August 1993

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The Robert G. Ingersoll Museum

in Dresden, New York


Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.

"That which happened to all happened to me. I was born—and this event which never for a moment ceased to influence my life— took place, according to a writing found in our Bible, on the 12th day of August in the year of grace 1833,—according to another writing in another Bible, on the 11th day of August in the same year. So you see that a contradiction was about the first thing I found in the Bible, and I have continued to find contradictions in the same volume all my life."

Thus wrote Robert G. Ingersoll, known to his contemporaries as the "American Infidel," the best known agnostic of his generation and one of its greatest public speakers. The place of his birth was a modest frame house in the quiet Yates County village of Dresden on Seneca Lake. When Ingersoll was born, the house was on its original site on Charles Street, around the corner from its present location across from the Dresden post office on Main Street. It was a simple house built as a parsonage by volunteer labor from the small congregation served by Robert's father. When the building was moved, years later, it was enlarged by the addition of a small building moved from Hopeton, and a lean-to, completing the structure as it is today. It served as the Presbyterian manse for many years.

When the Rev. John Ingersoll was the pastor, the congregation was known as the Congregational church of West Dundee, an offshoot of the Presbyterian church of Benton. The Rev. Ingersoll served that tiny congregation and another in Bellona about five miles north of Dresden. He was a strict "hell fire and brimstone" preacher. Services in Dresden were held in an old school. The congregation became Presbyterian and built a church building, but it was not completed until November, 1834, more than a year after the Ingersolls had left town. It survived until 1924. The Rev. John Ingersoll was in Dresden for only six months, arriving three months before Robert was born and leaving three months afterwards. The Finger Lakes region could not have had much influence on Robert G. Ingersoll who returned to Yates county only once, some 56 years after his birth. Yet today the building in which he was born is an attractive museum and a shrine for humanists and freethinkers from all over the country.

The present museum is the third attempt to establish a memorial to Robert G. Ingersoll. The first restoration was dedicated on August 11, 1921, and brought out what the Yates County Chronicle described as the largest crowd in the history of Dresden. Members of the Ingersoll family and several celebrities attended and gave long speeches, reported in full in the newspaper. One of the celebrity speakers was Mark Twain's biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, who declared that the two persons who most influenced him were Mark Twain and Robert G. Ingersoll. He read some quotations from then-unpublished letters to show Mark Twain's admiration for Ingersoll.

In November 1879, as part of a tribute to General U.S. Grant, Twain heard Ingersoll speak for the first time. He wrote to his wife Livy that Ingersoll's speech was "the supreme combination of English words that was ever put together since the world began. My soul, how handsome he looked as he stood on that table in the midst of those 500 shouting men, and poured the molten silver from his lips! Lord, what an organ is human speech when it is played by a master!" He wrote to William Dean Howells on the same occasion, and his comments serve to illustrate the problem that later generations have in evaluating an orator. Of the speech he wrote, "I doubt if America has ever seen anything to quite equal it...How pale those speeches are in print, but how radiant, how full of color, how blinding they were in the delivery! Bob Ingersoll's music will sing through my memory always as the divinist that ever enchanted my ears...The words like any others in print, but, Lord bless me! he borrowed the very accent of the angel of mercy to say them in, and you should have seen that vast house rise to its feet."

In spite of the great dedication in 1924, the building began to suffer from neglect and fell into disrepair. It might well have been lost entirely, but it was purchased by Joseph Lewis, a prominent iconoclastic author, editor and publisher, and dedicated for a second time on August 11, 1954.

Not much was done to the building except to keep it from falling down, however. It was during this period that I first visited the Ingersoll birthplace. It was, in 1967, an almost empty building with a number of framed pictures, letters, and printed material relating to Ingersoll hung on the walls. A notice on the door directed visitors to the house next door where the key was kept.

Once inside, the most interesting item was a guest book in which previous visitors recorded their feelings. "Of all the places on the face of the earth, this is the place," wrote a Texan from Longview. "Birthplace of Secular Spirit," commented a visitor from Staten Island. "I heard Ingersoll lecture four times—never was a greater man," reminisced a man from Ogunquit, Maine. Another prophesied, "Someday Ingersoll's birthplace will be like a shrine to the thousands of minds he has sparked for the betterment of future generations."

Other notations were in a similar vein. "Emancipator of more people than any other human that ever lived!" "Greatest American orator. A man among men." "Put the Age of Reason in our Schools and keep the Bible out" "It takes courage to sign one's name here," thought one visitor. The name of Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. House who were married in the birthplace on October 30, 1943, appears several times, perhaps an indication of sentimentality rather than courage. One dissenter from West Peru, Maine, believed, "the poor soul of Bob is in hell—how sad!"

"Royal Bob" is a hard man to evaluate as a historical figure or even to explain to a generation that has largely forgotten him. He was a highly successful lawyer and a courageous Civil War hero, who rebelled against the anti-intellectual, narrow, rigid, loveless God preached by his father. Ingersoll not only attacked the "Religious Right" of his day, as the present interpretation in the museum declares, he used his eloquence to attack the very concept of God, the Bible, institutional churches and the clergy in general. He denied that organized religion promoted morality, and in his own life exemplified the highest standards of morality and family values. He was far ahead of his times in calling for the complete equality of women including the right to vote and have information about birth control. Not only did he oppose slavery before Emancipation, but he argued for full social, political and economic rights for Blacks.

He was a thoroughly partisan Republican who used his oratorical skills in election campaigns to "wave the bloody shirt," castigating Democrats as the party responsible for the bloody Civil War, still very fresh in the minds of his listeners. In spite of his services to the Republican Party he would not be quiet about or modify his opposition to religion and so never held any appointive political office. His one failure to campaign for a Republican candidate for president came when the party failed to stand as firm as he believed it should in civil rights and may have caused the defeat of James G. Blaine. a man he once had nominated and dubbed "the Plumed Knight."

That he was a great orator can not be disputed. He packed halls, tents, and open air meetings wherever he spoke. Such an attraction was his oratory, that the religious faithful as well as freethinkers paid their money to hear him speak in spite of the efforts of the clergy to discourage his audiences. How can one evaluate an orator from another period? The very qualities of Ingersoll as an orator—the power and timbre of his voice, his timing and inflections, his stage presence and personal magnetism—died when he did. As Mark Twain suggested, the words of his speeches fail to explain his success. He was a man of his times. He understood the audiences of his day. Would a modern audience respond to any of the greatest orators of the past? —Daniel Webster, William Jennings Bryan, or Robert G. Ingersoll, who surely deserves to be included in such company.

Ingersoll's only adult visit to the area of his birth came when he spoke at the Yates County Fair in Penn Yan on September 25, 1889. There is no evidence that he actually visited the birthplace in Dresden even then. He did appeal to the local audience of some 5,000 people by declaring, "I want to congratulate myself that I was born in Yates County, the most beautiful spot in New York State, although I went away from here nearly fifty-six years ago."

The present museum, the third restoration, is the most elaborate. By the 1980's the building had deteriorated to the point where it was condemned and in danger of being torn down before it fell down. It was rescued by a group from Buffalo organized as the Robert G. Ingersoll Memorial Committee, who secured the title to it and raised the money for the present restoration. The birthplace was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on February 11, 1988, and a grant was secured under the State of New York Environmental Quality Bond Act. The building was completely stabilized from the basement to the roof. It was rewired and insulated and the walls covered with wallboard. It should be solid into the twenty-first century. The only amenity not added was a toilet.

The Museum is open from June through October from noon to 5 p.m., Wednesdays through Sundays. Vistors begin with a nine minute video and follow a self-guided tour of pictures, explanatory captions, and a few artifacts. Upstairs, a room where Ingersoll was born is sparsely furnished with a bed and a few pieces of furniture as it might have been in 1833. One room is devoted to the history of the village of Dresden and another to a small gift shop. The hostess this summer is a pleasant young lady named Kelly Beckwith, a recent graduate of Penn Yan Academy who is going away to college in the fall. She would like to have more visitors, but the job does give her plenty of time for reading. An attractive brochure may bring more people and a major celebration commemorating the 160th anniversary of Ingersoll's birth is planned for August 11.

Ingersoll was a major celebrity during his lifetime whose name was recognized instantly, favorably or unfavorably. He had many famous friends such as Walt Whitman, at whose funeral he spoke, and Mark Twain who wrote to the orator's daughter after his death in 1899. "Except my daughter, I have not grieved for any death as I have grieved for his. His was a great and perfect spirit; he was a man—all man from his crown to his footsoles. My reverence for him was deep and genuine: I prize his affection for me and returned it with usury."

Two books are recommended to those who wish to know more about Robert G. Ingersoll. One is Royal Bob, The life of Robert G. Ingersoll by C. H. Cramer, published in Indianapolis and New York in 1952. This is for the general reader. The most recent biography is Robert G. Ingersoll, A Life by Frank Smith, published in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1990. It is more complete and contains long excerpts of Ingersoll's letters and speeches.

(c) 1993, Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.
The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here.
The way to be happy is to help make others happy.
In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments—
There are consequences.
—R. G. Ingersoll
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