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Russell Sage: The Meanest Miser in the Land – Podcast #178

Note: The following is an automated transcription of the podcast. As a result, it may contain errors.

Steve Silverman 00:00:01
In 2014, CNN Money estimated that, adjusted for inflation, 19th-century robber baron Russell Sage would rank as the 18th richest American ever. This is a man who is not only ruthless in business, but he also had the reputation of being among the stingiest of all men. He supposedly did not believe in helping the poor, he had no use for higher education, and he refused to support women’s causes that included women’s suffrage and their right to an education. And when it came to women, it is said that he had nothing but disdain for his second wife, Olivia. The two simply couldn’t stand the sight of one another. But when Sage died, his wife became the wealthiest woman on earth, and she set out to give away every penny of his fortune to all the causes that he had contempt for. So just who was Russell Sage, the meanest miser in the land? Well, joining me today to tell the story of Russell Sage is Kathy Sheehan of the Hart Cluett Historical Museum in Troy, New York. Kathy currently serves as both a historian for the city of Troy and as the Rensleyer county historian. And we have a fantastic story to share with you today. I am Steve Silverman. And this is the Useless Information Podcast. Useless Information.

Steve Silverman 00:00:01
So, Kathy, welcome to the show.

Kathy Sheehan 00:01:24
Thanks very much, Steve. I’m really pleased to be here.

Steve Silverman 00:01:27
Yeah, we’ve been talking on and off for probably about three or four years now about you coming onto the podcast. And originally I was going to do a story on Uncle Sam because Sam Wilson is buried in Troy. And then I got into the discussion with you probably back in November about talking about Russell Sage. So here you are.

Kathy Sheehan 00:01:45
Here we are. Yes. We’re here to do some myth-busting.

Steve Silverman 00:01:48
Yeah. Now, I should mention, you’re not the more famous of the two Kathy Sheehans in this area, right? I mean, there is the mayor of Albany, who you are not.

Kathy Sheehan 00:01:57
Correct. I am the Rensselaer County and Troy city historian and educator at the Hart-Cluett museum of historic Rensselaer County.

Steve Silverman 00:02:06
So we’re going to talk about Russell Sage, and I thought we’d divide this into three parts. The first is we’ll talk about who Russell Sage was. Then we’ll talk about this crazy story that I heard a few years ago, and I’ve actually heard it twice, not once, and that’s why I asked you about it. And then after that, we’ll discuss what’s true and what isn’t. Okay.

Kathy Sheehan 00:02:25
Sounds great.

Steve Silverman 00:02:26
Okay, so what I did is I went through and I tried to consolidate a little bit about his life. So I’ll read through those facts very quickly, and you can add any comments that you want, whether what I’m saying is right or wrong or if you have something to add to it. Okay.

Kathy Sheehan 00:02:39
Okay, sounds good.

Steve Silverman 00:02:41
I should mention you’re a Troy native, right?

Kathy Sheehan 00:02:43
I am, and I have a branch of my family that goes back to the 1760s in Rensselaer County.

Steve Silverman 00:02:50
Wow. That’s amazing. So basically, you grew up knowing about Russell Sage your whole life, I would assume.

Kathy Sheehan 00:02:56
Yes. Well, more knowing, certainly knowing about the college and knowing that he was one of the Gilded Age robber barons. But not really knowing all that much more about him until, frankly, that I got involved working at the museum.

Steve Silverman 00:03:11
Right. I have to say, I never heard of the man until I moved to this area, because Russell Sage College isn’t like Princeton or Harvard or something.

Kathy Sheehan 00:03:21
Right.

Steve Silverman 00:03:21
So I never heard of it. Even Siena, which is down the road, I had never heard of until I moved to this area. So for those who don’t know about Russell Sage, I’ll just quickly say, as you said, he was a robber baron, and he was one of the richest men in the world when he was alive.

Kathy Sheehan 00:03:35
Yes. I think most people know more about Commodore Vanderbilt, Carnegie, some of those people. But Russell Sage is right up there. He was worth millions and millions of dollars when he died.

1st Avenue entrance to Russell Sage College in Troy, NY in 2022.
1st Avenue entrance to Russell Sage College in Troy, NY in 2022.

Steve Silverman 00:03:47
Which would be billions today.

Kathy Sheehan 00:03:49
Which would be billions today. Right.

Steve Silverman 00:03:51
So, anyway, here are some of the facts that I accumulated. So here we go. First, he was born on August 4, 1816, in Verona, New York, which is central New York. And I was looking at a map, and you can really draw a line anywhere across New York State and it really is the center of the state. And he was the youngest of six children, and he was born into poverty. So at age twelve, he picked up and left the farm, which is something that nobody would ever dream of doing today. I mean, people don’t leave the home. They stay at home as long as they can.

Russell Sage's birth home.
Russell Sage’s birth home. (Munsey’s Magazine, March 1895, page 636.)

Kathy Sheehan 00:04:19
No, but at twelve years old, you’re practically an adult. You have to remember at that time, kids are working in factories. Eight, nine years old.

Steve Silverman 00:04:27
Sure.

Kathy Sheehan 00:04:28
For that time period. Not so uncommon, I don’t think.

Steve Silverman 00:04:31
Yeah. I just can’t imagine it today.

Kathy Sheehan 00:04:32
No, I can’t either.

Steve Silverman 00:04:34
So at age twelve, he leaves, he goes to Troy, New York, where his older brother Henry has a grocery store. And it was at the corner of River and Hutton Street in Troy. And that street is still there, but the buildings aren’t, is that correct?

Kathy Sheehan 00:04:46
Correct.

Steve Silverman 00:04:47
Yeah. And he worked as an errand boy initially, and he just kind of worked his way up and up and up. Now, his first wages were $4 per month, which is about $102 per month today, which isn’t a lot of money. Of course, he did get room and board with that.

Kathy Sheehan 00:05:02
It’s significant that we’re looking at that 1825 period, though, because this is when the Erie Canal had opened, and Troy is really becoming the center of commerce. The fact that he was on Hutton and River Streets, they literally are half a block away from the Hudson River, where they were sure and so the docks were all there. This is where all the produce and farm products and things were all coming down from the rest of Rensselaer County, as well as Western Vermont and Massachusetts. And so it’s important now because we are the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal, and the water is navigable right there behind that area where they have established the store. So you’re at the right place at the right time.

Steve Silverman 00:05:48
And eventually Troy grew into one of the richest cities in the world.

Kathy Sheehan 00:05:51
Absolutely. I think 20 years, like 1840. It’s the fourth wealthiest city per capita. Some way that they figured that out.

Steve Silverman 00:06:00
And I’ve mentioned this before on the podcast over the years, that Troy is just a beautiful city to walk around. I mean, you can see that it was once a really wealthy city.

Kathy Sheehan 00:06:09
Right. Yeah. Very sophisticated taste, too.

Steve Silverman 00:06:12
Yeah. So, anyway, I do have a quote from Russell Sage that I want to share with you regarding his wages. So let’s listen to that. And it goes, “After I went into my brother’s store, I realized that I was lacking in education and determined to spend a part of my small earnings in attending night school. Of the $4 wages I got on the first of every month, I paid a $1.50 to my teacher. I soon learned bookkeeping and the more intricate problems in arithmetic. I managed to borrow some books on history and read all the papers I could get my hands on. I had no time for anything else.” And that’s the end of the quote. Now, I should mention that liquor was a very important part of his business. And what was amazing is he tended bar, but he never drank or smoked once in his lifetime, which is quite amazing.

Kathy Sheehan 00:06:57
Well, again, let’s look at where he’s born and raised. He’s born and raised out in Verona, New York. Pretty much a temperate place out there.

Steve Silverman 00:07:05
Oh, was it?

Kathy Sheehan 00:07:06
Yeah, very much so. Yeah.

Steve Silverman 00:07:08
Didn’t know that. Now, I did write down that by the age of 15, he was making $4 a week. That’s actually four times his starting salary. So in three years, he’s quadrupled his salary and he managed to save every single penny. At least that’s what he claimed. So I have another quote on that. “I do not recall this period of my life I had any particular ambition. About the only thing I made my mind up early was that it would never be a poor man. I said to myself I would succeed in whatever I undertook. I saw poverty all around me and dreaded it. Adopting as my motto an old saying, that of my father’s, that ‘any man can earn a dollar, but it takes a wise man to save it.’ I saved the first dollar I ever earned, and from that time to this, I have never owed a single cent that I was not ready to pay when it became due.”

Russell Sage. (Undated, New York Public Library)
Russell Sage. (Undated, New York Public Library)

Steve Silverman 00:07:08
So I just kind of went by age here. And I should mention that some of these dates may be a little off. I tried to do the calculations from the newspaper articles at the time. At age 13, he made his first real estate purchase. He purchased two lots across the street for $200, which was a lot of money back then. And then he got into horse trading, and he used those earnings to purchase even more land. By age 15, I love this, he purchased a sloop. And, of course, that was the main form of transportation up and down the Hudson River.

Kathy Sheehan 00:08:25
Right. And again, that was after the monopoly was broken on the Hudson River. The whole Robert Fulton and he was controlling the Hudson River. And so once that broke, then everybody could basically use the river as far as navigation travel.

Steve Silverman 00:08:25
I didn’t realize that.

Kathy Sheehan 00:08:25
He jumped right on the bandwagon. Smart guy.

Steve Silverman 00:08:46
Yeah. This is why I have a historian on. Yes. I know very little about it other than I knew that it took about in best case scenario, it took about a day to get down to New York City.

Kathy Sheehan 00:08:57
It’s about 14 hours.

Steve Silverman 00:08:59
Yeah.

Kathy Sheehan 00:09:00
And that’s if the wind is going there. Right. These are wind-powered sloops at that point.

Steve Silverman 00:09:04
Sure.

Kathy Sheehan 00:09:04
You’re not talking about steamboats or anything. Right.

Steve Silverman 00:09:07
And the Hudson River is not a very windy area as a whole.

Kathy Sheehan 00:09:10
It’s also a terrible river to navigate. It’s a very tricky river to navigate all the way down. Still is today. You actually have to have a special pilot’s license if you have a boat over 200ft.

Steve Silverman 00:09:23
Wow.

Kathy Sheehan 00:09:23
Yeah.

Steve Silverman 00:09:24
I didn’t know that. See, I’m learning a lot, and I hope other people are also. Anyway, he purchased a sloop, and what he did is he transported horses safely from Troy to New York City. And then, of course, when he sailed back, he loaded it with cargo provisions. Yeah, he put provisions onto the boat. Now, supposedly, he made $700 on this trip, which would be over $18,000 today. And of course, he used that and invested it more. Now, by age 19, his brother Henry becomes ill, so he invests with his brother Elisha, and they purchase a store themselves. At age 23, they turn around and sell that store for a good profit. Now, he’s worth over $25,000 in cash, which is about $660,000 today. He also owns several tracts of land, and now he has two sloops. This guy is earning big bucks.

Kathy Sheehan 00:10:11
Right.

Steve Silverman 00:10:11
This is, at age 23. Hard to believe. With that money he established a wholesale grocery business with a guy named John W. Bates. The company, of course, was called Sage & Bates, and they used their own sailing vessels. They soon control both the Detroit and Albany markets for Canadian and Vermont horses. And he started engaging in private banking. And his fortune continues to grow. By age 25, in 1841, he had a massive fortune of $75,000, which is over $2 million today. By age 28, he bought out his partner and he continued in the wholesale grocery business. He had extensive operations in beef, pork, flour, and grain at the time. And I assume still horses.

Sage & Bates store at 139 River Street in Troy, NY.
Sage & Bates store at 139 River Street in Troy, NY. (Munsey’s Magazine, March 1895, page 636.)

Kathy Sheehan 00:10:52
Probably.

Steve Silverman 00:10:53
Yeah. By age 29, he was a pretty well-known businessman in Troy and he became an Alderman. Now, is that an elected position?

Kathy Sheehan 00:11:01
Yes. And they usually were one or two-year appointments for Alderman. And for whatever district, usually whatever the district they lived in, which was at this point was down in Washington Park.

Steve Silverman 00:11:11
Yeah. And then he became the Rensselaer County Treasurer. That was the Alderman and Treasurer at the same time, or one then the other? Do you know?

Kathy Sheehan 00:11:11
I don’t know if Alderman and Treasurer was a concurrent position or not. Usually, the treasurer was a better position. So he probably got rid of the Alderman and then became Treasurer.

Steve Silverman 00:11:30
Yeah. From what I gathered, this is the total time of seven years. Now, at age 36, in 1852, he made his first railway deal. This is where he starts to really accumulate money. The first deal was for the Troy & Schenectady Railroad, which at the time was owned by the city of Troy, but they were losing money the entire time. And apparently Sage created a deal with other businessmen and they bought out the railroad, but it made him really wealthy in the process. Then he turned around, of course, sold the stock and made a big fortune on that.

Kathy Sheehan 00:11:59
This was one of the critical things that happened for Troy that also continued to bring money in, because the Troy & Schenectedy railroad. What it did was run across what is the Green Island Bridge today. And so that bridge that was put in was one of the first railroad bridges to cross the Hudson. We beat out Albany for that. So this was huge. And the fact that he is kind of bailing the city out at that point when it’s starting to have other issues, because now you have other railroad bridges by the 1850s.

Steve Silverman 00:12:32
Sure.

Kathy Sheehan 00:12:33
The one that was put originally is like 1836 and these are wooden covered bridges.

Steve Silverman 00:12:38
Sure.

Kathy Sheehan 00:12:38
Basically, it’s on the same footprint as the current Green Island bridge is today.

Steve Silverman 00:12:43
Yes. And of course, people who don’t live around Troy have no idea what we’re talking about, but it’s one of the main bridges into Troy.

Kathy Sheehan 00:12:50
What it is is connecting, Troy and Schenectady railroad is you’re opening up the west. So again, we have the Erie Canal that opens up the west. And now you have the railroad that is opening up basically all the New England states and things coming back in through Troy, going over this Green Island Bridge. The Troy & Schenectady Railroad heading out west.

Steve Silverman 00:13:12
Yes.

Kathy Sheehan 00:13:12
This is huge.

Steve Silverman 00:13:12
We should mention that Troy is on the east side of the Hudson River.

Kathy Sheehan 00:13:12
On the east side of the Hudson River. Correct.

Steve Silverman 00:13:12
And basically, that connects you to the Atlantic Ocean.

Kathy Sheehan 00:13:12
Right.

Steve Silverman 00:13:12
So anything east of Troy goes the Atlantic. And then, of course, somehow you have to get the stuff across the Hudson River, which runs from New York City straight north.

Kathy Sheehan 00:13:30
Right.

Steve Silverman 00:13:31
And I guess by car today, what is about a three-hour drive from Troy to New York City, something like that?

Kathy Sheehan 00:13:31
Yes.

Steve Silverman 00:13:31
So this allows people to basically open up the whole western part of the United States.

Kathy Sheehan 00:13:41
Exactly. And we’re the conduit for that.

Steve Silverman 00:13:41
Wow! Amazing. Now, also in that same year, when he’s aged 36, he’s elected to the House of Representatives. He served two terms from 1852 through 1856. Now, supposedly in the second term, he won by 7000 votes, which was the largest known to that point in the district. I don’t know if that’s a bit of an exaggeration or not. I don’t know what the population would have been like in Troy at the time, or how many people even voted, but he did win by 7000 votes. Now, in 1854, he’s 38 years old at this point, his father dies, and he had amassed more than $1 million, which would be over $31 million today. So he’s on his way to becoming that billionaire.

Kathy Sheehan 00:13:41
Absolutely.

Steve Silverman 00:13:41
Yeah. Or what we call today a billionaire. At age 40, in 1856, he leaves elected office, and he decides to focus solely on the railroads. He realizes that’s where the money is. And do you know what happened to his businesses, like his grocery business at the time? Do you have any clue?

Kathy Sheehan 00:14:39
I don’t. I don’t know if they were then he sold them out to other people or what happened. Certainly going through city directories, you’d probably be able to figure that out.

Steve Silverman 00:14:51
Sure.

Kathy Sheehan 00:14:52
There were so many people who are coming at that point. I mean, Troy is now just ballooned out and has grown.

Steve Silverman 00:14:57
I’d imagine he sold it. I don’t imagine him just losing money on anything.

Kathy Sheehan 00:14:57
Yeah, no.

Steve Silverman 00:14:57
I should mention he was considered ruthless in business, and I think that’s pretty much still accepted today. He was a wheeler and a dealer and did whatever he could to win.

Kathy Sheehan 00:14:57
Sure.

Steve Silverman 00:14:57
Now, in 1857, he’s 41. The Panic of 1857 occurs. This is the first worldwide financial panic. And from what I’ve read, and I’m not a historian, but what I read is that basically because of the telegraph, all of a sudden, now financial panics aren’t localized. Now it just spreads worldwide. This is the first worldwide financial panic, and he had invested heavily in the La Crosse Railroad, and in doing so, the railroad ran into financial problems, and he had to put more money into it. And through legal proceedings, he actually gained control of the railroad, which eventually became the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul system. And he was both the director and vice president of the company. And I did notice as I was reading through this, he became the president, vice president of a lot of railroad railroads. Yeah, he was definitely in the right place at the right time.

Kathy Sheehan 00:16:07
Sure.

Steve Silverman 00:16:07
Certainly, today, if you invested in railroads, you probably wouldn’t have the same luck.

Kathy Sheehan 00:16:07
No.

Steve Silverman 00:16:07
Definitely not. Then, at age 47, this is 1863, he moves permanently to New York City, and he becomes close friends with Jay Gould, who is another robber baron. And as we said, they’re both ruthless in their dealings. This is the Gilded Age, of course, and he basically made his fortune at the expense of others. Whenever he saw an opportunity, he would take advantage of it.

Kathy Sheehan 00:16:34
And again, remember, 1863, we’re in the middle of the Civil War.

Steve Silverman 00:16:37
Sure.

Kathy Sheehan 00:16:37
Everybody was making money.

Steve Silverman 00:16:39
That’s true.

Kathy Sheehan 00:16:40
If you’re supplying. Well, they’re doing railroads. You’ve got your troops or supplies, all those auxiliary things that need to keep a war functioning, going. You’re making money off it.

Steve Silverman 00:16:51
Yeah. I mean, Troy also made almost all the horseshoes, right?

Kathy Sheehan 00:16:56
Absolutely.

Steve Silverman 00:16:57
For the Civil War, for the north.

Kathy Sheehan 00:16:59
For the North, for the Union Army in Henry Burden and the Burden Iron Works.

Steve Silverman 00:17:03
Yeah. Which there’s not much left of today. I mean, there’s the one big building down there, the headquarters, I guess, which is an interesting little museum to go through, I should mention Jay Gould. These two guys were really close friends.

Kathy Sheehan 00:17:18
Except they would have been rivals as well. I think that’s interesting. Maybe they were friends, but they were… No one knows.

Steve Silverman 00:17:27
Especially because Russell Sage was a very private man. It’s hard to piece his life together. He wasn’t one of these people that needed to let the world know what he was up to.

Kathy Sheehan 00:17:37
Right.

Steve Silverman 00:17:39
Now, at age 58 and 1874, he purchased a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. You and I have both done that, right?

Kathy Sheehan 00:17:46
Of course.

Steve Silverman 00:17:47
Yes.

Kathy Sheehan 00:17:48
I had my seat for years. Yes.

Steve Silverman 00:17:49
Sure. He originated the system of privileges, and some of these terms are still used today. Puts, calls, spreads, and straddles. And unlike other people who did really risky investments and tried to get big chunks of money at one time, he preferred a rapid succession of moderate risk and quick returns. So he wasn’t doing super risky stuff, but he was still cranking in the money. And eventually, he became the largest individual lender of money in New York State, and some people say, in the entire country.

Kathy Sheehan 00:18:16
That’s amazing.

Steve Silverman 00:18:17
Yeah. I mean, supposedly he had more cash on hand than anyone else except the country itself.

Kathy Sheehan 00:18:23
So they say.

Steve Silverman 00:18:25
So they say. Who knows? Now, I did find that he did have one big loss, the only one reported in this entire life, and it was in 1884. He was 68 years old, and a company named Grant & Ward basically went under and really was a catastrophe for a lot of people. Now, my understanding was a bit of a pyramid scheme, and Ulysses S. Grant, our former president, his son, was somehow involved. And even Ulysses S. Grant lost money in this.

Kathy Sheehan 00:18:25
Wow.

Steve Silverman 00:18:25
It’s reported that Russell Sage lost between four and $8 million, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you adjust it for inflation, he lost somewhere between $125 and $250,000,000 by today’s standards. Yes, I’d be bankrupt. But he still recovered and moved on and got richer from there. Now, of course, he went on to get richer and richer throughout his life, and that will continue until the day he died. But he was notoriously frugal. He lived very simply, and he kept very strict control of his money. Cheap, stingy, these were terms always used to describe him. He wore the plainest of clothing, paid the bare minimum for meals. He would actually go several blocks. He walked several blocks to the Western Union building, which he had stock in, and he’d go for their free lunches that they had there so he wouldn’t have to pay. Supposedly he used public transportation when he could. Anything to save a dollar. It’s reported that also that all the furnishings he had in his offices and at home, they were low-end. There was nothing that he invested in. And most importantly to this story is that he steered away from any behavior that you would consider to be philanthropic. He just did not believe in giving to charity. He just kept accumulating money. So I now want to move on to his personal life, and this actually relates more to the crazy story that I’m going to tell, and that’s the part that you’re really here about. Okay.

Kathy Sheehan 00:20:12
Okay.

Steve Silverman 00:20:13
So in 1840, he married Marie Henry Winne. She was a Troy native, and they were married in the First Presbyterian Church, which oddly is on what campus today?

Kathy Sheehan 00:20:22
On the Russell Sage College campus.

Steve Silverman 00:20:23
Yeah. So it wasn’t then. It was a church. It was actually relatively new at that point. I think it was built…

Kathy Sheehan 00:20:23
In 1836. Architect James Dakin.

The Bush Memorial Center (formerly the First Presbyterian Church) at Russell Sage College in 2022.
The Bush Memorial Center (formerly the First Presbyterian Church) at Russell Sage College in 2022.

Steve Silverman 00:20:34
I can tell you’re a historian. I was going to say mid-1830s, I think it was built. Their home was at the corner of Washington and Second Street. That’s Washington Park, which is a beautiful part of Troy. Why don’t you quickly mention about the park itself?

Kathy Sheehan 00:20:47
So Washington Park, like Gramercy Park in New York City is one of only two privately owned parks in New York State. And to what we know of today is only one of three in the country. The other one is this little tiny strip of park at the north end of the Boston Common. But the way Washington Park and like Gramercy did in New York, and they’re both. Gramercy, I think, is like 1835, and our Washington Park in Troy is about 1840. And all the property owners paid a certain amount of money into this park. It was a passive park. Everyone that lived on the park got a key, so it was always locked. And even to this day, which it still exists as a private park, which is quite wonderful, and there’s no playground equipment and things like that. It is a completely passive green space. His house was right on the corner of Second and Washington Street. Very wonderful home. Apparently built by his father-in-law in a Gothic Revival style. It is now an apartment building. But this is a major home. It’s very high style. So I think it’s kind of interesting how a lot of language always talks about the plain, because this is not a plain home at all.

The former home of Russell Sage at the corner of Washington and 2nd Steets in Troy, NY. Sgae occupied the left portion of the building.
The former home of Russell Sage at the corner of Washington and 2nd Steets in Troy, NY. Sage and his first wife occupied the left portion of the building.

Steve Silverman 00:22:03
No, but I should say, compared to the other houses around Washington Park, it’s a little bit simpler.

Kathy Sheehan 00:22:08
It’s a little simpler. But again, 1840, the Gothic Revival style was a very popular style. I think one of the interesting things I think we’ll find as we go through this conversation this morning is the fact that, yes, we think of Russell Sage as this Gilded Age robber baron, but he is from old money. And so I’m certainly going to throw the comparison out to this new series that’s been out that HBO is doing called The Gilded Age, which was filmed around Washington Park. And it’s some way where you’re looking at the way people treated old money. And it was not to be ostentatious, not to always just have the things that were the showiest. But they were always good quality furnishings. Good quality, well-built homes that are classic, but not over the top. He would fall into that category. We talk about the two families they talk about in the show, the van Rhijns, who are early Dutch families. Well, Russell Sage is early 19th century, so he fits into that category. So even though he amasses this incredible fortune, even before what is termed the Gilded Age, after the Civil War really, is that he still has this kind of older ethic.

Steve Silverman 00:23:30
Okay.

Kathy Sheehan 00:23:31
Okay. And so you’re not automatically just going to change it just because you have all this money.

Steve Silverman 00:23:38
Sure. And I think a lot of people are like that. I mean, not that my wife and I are wealthy, but if I ever became wealthy, I can’t imagine changing my life.

Kathy Sheehan 00:23:47
Right.

Steve Silverman 00:23:48
We’re simple people. We just like living that way. We’re not into showing off what we have.

Kathy Sheehan 00:23:55
And so that’s the way he was. And certainly his first wife, Marie Henri Winne, her family is an old Troy family, actually, they go back I think they’re Connecticut originally. So they’re one of those families that came in after the American Revolution, settled in New York or settled in Troy, excuse me. They, too, are old money. And that Washington Park area. That’s the first suburbs of Troy coming down from the business district, which was all of about four blocks away from where the main hub of things. So people worked and lived very close. People didn’t live far away from where they’re working, so they walked.

Steve Silverman 00:24:38
They had no choice. I mean, there were no cars.

Kathy Sheehan 00:24:40
No, but there were a lot of horse trolleys and things like that. And that’s not to say they didn’t have summer homes outside the city or in other places and things like that. Even at that point, they were going to Saratoga for the summer. You’re going to Newport before the Gilded Age, mansions were there, but predominantly when you’re around, people are close to living and working nearby. That was the norm.

Steve Silverman 00:25:06
Sure. Russell Sage was married twice, and unfortunately, his first wife, she died at 56 years of age in 1867 from stomach cancer. I found that in a number of different articles. But what I really think is most important to that portion of his life is that she was a graduate of the Troy Female Seminary, which stays known as Emma Willard School, which is right down the road from here.

Steve Silverman 00:25:32
At that time, was it downtown Troy?

Kathy Sheehan 00:25:31
Correct.

Kathy Sheehan 00:25:35
Yes, it was. Actually, the Troy Female Seminary is now the site of Russell Sage College. So once the college moved in the late 1890s, they moved out to the East Side, closer here to your house. They had an empty campus. And of course, that’s going to be part of her story later about Russell Sage College. But yes, it was right in the heart of downtown, right on Second Street and Congress.

Steve Silverman 00:26:00
Which is very right down the street from your office.

Kathy Sheehan 00:26:00
Exactly. Half a block away.

Steve Silverman 00:26:00
Yeah. Okay. So anyway, she passes on, and then two years later, he remarries. And he marries Margaret Olivia Slocum, who was born in 1828 in Syracuse. And her parents were considered, I guess, middle class. And her father, John, he prospered during the building of the Erie Canal. But his businesses started to fail in the Panic of 1837, and he had a lot of bad business dealings, and he just started losing money, losing money, losing money, until, I wouldn’t say they were poor, but they were not in great shape. And in 1852, and this is the only little piece that I think may be a little bit embellished, he learned that one of the investors that basically cheated him was Russell Sage himself.

Joseph Slocum, Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage's father.
Joseph Slocum, Olivia’s father. (circa 1850, Auburn University Digital Library image.)

Kathy Sheehan 00:26:49
That’s interesting.

Steve Silverman 00:26:50
Yeah. No article mentioned what or how he was cheated, but just that Russell Sage cheated him.

Kathy Sheehan 00:26:57
Cheated him.

Steve Silverman 00:26:57
And of course, what does his daughter do? She goes off and marries him.

Kathy Sheehan 00:26:57
Marries the guy, yeah.

Steve Silverman 00:26:57
But before that, she attended also the Troy Female Seminary from 1846 through 1847. Now, her father didn’t have the money, so supposedly a wealthy uncle in Troy paid her way.

Kathy Sheehan 00:27:16
Actually, I think they’re over in West Troy, which is now Watervliet. Across the river on the west side of the Hudson.

Steve Silverman 00:27:22
And for the next 20 years, she wasn’t doing very well. She basically was a teacher. She taught in Troy, Syracuse, and Philadelphia. And the pay was reported to be really low, about $200 per year, or about $6,200 today.

Kathy Sheehan 00:27:35
The teachers still didn’t make any money then, either.

Steve Silverman 00:27:37
Yeah.

Kathy Sheehan 00:27:38
Started that far back.

Steve Silverman 00:27:40
Yeah. Well, it was assumed that they get married and that would be the end of their career.

Kathy Sheehan 00:27:45
Right.

Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage supposedly at her graduation from the Troy Female Seminary.
Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage supposedly at her graduation from the Troy Female Seminary. New York Public Library image.
Olivia Slocum Sage in the 1850s when she worked as a teacher and governess in Philadelphia. Her first position was at the fashionable Chestnut Street Female Seminary (founded 1850), one of the many women's schools spun off by Emma Willard's hugely successful Troy Female Seminary.
Olivia in the 1850s when she worked as a teacher and governess in Philadelphia. Her first position was at the fashionable Chestnut Street Female Seminary (founded 1850), one of the many women’s schools spun off by Emma Willard’s hugely successful Troy Female Seminary. (circa 1855, Auburn University Digital Library image.)

Steve Silverman 00:27:47
Now, she did have several offers of marriage. But she considered them supposedly too restricting and they weren’t to her advantage. So she just turned down the guys. Next thing, she’s in her forties and she’s unmarried. Russell Sage comes along and do you have any clue how the two of them knew each other? Was it through his first wife?

Kathy Sheehan 00:28:06
I don’t know. Because they would not have been in school at the same time, her and Marie. But I don’t know where they would have met, where their paths would have crossed, to be honest with you.

Steve Silverman 00:28:20
I read several different things and they don’t agree. One is that they did know each other from the school, and Russell Sage actually knew his second wife for about 20 years because she was friends with his first wife. The other story is that somehow she heard that his wife had passed on, sent him a condolence letter and they started correspondence and so on. What’s interesting is, I think at this point he’s living in New York City. He’s not in Troy. Right?

Kathy Sheehan 00:28:53
Yeah. Because he leaves in 1863.

Steve Silverman 00:28:55
Yeah. So somehow she’s living in Troy and somehow they get together and get married. Now, they married on November 24, 1869. She was 41 years old and he was 53. And they would remain married until his death 37 years later.

Kathy Sheehan 00:29:11
They were married a long time.

Steve Silverman 00:29:13
Yeah. So, of course, he does pass on. He died at 04:30 PM on July 22, 1906, at his country home in Lawrence Beach, Long Island. Supposedly, he hadn’t been to this home in like, four or five years. But when he was getting close to death a few weeks before, they decided the fresh air would do him good and get out of the city because he lived on Fifth Avenue in New York City, in Manhattan. And they went out to this country home and he’s out there with his doctor. And he died of natural causes at the age of 89. Now, I do have a quote from his doctor, and I love this doctor’s name is Dr. Schmuck.

Sketch of the Sage summer home at Lawrence Beach, Long Island. (Munsey’s Magazine, March 1895, page 637.)

Kathy Sheehan 00:29:46
Dr. Schmuck.

Steve Silverman 00:29:47
I never thought that was a true name, but yes. Dr. Schmuck said the following: “His end was most natural. First, Mr. Sage fell asleep, from sleep he passed into coma, and from coma into death.”

Kathy Sheehan 00:30:00
Doesn’t get much better than that at 89 years old. Right.

Steve Silverman 00:30:07
His funeral was just two days later at the First Presbyterian Church in Far Rockway in Queens. From there, his body was taken to his home on Fifth Avenue, where it stayed overnight. The next day, they went to Grand Central Station and there were two cars added onto the Saratoga Special that brought his body up to Troy. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, which I should mention is… The most famous person buried in there is who?

Kathy Sheehan 00:30:32
Uncle Sam. Samuel Wilson.

Steve Silverman 00:30:33
Yeah. And I’ve been to it several times and it is a beautiful cemetery.

Kathy Sheehan 00:30:39
It really is. Yeah.

Steve Silverman 00:30:40
And he’s buried in the same exact plot as his first wife, Marie.

Kathy Sheehan 00:30:40
Right.

Steve Silverman 00:30:40
Now, when he died, he was a very, very wealthy man. And in 2014, CNN ranks Sage as the 18th richest American ever. Now, you can figure out wealth. You can adjust for inflation a lot of different ways, and you can just do a linear adjustment, and he’d be probably worth about $2 to $3 billion, which, compared to today’s billionaires, doesn’t sound like much.

Kathy Sheehan 00:30:40
It’s like nothing. Right.

Steve Silverman 00:30:40
But you have to compare it with the whole US economy. You have to compare it with what the stock market was worth and so on. And there is a calculator that does that. And according to the calculator that was used for this article, he’d be worth $53.6 billion in 2014. Now, I went to that same calculator, and of course we are a few years later, about eight years later, he’d be worth $58.7 billion. That puts him in the Mark Zuckerberg realm.

Kathy Sheehan 00:30:40
Right.

Steve Silverman 00:30:40
So he was a very, very wealthy man when he died.

Kathy Sheehan 00:31:38
Yes.

Russell Sage.
Russell Sage. Library of Congress image.

Steve Silverman 00:31:40
Okay, so now we get to the crazy story that I heard. And as I said, I’ve heard this twice, and that’s when I came up to you to ask you about it. And you’re going to bite your lip through some of these. Now, some of this is true and some it’s not. So we’re not going to try and tip our hands here.

Kathy Sheehan 00:31:40
Okay.

Steve Silverman 00:31:40
Okay, so here we go. The first thing is, it was well known that he was mean and unliked by people. So probably the best example that occurred on December 4, 1891, when a guy named Henry Norcross walked into Sage’s Manhattan office, which was located at 71 Broadway in Manhattan, and demanded $1.2 million in cash, which is over $37 million today. Who would have that much cash on hand?

Kathy Sheehan 00:32:21
Yeah. Give me your $1.2 million.

Steve Silverman 00:32:24
Just kind of crazy. Of course, Sage refused, and he did everything he could to stall. And as a result, Norcross just blew himself up. He took, they say, 10 pounds of dynamite and it’s said that either he somehow detonated or he dropped it to the floor. Different reports at the time described it differently. But anyway, Norcross, of course, was killed, but they didn’t know his identity initially. And the way they identified this is kind of interesting. One of the buttons that was left behind on his body, they had a little bit of his clothing. They were able to trace it back to a Brooks Brothers store in Boston, and they were able to figure out who he was. Now, what’s interesting is this is the first suicide bombing ever in the United States. Did you know that?

Kathy Sheehan 00:33:05
I did not know that.

Steve Silverman 00:33:06
Yeah, I read that in several different places. Now, also, his secretary. That’s Sage’s secretary, B. F. Norton, was killed because when the dynamite went off, there was a hole in the ceiling, the floor was blown to smithereens, and Norton just went flying through the plate glass window to the street below. Supposedly a typewriter came down on him and crushed them.

Kathy Sheehan 00:33:27
Wow.

Russell Sage in 1899.
Russell Sage in 1899. New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Steve Silverman 00:33:27
Yeah. Now, Sage and eight other people were injured. And Sage supposedly used one of the guys, that’s William Laidlaw, as a human shield. So supposedly, Sage grabbed him and pulled him in front of him, and that protected Sage from getting killed. And, of course, Laidlaw sued Sage. And this dragged through the courts for seven years, which suppose he was one of the longest civil trials in US History up until that point. And for that reason, because Sage refused to pay anything, he just kept finding lawyers to keep fighting and fighting and fighting it. He was vilified in the press, and I just wrote down some of the terms that were used. He was a skin flint, a miser, a heartless millionaire, ruthless, unscrupulous crook, and the meanest miser in the land. And I’m thinking of making that the title of my podcast. Now, Laidlaw was awarded $43,000 eventually, which would be about $1.5 million today. But Sage, being the miser that he was, he refused to ever pay, and he never did pay.

Steve Silverman 00:33:27
Now, if you go back in time a bit to 1869, Sage was arrested for violating the New York state usery laws. Basically, he was lending money at an unconscionable and an exorbitant rate. I can’t believe what he was doing. Short-term loans range between 40% to 80% interest. Can you imagine? While his long-term rates were somewhere between 14 and 20%, although I should mention what is a credit card today? That’s a short-term loan.

Kathy Sheehan 00:33:27
Maybe 25%.

Steve Silverman 00:33:27
Yeah, but 40% to 80% is kind of crazy. As a result, you receive the fine and a five-day prison sentence, but somehow, through the legal wranglings, the judge suspended the jail sentence. So he never served a day in jail. Again, the privileges of being rich.

Kathy Sheehan 00:35:11
Yeah, right.

Steve Silverman 00:35:12
It’s also said that he associated with women who partook in questionable behavior, and you can fill in the blanks there. And as a result, because of his lending practices and being convicted and messing around with these women, so to speak, he became a pariah in elite social circles, and he supposedly needed to restore his public image. So who does he turn to? Now, his wife had just recently died. He decides to marry Olivia Slocum in 1869. Of course, she’s a spinster. She’s 41 years old. She’s never going to marry. But she had a little bit of social standing, and that was going to restore him to the social circles. Now, supposedly, this was a loveless marriage. These two people just couldn’t stand each other. It was only for appearance. And supposedly, I don’t know how to prove this, the marriage was never, ever consummated.

Kathy Sheehan 00:36:00
I like that one. That’s funny.

July 7, 1843 baptism record for Margaret Olivia Slocum at the First Presbyterian Church in Syracuse, NY.
July 7, 1843 baptism record for Margaret Olivia Slocum at the First Presbyterian Church in Syracuse, NY.

Steve Silverman 00:36:04
Now, when I say these two people despised each other, they really despised each other. He made her life miserable. Now here he is, one of the richest men on earth. He had no private carriage. They had to walk, use public transportation, or find some other means. Hitch a ride with somebody else, I guess. He gave Olivia no allowance. She couldn’t keep up with the latest fashion trends. She wasn’t allowed to travel abroad or even with the United States very much. Their homes were small, and they were far from what anyone would call a mansion. Their furniture and artwork, it was of little value. Now, this is my favorite one. Supposedly, he hated dogs, and she hated cats. So one by one, he would buy a cat to annoy her. She would buy a dog to annoy him, and they just keep doing that and keep getting more dogs and more cats. And most significantly was that Marie was Russell’s only true love. He loved his first wife and just never got over her loss. And Olivia had to live in Marie’s shadow the rest of the time that Russell was alive.

Steve Silverman 00:36:04
Of course, Sage eventually dies, and she becomes a widow. And Russell Sage said there were three things that he hated in life. The first was philanthropy. He just didn’t believe in helping the poor. Basically, he felt they need to help themselves. That’s what he did. He was born into poverty, and he worked his way out of it. They should do the same. He also didn’t believe in higher education, just a waste of time. And probably most significantly, is he hated women. He saw no use for educating them. He didn’t believe in women’s suffrage and just didn’t like women at all, even though he had married two of them. Now, Sage left absolutely nothing to charity, nor any member of his family. And by default, Olivia gets everything, and she becomes the richest woman on earth. And there’s no question on that. I mean, every newspaper reported it at the time. Now, what she decided to do is basically get even with him. Because these two hated each other. She decided to take all that money and put it towards all the things he hated: philanthropy, higher education, and anything having to do with women. So within six weeks of his death, she donates $294,000. That’s $9.15 million today to New York University. For what? Women’s education. Just to kind of tighten the screws there a little bit. Then in April 1907, she gives $10 million, over $300 million today, to establish the Russell Sage Foundation for Social Betterment, basically to help improve the social and living conditions of the poor in the United States.

Kathy Sheehan 00:38:43
Which, by the way, still exists today.

Steve Silverman 00:38:45
Yes. And it’s in New York City, is that correct?

Kathy Sheehan 00:38:47
Yes, correct.

Emma Willard School in Troy, NY.
Emma Willard School in Troy, NY. (Wikipedia image.)

Steve Silverman 00:38:49
Then in 1910, she gives a million dollars to the Troy Female Seminary. That’s the school she graduated from that allows them to build a brand new campus, which is right down the road from my house. There’s no way to describe how beautiful this campus is.

Kathy Sheehan 00:39:02
It’s an amazing campus. Yeah.

Steve Silverman 00:39:03
I mean, it looks like something out of the movies. It’s just a beautiful Neogothic campus. So by this point, the school is no longer called the Troy Female Seminary. It’s renamed after its founder, which is Emma Willard.

Kathy Sheehan 00:39:17
Correct.

Steve Silverman 00:39:19
Then in 1916, this is going forward for six years, she’s left with this campus downtown, where Emma Willard used to be, doesn’t know what to do with it. So what does she do? She takes a million dollars and gives it to establish the Russell Sage College for Women. So basically, she’s just doing everything he hated. Now, I just made a list here. It’s just a general list of things she gave generously to, and he would have never approved of any of these, at least according to the story I heard.

Kathy Sheehan 00:39:46
Right.

Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage.
Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage. Library of Congress image.

Steve Silverman 00:39:47
She gave generously to schools, colleges, universities, particularly Wellesley, Vassar, and Bryn Mawr, which are all female colleges. Women’s colleges. She gave heavily to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Syracuse University, RPI. In 1907, she gave them $1 million. And I was looking at a map of RPI from around that time. It was actually a pretty small campus at that point, and I didn’t know this, but their main building had burned down just a couple of years prior, and this money allowed them to build a new building.

Kathy Sheehan 00:40:19
Right. There’s actually a Sage building on campus.

Steve Silverman 00:40:22
Right? It’s actually two Sage buildings.

Kathy Sheehan 00:40:22
Two Sage buildings.

Steve Silverman 00:40:22
Although one is not named after Russell Sage. It’s after his nephew, Russell Sage II, which is kind of odd. I always thought the second was your son, but it’s actually his nephew. Now, she donated money for the employment training of women, women’s suffrage. She donated to hospitals, retirement homes. She purchased Constitution Island for the nation. That’s down near West Point. She paid for a number of church buildings across the country, and she even supported the Syracuse YMCA. Now, between 1907 and 1918, that’s when she died, she gave away $35 million, which is over $900 million today.

Kathy Sheehan 00:40:22
Amazing.

Steve Silverman 00:40:22
And I came across this mention in 1909 in the Syracuse Herald. They said she was giving money away so quickly that she’s giving away $10 every single second, which is $312 per second today. Could you imagine?

Kathy Sheehan 00:41:16
Could you imagine? That’s incredible.

Steve Silverman 00:41:18
And of course, it was all given to causes that her husband despised.

Kathy Sheehan 00:41:18
Theoretically.

Steve Silverman 00:41:18
So we’re going to talk about that in a bit. Now, I do want to throw in one other thing here, and that is his mausoleum, and that is up, as we said, in the Oakwood Cemetery. And that’s basically northern Troy, right?

Kathy Sheehan 00:41:37
Yes.

Steve Silverman 00:41:38
And the mausoleum is very unusual. It’s a beautiful mausoleum. Kind of I guess.

Kathy Sheehan 00:41:38
Greek Revival.

Steve Silverman 00:41:38
Greek Revival. And there’s no name on it. It’s unmarked. And it said that it’s unmarked because she did not want to give him any recognition. She didn’t want anyone to adore this despised man, this man that she despised. But what’s interesting is if you walk behind it. Now, remember, she lived in his first wife’s shadow the whole rest of Russell Sage’s life. And the mausoleum blocks the first wife’s obelisk. It’s basically a very tall obelisk, which is her grave marker. And you can look from any direction at this mausoleum and you cannot see because it’s that close. It really just blocks the whole thing out. And probably most significantly, and this is the last thing I’ll mention before we get into what’s true and what isn’t, she refused to be buried with him. She just would not be buried there. And she is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, but not that Oakwood. She’s embarrassed in Oakwood, out in the Syracuse.

Kathy Sheehan 00:42:39
Syracuse, right.

Steve Silverman 00:42:41
So, Kathy, this is the point where I went to you and I was actually doing a tour about the Gilded Age. You were doing that, and at the end of it, I said to you, I learned all this about Russell Sage. This crazy, crazy story about him, about how stingy he was and how his wife just did everything to spite him when he died. But then I came across an article just a short time before I saw you, and it didn’t jive. It didn’t match up with what I had heard about him. And that’s what I went to you and we started talking, and that’s why you’re here today. So we’re going to try and clear that up. And what I did was I kind of broke it down into sections, and we’ll just kind of go through that kind of stuff. Okay.

Kathy Sheehan 00:43:23
Okay. Sounds good.

Steve Silverman 00:43:24
And we’ll clear up what was true. Now, I should mention, to the people that are listening that the first part of it, basically his life, how he earned his money. That’s pretty factual.

Kathy Sheehan 00:43:24
Yeah.

Steve Silverman 00:43:24
Right. But the whole part about him not supporting women’s causes. We’re going to talk about that. Some of that is fictitious. It is more legend than truth.

Kathy Sheehan 00:43:46
Right.

Steve Silverman 00:43:47
Makes for a good story, so to speak.

Kathy Sheehan 00:43:49
Right. Makes for a good story. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Undated photograph of Russell Sage. From the Smithsonian collection titled "Charles Scribner's Sons Art Reference Department records."
Undated photograph of Russell Sage. From the Smithsonian collection titled “Charles Scribner’s Sons Art Reference Department records.”

Steve Silverman 00:43:51
Right, exactly. So here we go. The first thing I have on my list is that, and this is just a brief little thing I came across is that he was forced to leave Troy because he was so unpopular there in 1863, and that’s why he went to New York City. Now, what do you think?

Kathy Sheehan 00:44:05
I don’t believe that at all. I think it was the nature for him to move on. He needed to be able to be in New York City. It was the evolution of his businesses. And I could prove this to go again through city directories and things is that there are a lot of people who are back and forth, and Troy and New York City had long-standing contacts and families and businesses that were doing businesses both in New York and Troy. So while he may have moved his home there, I’m sure he still, obviously, they had the contacts back because he comes back to Troy quite a bit.

Steve Silverman 00:44:45
Right. And we’ll talk about that also. Through the rest of his life he’s heavily involved…

Kathy Sheehan 00:44:45
Heavily involved.

Steve Silverman 00:44:45
…in what’s going on in Troy.

Kathy Sheehan 00:44:45
Yeah, absolutely.

Steve Silverman 00:44:45
Now, the second thing I have on my list is his refusal to pay William Laidlaw. Remember, there’s this trial, right? Multiple trials. Four trials. Some of the decisions are set aside, some are appealed, whatever. And in the fourth trial, Laidlaw was awarded $43,000, which is a lot of money.

Kathy Sheehan 00:45:10
A lot of money.

Steve Silverman 00:45:12
But what is not mentioned, because it said that Sage refused to pay even though he had lost a lawsuit. But that’s not true, is it?

Kathy Sheehan 00:45:20
No, I don’t think so. Right.

Steve Silverman 00:45:21
Yeah. Basically, in 1899, the court of appeals overturned that decision because they felt there wasn’t enough evidence to show that Sage had used Laidlaw as a human shield.

Kathy Sheehan 00:45:33
Right.

Steve Silverman 00:45:33
He wasn’t responsible for his injuries. So they ordered a fifth trial, but it just never occurred. You’ve gone through all this for all these years, and you’re not getting anywhere. I guess the lawyers at some point said, that’s it, that’s it. And then, of course, when Sage died, that was the end of it.

Kathy Sheehan 00:45:48
Right.

Steve Silverman 00:45:49
So that myth is destroyed. And I’m sure with all the money that he had, he was fighting tooth and nail all along, but he never was required to pay that money.

Kathy Sheehan 00:46:02
And it’s an interesting time with just all these other kind of Gilded Age robber barons. These people that came in with bombs and tried to extort people for money, these disgustingly rich people for money. It happened to a lot of them. Sage wasn’t the only one. Of course, what happened with Laidlaw, that was unfortunate, for sure, but yeah, you don’t know whether did he really shield them or you just grabbed him? He could have instinctively…

Steve Silverman 00:46:29
Yeah. I mean, we weren’t there. You could just try and push them aside.

Kathy Sheehan 00:46:33
Push them aside, yeah, exactly.

Steve Silverman 00:46:35
But of course, Sage had the money.

Kathy Sheehan 00:46:37
So you’re always going to take the other guy.

Steve Silverman 00:46:40
Right. Now, the next thing out of my list is that he married Olivia simply to restore his public image and that the marriage was never consummated. Now, of course, we’ll never know about the consummated part. That’s clearly something that people want to believe. They would never talk about that in the newspapers or anywhere.

Kathy Sheehan 00:46:40
Never.

Steve Silverman 00:46:40
Yeah. And what I learned during my research is these two were very private people. They did not live for front-page news.

Kathy Sheehan 00:47:07
Right. No. They just kind of went about and as we said before, this kind of old money and just more quiet ways. It was not to be ostentatious.

Steve Silverman 00:47:21
Right.

Kathy Sheehan 00:47:24
And again, they weren’t the only ones like that. It’s such a later thing to throw your wealth around, so to speak.

Steve Silverman 00:47:34
And I should mention that I did find a couple of mentions that he was rumored to have had affairs. He was accused at one point of having a child out of wedlock with a chambermaid, and he was sued at the age of 88 for sexual wrongdoing, but the judge threw that case out, although Sage never denied it. The case did get thrown out. I mean, he’s 88 years old.

Kathy Sheehan 00:47:34
He’s 88 years old.

Steve Silverman 00:47:34
He died one year later, so we’ll put that in the… my guess is he did not marry her to restore his public image, but we really don’t know much. He may have had affairs and may not. Who knows? Yeah, and I’m sure there were many others who did.

Kathy Sheehan 00:48:12
Who did also.

Steve Silverman 00:48:13
Right. That was a very. Mistresses for a lot of these, was very common occurrence.

Steve Silverman 00:48:19
Right. Now we get into the main part. And that is that he hated philanthropy, he hated upper education, and he hated supporting women’s causes. And basically, this guy was a tight-fisted person. He wouldn’t part with a penny for anything. And I learned basically from the reading is that Sage encouraged this image. And my thinking is when people think that way, they’re not going to come to you and keep bugging you all the time for money. You’re better off thinking someone’s not as rich as they are. So I don’t know if that’s really true, but he had very strict rules for giving, and I did come across a quote from Sage on that. So let me read that. This quote is from September of 1904. This is actually he was still live, so this is not quoted after he passed on. And he says, “Charity should be wise as well as kind. It should look far into the future. Charities should never be hysterical. A man should know the institution he is helping. He should favor all well-managed charities for women. Charities should be, as far as possible, exercised in privacy. The right hand should not know what the left hand doeth.” He adds, “These are my rules for giving. I have followed them all my life. Whatever may be said of me, I know that I am doing right with the help of god.”

Kathy Sheehan 00:49:35
Very much a tenant of the Presbyterian Church, of which they both were members. Quietly do things. It is not to be showy, not to let the world know what you were doing. You just do it.

1900 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) yearbook listing Russell Sage as a Trustee.
1900 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) yearbook listing Russell Sage as a Trustee.

Steve Silverman 00:49:53
Another thing I’ll add is that I noticed that he was a trustee at RPI, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, for probably the last ten years of his life. So a guy who hated upper education, why would he be a trustee of an engineering college?

Kathy Sheehan 00:50:05
Exactly. And he also is a trustee of the Troy Female Seminary.

Steve Silverman 00:50:11
Sure. And that’s actually the next thing I have on my list, is that in 1895. Now, he’s very well alive at this point. In 1895, he donated the Russell Sage Hall to the Troy Female Seminary, which we said is now Emma Willard School. This was a dormitory, and it cost him $105,000, exclusive of furniture. That would be over $3.5 million today. Now, this guy hated women and hated educating women. Here he is, giving all this money to it. And he’s very much alive. And we discussed this before. He was very much involved.

Kathy Sheehan 00:50:44
Extremely. So, the architects of that building, Marcus and Fred Cummings, were periodically going down to New York City, pouring over the plans. He had very specific ideas. It was a new concept too, for this dormitory. For a while, they used to have young women, they would have double beds, they would have bigger rooms and you roomed. And there was now a trend going to having quiet space and having single beds, which he was a big proponent of, and then having a common area space to be in. And so he was all about that and he wanted them to include all of that into the design of the building.

Steve Silverman 00:51:27
Yeah. And it’s a beautiful building.

Russell Sage Hall (left) and the Bush Memorial Center (formerly the First Presbyterian Church) at Russell Sage College in 2022.
Russell Sage Hall (left) and the Julia Howard Bush Memorial Center (formerly the First Presbyterian Church) at Russell Sage College in 2022.

Kathy Sheehan 00:51:28
It’s a beautiful building. Wonderful.

Steve Silverman 00:51:30
Yeah. It’s right on the park there, the main park of Russell Sage College. And it’s kind of, I would say a tanish sandstone. Now, I did have a question for you, and I don’t know if you know the answer. I was looking at it when I was going to meet you last week. I was walking around through the park and I noticed there are dates. Usually you have on the foundation just one day telling you, the cornerstone, telling you when the building was built, but there are dates on there. It’s like 1920, 1921, 1922 along the foundation. Do you have any idea why those numbers are there?

The dates 1925, 1926, 1927, and 1928 carved into the foundation of Russell Sage Hall at Russell Sage College in Troy, NY.
The dates 1925, 1926, 1927, and 1928 carved into the foundation of Russell Sage Hall at Russell Sage College in Troy, NY.

Kathy Sheehan 00:52:02
No, actually I don’t. And I’ll have to go back and look. But I know that that wonderful yellow brick was quarried out near Perth Amboy down in New Jersey, and he actually had hired someone to watch that process being done to be sure they had the best quality bricks that came out of there. So he really had such direct involvement in that project from day one. And if anybody comes to Troy or you Google an image of it, you’ll see a wonderful statue of Emma Willard that was dedicated the same day. They dedicated the statue of Emma Willard. They dedicated the statue and the building, Russell Sage Hall. And you’ll see them right…

Steve Silverman 00:52:44
Right next to each other.

Kathy Sheehan 00:52:45
Right next to each other.

Steve Silverman 00:52:48
I said it before and I’ve said it many times on the podcast. Troy is an amazingly beautiful city to walk around. I mean, the architecture is just incredible. And to think a lot of it fell, I wouldn’t say into disrepair, but was neglected for a very long period of time as Troy’s fortunes diminished.

Kathy Sheehan 00:53:06
Yeah. And the urban renewal movement sets in in the 60s and 70s. It was a downtime, but fortunately we protected a lot of it.

Steve Silverman 00:53:14
Yeah, we were down in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Maybe not this past summer. Maybe it’s the summer before. It becomes a blur after a while. Maybe it was last summer. Actually, I think it was last summer. So we’re down there in Jim Thorpe, have you ever been there?

Kathy Sheehan 00:53:14
No.

Steve Silverman 00:53:14
It’s a beautiful town and much smaller than Troy. It was, basically, coal built the town, and it had many millionaires living there in the 1800s and it’s well preserved. And what we learned is the reason it’s well preserved is everything was supposed to be demolished, but they had no money to do it.

Kathy Sheehan 00:53:50
That’s exactly what happened to Troy.

Steve Silverman 00:53:52
Yeah. And therefore, they just left the buildings standing, and eventually, people rediscover it and they refurbish these places and they’re just spectacular. Not just you, but anybody should go. If you’re down in Pennsylvania, it’s definitely a beautiful place to go.

Kathy Sheehan 00:53:52
Western Pennsylvania? Eastern Pennsylvania?

Steve Silverman 00:54:12
It’s western. The coal mining region.

Kathy Sheehan 00:54:12
Okay.

Steve Silverman 00:54:14
It’s not too far from, like, I think, Allentown. Yeah. I don’t know my way around Pennsylvania. I could be totally wrong. Someone’s going to send me an email that I’m way off. You just get in your car and you drive and you follow the GPS and you get there, and the whole area is just spectacular. I don’t know if we’ll ever go there again. There’s just so many other spectacular places to visit in life, but it’s definitely worth once in your lifetime going there. And the coolest thing we did the whole time was they have a coal mine. You can actually take the cars down into a coal mine and walk around. It’s really freaky.

Kathy Sheehan 00:54:14
Wow. That’s amazing.

Steve Silverman 00:54:54
You realize how bad the lives of these coal miners were.

Kathy Sheehan 00:54:58
Yeah. Wow.

Steve Silverman 00:55:00
Yeah.

Kathy Sheehan 00:55:00
That’s crazy.

Steve Silverman 00:55:01
So I do have a couple of quotes I want to read. One is of the bronze tablet that hangs in Russell Sage Hall. And another one is from Russell Sage. Let me read those. So now this bronze tablet is posing above the fireplace in the hall. I don’t know if it’s still there or not because I believe the building is locked. You can’t go in. But it says, “Russell Sage Hall, 1894, erected by Russell Sage to perpetuate the name and fame of Mrs. Emma Willard, the pioneer in higher education for women and founder of Troy Female Seminary. 1821. And it’s a grateful testimony to the citizens of Troy for their lifelong friendship and goodwill.”

Kathy Sheehan 00:55:40
Yes. For somebody that hates higher education and hates women. Let’s go give a bundle of money and fix this building and support these women and be intimately involved in it.

Steve Silverman 00:55:52
And here’s where the second one ties into what you just said. And this is 1904, so he is still alive. “The happiest day of my life was when the building I gave to the Emma Willard Seminary was dedicated. This building costs $150,000 and is named after the donor, the Russell Sage Hall.” He continues. “Years and years ago, as alderman of Troy and trustee of your seminary, then in its early youth, I had helped it as I could because it appealed to me as the right kind of thing. So here’s a guy supposedly hates upper education, hates women, and he’s been supporting the. School all along.

Kathy Sheehan 00:56:25
All along, right from the very beginning.

1895 colorized image of the Emma Willard campus in Troy, NY, which is now part of Russell Sage College.
1895 colorized image of the Emma Willard campus in Troy, NY, which is now part of Russell Sage College. Russell Sage Hall is on the right. The statue of Emma Willard sits on the pedestal on the left side of the photo. Original black & white image is from the Auburn University Digital Library.

Steve Silverman 00:56:29
Now, he didn’t just give to that. He gave to other causes during his life. And I have another quote there. This is by Henry Kluz, who is a banker who was well familiar with Sage, and he says, Mr. Sage had contributed much money to charity during his lifetime, although the public had only learned of his gift of an endowment fund of $100,000 for Sage Hall in the Willard School for Girls at Troy, the school of which Mrs. Sage is an alumnus. He continues, mr. Sage contributed a large sum to Booker t. Washington Tuskegee Institute. So clearly, he was very quiet in what he did. I mean, he didn’t go out of his way to make it known that he had given the money.

Kathy Sheehan 00:57:10
Right.

Steve Silverman 00:57:11
Now, I did find in that same article, when he was still alive, that he would, every year, transport 2000 poor children from Poughkeepsie each summer up to Upton Lake, which is, I believe, in Dutchess County. Now, of course, he owned the railroad that took them there, and the railroad built the park. It was an amusement park. And of course, the kids could use the playgrounds of swings and merry go rounds, and he gave them free refreshments and whatever. So it’s generous, but at the same time, what is it really costing him? But I’m sure he has some sort of writeoff. I don’t know. Now, as much as he hated women, you have to really question that, because both his wives were graduates of the Troy Female Seminary.

Kathy Sheehan 00:57:52
Exactly.

Steve Silverman 00:57:53
I mean, why would a guy who hated women marry two intelligent, independent, and confident women?

Kathy Sheehan 00:57:59
And one of the interesting stories that always went around for years was, oh, he loved his young wife, that she died. She wasn’t that young when she died. Really? They had a decent length of marriage together, and it wasn’t uncommon that women died or even men died, and you had multiple marriages.

Steve Silverman 00:58:19
Sure.

Kathy Sheehan 00:58:20
So we kind of keep putting later ideas about how things should be and trying to place them into the 19th century, and you have to be careful of doing that. Sure.

Steve Silverman 00:58:35
He knew what he was getting into with both women. He wasn’t looking for some timid woman who would do whatever he said. These were strong, educated women. I mean, so few not even just women, but so few people were educated back then, and these two women both were. And he knew that his second wife was a suffragist.

Kathy Sheehan 00:58:53
Right.

Steve Silverman 00:58:53
So that whole idea that he hated women and didn’t believe in their education.

Kathy Sheehan 00:58:58
(Note: A portion of the audio is missing at this point in the recording.) I think that’s all checks in his name to the suffrage movement and down in New York City, supporting rallies and things like that. His hand. Not hers.

Steve Silverman 00:59:10
Which I didn’t come across in anything, so that’s kind of interesting.

Kathy Sheehan 00:59:12
Yeah.

Steve Silverman 00:59:15
Now, I do have a quote about him being a mean man. Mean Mr. Russell Sage here. And this quote is from Dr. Schmuck. “It has often been alleged that Mr. Sage was a mean man. After many years of close association with him, I can say this is not true. If he was careful of every expenditure, it was because he was a man who realized the value of detail. He understood that every dollar has its value and was consequently careful of how he spent even trifling sums.” So I think what he’s saying is basically, he may have been considered a little bit ruthless in business, but he was a generous person among the people who knew him.

Kathy Sheehan 00:59:57
Knew him. Right. And things that he cared about. Right.

1907 photograph of Olivia Sage.
1907 photograph of Olivia Sage. Library of Congress photo.

Steve Silverman 01:00:01
So the next little section I put together is that he left nothing to charity or to his family in his will. Basically everything went to his wife by default. And I did find out his will was drawn up in 1901, and when he died, he was worth about $80 million. But due to financial setbacks, basically the economy goes up and down. When they finally settled the estate, it was worth $64,153,800.91. Got to get that 91 cents.

Kathy Sheehan 01:00:01
Got to get that 91 cents. Yeah.

Steve Silverman 01:00:01
Mrs. Sage’s share was $63,788,900.91. What’s interesting is everyone thought he didn’t give anything to his family. He left $650,000 to his nieces, nephews, grand nieces, and one great grand nephew. Now, these numbers don’t add up, because if you do the math, it doesn’t add up to $650,000. And that’s because in The New York Times, they just listed person by person, and I think they didn’t know some of the names. But to 24 nieces and nephews, they each got $25,000 each, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you translate it into today’s dollars. That would be three-quarters of a million dollars each.

Kathy Sheehan 01:01:08
Yeah. You’re not doing too bad when you got that $25,000.

Steve Silverman 01:01:10
And considering these are nieces and nephews, they probably hardly knew the guy.

Kathy Sheehan 01:01:14
Yeah. Right.

Steve Silverman 01:01:16
And to four others, he left $6,250, which is $195,000 today. They also mentioned that his sister, Fanny Chapin, she got $10,000 or about $312,000 today. So to say he left nothing to his family, that’s totally untrue.

Kathy Sheehan 01:01:32
And it’s also the fact that let’s go back. It’s important to look at the fact that he drew this will up. This is his own free will. And as they always say of sound mind and body. 1901. He doesn’t die till 1904.

Steve Silverman 01:01:32
1906.

Kathy Sheehan 01:01:49
1906. Yeah. So five full years before he died and he’s still living, the bulk of his money is going to this alleged woman who he couldn’t stand. Come on. the guy’s smarter than that.

The last page of Russell Sage's 1901 will.
The last page of Russell Sage’s will, signed on February 11, 1901.

Steve Silverman 01:02:04
Now, the contents of the will were revealed just a few days after he passed. But even before that, I came across articles that said it was understood that Mrs. Sage was going to give it all away, which is exactly what she did. So he knew and everybody knew that that’s what he was going to do with the money. Now, I do have another quote on this. This is one of his friends. So let me read that quote. “The will is a credit to the old man. He was not interested in charities. His wife is and is qualified to do the right thing at the right time. And Mr. Sage did well to leave to her the fortune and the credit of distributing it. The will is not miserly. It merely shows that Mr. Sage wasn’t bidding for postmortem eulogies.” So clearly he was generous in his will. Yeah, he liked accumulating money, and he was frugal, and he may have been in business a little bit of a mean, not mean, but an aggressive business.

Kathy Sheehan 01:02:04
An aggressive businessman.

Steve Silverman 01:02:04
But he knew perfectly well where his money was going when he passed.

Kathy Sheehan 01:03:07
Absolutely. Absolutely did.

The 1900 US Census reported that the Sages lived at 506 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
The 1900 US Census reported that the Sages lived at 506 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The red arrow on the map above shows the location. Fifth Avenue is to the right. W 42nd Street runs along the bottom of the map. At the very bottom of the map is the current location of the New York Public Library. From the Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of Manhattan, 1902.
Sketch of the Sage home at 506 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. (Munsey’s Magazine, March 1895, page 637.)
The Sages lived at 506 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. A portion of the building can be seen on the right in the photograph above.
The Sages lived at 506 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. A portion of the building can be seen on the right in the photograph above. The Hotel Bristol stands next to their home. (New York Public Library) An improved version of this photo can be found on the geographicguide.com website.

Steve Silverman 01:03:11
The next section I have here is that they live like paupers and they hated each other.

Kathy Sheehan 01:03:11
Oh, god.

Steve Silverman 01:03:11
Now, first of all, they lived in a mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Now, I know they owned several different properties there, and I couldn’t quite figure out which one was the exact location because each article gives a different location of where his mansion was.

Kathy Sheehan 01:03:30
Right.

Steve Silverman 01:03:31
But it was either near Bryant Park, the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, or across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Rockefeller Center sits today.

Kathy Sheehan 01:03:40
Either way.

Steve Silverman 01:03:41
Yeah. One of the articles mentions that is that their next-door neighbors were the Vanderbilts.

Kathy Sheehan 01:03:47
Yeah. Hardly the poor zone.

1922 photograph of the former Sage home at 604 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. (Mrs. Sage died in 1918.) On the left is the St. Nicholas
1922 photograph of the former Sage home at 604 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. (Mrs. Sage died in 1918.) On the left is the St. Nicholas Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church. The buildings (including the church, which was demolished in 1949) no longer stand and has since been replaced by Rockefeller Center. New York Public Library image.

Steve Silverman 01:03:50
And there are sketches. In those days, they didn’t have pictures in these papers, but there are sketches. And these were not tiny little homes.

Kathy Sheehan 01:03:56
No. They were not at all.

Steve Silverman 01:03:57
And of course, they had their summer home on Long Island, but they clearly did not like showing off their wealth. Now, the fact that they hated each other, I remember when I first heard the story, this crazy story about him. I’m like, why would she name a college after him? Why would she name a foundation after him if she hated the man, you put your name on it or someone else’s. And it turns out that when she established the Russell Sage Foundation, the original draft documents had her name on it, and she went up and crossed it off and put his name down.

Kathy Sheehan 01:04:29
His name down.

Steve Silverman 01:04:30
And that’s why it’s called the Russell Sage Foundation to this day.

Kathy Sheehan 01:04:30
Right.

Steve Silverman 01:04:30
Yes. So I just don’t believe that they hated each other.

Kathy Sheehan 01:04:37
And that he generally hated women and women’s education and women’s higher education.

1924 photograph of the Sage home, which sits to the right of the St. Nicholas Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church.
1924 photograph of the Sage home at 604 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, which sits to the right of the St. Nicholas Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church. A 1925 photograph shows the home replaced by a 6-story commercial building. New York Public Library image.

Steve Silverman 01:04:44
Yeah. So I have another quote here. So let me read that. This is from the New York Times. It’s on page one from July 23, 1906, basically reporting his death. And this quote really stood out to me and tells you about their relationship. This is from, I believe Dr. Schmuck stating this. Basically, “the presence of Mrs. Sage always gave him pleasure, and he was ever ready to welcome her with a smile and to take her by the hand.’ This is two people that hated each other.

Kathy Sheehan 01:05:14
Right. Hated each other. And what else does he go on to say?

Steve Silverman 01:05:18
Later on the article says, “For six long hours, she sat by his bed, holding his hand and watching him draw his feeble breath.” Clearly, these are two people that hate each other.

Kathy Sheehan 01:05:28
Yes. Of course. She didn’t need to sit there all that time. For somebody they hated her husband.

Steve Silverman 01:05:33
Yeah. So I think that claim that they hate each other really does not hold water.

Kathy Sheehan 01:05:38
Not at all.

Steve Silverman 01:05:40
The last thing I want to mention about that is by Aggie Smith, and she wrote for the Troy Record. Now, you actually knew her, right? She’s not alive anymore, is that correct?

Kathy Sheehan 01:05:48
No. She’s an archivist at Russell Sage College.

Steve Silverman 01:05:51
And she wrote the following on January 29, 2006. In the article, as she wrote, “It is my opinion that they loved and respected one another.” And this is an archivist doing research on them. So she came to the same conclusion that we have.

Kathy Sheehan 01:06:06
Yeah, absolutely. It just always bothered her, these rumors that went around. She said it just never made sense, she said, why they thought that this was revenge of Mrs. Sage to take this money and turn it into the college. She goes, and then here I find the speech of him standing right there saying, here’s the importance of women’s education, here’s the importance of the women’s suffrage movement. Standing outside, in his own words, she says, this is not someone who hates women. Nobody had gun to his head to say it’s like, this is him. Believe this.

Steve Silverman 01:06:49
I think the public, when someone becomes that wealthy, they think they should just be giving all their money away as it comes in. And he took, I guess, a different approach. And that is basically accumulate it, and then when I die, let its legacy do the work. And it really is still working to this day because Emma Willard still is working off his endowment. Russell Sage College. I mean, I’m sure that money is probably long spent, but that got them going. And people contribute to this day.

Kathy Sheehan 01:07:15
And the Russell Sage Foundation does exist today. If you look at almost any PBS television show that you see, you’ll see it says Russell State Foundation on the bottom. Yeah. That’s just one way that they. I haven’t looked at their… I forgot what the name of that form is that they, where all the money goes every year and stuff. But it’s a huge charitable foundation.

Steve Silverman 01:07:36
Yeah. I think everybody dreams that more than 100 years later, your money would still be doing something.

Kathy Sheehan 01:07:40
That would to me. He would probably be thrilled that he made his money. And it’s still performing, right?

Steve Silverman 01:07:48
Yeah. I have to throw this in. And this was part of what I was told originally: that he hated dogs and she hated cats. And again, it’s part of this myth. And I found no evidence that. In fact, I did find an article from the New York Times, and basically, in 1905, August 31, 1905, his twelve year old cat, Malta was reported missing. And there was this big story, and he offered a $10 reward, or $312 today for someone to return his cat. And it mentions both him and her, that they loved this cat and how wonderful the cat was and it wandered off. And everyone just started bringing their cats by trying to get this reward money. But they never did find the cat, unfortunately.

Kathy Sheehan 01:08:35
Right.

Steve Silverman 01:08:36
From what I can tell, they both loved animals. They owned six dogs and seven cats at the end of his life. And after his death, now this is a woman who supposedly didn’t like dogs, didn’t like cats, I should say. She donated a huge chunk of money to humane societies and for the protection of birds.

Kathy Sheehan 01:08:55
See?

Steve Silverman 01:08:56
Yeah. Another thing.

Kathy Sheehan 01:08:56
Another thing.

Steve Silverman 01:08:56
Okay, so now we get to my favorite part, and that’s the mausoleum. Yes. And of course, we talked about how it was purposely built to block his first wife’s grave. And there’s no name on it, so she wouldn’t give him any recognition. And oddly, it had been designed three years before his death. And I found an article where Olivia, his second wife, is talking about this. She had come to Troy and she’s reminded of the fact that they needed to work on the mausoleum. So I’m going to read that now. Okay, this is from 1903. June 17, 1903. This is from the Syracuse Evening Herald on page 5. And it starts, “Mrs. Russell Sage has arranged for a mausoleum of granite in Oakwood Cemetery at Troy in the form of a Greek temple to cost about $30,000.”

Kathy Sheehan 01:09:53
Amazing.

Steve Silverman 01:09:55
Now, I did a quick calculation. That’s about $935,000. This is a mausoleum that cost close to a million dollars. Later on in the article, it says, “Work will shortly be begun. The temple will occupy the center of the Sage lot, the granite shaft which marks the burial place of Mr. Sage’s first wife to remain undisturbed.” Now, Mrs. Sage says the following, “The idea of the mausoleum is no new one. It has been in our minds for three years. The accident of my being in the city brought it to a head, that’s all. Mr. Sage agreed with me that now is a good time as any to have it attended to.” So clearly he knew this mausoleum was being built and had to be no name on it.

Kathy Sheehan 01:10:39
Right.

Steve Silverman 01:10:40
Later on, she states, “Oakwood has always appealed to me as one of the most beautiful spots I have ever seen, and it will satisfy me to know the mausoleum is there”. So this is all planned. The fact that it’s blocking is just not true.

Kathy Sheehan 01:10:56
Right. They didn’t want to disturb his first wife.

Steve Silverman 01:10:58
Right. This mausoleum is fairly large.

Kathy Sheehan 01:10:58
It is big.

Steve Silverman 01:10:58
And therefore there wasn’t probably much land to build on. And that’s why it’s so close.

Kathy Sheehan 01:11:06
It’s also sloped. It’s on a hill.

Steve Silverman 01:11:08
Yeah. It’s actually in a beautiful spot.

Kathy Sheehan 01:11:08
It’s a gorgeous spot.

Steve Silverman 01:11:08
A bunch of little roads come together in one spot there.

Kathy Sheehan 01:11:15
And it was in a spot that was a spot where a lot of now the kind of old money was being buried there. New money is on the other side of the pond.

Steve Silverman 01:11:27
I should mention I did a mausoleum tour. They actually open them up for charity and you can go inside and a lot of them are ransacked and it’s kind of sad to see. And we had this discussion last week and basically there were rumors that people were buried with their jewels and therefore they want…

Kathy Sheehan 01:11:27
Well, that was the fear. And that was why a lot of times they did not label the mausoleums for fear that there would be grave robbers.

Steve Silverman 01:11:53
Right. Although if you’re building this giant mausoleum, that’s kind of a hint that you had some money.

Kathy Sheehan 01:11:56
You had some money. Right.

Steve Silverman 01:11:59
I’m going to show you a photo and I want you to look at this. This is Jay Gould’s mausoleum compared with Russell Sage’s. Let me pull it up. Okay. Now I know that people listening can’t see this but would you agree they look very similar?

The mausoleums of Jay Gould (left) and Russell Sage (right).
The mausoleums of Jay Gould (left) and Russell Sage (right).

Kathy Sheehan 01:11:59
Very similar design. Jay Gould’s is even slightly more ostentatious by Corinthian capitals on the top and I think that Russell Sage’s are the Doric ones. I’m trying to remember three architectural designs. But yeah, basically it’s a very similar in design for sure. And I wonder if Jay Gould has the very sophisticated locking system that Russell Sage’s has.

Steve Silverman 01:12:38
We’ll talk about that in a second. But I just want to point a couple of things. First of all, his is larger but his wife actually Jay Gould’s wife had passed on earlier. And so it’s not just Jay Gould in that mausoleum, it’s his wife and a number of their children. Where Russell Sage, I believe it’s just him.

Kathy Sheehan 01:12:53
Just him. Right.

Steve Silverman 01:12:54
So therefore he didn’t need his large of a mausoleum, but it’s still a fairly large.

Kathy Sheehan 01:12:54
Oh, absolutely.

Steve Silverman 01:12:54
But they do look very similar. But the most noticeable thing to me is what’s missing on both of them and that’s what?

Kathy Sheehan 01:12:54
Their names.

Steve Silverman 01:12:54
There’s no name on either one.

Kathy Sheehan 01:13:08
Right.

Steve Silverman 01:13:08
And there’s a reason for this and we kind of just hinted at that and that has to do with robberies. And I came across that basically there was a millionaire known as A. T. Stewart. Do you know anything about him?

Kathy Sheehan 01:13:20
He was huge department stores and things like that in New York City.

Steve Silverman 01:13:24
Right. So he didn’t make his money on the stock market. He actually did it through retail and so on. But anyway, when he was buried in 1876, his grave was robbed and they held his body for ransom and his wife had to pay a huge sum. It was never reported the exact amount to get the body back.

Kathy Sheehan 01:13:40
Right.

Steve Silverman 01:13:41
So when Jay Gould passed on and when Russell Sage was getting close to death, they were very fearful that their bodies would be stolen and held for ransom. So when Jay Gould was buried, his crypt is soldered closed. You cannot get into it. And that was to make sure that nobody got a hold of his body. When Russell Sage passes on, Mrs. Sage wanted to make sure no one got into his grave also. And I found some of these details. This is really crazy.

Kathy Sheehan 01:13:41
So amazing.

Steve Silverman 01:13:41
Yeah. So, anyway, he was buried in a mahogany coffin, which was lined with copper. And then there were fancy trimmings all around. The coffin alone back then cost $1,000, which is $31,000 today. Then that coffin was in place in a burglar-proof steel case. It had an unpickable lock, and when you closed it, it clamped closed in 20 different locations and could only be opened from the inside. One of the articles I said, it said that two locksmiths would need an entire day to get into it. The cost of that burglarproof steel case was $22,000 or $686,000 today. I don’t have this written down, but I did read somewhere that there was some sort of lock release inside of the coffin, and I guess that was so if he rose up from the dead, he could get out. And I also didn’t write this down, but apparently, there was an alarm hooked up to this. If anybody did try to disturb it, it would trip. Yeah. Now, this is what I found interesting. It says in the articles about it that the epitaph on the Sage monument says, “I have done the best I could by the light of day.” Now, do you know if there’s anything on that mausoleum?

Kathy Sheehan 01:15:26
Not that I have ever seen. Unless it completely has worn away or it’s on the inside somewhere.

Steve Silverman 01:15:33
Right. Or my thinking is maybe he was buried and they put that there first and then the mausoleum wasn’t finished, so they built that on top. You know what I’m saying? I don’t know.

Kathy Sheehan 01:15:45
Well, no, because they talked about. The Troy Daily Times talks a lot about it being, going into the mausoleum. So it was already built. Well, when was she there? She’s there in 1903. Three years before he died they started working on it. So it was completely done.

Steve Silverman 01:16:04
Yeah. I wasn’t sure from the articles I read, it made it sound like it wasn’t done. So, anyway, that’s not one of the mausoleums they have open when they do the mausoleum tour. No, it would be interesting for someone to actually get in there and see.

Kathy Sheehan 01:16:04
Because they can’t. Again, according to the Troy Daily Times, when that outer door closed, locking in from the inside, you can’t go in there.

Steve Silverman 01:16:28
Well, I thought that was the case around the coffin, not the mausoleum itself.

Kathy Sheehan 01:16:33
I thought it was the mausoleum itself. I’ve got to go back and look at the interest to check out the Troy, because they’re very specific about all that information, I think it was the door closed and it’s sealed. They had some great flowery statement about sealing his fate forever or something like that.

Steve Silverman 01:16:50
It’d be pretty funny if none of that really was true. They just said it’s to keep people from going in.

Kathy Sheehan 01:16:53
From going in there.

Steve Silverman 01:16:55
Oh, look at this. You just push and it opens.

Kathy Sheehan 01:16:55
Right.

Steve Silverman 01:16:55
I did want to add one last thing to this, and it was the most expensive burial of any private citizen in the US up until that point.

Kathy Sheehan 01:17:05
Oh, that’s interesting.

Steve Silverman 01:17:06
Yeah. I’m sure since that time, there have been some that have exceeded that.

Kathy Sheehan 01:17:06
I bet.

Steve Silverman 01:17:06
Yeah, kind of crazy. So clearly, basically, she didn’t want people to know who was in there.

Kathy Sheehan 01:17:19
Right. To protect them really. Yeah. And again, the whole thing she’s buried out in Oakland Cemetery in Syracuse. Not uncommon as a second marriage. Several people, it’s like they’re still going to be buried with their first husbands, even though they were remarried and things like that.

Steve Silverman 01:17:40
She’s buried with her family.

Kathy Sheehan 01:17:41
She’s buried with her family. Yeah.

Steve Silverman 01:17:42
I mean, that’s all it boils down to. So I have two more little facts, and this didn’t really fit into this little summary I did about him, and one is that he was key in preserving Mount Vernon as a national treasure. He was actually the one who went before Congress and requested that they purchase it. And of course, I have a lot of listeners not in the United States. Mount Vernon is the home of

Kathy Sheehan 01:17:42
George Washington.

Steve Silverman 01:17:42
Yeah. And I’ve been there many times. It’s a beautiful place. And it was Russell Sage, the stingy person, who was so mean. When he was an elected representative, he requested and of course…

Kathy Sheehan 01:17:42
And who does the Restoration? The Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

Steve Silverman 01:18:23
Wow. I didn’t know.

Kathy Sheehan 01:18:24
Yes, and he supported that effort all that time. It’s interesting. It’s like one of the first major, kind of our national historic sites is Mount Vernon, and it is done by this Mount Vernon Ladies Association that he supports in his money. Again, the man who allegedly can’t stand women and can’t stand and there he is supporting that.

Steve Silverman 01:18:52
I should also mention that Russell Sage vehemently opposed slavery. He gave a speech before Congress, and some people say that may have been part of why we got into Civil War, although that’s kind of far fetched, I think. But he really was against slavery. And I should also mention that when Mrs. Sage finally died, the second wife did die, all the rest of the money went to charity. Again, millions and millions and millions of dollars to all these institutions. Now, you wanted to add something.

Kathy Sheehan 01:19:20
I do. Because again, they were members of the First Presbyterian Church, and that was a noted abolitionist church. Reverend Nathan Beman, who he would have known was this very fiery abolitionist minister. The First Presbyterian Church brings in Reverend Henry Highland Garnet, who becomes a black pastor of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church for Colored People. That was the actual name of the church. They gave them the session house for the Presbyterian Church to start their first church, and when they built that beautiful Greek Revival structure. So, again, every time you see some of these quotes, I go, oh, that’s again, part of his tenant of being a member of the Presbyterian Church.

Steve Silverman 01:20:09
Sure.

Kathy Sheehan 01:20:10
And they were always noted they were noted abolitionists.

Steve Silverman 01:20:14
Wow. None of that comes out when you read articles about him. Now, you were going to add one other thing about how his reputation came about.

Kathy Sheehan 01:20:23
Yeah. So after the money was Mrs. Sage gives the money to start the Russell Sage College, which is now, opens in 1916. They had moved the campus. They had opened up the new school for Emma Willard School, and now you’ve got this empty campus sitting downtown, and Eliza Kellas, who is now the new headmistress of the Emma Willard School, having these conversations with Mrs. Sage. What are we going to do? And so she gives the money to start the college. And I think it was a good sum. It’s around $4 million, certainly plenty enough. But Eliza Kellas somehow, obviously knew how much money she had to play with, and I think was upset in this correspondence that Aggie found, that she was a little upset that there wasn’t going to be more money given to that. And she said, oh, my God, what is it? Is it Russell Sage? Did he hate women so much? And Aggie said, I really think that somewhere that whole Troy connection starts all the way back there to this correspondence about starting the college.

Steve Silverman 01:21:30
Yeah. Just incredible. And the fact she was so generous with the money. I mean, you go around Troy, the Russell Sage campus is beautiful. The Emma Willard Campus is beautiful. You go to RPI, there’s is the Russell Sage building, which for many years was its main building. And then a few years later, she gives even more money for the second Russell Sage building, which is named after really, after his nephew. I think it was a dining hall, maybe.

Kathy Sheehan 01:21:55
I think so. Yes. Sage Dining Hall. Yes, it is, actually.

Steve Silverman 01:21:58
This is a woman. She’s giving money. In fact, she had to have a staff because she got so many letters every day requesting money to sort through this and to figure out who to give the money to.

Kathy Sheehan 01:22:09
Yeah. Again, it’s always the tea table gossip kind of thing. All this information just keeps going round and round in a circle, and then the myths don’t die, and it just keeps hanging on there. And oh, my gosh, many times as I tried to dispel the myths, okay, here we go again.

Steve Silverman 01:22:35
Maybe this will help in just a small way.

Kathy Sheehan 01:22:37
This will help in a small way.

Steve Silverman 01:22:39
So I guess we can say the whole Russell Sage myth is busted. Well, Kathy, I just want to thank you for actually driving out to my house and sitting down with me to talk about Russell Sage. I wanted to do this story for years, and I’m glad you’re able to help me set the record straight as to what really is the truth. Now, once you tell a little bit about the museum itself that you work at.

Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage with her chauffer and an unnamed woman.
Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage with her chauffer and an unnamed woman. Undated photo from the Auburn University Digital Library.

Kathy Sheehan 01:23:04
Okay, so, yes, right up the street from Russell Sage College, we have the Hart Cluett Museum of Historic Rensselaer County, which was formerly the Rensselaer County Historical Society. And we have three buildings on our campus. We have an 1827 wonderful federal-style townhouse that is open for tours and things. And then we have our Carr building, which is where we have our changing exhibition galleries. And we cover all the history of Rensselaer County, not just in Troy, which is about 460 sq mi. And we also have a large research library. So that is where a lot of all this wonderful information, letters, correspondence, business records that covers the gamut from basically from 1791 Rensselaer County’s form to the present. We had a director that said ‘History is what we had for breakfast.’ So we collect right up to and we really try to recognize every face in every story. So we’re looking at all the different groups that came into this area, the different ethnic groups, just the whole changes in the history of the county. That is what we cover there.

Steve Silverman 01:24:11
Yeah, it is a really spectacular it’s a great endeavor and I can’t even imagine how much in the way it documents because Troy was such a wealthy city, and had numerous newspapers, and just to be able to catalog all that stuff, I’m sure there’s a lot of people working on that.

Kathy Sheehan 01:24:28
A lot of people, a lot of volunteers. And we’ve been around as an organization since 1927. So we’re coming up on our 100th anniversary pretty soon, which is exciting.

Steve Silverman 01:24:38
Yeah. Now, I did mention to you earlier, before we start recording, that I have been in the museum multiple times, but I never knew there was a second half to it, which is really a beautifully preserved building. So, why don’t you tell a little bit about that. And it’s open during the Victorian Stroll, which you guys do around Christmas time, and it’s also open for various tours throughout the year.

Kathy Sheehan 01:24:58
We actually do a second Saturday tour, 2:00. You can go to our web page, hartcluett.org, and sign up for tours of the house. And yes, probably the most well-attended event is our holiday Green show. This year, of course, is the Gilded Age because we are all jumping on the bandwagon of this HBO wonderful series. And actually, you would see the front of the house as well in episodes 8 and 9 of season one where they show a young lady going up the steps of our place. But it’s a great house. It was really designed by Martin Euclid Thompson, and he was a New York City architect. But instead of thinking that Troy followed New York City, he really came to Troy and created this as a prototype house and then went back to New York City and in Manhattan and they were built all over the place. And there’s probably only one other example of that, which is the Merchant House Museum in New York that’s extant and open to the public as a museum. And that’s newer than our buildings. About 1830. So it’s really kind of, it just shows going all the way back to Mr. Sage being here in Troy at Hutton and River Streets at a time when Troy really grew so quickly. It also showed there’s a very sophisticated taste as you come up and you come up to visit here in Troy. And really even out in the county, there’s a lot of very forward-thinking people. And looking at the architecture, really the built environment that’s left here, really shows that. It was not an afterthought. It was Troy and places like New York City, Philadelphia, Boston. We were all growing at the same time.

The Hart-Cluett House at the Hart-Cluett Historical Museum in Troy, NY.
The Hart-Cluett House at the Hart-Cluett Historical Museum in Troy, NY. (Wikimedia image.)

Steve Silverman 01:26:39
Yeah. It is a spectacular city. And I’ve done a Tiffany tour, I think twice.

Kathy Sheehan 01:26:39
Yeah, we have more Tiffany windows than anywhere in the United States.

Steve Silverman 01:26:48
It’s just incredible. This city is spectacular. I should also mention pretty much from spring through fall, you and others do tours every Saturday.

Kathy Sheehan 01:26:48
We do.

Steve Silverman 01:26:48
And that’s how I actually met you initially. And the ones I’ve done with you are just amazing. You’re a wealth information.

Kathy Sheehan 01:27:07
Thank you.

Steve Silverman 01:27:07
And you walk around and each tour is a little bit different. And they’re not even that expensive. I think they’re $10, right?

Kathy Sheehan 01:27:17
Twenty bucks. About an hour and a half tour or so.

Steve Silverman 01:27:19
It’s really a good deal. And I do recommend if you’re ever up in Troy, you should go. And Troy, I hate to say it, but Albany is nice, but Troy has so much more history to it.

Kathy Sheehan 01:27:32
It’s a great walkable city too, especially the downtown area and things. We got the great Farmers Market on Saturday. There’s a lot to see.

Steve Silverman 01:27:40
Is there anything else you want to add?

Kathy Sheehan 01:27:42
No, I don’t think so. Yeah. Come visit us.

Steve Silverman 01:27:43
Definitely. Well, thank you again for being on the podcast.

Kathy Sheehan 01:27:49
Thank you so much. I enjoyed it. I have to thank you because you really did a lot of even more homework, which is now we get to add this to our Russell Sage file.

Steve Silverman 01:27:58
Yeah. Hopefully, I wasn’t too far off in what I accumulated.

Kathy Sheehan 01:27:58
No. It’s great.

Steve Silverman 01:27:58
Yeah. And maybe in a year or two we can do that Uncle Sam one that we had talked about originally.

Kathy Sheehan 01:28:10
That would be great.

Steve Silverman 01:28:11
Well, thanks again and I’ll say goodbye to everybody and take care everyone. Bye!

Kathy Sheehan 01:28:16
Bye. Take care. Thanks.

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