In August 2021, juggler Rick Robinson, better known in the juggling community as Piqua Rick, sent me some photos that he had taken at the Garst Museum in Greenville, Ohio. The photos showed an exhibit of juggling props from an act from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s named the Three Famous Russells. Now, I live only about an hour from Greenville and know quite a bit, perhaps more than anyone in the world, about the amazing history of juggling in Ohio. And yet, I had never heard of the Russells. So, the following week I met with Rick and the two of us toured the Garst Museum to learn more about the Three Famous Russells and look more carefully at what the museum had.
The Garst Museum is best known for it’s large exhibit on Annie Oakley, the Wild West star who called Greenville, Ohio home. We had emailed the museum ahead of time to let them know that we we coming and what our specific interest was. The staff there were very accommodating and had even asked their archivist to pull out information for us to look at. Our first stop, however, was at the Three Famous Russells exbibit. This contained a variety of photos, costumes, and props. Below are some photos showing these items, along with information on the objects.
The Three Famous Russells exhibit
Juggling hoops and hoop basket
Axes, a poster, and costume
Axes, a poster, and costume
Devil sticks and posters of the Russells’ three acts
Very early, pre-flat era juggling rings and some juggling balls
Possibly a juggling / balance lamp
Throwing knives and costume
So, who were the Three Famous Russells? Well, they were a trio of versatile performers who did juggling, knife throwing, dog training, and comedy. The trio consisted of sisters Osa and Henrietta (Babe) Vonderhide and Reuben Rothgery. Reuben (1877-1961) had married Osa (1902-1991) and Henrietta’s (1904-1994) older sister Estelle (1892-1987) in 1911. They both came from the same area of East Central Ohio. Estelle had performed as a trick rider and Rueben was an accomplished knife thrower, juggler, and tightrope walker.
Estellle and Reuben
Estelle Vonderhide Rothgery
Eventually Osa joined the couple in the performing world. However, Rueben and Estelle divorced in 1920 and Estelle left to perform Buffalo Bill Cody’s 101 Pony Show.
Instead of breaking up the act, Estelle and Osa’s sister Henrietta, often known as Babe, joined the act, which then decided to use the name The Three Russells. They would later be known as The Three Famous Russells, although they were sometimes billed as The Famous Russells. Reuben treated his much younger former sister-in-laws like his own children and trained them in the ways of show business. Rueben was a world champion knife thrower and threw knives and battle axes around Osa and Babe from the great distance of 15 feet. Highlights of his knife throwing act included cutting the ash from a lit cigarette held in one of their mouths and cutting a carnation from the bosom of the other sister.
Reuben taught Babe to do knife and ax throwing, but Osa was not trained in the impalement arts because she was left handed and show people of that time were superstitious about southpaws, believing them to be bad luck. Instead, Reuben trained her to be an especially talented juggler. The training of the two sisters certainly paid off. Babe became known as the world’s only female knife thrower and won much acclaim. Osa didn’t become as well-known for her specialty of juggling, which is very odd when you learn what she could do. While Reuben could juggle five clubs, multiple newspaper accounts share that Osa juggled six clubs and six hoops, though obviously not at the same time. This would make her one of the first six club jugglers and easily the first woman to do so by many decades. Babe also performed juggling, but wasn’t as talented as Osa or Reuben in the art.
Henrietta “Babe” Vonderhide
The trio had three acts. The first and best-known was their juggling and knife / ax throwing act. Below are photos showing some of what they did.
The two sisters performed a second act as the Jewel Sisters, working with trained dogs.
The third act was a comedy act performed by Reuben and his trained dog, Boy.
The Three Famous Russells mainly worked the fair circuit, along with small circuses and theaters. This emphasis on fairs is probably why they never attained greater fame. The performed from 1920 until the start of World War II. They then retired to manage the Hillside Park Resort in Montezuma, Ohio. Reuben never remarried and Osa and Henrietta never married. The three are buried together in Versailles, Ohio.