Russell Sage

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Russell Sage
Russell Sage in 1903
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 13th district
In office
March 4, 1853 – March 3, 1857
Preceded byJohn L. Schoolcraft
Succeeded byAbram B. Olin
Member of the Troy City Council
In office
Personal details
Born(1816-08-04)August 4, 1816
Verona, New York, U.S.
DiedJuly 22, 1906(1906-07-22) (aged 89)
New York City, New York, U.S
Resting placeOakwood Cemetery, Troy, New York
Political partyWhig (1841–1854)
Opposition (1854–1858)
Marie-Henrie Winne
(m. 1840; died 1867)
(m. 1868)
ProfessionBusinessman, socialite
Net worthUS$70 million (1906)

Russell Risley Sage (August 4, 1816 – July 22, 1906) was an American financier, railroad executive and Whig politician from New York, who became one of the richest Americans of all time.[1][2] As a frequent partner of Jay Gould in various transactions, he amassed a fortune. Olivia Slocum Sage, his second wife, inherited his fortune, which was unrestricted for her use. In his name she used the money for philanthropic purposes, endowing a number of buildings and institutions to benefit women's education: she established the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907 and founded the Russell Sage College for women in 1916.

Early life and family[edit]

Sage was born at Verona in Oneida County, New York to Elisha Sage Jr. and Prudence Risley.[3] His grandfather Elisha Yale Sr. was a construction contractor, and his uncle, Barzillai Sage, was the grandfather of railroad magnate Col. Ira Yale Sage of the Yale family.[3] Through his granduncles Capt. William Sage and Capt. Nathan Sage, distant cousins included Princess Kay Sage, Admiral Francis M. Bunce, Cornell benefactor Henry W. Sage, and Senators Henry M. Sage and Josiah B. Williams.[3]

Princess Kay Sage, member of American royalty, was related by marriage to the Agnelli family, founders of Fiat S.p.A. and owners of Ferrari, with family members including Donna Virginia Bourbon del Monte, Princess Clara von Fürstenberg, Senator Giovanni Agnelli, minister Susanna Agnelli, and Italy's richest man, Gianni Agnelli of Villa Leopolda.[3][4][5]

Sage received a public school education and worked as a farmhand until he was 15. He started as an errand boy in his brother Henry's grocery in Troy, New York. He had a part interest in 1837–1839 in a retail grocery in Troy, and in a wholesale store there in 1839–1857.

On January 23, 1840, Sage married Marie-Henrie Winne, who was also known as "Maria Winne". They had no children. She died on May 7, 1867, of stomach cancer. In 1869 at the age of 53, Sage remarried, to Olivia Slocum (1828–1918), who was ten years younger.

Political career[edit]

In 1841, Sage was elected as alderman in Troy. He was re-elected to this office until 1848, while also serving for seven years as treasurer of Rensselaer County. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Whig, and served, with re-election as an Oppositionist, from March 4, 1853 until March 3, 1857. He served on the Ways and Means Committee. Sage was the first person to advocate in Congress for the purchase of George Washington's plantation, Mount Vernon, by the government.

Financial career[edit]

Share of the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company, issued 12. December 1870, signed by Russell Sage

After retiring from politics Sage settled in New York City, where he engaged in the business of selling puts and calls, as well as short-term options known as privileges. He has been credited with developing the market for stock options in the United States and inventing the "spread" and "straddle" option strategies, for which he was dubbed "Old Straddle" and the "Father of Puts and Calls." He used the options to synthesize loans at a higher interest rate than state usury laws allowed, for which he was convicted in 1869 and fined $500, with a suspended jail sentence.[6]

Sage bought a seat on the New York Stock Exchange in 1874, and became known as a financier. At the same time he saw the future of railroads, and secured stocks in western roads, notably the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway. He was president and vice-president for twelve years. By selling such investments, as the smaller roads were bought by major trunk-lines, he became wealthy. In his later years he was closely associated with Jay Gould in the management of the Wabash Railway, St. Louis and Pacific, Missouri Pacific Railroad, Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad and the St. Louis - San Francisco Railway, for which he was director of the corporations.

He also served as director for the American cable company, the Western Union telegraph company, and the Manhattan consolidated system of elevated railroads in New York City. He was a director of the Union Pacific Railroad, which was part of constructing the transcontinental railroad. Together with other major investors (and railroad pioneers of the nineteenth century), he made a fortune. He was a director and vice-president in the Importers and Traders' National Bank for twenty years, and also a director in the Merchants' Trust Company and in the Fifth Avenue Bank of New York City.

Following the collapse of the Grant & Ward scheme in 1884, Sage faced a run from holders of put options that he had sold. He honored all demands but withdrew from the sale of options soon afterward.[6]

Assassination attempt[edit]

In 1891, Henry L. Norcross entered Sage's office in a six-story 1859 brownstone office building at 71 Broadway in Manhattan, claiming he needed to discuss railroad bonds. Norcross gave Sage a letter demanding $1,200,000, which Sage declined to pay. Norcross was carrying a bag of dynamite, which exploded, killing Norcross, wounding Sage, and severely wounding William R. Laidlaw, Jr., a clerk for John Bloodgood and Co. who happened to be in the office. Afterward Laidlaw sued Sage, alleging that he had used him as a shield against Norcross. Disabled for life, Laidlaw aggressively pursued the lawsuits, winning $43,000 in damages after four trials, but a Court of Appeals reversed the award. Sage never paid any settlement and was publicly criticized as a miser because of his great fortune.[7][8][9]

Personal life[edit]

Sage's mausoleum in Oakwood Cemetery

Sage was known to have affairs outside marriage both before and after the death of his first wife. The writer Paul Sarnoff suggested in his biography of Sage that he may have remarried for appearance's sake, and may never have consummated his second marriage.[6] Sage was reported to have had a child by a young chambermaid.[6]

Sage was a member of East Presbyterian Church on West 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue, which later merged with Park Presbyterian to form West-Park Presbyterian.[10]

In 1906 Sage died and left his entire fortune of about $70 million (~$1.72 billion in 2022) to his wife, Olivia Slocum Sage (1828–1918).[11] He was buried in a mausoleum in Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, New York. The mausoleum is of a Greek style and is intentionally unnamed. To the left of the memorial is a bench which contains a relief of Medusa on the center of the back, complete with snakes as hair.[12]

Legacy and honors[edit]

Olivia Slocum Sage in 1910

Olivia Sage devoted a major portion of the money she inherited from her husband to philanthropy, including buildings and other memorials to him. She commissioned Ralph Adams Cram, a leading architect, to design Russell Sage Memorial Church, and for Louis Tiffany to create a large stained glass window as a memorial.[13] Built in 1908, the church was located in Far Rockaway, Queens, where the family had a summer home.

In 1907 she established the Russell Sage Foundation, and in 1916 founded Russell Sage College in Troy. In addition she gave extensively to the Emma Willard School and to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, her husband's home town.[14]

During World War II the Liberty ship SS Russell Sage was built in Panama City, Florida, and named in his honor.[15]



  1. ^ Gibson, Christine (October 1998). "The American Heritage". American Heritage. Vol. 49, no. 6.
  2. ^ Hargreaves, Steve (June 1, 2014). "The richest Americans in history". CNNMoney. Retrieved March 5, 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d Adams, Charles Collard (1908). Middletown Upper Houses; A History of the North Society of Middletown, Connecticut, from 1650 to 1800, Grafton Press, Boston University, New York, p. 630-635
  4. ^ Stephen Robeson Miller, Kay Sage: The Biographical Chronology and Four Surrealist One-Act Plays, (New York: Gallery of Surrealism, 2011) 21.
  5. ^ Listening to the Silences of Kay Sage, Echo Callaghan, Aoife McGrath, Trinity WGM Review, p. 115
  6. ^ a b c d Sarnoff (1965)
  7. ^ New York Court of Appeals, William R. Laidlaw, Respondent, v. Russell Sage, Appellant, 158 N.Y. 73, Jan. 10, 1899
  8. ^ The journal (New York [N.Y.]), March 7, 1896
  9. ^ New York Supreme Court, General Term, LAIDLAW v. SAGE, 30 N.Y.S. 496, 80 Hun, 550, Oct. 12, 1894
  10. ^ Presa, Donald G. (January 12, 2010) "West Park Presbyterian Church Designation Report" Archived October 20, 2012, at the Wayback Machine New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
  11. ^ Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Russell Sage". Encyclopedia Britannica, 31 Jul. 2023, Accessed 6 October 2023.
  12. ^ "Oakwood Cemetery: History". Troy Cemetery Association. Archived from the original on September 4, 2009. Retrieved October 9, 2009.
  13. ^ Merrill Hesch (July 1986). "National Register of Historic Places Registration: Russell Sage Memorial Church / First Presbyterian Church of Far Rockaway". New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Archived from the original on April 1, 2012. Retrieved October 3, 2008.
  14. ^ Of the two buildings named "Russell Sage" at RPI, the Russell Sage Dining Hall is named for his nephew, Russell Sage II. See: "Sage Dining Hall" on the RPI website
  15. ^ Williams, Greg H. (July 25, 2014). The Liberty Ships of World War II: A Record of the 2,710 Vessels and Their Builders, Operators and Namesakes, with a History of the Jeremiah O'Brien. McFarland. ISBN 978-1476617541. Retrieved December 7, 2017.


  • Myers, Gustavus. History of the Great American Fortunes, volume iii, (Chicago, 1910)
  • Sarnoff, Paul. Russell Sage: The Money King, Ivan Obolensky, Inc. (New York, 1965)

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 13th congressional district

March 4, 1853 – March 3, 1857
Succeeded by