I am sleeping, I am told, in John Morrissey’s room. It’s on the second floor of the Adelphi Hotel, opening on one side to the grand Adelphi hallway, on the other to the iconic second floor piazza, three stories high, above street level, overlooking, but unobserved by, Broadway.
I am told that Morrissey sat here with William Travers talking about the Saratoga Association, the organization that ran the racetrack here, the organization of which Travers was president, the racetrack that is not mentioned once in Morrissey’s voluminous New York Times obituary.
Morrissey was not of Travers’ kind: born in Ireland, he came here with his parents at the age of three. He grew up in Troy, just south of Saratoga. He was a bare-knuckle fighter, a gambler, a politician, and an entrepreneur. He is the man credited with bringing a regular Thoroughbred racing meet to Saratoga in 1863, and with running the meet behind the scenes when it moved across Union Avenue, though his name never appeared in the membership of the Saratoga Association.
This hotel was built in 1874, 11 years after that first Saratoga meeting. In the spring of 1878, Morrissey came here to stay following some travels, preparing to return to Albany for his work as a state senator. He took ill in April and died on the evening of May 1, “clasping the hand of the priest,” according to the Times. He was 47 years old.
On May 3, Saratoga was invited to pay its last respects to Morrissey in the Adelphi’s parlor, where he was laid out. “Hundreds of people crowded in to take a farewell look at the well-known face. Every one there regarded him as a beneficent friend, and feel that in his demise Saratoga has lost its most useful and valued citizen” (Times).
Tonight, it’s 11:30 pm, and it is perfectly still, except for the sound of distant live music wafting through Saratoga’s streets. I don’t believe in ghosts (she says with a touch of quavery bravado), but sitting here tonight, I want to imagine Morrissey in this room. I want to think of him planning with Travers. I want to envision his waking up and looking at a Broadway that doesn’t, really, look all that different now from the way it looked then. I want to picture him getting ready to go to his racetrack with the same joy and anticipation that so many of us do.
And if he is still sticking around this old place, I hope that he comes by tonight. Oh, the questions I would ask! I’d ask him what it was like to have taken his scrappy beginnings and used them to penetrate this country’s highest social strata. I’d ask him how it felt to stay in the shadows while America’s aristocracy got all the credit for establishing what became a national treasure. I’d ask him if he thinks that we have taken good care of the gift that he gave us.
I’d hope that he would tell me what on earth made him think that it was a good idea to open a racetrack in the middle of a war that wrenched the country apart. I’d want to hear about his betting coups, at the races and at his casino in beautiful Congress Park. I’d ask him what he thinks about Saratoga today.
I’d ask him, a state and federal politician, what he thinks about our government, particularly the one in Albany; I’d ask his opinion of Governor Cuomo. I’d ask him what he thinks we should do to tackle the challenges facing racing.
But mostly, I guess, I’d ask him to tell me stories, stories about what it was like to be at the races then, and what Saratoga was like, and why he stayed here, at the Adelphi, instead of one of the other hotels. I’d want to know what he’d have included in his obituary, and what he considers his greatest legacy.
Here in Saratoga, there’s little doubt about that legacy, even if it were ignored, or hidden, or disregarded, for far too long. Here, Morrissey’s spirit indubitably, steadily lives on.
If forgotten elsewhere, however, he left his mark…all over Saratoga Springs: at the Adelphi Hotel, where he died, at his casino in the park, at the trotting grounds where he opened his first season, and at the racetrack that he, more than anyone, created. (Hotaling)
Quoted and consulted
“Death of John Morrissey.” New York Times, May 2, 1878.
Hotaling, Edward. They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995.
“John Morrissey’s Burial.” New York Times, May 4, 1878.