Emigrant Stories: Thomas F. Russell

Taunton, Massachusetts, USA

Massachusetts emerged as a destination of choice for many Irish people in the 19th century due to numerous factors. Firstly, the state’s industrialization at that time offered many job opportunities, particularly in cities like Boston, where Irish immigrants found employment not only in the factories and the mills, but also in construction, domestic service, and the police and fire departments. In addition, Massachusetts had a well-established Irish American community that provided crucial support networks, including housing, work, and social connections, making the transition to a new country easier. The presence of the Catholic Church, which played a central role in Irish culture and identity, was also influential in attracting Irish immigrants to Massachusetts, where they freely practiced their faith. Thomas F. Russell from Ballymacoda was one of these such emigrants who made his way as a young man with his family to Massachusetts in the late 19th century.

Thomas F. Russell

Born in Ballymacoda in 1866, Thomas was the son of Thomas G. Russell (1843-1909) and Elizabeth ‘Betsey’ Quinn (1837-1912). Sources have listed Thomas as being born in 1867, but the Ballymacoda Parish baptismal records prove that he was born in 1866, as is evident from the record of his baptism, listed as having occurred on October 16th, 1866.

Baptismal record for Thomas Russell, with the names of his parents Thomas & Betty clearly visible

Even the gravestone of Thomas lists his birth year of 1867, but that does not seem to be correct based on the available parish records, which clearly show he was born and baptized in 1866. Thomas had five siblings – Elizabeth (1863-1942), Mary Jane (1864-1938), Michael (1869-1927), John (1871-1890) and Jeremiah (1874-1945). All were born before the family emigrated to the United States. The Russell family emigrated in 1882 when Thomas was about 15 years old, and settled in Taunton in Bristol County, Massachusetts, approximately 40 miles south of the city of Boston.

Thomas married Catherine ‘Kate’ Twiss in August 1890. At the time of their marriage, Thomas, aged 23, was a driver, and Kate, aged 20, was a mill operative. While from Providence, Rhode Island, Kate was the daughter of Irish emigrants Patrick & Kate Twiss. In the bustling streets of late 19th century America, it must have been an exciting time for the young Thomas & Kate, as they embarked on their journey in life surrounded by a vibrant tapestry of their fellow Irish expatriates, forging a path into an unknown future, where dreams probably seemed boundless in the ‘land of opportunity’. Thomas and Kate had three children – Lillian (1891-1897), Gertrude (1893-1983), and Thomas Leo (1894-1918). Lillian, their eldest child, tragically died of Meningitis while still very young.

The 1900 United States Federal Census shows Thomas, aged 33, living at 10 Russell Street in Taunton and listed as the head of the household. There is anecdotal evidence that Russell Street, which survives to this day in Taunton, was named as such because of the large number of families with the surname ‘Russell’ living there, but that is hard to verify as a fact. Thomas’s parents lived at nearby 6 Russell Street.

Today’s Russell Street in Taunton, Massachusetts

In the same 1900 Census document, Thomas’s wife Kate is also listed in the household along with John Twiss (Kate’s brother), and Thomas and Kate’s children Gertrude, then aged 7, and Thomas Leo (seen below), then aged 5. Young Thomas would later fight and die during World War 1. The Census document mentions that Thomas is a naturalized US citizen, and has been 18 years in the United States, which confirms the family’s emigration from Ballymacoda in 1882. Thomas’s occupation is shown as ‘Cloth Room’, which likely refers to a specialized section within a textile mill or factory where a variety of activities associated with fabric manufacturing took place.

A Young Thomas Leo Russell

In the 1910 United States Federal Census, Thomas, wife Kate, and son and daughter Thomas Leo and Gertrude are listed as living at the same address of 10 Russell Street in Taunton. However, Thomas now lists his age as 40, which doesn’t tally with his entry in the 1900 Census, or his actual birth year of 1866. Thomas lists his occupation as ‘Foreman’ and under industry lists ‘Car Barn’. A ‘car barn’ at the time was a building where trams, railroad cars, or buses were stored and maintained.

As often happens in life, tragedy struck Thomas and family in 1912. In April of that year, his wife Kate passed away suddenly at their home on 10 Russell Street due to a cerebral embolism. The grief must have been overwhelming, but fate had more sorrow in store just a few months later. In August, Thomas faced another devastating loss when his mother Betsey also died. She was 75 years old and lived just a few houses away at 6 Russell Street. This must have compounded Thomas’s sorrow, especially since his father had already passed away three years earlier in 1909. The series of losses likely left a lasting impact on Thomas, as he coped with the absence of the closest members of his family in such a short span of time.

Two years later, in April of 1914, Thomas found hope and companionship once more by remarrying. His second wife, Johanna O’Keefe, shared a similar background, being an Irish emigrant herself. Johanna was the daughter of Michael and Bridget O’Keefe, who had also made the journey from Ireland in search of a better life.

Around this time, the world was on the brink of World War I, the global conflict ignited by a complex web of factors, including rising tensions among the European powers, militarism, and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife Sophie, Duchess von Hohenberg, in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914, by Bosnian Serb student Gavrilo Princip. America joined the war in 1917, and the Selective Service Act of 1917 required all American males aged 21-31 years (later 18-45 years) to register to be potentially selected for military service. Thomas Leo Russell fell into this age bracket and was required to register in the draft. At the time he was working as a silversmith for the Reed & Barton company in Taunton (Taunton was known as the ‘silver city‘, due to it being a historic center of the silver industry beginning in the 19th century). He was selected for service in the draft and enlisted into the US Army as a Private on September 20th, 1917, initially serving in Company F within the 302nd Infantry Regiment, which was part of the 76th Division. In February 1918, he was transferred to the 3rd Company of the March Automatic Replacement Draft at Camp Devens, a training and mobilization camp located in Massachusetts.

WWI draft registration card completed by Thomas Leo Russell, his home address of 10 Russell Street in Taunton is clearly visible.

Thomas Leo’s military record next indicates that he started training within the 2nd Infantry Training Battalion and later moved to the 7th Company within the 1st Infantry Training Battalion. On March 12th, 1918, he was transferred oversees to France, as part of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division.

Oversees Transfer Record for Thomas Leo Russell, Hoboken, New Jersey, March 1918

Just a few months into his oversees service, Thomas Leo Russell was killed in action on July 1st, 1918, during the Battle of Belleau Wood in Northern France, in which 1,811 United States soldiers were killed. He was buried in the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery nearby (Plot A, Row 2, Grave 6). Back home in Taunton, when Thomas Russell received the heartbreaking news that his only son had fallen in battle, he must have been engulfed by a sorrow so deep that words could hardly capture its depth. The future he had no doubt envisioned, brimming with dreams and aspirations for his child, was suddenly and irreparably shattered. The pain was undoubtedly compounded by the fact that his son was buried in France, with no possibility of repatriating the body. Knowing that his final resting place was so far from home must have added an additional layer of heartache.

The death of Thomas L. Russell, reported in the Boston Globe on October 1st, 1918

A few years later, in his entry for the 1920 United States Federal Census, it seems that Thomas again lists his age incorrectly, as 50 (younger than he is). In this Census, there is no mention of wife Kate – as mentioned earlier, she had passed away in April 1912, and Thomas had remarried Johanna. She is listed on the Census as Hannah. Thomas’s daughter Gertrude, now 26, is listed, now working as a grocery store attendant. In this census, young Thomas is also absent, having died during World War 1 as we have seen.

Thomas F. Russell died in Taunton on Monday March 28th, 1927. His obituary lists him as having died ‘following an illness of two weeks’ duration’. He was survived by his wife Hannah, and daughter Gertrude. He was buried in Saint Joseph Cemetery in Taunton, where his parents had been buried earlier. Hannah lived until 1955, and Gertrude passed away in 1983.

A long line of descendants from the Russell family, who emigrated from Ballymacoda in 1882, still resides in this part of the world today. The legacy of the Russell’s continues to thrive, with each generation no doubt maintaining the connection to their Irish roots. There is no evidence to suggest that Thomas ever returned to Ballymacoda during his lifetime. This raises a poignant question about whether any of his descendants have made the journey back to their ancestral homeland. It would be fascinating to know if any of them have traveled to Ballymacoda, perhaps to walk the same street their forebears once did. The idea of reconnecting with their heritage, experiencing the culture, and witnessing the land that their ancestors called home might be a compelling and emotional journey for the descendants of the Russell family.

The gravestone of Thomas F. Russell, Saint Joseph Cemetery, Taunton

Seen below, the grave of Thomas G. Russell and his wife Betsey in Saint Joseph Cemetery in Taunton, the parents of Thomas F. Russell. You can see the reference to Ballymacoda at the base, this was common at the time for emigrant graves to mention their home parish.

References & Further Information

1900 United States Federal Census

1910 United States Federal Census

1920 United States Federal Census

Ballymacoda Parish Baptismal Records

Haulsee, W.M., comp.. Soldiers of the Great War. Vol. I-III. Washington, D.C.: Soldiers Record, 1920.

U.S., Army Transport Service Arriving and Departing Passenger Lists, 1910-1939

U.S., Headstone and Interment Records for U.S., Military Cemeteries on Foreign Soil, 1942-1949

American Battle Monuments Commission, Details for Thomas L. Russell