew of hoodlums.  Back in New York in 1853, Morrissey became the American boxing champion by defeating "Yankee" Sullivan in 37 rounds.  (At the time, prizefights were bare-knuckle events, with rounds lasting until one man fell down, and the match ending only when one boxer could not return on his feet to the center of the ring.)

Working again for Tammany Hall, Morrissey organized a gang of shoulder-hitters who primarily battled Bill Poole’s American Party (Know-Nothing) gang.  In July 1854, Poole defeated Morrissey in a boxing match.  Street fights between the two gangs continued, resulting in the deaths of several members, including Poole in March 1855.  Morrissey was charged with the murder, but released.  In a well-publicized prizefight in October 1858, Morrissey defeated John “Benicia Boy” Heenan at Long Point, Canada, before a crowd of 2,000, and pocketed $5,000 from a side bet.  After the Heenan bout, Morrissey retired from the boxing ring as the champion.

Morrissey became the owner of several successful saloons and gambling houses, paying the police to ignore his illegal gambling operations, and reportedly earning a million-dollar profit within five years.  He invested his money in real estate and in 1863 opened the Saratoga Springs racing track, which helped revitalize the sport in the Civil War North.  He also turned his attention to politics in a more serious way.  In 1866, he was elected as a Democrat to the first of two terms in Congress (1867-1871).  

In early 1870, before revelations of Tweed Ring corruption became public, Morrissey joined a faction called the Young Democracy that revolted against Boss Tweed's authoritarian rule.  Tweed, however, learned of their plot to unseat him as head of Tammany Hall, and used policemen to prevent Young Democracy members from entering the building on the night of their planned coup.  The rebel organization quickly folded, and Morrissey did not seek reelection to Congress.

In 1874, Morrissey questioned the wisdom of Tammany Hall's selection of William Wickham as the Democratic mayoral candidate.  Boss Kelly attempted to appease Morrissey by backing his friend, James Hayes, for the office of city register.  When Hayes lost the race, he and Morrissey became furious when Hayes's $15,000 assessment to Tammany Hall (a fee patronage employees paid to their sponsoring party) was not returned and he was not appointed to another government position.  Morrissey began badmouthing Kelly, claiming he had lost touch with ordinary voters, particularly Irish Americans, a powerful bloc in New York City's Democratic Party.

In early 1875, Morrissey tried to visit Wickham, now the new mayor, at City Hall, but was barred from entry because he lacked a calling card.  An irritated Morrissey sarcastically replied, "Well, give my compliments to His Honor Mayor Wickham and ask him to tell 'Billy' Wickham that when John Morrissey has time to put on French airs, he may call again."  Morrissey returned a few days later dressed in formal attire--swallowtail coat, white kid gloves, and patent leather shoes--and carrying a large book.  He informed a curious friend, "I've just bought a French dictionary to help me talk to our dandy Mayor.  I'm going in full dress to make a call, for that is now the style at the Hotel Wickham.  No Irish need apply now."  This time, Mayor Wickham welcomed him warmly, apologizing for the previous misunderstanding.  

Kelly, however, was not amused, and took Morrissey's behavior as a personal affront.  The boss directed Tammany Hall's Committee on Discipline, a usually inactive board, to investigate Morrissey (notice the poster in the cartoon).  Later that summer, the committee determined that party discipline was weak in Morrissey's district and that he had, in fact, been working against the interests of Tammany Hall.  Upon Kelly's recommendation, Morrissey was ejected from the organization.

Refusing to accept defeat, Morrissey founded a rival machine, the Irving Hall Democracy, which soon attracted Tilden and other major (and often wealthy) New York Democrats dissatisfied with Tammany Hall.  Morrissey also ran in 1875 for a seat in the New York State Legislature, overpowering his Tammany Hall opponent to win the right to represent Boss Tweed's old district.  Critics charged that he could only have been elected in such a safe precinct, so in 1877 he ran and won in another district, upsetting the venerable Tammany politician, August Schell.  In May 1878, only a few months into his second legislative term, Morrissey died.  Irving Hall, however, continued to prosper for several years as the Democratic rival to Tammany Hall.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The ‘Short-Hair’ and ‘Swallow-Tail’ Fight”
June 17, 2024

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