The Short Life and Sad Death of Russell B. Kelley

Russell Blair Kelley, first son and second child of William and Eliza Kelley, was born on June 29, 1863, at the Kelley House in Mendocino. From the moment of his birth, they had great plans for their son’s future, and the first step was a good education. Russell attended the first Mendocino public school, located near the northeast corner of Lansing and Ukiah Streets, where he excelled at his schoolwork and routinely made the Honor Roll.

Russell Kelley and friends
Russell Kelley with his cousin Will Blair in the 1880s.

In early childhood, Russell was diagnosed with a weak heart and respiratory problems. At times, he seemed stronger, and his parents hoped his health would improve with proper care. In April 1877, when Russell was feeling particularly unwell, his mother took him on a trip to the south, hoping a warmer, drier climate would provide him with some relief. Over the years, he made many visits to Bartlett Springs in Lake County, a popular resort for coast residents, where he would spend a month or more experiencing its therapeutic waters and activities.

Perhaps poor health created in Russell a desire for fun and frivolity, for he liked to attend masquerade balls where the costumes could become quite outlandish. At the one given in 1881 by Alf Nelson where prizes were handed out for the best sustained roles, the newspaper reported, “There were two other characters that deserve more than a passing notice, and which, doubtless, would have won the second prizes had there been any offered. We refer to those assumed by Master Russell Kelly (a City Belle) and Ella Lansing (an Irish woman canvassing for an illustrated paper and an egg-beater) a widder with a large family of children to support.” 

Russell enjoyed travel as much as the other members of his family, and despite his health issues, he journeyed to Europe in November of 1881. The eighteen-year-old visited Antwerp, Liverpool, and Brussels. He wrote from Paris to say he was enjoying the sights of the city and would remain two more weeks, then head to Cardiff.

Russell Kelley calmly regarding a young man pointing a rifle at him during a friendly outing. His sister Elise sits on the ground in front of him. Little brother Otis stands on the right holding an upright gun.

Following his return, he attended parties and picnics, organized celebrations, and helped arrange community events. In 1884, at the age of twenty-one, he was one of Grand Marshall Byrnes’ aides on horseback getting the various parts of the Fourth of July procession into their places.

The next year, Russell was on the committee organizing a formal ball and supper to raise funds to improve the grounds of the new schoolhouse, built on the corner of School and Pine Streets. Russell, escorting Ella Lansing, led the Grand March. Only expert dancers were given the role of guiding the double column of beautifully dressed couples onto the floor and conducting by example the various quadrille dances.

Then, in October 1886, the Beacon reported that Russell was recovering from his most recent severe illness. Sadly, this was not the case.

On November 7, 1886, Russell died at the age of twenty-three. The Beacon lamented, “Mendocino loses one of her brightest and most cultured young men. Possessed of a fine education, rounded, and finished by extensive travel and research, nothing remained but good health to ensure the brilliant future which his many good qualities so deservedly merited. He was universally esteemed by a large circle of friends, and by those with whom he more intimately associated in companionship he was dearly loved.”

Rev. J. S. Ross of Caspar delivered a beautiful eulogy at the funeral on Russell’s life, character, and premature death occurring just as he was entering the summer of his life.

Russell was laid to rest in the Kelley family plot in Hillcrest Cemetery. “Loving hands bore him to the grave. Loving hands placed him in it; and there he peacefully reposes overlooking the broad, blue ocean he loved so well, while the waters as they beat against the shore murmur everlasting earthly farewells.”

Daisy MacCallum never forgot her little brother. She established a memorial garden in his name on the east side of the MacCallum House property. “Russell’s Garden” was a loving tribute “to him with whom the beauties of nature was a passion.”

Our recent Kelley House Calendar articles have been celebrating the lives of the Kelley Family. Next up will be Elise, the accomplished third child of William and Eliza Kelley.