Education Champion and Elocutionist: Professor William Russell of Merrimack New Hampshire (1798-1873)

McGaw Normal Institute formerly Merrimack Normal Institute, Depot Street, Merrimack NH. From an old black and white postcard. Owned and colorized by blog editor. Today a small kindergarten sits on the spot.

In researching the teacher’s college (later the high school) of Merrimack New Hampshire, I discovered that the man who founded it is little known in that town.   His focus was to develop and nurture educators, with the school board hoping some graduates would remain in the area.  Thus Merrimack NH would benefit more than once from the school.  There were, of course, other people involved, such as the board members and additional instructors, but Prof. William Russell was the primary driving force to its initial opening.

Photo of my first cousin, Wayne “Sonny” Beard taken at the corner of Depot and Pleasant Streets (in front of my grandparents home) about 1937. The (then) McGaw Institute is seen in the background. Property of J.W. Brown.

–History of the Merrimack Normal Institute–
[Editor’s note: a ‘normal school’ was what we would call a teacher’s college today. High school graduates were trained to be educators with a focus on pedagogy and curriculum.]  Before I can focus on the lives of the primary man involved with this school, I must describe the facility.

I refer first to my grandmother, Mattie Kilborn’s hand-written notes on the history of McGaw Normal Institute that was presented at the two hundredth anniversary of the town of Merrimack in June of 1946 by the headmaster, Charles Warner. To that story I will add details.

In 1849 Merrimack New Hampshire took its place in history again by founding the 9th Normal School in the United States for the professional training of teachers. Prof. William Russell, a graduate of Glasgow University Scotland, was interested in furthering the cause of education by training teachers in a well-integrated program. He came to Merrimack and found there men of vision and power, who were willing to support him in his venture. Prof. Russell opened the school with 65 students the first term, and it prospered well until 1865 when it was turned over to Rev. S. N. Howells to be run as a Military Academy [Granite State Military & Collegiate Institute] as such schools were thought to be popular after the War. Rev. Howells only held his lease for seven years, at the end of which time there remained but one student.

A description of the military institute is from the 7 Sep 1907 edition of the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics, Portsmouth NH, page 2

The picture looked dark indeed for the well-intentioned endeavor of Dr. Russell, Robert McGaw its main benefactor, and others. However in 1872 Robert McGaw died. He had been one of its firmest supporters.  His will provided that a sum of $10,000 be left with the following provisions: 1. That the name should be changed to McGaw Normal Institute implying that the character of the School should be restored as near as possible to what it was when started by Dr. Russell. 2. That in case the work of the school should be interrupted for two years the endowment should go to Dartmouth College.

He had intended that the people of Merrimack should have a good School and they should share in the responsibility of maintaining it. McGaw has always had the reputation for maintaining high standards — many of its graduates going to the best colleges in the land. On at least one occasion in recent years McGaw has had the honor of having its undergraduates at the State University rank higher than graduates of any other High School.

A partial list of McGaw graduates does little more than hint at the influence this school in our Nation’s history. Walter Kittredge, author of “Tenting Tonight” and other songs; John Swett for many years Commissioner of Education in California; Mark Bailey, Prof. of Speech at Yale; Rev. John Lane, famous preacher of western Massachusetts; Col. Edward C. Rose, Commanding Officer at Camp Blanding, World War II; Harry Parker, World War II flying ace; as well as many others which as yet have not reached the heights of fame to which they will climb.”  [end of my grandmother’s research]

I was curious about the curriculum of the Merrimack Normal School that Prof. Russell founded, and I discovered a brief article in the Manufacturers’ and Farmers’ Journal (Providence RI) of 7 Oct 1852 Providence RI, on page 1.  It states that “Professor William Russell of the Merrimack Normal Institute…. [offers] instruction …for ladies and gentlemen …  [on] theory and practice of teaching in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, geography, analysis and construction of the English language, rhetoric, elocution, the art of reading, penmanship, spelling and the best modes of managing and governing a school.”

The Institute itself was built on [10] Depot Street in the Reeds Ferry section of Merrimack

Photograph of Prof. William Russell, founder of the Merrimack Normal Institute later McGaw Institute. Courtesy of Lancaster (MA) Historical Society. Used with permission. Colorized by blog editor. Watermarked.

NH, but torn down about 1950. It stood near where the Merrimack PTA Kindergarten building now sits. The Institute was within clear view of my grandparent’s home (corner of Depot and Pleasant) though it had been demolished by the time I was born. My grandmother, Mattie Kilborn Webster was a 1905 graduate of the Institute and a school teacher in Merrimack for several years before her marriage to my grandfather.

—Life and Death of Professor William Russell—

In 1864 the Salem Register newspaper of Salem Massachusetts called Prof. William Russell, “the Nestor of American Elocutionists.” In between founding teaching academies, he often provided private lessons in elocution.   [Editor’s note: Elocution is your manner of speaking, HOW you deliver your message. It includes voice production and the gestures used.] According to “Essentials of Elocution,” by Alfred Ayres published in 1897, “Elocution is the art of speaking language so as to make the thought it expresses clear and impressive.”

Perhaps the best biography of Prof. Russell was published in the Waterbury Daily American newspaper of 20 Aug 1873, page 2 as follows: “DEATH OF PROF. WILLIAM RUSSELL. We copy the following obituary notice of Prof. William Russell, father of Rev. Prof. Francis T. Russell, of this city, from the New York World of Tuesday: William Russell, an eminent teacher and elocutionist for fifty years, died in Lancaster, Mass on Saturday night. The late Prof. Russell was born in Glasgow, Scotland, April 28, 1798. He studied law at the University of his native city, and in 1817 went to Savannah Ga where in 1819 he became the head of the Chatham Academy. In 1822 he removed to Connecticut and for three years presided over the New Township Academy and the Hopkins Grammar School at New Haven. From ill health he resigned his connection with the grammar school and commenced giving instruction to classes in elocution in Andover, Cambridge, and Boston. In 1826 he took charge of the American Journal of Education, edited it for three years and then removed to Germantown, Pa, where he taught a limited class of young ladies for several years. He next opened a school for young ladies in Philadelphia, and finally resumed his elocutionary classes in Andover [He was a teacher of Elocution (as prof) from 1843-1866 at the Massachusetts Theological Seminary. In 1846 William Russell, M.A. was Teacher of Elocution at Phillips Academy Massachusetts] and Boston, giving instruction also at teachers’ institutes in Rhode Island and New Hampshire. In 1849 he established a seminary for teachers in the latter-named state, whence in 1853 he removed it to Lancaster, where he resided till his death. Mr. Russell prepared a large number of treatises on education and text-books for schools, especially in the departments of reading and elocution. As the author of “Russell’s Reader” he is perhaps known to almost half of the educated men and women of the country who were boys and girls at school twenty years ago. As a man of superior natural intelligence, large and varied attainments, and accomplished gentleman of high moral character, and a man who took an earnest and enlightened interest in the education of the young, the late Professor Russell has enjoyed the esteem of the people of New England for more than thirty years.


Prof. William Russell was born 28 April 1798 in Glasgow, Scotland, son of Alexander and Janet “Jennie” (Jamieson) Russell.  He died 16 August 1873 in Lancaster MA and is buried in Middle Cemetery,  Lancaster MA.  In November of 1820 he boarded the ship “Sisters” at Glasgow Scotland, arriving in the American colonies at Savannah George on 23 November 1820.  He married 22 August 1821 in Waterbury CT to Ursula Wood, daughter of Rev. Luke & Anna (Pease) Wood. She was b abt 1801 in Somers CT and died 27 Feb 1883 at Lancaster MA.
A baptism record in Barony, Lanark Scotland shows:
William Russel
birth 28 April 1798
bap 27 May 1798
Father: Alexander Russel
Mother: Janet Jamieson
Children of Prof. William & Ursula (Wood) Russell:
1. Anna N. Russell, b. 1826 Cambridge MA; d. 22 July 1894 Lancaster MA (Lancaster McLane Asylum); single
2. Francis Thayer Russell, b 10 June 1828 Roxbury MA; clergyman [SEE APPLETONS biographies] d. 20 July 1889 Waterbury CT; m. Mary Huntley Sigourney
3. Elizabeth P. Russell, b abt 1831 Massachusetts
4. Mary Alcott Russell, b abt 1833 Philadelphia PA; d. 27 March 1869 Lancaster MA; consumption age 36
5. Jenny Haines Russell, b. abt 1837 Philadelphia PA; d. 5 March 1874 Lancaster MA aged 37; teacher, single.
6. Edmund H. Russell, b Feb 1841 Roxbury MA; d. 30 Aug 1914 at the National Home for Disabled Soldiers in Milwaukee WI. Served in the U.S. Army (Union) during the Civil War. Buried Homewood Cemetery Pittsburgh PA. Served as a 1st Lieut Co. G 9th PA Res. Inf (38th). later Capt. Signal Corps USA 1863. Occupation Lawyer; He married. Sarepta May Kneeland, daughter of Don Carlos & Elizabeth (Walker /or/ Williamson) Kneeland (effects shipped to her). She was born 24 Dec 1849 and died 9 June 1922 in Pittsburgh PA. Children of Edmund H. & Serepta (Kneeland) Russell included: 1) Edith Dean Russell, b. 23 Aug 1870 Pittsburgh PA; d. 9 March 1937 in Coraopolis PA; 2)  Clara Wood Russell, b May 1875 PA; d. 16 Oct 1967 in Akron Summit Ohio, aged 92. She m. Charles Frederick Haid; 3) William Francis Russell, b 24 June 1877 Pittsburg PA. He m. Elizabeth Pearsall.


The American elocutionist :comprising ‘Lessons in enunciation’, ‘Exercises in elocution’, and ‘Rudiments of gesture / by William Russell; 1851

The duties of teachers; An address delivered before the Associate Alumni of the Merrimack Normal Institute … first annual meeting, Sept. 4, 1850.

American Journal of Education for the year 1826; Vol 5, William Russell, editor.

VIDEO: The Queen’s English: Elocution Lessons 1-26

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