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Robert Ingersoll The Illustrious Infidel
He built a career and a fortune out of shocking his fellow Americans
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
Whatever town he was lecturing in—Chicago or Cheyenne, New York or Denver—Robert Green Ingersoll packed the house. When the seats were full, people would stand in the aisles, on the stage, in the wings. When the box office ran out of tickets, eager crowds would still find a way in, usually by paying scalpers three or four times the regular admission rate.
And then, when the audience was gathered, Ingersoll would appear, a tall, portly man with a cherubic face. Knowing he needed no introduction, he would simply begin speaking, and for two or three hours, using wit, poetry, sarcasm, and pathos, he would manipulate his audience like a skilled puppeteer. He always knew the right strings to pull to make them laugh, to make them cry, and to make them clamor for more. “Can you stand another half hour?” he joked once when he was applauded and cheered back to the stage. “Yes,” came the roar from the crowd, “an hour, two hours, all night.”
Although his fame has faded today, Robert Ingersoll was a superstar in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, one of the most interviewed, quoted, gossiped-about men of his time, who earned as much as four thousand dollars for a single night’s appearance, an astonishing sum for the time.
The most famous men of Ingersoll’s day paid tribute to him. “Lord, what an organ is human speech when it is played by a master,” Mark Twain wrote after hearing him. Ingersoll’s oratory, Walt Whitman said, was “sweet, fluid—as they say in the Bible, like precious ointment.” One of the nineteenth century’s eminent divines, Henry Ward Beecher, called Ingersoll the “most brilliant speaker of the English tongue of all men on the globe,” and that assessment is especially noteworthy, for Ingersoll’s lecture topic was agnosticism. He was a heretic, an infidel, a blasphemer, who took his war against orthodoxy the length and breadth of the United States.
An honest god is the noblest work of man,” he might say to open a lecture. Or he might concentrate on what he considered to be the Bible’s absurdities. Noah’s ark, he estimated, had 175,000 birds in it, 3,616 beasts, 1,300 reptiles, and 12,000,000 insects—all being cared for by eight uncommonly busy people. Or he might denounce the doctrine of eternal damnation by painting a sentimental word picture: “A little child would go out into the garden, and there would be a tree laden with blossoms, and the little fellow would lean against it, and there would be a bird on one of the boughs, singing and swinging, and thinking about four little speckled eggs, warmed by the breast of its mate—singing and swinging, and the music in happy waves rippling out of its tiny throat, and the flowers blossoming, the air filled with perfume and the great white clouds floating in the sky, and the little boy would lean up against that tree and think about hell and the worm that never dies.”
Whatever Ingersoll said, his audiences usually loved it. Competing against his oratorical witcheries, as the sober-faced men and women who distributed religious pamphlets outside his lectures often discovered, required Job’s tolerance for defeat. In fact, the more aggressively the clergy attacked Ingersoll, the more the laity clamored to hear him. “The surest way in the world to fill a house for Colonel Ingersoll,” observed the San Francisco Daily Evening Post , “is for some blatant ass to go mouthing around about ‘Pope Bob’ and ‘blaspheming infidel.’”
Not all of Ingersoll’s phenomenal success had to do with the temptingly forbidden picture the clergy painted of him, for by the time he began speaking, many Americans were confirmed lecture addicts, hooked on hearing speakers of whatever persuasion. A love for the formally spoken word went back to the country’s beginnings, back to the speeches, sermons, and debates that seemed to erupt whenever more than two public figures got together. American eagerness to hear orators can be seen in the astounding growth of the lyceum movement, which used lectures as a principal form of enlightenment. Only eight years after its beginnings in 1826, there were three thousand lyceums across the country.
Nevertheless, there was something special about the public response to Ingersoll, who was, a lecture agent noted, the “best card in America.” Part of his enormous appeal lay in what he was saying. Not that his thoughts were new or original: Darwin’s theories, with all the doubts they raised about a supernatural creation, already had wide currency; from Germany had come studies describing the Bible as an often contradictory compendium of history, poetry, and folklore. But Ingersoll was giving a lively and popular expression to these ideas at a time when many in the country were ready for them. The old religious spirit, rooted in fire and brimstone, had suited the hard life of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries well enough, but it did not mesh so easily with the world of Dost-Civil War America.