Family feud

By Pete Ehrmann on November 17, 2017
Family feud
Dougherty was so zonked on morphine and whiskey he was unaware he had adopted Daly.

The trial prompted a terse editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “When you are drunk don’t form the habit of adopting pugilists. You may regret it…”

November 18 is National Adoption Day, an annual event organizers say “has made the dreams of thousands of children come true by working with policymakers, practitioners and advocates to finalize adoptions and create and celebrate adoptive families.” This story is not about one of them.

John A. Dougherty was a medical doctor in late 19th century Philadelphia who spent more time with prizefighters than patients. The Ferdie Pacheco of his time, Dougherty advised and trained such renowned pugs as John L. Sullivan, Jake Kilrain and Frank Slavin.

But the physician newspapers called a “rich and eccentric sporting man” with “a weakness for men of muscle” didn’t fall for any of them the way he fell for Cornelius J. Moriarty.

That was the legal name of a Wilmington, Delaware boxer known as Jack Daly. After winning the amateur 125-pound national championship in 1892, Daly turned pro and embarked on a winning streak that extended into late ’94. On Christmas Day of that year, Daly fought three rounds with Charley McKeever in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Inquirer adjudged him the loser on points, but that result wasn’t evident from the reaction of Dr. Dougherty, who was at the Quaker Athletic Club as a spectator. When Daly left the ring, the prominent doctor made a beeline for him and, according to newspaper accounts, the conversation that ensued went as follows:

Dougherty: “You are Jack Daly?”

Daly: “Bet your old high hat on it, my boy.”

Dougherty: “Well, I’m going to adopt you.”

Daly: “Honest?”

Dougherty: “Yes, I’m going to adopt you. I’m Dr. John A. Dougherty, and I’m worth $134,000. How about that?”

Daly: “Great. I’m your man.”

Four days later, a judge in Wilmington made it official, and Jack Daly became the childless Dougherty’s adopted son and heir. 

The physician’s wealth—some reports put Dr. Dougherty’s worth at $1 million, but even if it was the mere $134,000 he trumpeted to Daly, that translates to around $4 million in modern dollars—was inherited from his father, a developer whose firm provided the marble and granite for Philadelphia’s City Hall.

The doc’s impromptu adoption of Daly raised concerns that money wasn’t all he inherited from Dougherty Sr., who was institutionalized with and eventually died of what was diagnosed as “softening of the brain.” Those concerns were fanned by reports that, in addition to steering Daly to the lightweight championship, Dr. Dougherty intended to enroll his new son in Georgetown University medical school because Daly had “enough brains to supply six doctors.”

Such an impressive endowment was offset, however, by the boxer’s longtime proclivity for getting drunk and into trouble with the law, and just three weeks after his adoption Daley became an orphan again. “Dr. Dougherty says that (Daly) acted in such an incorrigible manner that he had to sever all relations with him,” reported the Wilmington News Journal on January 24, 1895, “and will assume no responsibility for him in the future.”

It wasn’t that easy, of course, and for the next nine years, as Jack Daly became one of the leading lightweights in the world, fighting Joe Gans, Young Griffo, and in 1898 going 20 rounds to a draw with champion George “Kid” Lavigne, he also battled Dr. Dougherty in court to have the 1894 adoption decree affirmed and enforced. He hadn’t been looking to be adopted, the fighter said, but when it happened “the sensation was delightful.” So was the anticipation of inheriting all that Dougherty dough.

Dr. John’s arguments in favor of annulling the adoption were that Daly had lied about his age at the time, claiming to be 19 when he was at least 21, and that the whole thing never would have happened in the first place had he—Dougherty—not been so zonked on morphine and whiskey he was unaware he had adopted Daly until he read about it in the newspaper the next day.

His addictions to both had started years before, the doc testified in 1896, after he’d broken a leg falling off a horse. He was clean and sober now, but before that he was so out of it that most of his time was spent hallucinating that “a big battle was being fought between two nations” to the accompaniment of opera music playing continuously in his head.

The protracted trial made national headlines and prompted a terse editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

“When you are drunk don’t form the habit of adopting pugilists. You may regret it when you sober up.”

By the dawn of the 20th century Dr. Dougherty was either dead or in an institution, and Daly, now retired from the ring and working as a beat cop in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, was still hoping for a big score from the estate. “When the (judge) says, ‘You are entitled to $110,000 minus your lawyers’ fees,’” he proclaimed, “I’ll step up and say, ‘Thank you, judge.’”

What he said on September 12, 1904 when it was ruled that the adoption of Cornelius J. Moriarty, a/k/a Jack Daly, by Dr. John A. Dougherty was invalid, can only be imagined. The next day, however, the Philly flatfoot lamented to the Wilmington Evening Journal, “If the decision had not gone against me yesterday I would now be enjoying an income of $250 a month instead of keeping an eye on ‘chinks.’”

Four days later, Patrolman Moriarty was booted off the Philadelphia police force for being drunk on duty. Over the two decades that followed he was repeatedly arrested for misdeeds ranging from disorderly conduct, assaulting policemen and beating up and robbing a man of $9.

In late 1921 he was serving a 30-day jail sentence in Wilmington for contempt of court for refusing to tell where the illegal hooch that had gotten him arrested for being drunk and disorderly had come from. After a few days Moriarty sent word to the judge that he’d had a change of heart and wanted to come clean and apologize for his behavior. But when brought back before the bench Moriarty only smirked at the judge, kept his lip buttoned and was sent back to complete his sentence.

Contempt of court? Bet your old high hat on it.

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  1. Lucas McCain 09:15am, 11/18/2017

    It’s only my own poverty of imagination this morning that makes me quote Art Linkletter’s title, “People are Funny” (he meant “ha ha,” but also “peculiar”).  Wonderful piece about the world’s weirdness.

  2. Bruce Kielty 10:19pm, 11/17/2017

    Fascinating tale by a wonderful storyteller.  If Dr. Dougherty were around today, he’d probably be in politics…

  3. peter 06:50pm, 11/17/2017

    An interestingly bizarre read! It makes you think, wonder, and then shake your head with incredulity.

  4. Bruno Schleinstein 02:01pm, 11/17/2017

    Have a strong sense that there’s as much kink as there is quirk in this one!

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