10. A Portrait of Dr Charles Russell 

By Shea Hendry

Prior to the American Revolution, Dr Charles Russell of Massachusetts owned a thriving medical practice in Charlestown and a sprawling country estate just south of Concord. Direct evidence of Dr Russell’s political leanings is fragmentary prior to the British Army’s ill-fated march into Lexington on April 19, 1775, though as his obituary would later state, the family fled to Antigua “to avoid the confusion of the times.”[1]

Life in Antigua was unkind to the exiled colonists. Financial troubles plagued the family. Dr Russell found employment at a local hospital for prisoners of war where, as Charles Francis Adams later suggested, he “demeaned himself in that position most creditably.”[2] Disease on the island was rampant, and a letter from Dr Russell’s father in January 1780 alludes to some unnamed sickness. “We heard of your recovery wch gave us Great Pleasure and I Pray God to preserve you and your Family in Health and hope we shall have an opportunity of meeting togather.”[3] Charles Russell died five months later “after a long and painful illness… leaving to lament their loss, a disconsolate widow and four young daughters.”[4] Newly widowed, Elizabeth Vassall Russell and her daughters returned to Boston in July 1781.[5]

A likeness of Dr Russell survives in a 1757 painting attributed to the famed American portraitist, John Singleton Copley. The condition of the original is curious, owing to an inheritance dispute amongst his daughters which led the eldest, Penelope Russell, to cut out her father’s face from the background and carry the fragment in secret for decades. The Copley fragment now survives within the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, though a full reproduction of the original also exists, commissioned much later. It hangs in the entryway of the Codman Estate, named for later generations of the family, but once belonging to Dr Charles Russell.  

[1] Mary Russell and Richard Sullivan. An Account of the Russell Family of Charlestown, from a Book in the Handwriting of Mary Russell, Who Died in 1806, and from Other Family Records in Possession of Richard Sullivan of Boston (New England Historic Genealogical Society Library, 1905), 24.

[2] Charles Francis Adams. An Account of the Celebration by the Town of Lincoln, Masstts, April 23rd, 1904, of the 150th Anniversary of Its Incorporation, 1754-1904. (Lincoln, MA: Printed for the Town, 1905), 143-145

[3] Codman Family Manuscript Collection, James Russell to Charles Russell, 26 Jan. 1780, box 1, folder 1.

[4] Obituary reprinted in: Russell, An Account of the Russell Family, 24. 

[5] Continental Journal, and Weekly Advertiser, July 26, 1781, 3/2. 

Image Credits

Cover Image: author’s own photo of the Codman Estate

Photograph of the ‘Copley Fragment’: Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society (https://www.masshist.org/), original painting by John Singleton Copley

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