Russell, Sol Smith, 1848-1902

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Solomon Smith Russell (1848–1902) was a 19th-century American comedic stage actor who began performing as a boy during the American Civil War.

Russell was born at Brunswick, Missouri, the eldest of two sons and a daughter raised by Charles and Louise (née Mathews) Russell. While a young boy Russell's family moved to St. Louis where his father manufactured and sold tinware. Russell's mother was from Ohio, the daughter of a Cincinnati music teacher. It soon became apparent that Russell did not share his father's talent as a tin maker and that his best option would be to prepare for a college education. Both his parents were very religious and had a prejudice against the theater, even though Russell's uncle, Sol Smith (1801–1869), was a well-known actor and theater manager in St. Louis. This family connection enabled Russell easy access to area theaters watching plays, sometimes from backstage, without his parent's knowledge.

At the age of thirteen, not long after the outbreak of the American Civil War, Russell ran away from home to serve in the Union Army as a drummer boy. He tried to enlist as a musician, but was unable to obtain the required written consent of his parents. Russell soon became popular with the officers and soldiers providing entertainment to break the dull routine of daily camp life. He fell ill while stationed at Paducah, Kentucky, and after being told that he was likely to die managed to return home to St. Louis, where his mother eventually nursed him back to health.

"My first theatrical engagement was at the Defiance Theatre, Cairo, Illinois, in 1862, at the magnificent salary of six dollars a week," said Mr. Russell. "For this recompense I sang between the acts and played and drummed in the orchestra. I had for a bed the stage lounge, and counted myself lucky to have even so good a place to sleep as that. The manager of the theatre, Mr. Holland, was very kind to me. He took me to his home and gave me free access to his excellent theatrical library, and during such spare time as I had, I read. My first acting was in a play called 'The Hidden Hand,' and my part was that of a negro girl. I made quite a success of it." He was then offered twelve dollars a week if he would learn to walk the slack wire. He accepted and joined "Bob Carter's Dog Show," which traveled on a canal boat. When it was necessary Mr. Russell joined the mules in hauling the craft. His next engagement was at John Bates's National Theatre in Cincinnati, where he sang between the acts, and after that he was a stock actor and a singer in Deagle's Theatre, St. Louis. Then he played in Milwaukee, later becoming connected with the Peake Family Bell Ringers, who followed the army into Arkansas and Tennessee. During the season of 1864–65 Mr. Russell was second comedian in the Nashville Theatre, where Laura Keene and Maggie Mitchell also played, and the following season he was at Ben DeBar's Theatre, St. Louis, with Lawrence Barrett. The fall of 1866 found him visiting some small Western towns and experiencing every variety of hard luck.

Mr. Russell first came East with the Berger Family, and his impersonations of eccentric characters and imitations of John B. Grough attracted considerable attention. During 1867 he was connected with the stock company of William E. Sinn's Arch Street Theatre, Philadelphia, of which James E. Murdock was the leading actor. The next three years were spent as a monologue entertainer in variety theatres in New England and elsewhere. Mr. Russell's first appearance in New York was in 1871, at Lina Edwin's Theatre. He was then engaged for the Olympic Theatre, New York, of which James Duff, the father-in-law of Augustin Daly, was then manager. The stock company, which regularly played at the Olympic Theatre, was an unusually large one, and included a ballet corps and a numerous chorus. Two or three different plays were given every night; and sometimes, during the same evening, Mr. Russell was called upon to appear as a ballet girl in one piece and to impersonate one of the bearded ruffians in the next. The late James Lewis, formerly of Daly's Theatre, was also a member of the company.

In 1874, Mr. Russell joined Augustin Daly's company, making his first appearance, on August 24, as Mr. Peabody in "What Could She Do? or Jealousy." He left the organization after one season, but rejoined it again in 1876. While with Mr. Daly he played Trip in "The School for Scandal", Colander in "Masks and Faces", and like characters. Mr. Russell first appeared as a star in 1880. He opened in Buffalo in "Edgewood Folks", a piece written for him by J. E. Brown, of Boston, especially to display his peculiar abilities as a character impersonator and entertainer, Mr. Russell's specialties being made a prominent feature.

"I organized the best company, in the way of support, that I could gather, including several members of Wallack's stock company," said Mr. Russell. "I made a great effort, looking to splendid success. Our company played thirty-eight weeks with varying fortunes; indeed, with small luster and little profit. But the following season was good; the third better still, and, at the end of the fifth year the play in question—'Edgewood Folks'—had made my reputation as a 'drawing' star."

Then on the retirement of William Warren in 1885 from the Boston Museum, Mr. Russell succeeded him as leading comedian, but in 1886 he resumed his starring tours, bringing out "Felix McKusick," by J. E. Brown. In 1887 he produced "Pa;" in 1887 "Bewitched," by Edward Kidder; in 1889 "A Poor Relation," by the same author; "The Tale of a Coat," by Dion Boucicault, in 1890. Since then "Peaceful Valley," "April Weather," a revival of "The Heir at Law," "A Bachelor's Romance," and "Hon. John Grigsby" have shown him at his best. Mr. Russell's home is in Minneapolis, and his wife is the daughter of the late William T. Adams, known to readers as "Oliver Optic."

Russell died at the Richmond Hotel in Washington D. C. on April 28, 1902, after suffering several strokes. He was survived by his wife and daughter, both named Alice, and son Thomas.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Rogers Memorial Collection: Henry Munroe Rogers papers, 1812-1937 (inclusive), 1862-1937 (bulk). Houghton Library
creatorOf Russell, Sol Smith, 1848-1902. Autograph letters (2) signed : 46 Hancock St. Dorchester, Mass., to a friend, May 14th and 19th. Pierpont Morgan Library.
creatorOf Russell, Sol Smith, 1848-1902. Sol Smith Russell papers, 1865-1905 Houghton Library
referencedIn [Ross Collection of Theater Portraits] [graphic], [19--?] Bancroft Library
creatorOf Robertson, T. W. (Thomas William), 1829-1871. Caste. An original comedy in three acts : manuscript, 1884. Houghton Library
creatorOf Jefferson, Joseph, 1829-1905. Autograph letter signed : Buzzard's Bay, Mass., to Sol Smith Russell in Chicago, 1893 Aug. 3. Pierpont Morgan Library.
creatorOf Russell, Sol Smith, 1848-1902,. Autograph letters signed from Sol Smith Russell to various people [manuscript], 1874-1893. Folger Shakespeare Library
creatorOf Polk, Asa D. (Asa Davis), 1850-1940. Asa D. Polk and family papers, 1853-1930. Minnesota Historical Society Library
creatorOf Russell, Sol Smith, 1848-1902,. Autograph letter signed from Sol Smith Russell, The Players, New York, to William Winter [manuscript], 19th or 20th century. Folger Shakespeare Library
referencedIn Portraits of Theatrical Personalities Collected by F. E. Faragoh [graphic], 18---19-- Bancroft Library
creatorOf Russell, Sol Smith, 1842-1902. Sol Russell papers, 1884-1897 [microform]. Minnesota Historical Society Library
referencedIn Charles Follen Adams papers, 1857-1917. Houghton Library
referencedIn Photographs of theatrical performers, 1862-1982. Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
creatorOf Russell, Sol Smith, 1848-1902. Letter, 1893, November 5, New York, to [Eu]gene [Field]. Brown University Archives, John Hay Library
referencedIn The Robert Cushman Butler Collection of Theatrical Illustrations Washington State University Libraries Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections (MASC)
creatorOf Russell, Sol Smith, 1848-1902,. Autograph letter signed from Sol Smith Russell to an unidentified recipient [manuscript], 1892 August 20. Folger Shakespeare Library
referencedIn Photographs featuring 19th-century theatrical groups, companies, productions, and related personalities, 1870-1893. Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
referencedIn Palmer, Albert Marshman, 1838-1905,. Letters to Albert Marshman Palmer from various people, New York [manuscript], 1890 September 20. Folger Shakespeare Library
referencedIn Edward Webster McGlenen papers, 1857-1937 (inclusive), 1857-1890 (bulk). Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
creatorOf Stone, Melville Elijah, 1848-1929. Melville E. Stone papers, 1815-1954, bulk 1890-1929. Newberry Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
correspondedWith Adams, Charles Follen, 1842-1918 person
associatedWith Booth, Edwin, 1833-1893 person
associatedWith Boucicault, Dion, 1820-1890 person
correspondedWith Daly, Augustin, 1838-1899 person
correspondedWith Dorney, Richard, 1842 or 3-1921 person
associatedWith Faragoh, Francis Edwards person
associatedWith Field, Eugene, 1850-1895, person
associatedWith Jefferson, Joseph, 1829-1905. person
correspondedWith McGlenen, Edward W. (Edward Webster). person
correspondedWith Palmer, Albert Marshman, 1838-1905, person
associatedWith Players (Club) corporateBody
associatedWith Polk, Asa D. (Asa Davis), 1850-1940. person
associatedWith Robertson, T. W. (Thomas William), 1829-1871. person
associatedWith Rogers, Henry Munroe, 1839-1937 person
associatedWith Stone, Melville Elijah, 1848-1929. person
correspondedWith Winter, William, 1836-1917 person
Place Name Admin Code Country


Birth 1848

Death 1902



Ark ID: w6795c7p

SNAC ID: 11652828