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Russell Sage was an American business titan,
railroad tycoon, multi-millionaire financier,
Wall Street innovator, and two-term U.S. Congressman
Biographical fast facts
Date and place of birth: August 4, 1816, Verona, New York, U.S.A.*
Date, time, place and cause of death: July 22, 1906, at 4:30 p.m.,
Lawrence Beach, Long Island, New York, U.S.A. (Natural causes)
Spouse: Marie-Henrie Winne (a.k.a. Maria Winne) (m. January 23, 1840 - May 7, 1867) (her death)
Wedding took place at the First Presbyterian Church of Troy,
in Troy, New York, U.S.A.
Spouse: Margaret Olivia Slocum ** (m. November 24, 1869 - July 22, 1906) (his death)
Wedding took place at the First Presbyterian Church, Albany,
New York, U.S.A.
Siblings: Henry Risley Sage (b. April 27, 1805, East Hartford, Connecticut -
d. February 16, 1850, Troy, New York)
Elisha Montague Sage (b. April 13, 1812 - d. circa 1874, Troy, New York)
Elizur Webster Sage (b. April 13, 1812 - d. February 9th, 1884)
William Sage (b. July 25, 1814, Cromwell, near Middletown,
Connecticut - d. circa 1888, Troy, New York) (brothers)
Sisters: Sally Sage (b. January 26, 1807, East Hartford, Connecticut -
d. January 1, 1818, Lenox, New York)
Fannie Sage (b. February 14, 1809, Cromwell, near Middletown,
Connecticut - d. 1904, Oneida, New York)
Father: Elisha Sage, Jr. (b. January 25, 1779, Cromwell, near
Middletown, Connecticut - d. April 28, 1854, Durhamville,
Oneida County, New York)
Mother: Prudence Risley (b. 1786, Glastonbury, Connecticut - d. Durhamville, New York)
Burial site: Oakwood Cemetery, 50 101st Street, Troy, New York, U.S.A.
Error corrections or clarifications
* Both "Scanandoah, New York" and "Shenandoah, New York"
are erroneously reported as his birthplace by some sources.
In 1899, Russell Sage specifically addressed his birth in a
New York Times article: "They have, I see, got out a pleasant
enough story about my having been born at Shenandoah . . . but this
is wrong. My parents Elisha and Prudence Sage were well settled
at Verona, two miles from the Oneida Castle when I was born . . ."
** NOTE: His second wife, Margaret Olivia Slocum,
was normally called by her middle name.
Russell Sage was born into poverty late in the afternoon
of August 4th, 1816. He was the youngest of seven children
born to Elisha Sage, Jr., a farmer, and Prudence (Risley)
Sage. Russell had a head for figures even as a young
child and showed far more interest in reading and math,
than the hunting, fishing and farming interests considered
essential for his rural upbringing.
His eldest brother, Henry, established a grocery store
in 1825, and was joined by Russell a short time later.
He was an industrious young man and made his first real
estate purchase at the age of 13. His frugal ways, even
as a teenager meant he always had plenty of cash to make
loans. Sage was considered a relatively easy touch when
it came to making loans, but he charged high -- some would
say exorbitant -- interest rates. Over the course of his
life, his money lending operations netted him a fortune.
His rates for short-term loans ranged from 40-80 per cent,
while long-term rates averaged 14-20 per cent.
In 1835, Russell and his brother Elisha became co-owners
of the store when their eldest brother, Henry, was forced
to sell due to illness. The grocery store and meat market
at the corner of Hutton and River streets in Troy, New York,
thrived. His initial investment of just $700 would return
$25,000 in 1839 when they sold the business. Flush with cash,
his next business venture was a partnership with lumber
dealer John Bates. Their company, Bates and Sage, engaged in
private banking, acted as a business broker, and wholesale
dealers in horses, groceries and grain. As had all previous
business ventures, this enterprise prospered. Throughout
his life, good fortune seemed to follow him on just about
every business venture he embarked. This incredible luck
became known as "Sage luck" by those familiar with his
January 23rd, 1840, Sage married Marie Winne, the one true
love of his life. She was there to support him in his assent
to political power, and his rise as a business mogul.
In the 1840s, he became increasingly involved in public affairs,
serving as alderman, president of the Troy Common Council,
and treasurer of Rensselaer County. He was a rising star
within the Whig Party when he made his first run for Congress
in 1850. He was defeated by David Seymour, a Democrat, but
two years later he was successful in winning the seat in the
U.S. Congress. By that point in time he was already president
of one railroad, vice president of another, and one of the
founding members of the board of directors of the New York
On the floor of Congress, December 15th, 1853, Sage became the
first person to advocate the purchase of Mount Vernon by the
government as a permanent memorial to President George Washington.
In his second term, Sage was appointed to the powerful Ways
and Means Committee.
After serving his two terms in office, Sage returned to the
business world. He supervised the construction of railroads
that would eventually include twenty-seven different corporations
with over twenty thousand miles of railroad lines. He often
partnered with Jay Gould in the development and sale of railroads.
Over the course of his career, Russell Sage served as a director
of several New York banks, was a founding director of the Fifth
Avenue Bank of New York City, and was president of New York's
Standard Gaslight Company. He either took an active part in
management, or was one of the largest stockholders of Western
Union Telegraph Company, Atlantic & Pacific Telegraph Company,
Minnesota Construction Company, Mercantile Trust Company, Importers'
and Traders' National Bank, Hastings & Dakota Railway Company,
Manhattan Elevated Railway Company, Metropolitan Elevated Railway
Company, La Crosse & Milwaukee Railway Company (later, the
Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company), Missouri Pacific,
New York Central Railway Company, Pacific Mail Steamship Company,
Poughkeepsie & East Shore Railroad, Schenectady & Troy Railway
Company (S & T), St. Louis & Iron Mountain Railway Company,
Union Pacific, and many others.
In the early 1860s, he and his ailing wife moved to New York
City. Though railroads would always be his central focus,
Wall Street soon came under his spell. He quickly became the
master of stock market puts and calls (options to buy or sell
a set amount of stock at a fixed price and within a specified
time limit). Sage was dubbed the "Father of Puts and Calls"
and "Old Straddle" for his invention of the "spread" and the
"straddle." As he had in so many ventures before, Mr. Sage
made a fortune on Wall Street, though some felt he did so
at the expense of others. He was occasionally blamed for the
financial ruin of investors due to his frequent and skillful
When his first wife died of stomach cancer, May 7th, 1867, he
was truly heartbroken. Some historians point to her death as
the source of the shift in Sage's behavior. He threw himself
into his work like never before, and his singular focus seemed
to be the acquisition of wealth.
In 1869, Sage was arrested for violating New York state usury
laws. Usury is the practice of lending money at an unconscionable
or exorbitant rate of interest. The 14-20 per cent interest rates
he charged for long-term loans, and 40-80 per cent for short-term
loans, was not only high, it was actually in violation of New York
state law. Initially he received a fine and a five-day prison
sentence, but a series of legal maneuvers convinced the judge to
suspend the jail sentence.
Following his arrest and trial, he became a social pariah in
New York's elite circles. This is believed to be one of the
reasons he entered into a loveless marriage to Margaret Olivia
Slocum late in 1869. It was hoped the marriage would rehabilitate
his public image, and return him to favor with New York's upper
crust. To that end, the undertaking was successful.
His life was to take a turn December 4th, 1891, as a man carrying
a bomb appeared in his office threatening to blow up the building
if he didn't give him more than one million dollars in cash. The
demand was refused, and the bomb exploded. Two were dead, including
the bomber, who was later identified as Boston stockbroker Henry
Norcross. Sage escaped with only minor injuries, but his reputation
would suffer another setback when Sage refused to pay damages to one
of those injured in the blast. He was labeled a skin-flint, miser,
and heartless millionaire, by the public, and was vilified in the
press. Worse than his refusal to offer compensation to the injured
William Laidlaw, Jr., Sage was accused of using the gentleman as a
shield to protect himself from the explosion. After four trials, Sage
was ordered to pay the man more than $40,000 in compensation. The
Court of Appeals later reversed the judgment, leaving his penny-pinching
Many have criticized him for being tightfisted with donations
to charitable causes, and Sage personally encouraged his image
as a miser, embellishing many stories of his miserly ways. The
fact of the matter is, he gave generously to charities, theaters,
and schools for Indian children, yet was still branded a stingy
miser. Skin-flint, miser, heartless, ruthless, unscrupulous,
shylock and crook are but a few of the terms often used by his
contemporaries to describe Russell Sage. He was also dubbed The
Sage of Troy, the Money-King, the Greatest of Modern Financiers,
the Meanest Miser in the Land, the Father of Mount Vernon, Uncle
Russell, Father of Construction Companies, Father of Puts and
Calls, Old Straddle, and the Master Spirit in the World of Finance.
Sage possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of horses, and reportedly
owned at least 7 horses throughout his life. In addition to being
a lifelong horse lover, toward the end of his life, six dogs and
seven cats filled the Sage household. As if acting as surrogate
kids to the childless multimillionaire, when any of his pets died,
an undertaker was hired, a custom casket was constructed, and a
proper funeral was held. Officially Sage had no children, but he
was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock with one of his
He remained active in business affairs until just before his
death at age 89. July 22nd, 1906, at 4:30 in the afternoon,
he died at the Lawrence Beach, Long Island summer home he
built back in 1888.
At his death he'd amassed a fortune said to be worth at least
$70 million. Some accounts place the figure as high as $100 million,
though pinpointing an accurate figure is difficult in light of
his distrust of banks. It is reported that he had numerous steamer
trunks full of cash stored in various locations, rather than trust
his entire fortune to banks.
Dedicated "to the improvement of the social and living conditions
within the United States," the Russell Sage Foundation was founded
by his widow April 11th, 1907. It was initially endowed with
$10 million of his money, to which Olivia Sage later added
Quotes - In his own words:
In 1869, Russell Sage offered the following account of his
"I am not a broker or money lender by profession or occupation,
but am engaged in the active management of four of the largest
railway transportation companies in the country, in the construction
of four other large and important railroads, as trustee for various
railroad companies and their creditors to the extent of more than
$20,000,000, and in the purchase and improvement of real estate in
the City of New York, where I am now engaged in the construction
of twelve dwelling-houses and the said business occupations and
relations occupy my whole time and attention."
Residences of Russell Sage:
Note that these residences may no longer exist, and it's
possible the addresses have changed over the years.
This is not to suggest that Mr. Sage owned each and
every one of these structures. We're only reporting the
fact that he resided in them at one point or another in
474 Fifth Avenue, New York City, New York, U.S.A.
506 Fifth Avenue, New York City, New York, U.S.A.
632 Fifth Avenue, New York City, New York, U.S.A.
Fifth Avenue Hotel, 24th Street and Fifth Avenue, New York City, New York, U.S.A.
The most in-depth of more than three dozen sources
consulted in preparing this profile, was the biography,
Russell Sage: The Money King, by Paul Sarnoff (1965).
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This page was last updated January 1, 2012. |