Bill “The Butcher” Poole was a champion New York City pugilist in 1855—before the Marquess of Queensbury rules—when kicking, biting and eye-gouging were acceptable tactics and “fight to the death” was more than a metaphor. It was also a time when a challenge was likely to be issued out of pure hatred for your opponent. When John Morrissey, the Irish enforcer for Tammany Hall challenged Bill Poole of the the anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” Party it promised to be the ultimate grudge match. But when the fighters turned to knives and guns, all pretext of sport was gone. It would be Bill “The Butcher” Poole’s last fight.
Date: February 24, 1855
Location: New York, New York
Victim: Bill The Butcher Poole
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Accused: Lewis Baker, John Morrissey, et. al.
John Morrissey was also a prize fighter and claimed the title of Heavyweight Champion of America, though his 1853 bout with Yankee Sullivan was won on a technicality and his claim to the title was not accepted by all. He was an Irish immigrant, at the time living in Troy, New York. During a trip to New York City he decided to single-handedly destroy the Americus club. Strong as he was, Morrissey was no match for Hyer, Poole, and the rest of the Know Nothing bruisers. Morrissey later moved to New York and became the muscle behind Tammany Hall, organizing a group of toughs including Blacksmith Dan Edgar, Lew Baker, Jim Turner, Paudeen McLaughlin (who had his nose bitten off during a brawl) and the notorious Five Points gang, the Dead Rabbits.
Bill Poole, a butcher by trade, was a former member of the Bowery Boys street gang, who now led his own gang fighting under the banner of the Native Americans. It was an alliance of the Washington Market Gang, the “Red Rover” Engine Company No. 34, and fellow boxers Smut Ackerman and Tommy Collins.
Though the animosity between the two groups was on the surface political, everyone knew that deep down it was driven by personal feuds between the members. There were frequent, violent clashes between the two gangs.
In January 1855, Turner and Baker went into a saloon in the basement of Wallach’s theatre on Broadway and found Tom Hyer drinking hot rum at the bar. As they passed, Turner knocked the glass from Hyer’s lips and made a remark questioning the legitimacy of Hyer’s birth. When Hyer responded, Turner and Baker each drew pistols. Hyer said he wanted no trouble but Turner fired twice and one shot grazed Hyer’s neck. Hyer pulled his own pistol but fired into the wall saying he did not want to kill anyone. When he saw Turner cock his gun again Hyer hurled him to the floor. Meanwhile Baker, who had been unable to cock his pistol, came up behind Hyer and began hitting him with the butt of the gun. He threw Baker on the ground as well. When a policeman came into the saloon, Hyer demanded Baker be arrested but the policeman refused to interfere in "a private fight between gentlemen." Hyer dragged Baker outside and the fight continued. Baker pulled out a knife and severely cut Hyer’s knuckles. Hyer kicked the knife from his hand and proceeded to knock Baker unconscious. When he went back in the saloon he found that Turner had left through the back door.
Both the Tammany gang and the Native Americans were now arming for battle. A few days later Bill The Butcher met Baker in a Canal street dive and gave him a fierce beating. This time a policeman intervened before Poole could kill his opponent. From then on Baker always travelled heavily armed and always accompanied by Turner or McLaughlin.
John Morrissey felt the time was right to challenge Poole to a “rough and tumble” fight with nothing barred. It was a matchup that sporting men had been longing to see. Both men were over six feet tall and both weighed more than two hundred pounds. Poole was considered the more ferocious, but Morrissey had greater science and speed. Morrissey met Poole in a Broadway saloon and bet $50 that Poole could not name a place where Morrissey would not fight him. Poole suggested Christopher Pier, in the heart of the neighborhood controlled by Poole’s gang. Morrissey knew he would not be safe there and paid the bet without protest. A few minutes later he asked Poole to name another place. Poole named the Amos Street dock, one block north of Christopher. This time Morrissey agreed to meet him at 7:00 the next morning, July 27, 1854.
The next day Morrissey with accompanied by a dozen Tammany men, were met at the Amos Street dock by hundreds of Bill The Butcher's supporters. Most accounts say it was an ambush, that Poole never showed up and Morrissey was severely beaten by the crowd. But a New York Daily Times article of July 28, 1854 claims that Bill the Butcher had arrived by rowboat at 6:30, and that the two men fought on the dock surrounded closely by Poole’s supporters. They had only fought for half a minute before Poole had Morrissey on the ground. He held him there for five minutes before Morrissey said “enough.” Having won the fight Poole left as he had arrived, by rowboat. Then a free-for-all ensued in which Morrissey and the other Tammany men were badly beaten.
The night of February 24, 1855, Morrissey was in the backroom of the newly opened Stanwix Hall, opposite the Metropolitan Hotel on Broadway, playing cards with Mark Maguire, King of the Newsboys. Morrissey heard Poole’ s voice then ran up and began swearing at him. Morrissey pulled a pistol and fired three times at Poole’s head, but the gun missed fire each time. Poole drew his own revolver but Maguire intervened saying,
“You wouldn’t kill a helpless man in cold blood would you?”Poole threw his pistol to the floor, grabbed two carving knives from the lunch counter and hurled them into to the bar, inviting either Maguire or Morrissey to a knife fight. Both men declined, knowing Poole’s prowess with the knife. Baker, who had received a message about the fight came into Stanwix Hall and would have joined the fray but he was closely followed by the police who arrested both Poole and Morrissey.
After they were released later that night, Poole returned to Stanwix Hall, ostensibly to apologize to the bartender. Shortly after midnight, Baker, Turner, McLaughlin, and several other Tammany men entered the Hall. Last to come in was Paudeen McLaughlin who locked the door behind him and turned to Poole saying
“What are you looking at, you black muzzled bastard?”McLaughlin grabbed Poole by the lapel and spit in his face and dared him to fight. Poole very coolly took out five golden eagle coins and offered to wager $500 that he could whip any of them. At this point Turner said quickly “Sail in.” pulled out a Colt revolver and began to shoot. Turner managed to shoot himself in the arm before hitting Poole in the leg. Then Poole either attacked Baker or fell on him after being shot. They scuffled and while Baker was over Poole, Baker pulled out his own revolver saying, “I guess I will take you anyhow.” He shot into Poole’s chest putting a bullet in his heart. Baker fired again at Poole, then escaped from the saloon. Poole got back on his feet, grabbed a knife and began chasing Baker but before he could reach the door he fell into the arms of his friend Charley Shay.
Bill The Butcher Poole was taken to his home and, to the amazement of his doctors, managed to live for two weeks with a bullet in his heart. With Tom Hyer and other Native Americans by his bedside he died on March 8, 1851. Before he died he said he had not fired a shot that night and that he believed that Morrissey was the cause of the tragedy. His last words were:
“Good bye boys: I die a true American!”Everyone implicated in the murder gave themselves up or were arrested that night except for Baker. Baker fled to Jersey City and there took passage on the brig Isabella Jewett bound for the Canary Islands. When his destination was learned, financier George Law placed his clipper yacht Grapeshot at the disposal of authorities. Baker was arrested in the port of Teneriffe and taken back to New York.