In this first episode we learn about John Morrissey, an Irish immigrant, founder of the NYC gang The Dead Rabbits, heavyweight boxing champion, and US Congressman who in the 1860s opened two of Saratoga Springs' most historic establishments; his race track made Saratoga America's premier horse-racing town since its inception, but his gambling hall known as the Saratoga Clubhouse set a new precedent for luxury gambling and inspired other such locales, eventually resulting in the Las Vegas Strip.
Harry Sultan: Do you want to know what I think of when I hear Las Vegas? It’s not the rows of slot machines, or the groups huddled around tables shooting craps. It’s not Elvis impersonators, David Copperfield, or the massive hotels. What I think of is a group of gangsters from New York and the rackets that they had from the 1850s through the 1950s in Saratoga Springs.
But why do I think of gangsters and a small city in upstate New York? Because without them, we wouldn’t have the Las Vegas Strip today.
But who am I to make these claims? I’m Harry Sultan, and I lived in Saratoga for four years while in college. During my senior year, I started to catch wind of a story, a connection between Saratoga’s history and Las Vegas’s beginning. I began to pull on that thread, and the story kept unraveling bit by bit; a story that involves extortion, gambling, rum running, and murder. It’s short, but by the end of these three episodes you’ll understand why when I think of Las Vegas, it’s impossible for me to ignore its less-than-glamorous beginnings in Upstate New York. This is The Wheels Keep Spinning.
One day last spring I take a walk through congress park in downtown Saratoga. I walked past the small merry-go-round on the edge of the park, I saw a couple groups of tourists huddled around the small gazebos where I could smell the faint odor of sulfur from the natural spring water flowing from the water fountains. Ahead of me is a group of kids were throwing around a frisbee. Right next to me though, right in the center of the park is what I came to see. A beautiful three-story victorian building, with massive hand carved wooden doors, and a window above them which reads in large gold-printed letters CASINO.
James Parillo: So today we are in the Canfield Casino, it’s been the home of the history museum since the year 1912
HS: James Parillo is the executive director of the Saratoga history museum.
JP: The building that we’re in was constructed in 1870 by John Morrissey and it was built to be a gambling casino. Morrissey was a very interesting guy, he’d grown up in the city of Troy, actually is an Irish immigrant came over to America when he was a young child with his parents.
HS: As a young man Morrissey was a bouncer, or enforcer for some local pubs in Troy, and through dealing with belligerent men in upstate New York, he got a reputation for being able to take a punch and throw a few more. After his reputation began to precede him, he took on a new job within a very different social circle.
JP: He ends up working on the docs down on the Hudson river. He obtains a job working for a steamboat captain going between New York City and Troy but when he’s in New York he ends up being associated with the Irish street gangs and wharf gangs that operated the city. He became the leader of a gang called the Dead Rabbits and was tightly associated with Tammany Hall you know they were the power brokers that ran New York City and if there were issues that Tammany Hall needed to settle they’d send Morrissey and his guys out to settle it.
HS: John Morrissey was a big guy for the time, and could he could take a punch unlike most people had ever seen.
One legend has it that there was one barroom fight in a basement, where dozens of men gathered to watch Morrissey and another man bare knuckle box, but during the match, someone knocked over a coal stove flinging burning coals onto the ground. As the fight continued, Morrissey gets thrown down onto the hot coals, and upon standing up is seen to have some seared into his back - but he kept fighting. At the end of the match, a bucket of water was tossed onto him to extinguish the coals which emitted a thick white steam rising from Morrissey’s charred, sweaty back earning him the unofficial nickname, “Old Smoke”.
He used these skills to fight his way to the title of heavyweight bare knuckle boxing champion of the United States, but wanted to do more with his life than punch people bloody, and with the money he’d earned and the connections he’d made, he was able to make some changes in his life.
JP: So Morrissey eventually splits from Tammany Hall, comes up to Saratoga Springs and first thing he does is he starts a race course. He starts Saratoga Race track in 1862
HS: He decides to build it in Saratoga Springs. But why did this Irish immigrant, who grew up in Troy, worked with gangs in New York City, and had even lived in California for part of the gold rush decide to build a track in Saratoga of all places? Why build something nearly 200 miles away from New York City?
JP: You know, people ask why did Morrissey build it in Saratoga Springs? Everyone knew Saratoga Springs. Saratoga springs was essentially the Disneyland of the 19th century. People had been gambling here since the 1840s and Morrissey traveled here and knew that people came here to see and be seen.
HS: But what made Saratoga Springs, without the concert venues and night life, that it’s famous for now, so enticing back then? In order to find out the answer to this, to why anybody bothered to come to Saratoga Springs at all, I went on the tour of the history museum with Tom Burns
Tom Burns: So should we start here?
HS: Where I got the whole history, from Pangea all the way through the 1800s
TB: By the turn of the century, the 1800s, a man named Gideon Putnam comes to Saratoga and he decides to build a boarding house across the street. And the boarding house was this two story building - fairly large for that time and area - he also could take in about 20 boarders, and everybody laughed at him, ‘who’s going to come to deal with these springs in the middle of the woods?’.
HS: But if ever the phrase, if we build it they will come, rang true, it was with Gideon Putnam in Saratoga
TB: It becomes a destination place, people come, it fills up, he gets bigger and bigger and bigger, close to a thousand rooms, had an opera house of fifteen hundred seats, dining for a thousand people, then becomes the Grand Hotel, and later the Grand Union Hotel, one of the largest and most prestigious hotels in the country.
HS: So now that there’s such a luxurious and opulent place to stay in Saratoga, it begins attracting a new caliber of visitor
TB: And then Saratoga becomes basically a summer vacation for the wealthy cause they heard about the springs, they’re very used to spring water, they bathe in it, they drink it, it’s something they’re looking forward to, so they would come here for the waters and taking the waters
HS: Gideon Putnam died in 1812, but his hotel and boarding houses set the stage for Saratoga to become a destination. Over the next few decades, more and more people were coming for the springs.
And for context as to what that means. There were 200 naturally occurring springs around Saratoga. Each spring was said to have different types of healing properties. Those who could afford the trip would come to drink, and even bathe in the water in order to cure or prevent ailments kind of in the same way we take vitamins.
JP: They came because their doctor would prescribe it they would come drink the water and have business dealings and also visit with their peers.
HS: But traveling to Upstate NY was a lot harder back then than it is today, and so when people came to Saratoga Springs, they stayed for a couple weeks or even months and they needed something to fill their time
JP: So that’s why gambling started here, and when it first started it was relatively low end, poker houses, dice houses, and people that didn’t really attract the wealthiest people
HS: So towards the end of the 1850s, Right around when Morrissey is looking to leave boxing, he recognizes an opportunity and makes a life-changing decision
JP: Morrissey said if those wealthy people are going for the spring water and need something to do I can make money in a gambling place
HS: And he knew just how to start
JP: Horse racing appealed to all the masses’
HS: Gambling which had been lurking in the dark corners and dusty basements of Saratoga for generations, finally had its spotlight,.
In 1863, Morrissey’s track opened to astounding fanfare against rather large odds. Because of the on going Civil War, finding good racing horses was difficult since most of them were recruited to help with the war efforts, so the first season was short but wound up wildly successful, and it sent an important message; from this point forward, Saratoga Springs is a horse-racing town.
In fact, the following year the racing season opened on a new, larger track across the street in 1864. And as of 2018, it was the oldest running sports arena in the country.
After a couple of successful racing seasons, John Morrissey begins to think of expanding
JP: And then the bells go off in his head and that’s when he starts the casino. So the casino opens in 1870 and it becomes a very significant building in the history of our city.
HS: In the 1870s, Saratoga didn’t have a full fledged police force, so Morrissey didn’t have to worry too much about police intervention when he decided to build a three story illegal gambling house in the middle of the public park. Instead of the police, the biggest threat to his casino would be the locals, but Morrissey had a way to win them over
In order to find out more about how John Morrissey got away with breaking the law, I spoke with someone who’s job it is now to enforce it, Saratoga Springs’ Chief of Police, Greg Veitch.
Greg Veitch: John Morrissey was a very smart guy. He lavished money on almost every charitable cause in Saratoga Springs, so if your church needed steps, he would give you the money to build new steps for your church. If a young woman, her husband passed away and she was having trouble making her mortgage, John Morrissey paid her mortgage. So he bought essentially the good will of village.
HS: In order to stay on good terms with the people of Saratoga he called his new casino the Saratoga Club House so as to at least pretend not to be an overt gambling house. But he also instituted three rules that were unusual for an illegal establishment at the time
GV: The three rules of the casino were no women were allowed to play, no locals were allowed to play, and they were closed on Sunday
HS: Two of the rules were pretty straight forward, it would be closed on Sundays in deference to the clergy, and women couldn’t gamble, because back in the 1870s, gambling was considered a Gentleman’s sport.
Morrissey’s decision to not let locals gamble was much more calculated.
He knew that Saratoga locals weren’t wealthy enough to afford losing hundreds of dollars at his casino like the other people traveling from out of town could; and he was worried that if he let these locals come in, and lose all their money, that it would negatively impact the town and turn the locals against him.
But Morrissey keeping the locals from gambling didn’t lose him too much money because it was the high stakes gamblers that he was after, and it was their money that he got. People like Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and Ulysses S. Grant would all come to his clubhouse to gamble. Morrissey’s clubhouse was really the first of its kind in America - a high society gambling house bigger, grander, and flashier than the run-of-the mill, low stakes gambling houses that were the standard. He was the first one to bring glitz and glamour to these games of chance. He was growing wealthier by the minute, but this high didn’t last long. In 1877 he contracts pneumonia and dies the following year at the age of 47 in the Adelphi hotel in Saratoga Springs.
Ownership of the clubhouse passed through a couple of hands before landing in those of a man named Richard Canfield who decided to raise the stakes of the games, having tables with up to $10,000 chips, he built an extravagant dining room where the wealthiest people could come for thousand dollar meals, he expanded the public park that the building was in, and changed the name from Clubhouse to the Canfield Casino and emblazoned the new title above the front door, the same one that I walked through in the beginning of this episode.
These changes brought in even more of the high society types than in Morrissey’s time.
JP: These, all of these visitors are what drove our economy. During the winters this building as a casino closed up, the hotels closed up, and many of the boarding houses out and around did too. There really was no economy here during the winters
HS: Saratoga and its gambling centers started by John Morrissey were doing really well for a couple years. The wealthiest people in the country were coming to gamble away their fortunes, and the locals were surviving off of the tourism, but shortly after the turn of the century, in 1906 the village of Saratoga Springs began it’s efforts to become a city and had to put additional pressures on blatant law breaking like, for example, a massive three story casino, and Canfield shut his doors for good.
JP: Saratoga’s gambling history doesn’t end with the Canfield Casino. So when gambling closes down here in 1906 we’ve got maybe a 15 year period where it kind of quiets down, you don’t hear a lot about it. 1919 is the year that Arnold Rothstein comes into Saratoga and opens his first gambling house here which is called the Brook.
HS: If you don’t know the name Arnold Rothstein, He’s the one responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series and is often given the title, Grandfather organized crime, and after Canfield closed his doors in Saratoga Springs, Arnold Rothstein, the most respected mobster at the time started to open his.
To find out how a middle class Jewish kid from manhattan used Saratoga Springs to set the stage for the Las Vegas Strip, listen to the next episode of The Wheels Keep Spinning