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#169 William H. Russell, Class of 1828, Founded an Infamous Society

Jeff Dobbin 200 Things about Norwich, Leaders & Legacy

William Huntington Russell was a native of Middletown, Conn., and the descendent of an old Connecticut family—his ancestor Noadiah Russell was a founding trustee of Yale College. Russell’s life story reflects this family history as well as the influence of his mentor, Captain Alden Partridge. He studied at the American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy between 1826 and 1828, when it was located in his hometown in Connecticut.

After studying under Partridge, Russell went on to study for a bachelor’s degree at Yale College. While there, he famously co-founded the Skull and Bones Society with Alphonso Taft in 1832. Taft and Russell decided to form their own society after Russell, the valedictorian of the senior class, was not selected for the academic society Phi Beta Kappa. Skull and Bones was the first of Yale’s senior societies, which have since proliferated and became a cornerstone of campus life.

For much of its history, Skull and Bones’ membership roster was not a secret, but rather its rituals and activities were kept from the world. Prominent members have included President William Howard Taft; Presidents George W. and George H.W. Bush; Harold Stanley of Morgan-Stanley Bank; and the founders of FedEx and Time magazine. When Skull and Bones formally incorporated its business and alumni organization in 1856, it was called the Russell Trust Association after the co-founder who hailed from NU.

After his history-making time as a student at Yale, Russell went on to a career that intertwined education, military service, and politics in a way that was reminiscent of Captain Alden Partridge himself. In 1836, he founded a school for young boys called the New Haven Collegiate and Commercial Institute. In 1840, he introduced military discipline to the curriculum, unknowingly preparing many of his students for service in the Civil War.

During the Civil War, Russell helped organize the Connecticut militia and served on the Board of Visitors to inspect and report on West Point for the Secretary of War. After the war, he entered politics. He served in the Connecticut legislature and was an early member of the Republican Party, which was founded by fellow Norwich alumnus Alvan Bovay. Russell lived out his days in his home state of Connecticut and passed away in New Haven in 1885.