- Historic Sites
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
Now that he was a figure of national prominence, lngersoll was beseiged with requests to lecture, and he responded to an astonishing number of them. During two months in 1877, for example, he spoke in towns throughout the West; he was in Cheyenne and Denver, Sacramento and San Francisco, Virginia City and Salt Lake City, to name just a few. In one of the lectures he frequently delivered, he labeled religious beliefs “ghosts” and pointed out crimes they had inspired, like the persecution of witches. In a new world of reason and science, he argued, such beliefs had no place. “Let the ghosts go,” he said. “We will worship them no more. Let them cover their eyeless sockets with their fleshless hands and fade forever from the imaginations of men.”
Various clergymen had themselves moved away from some of the positions lngersoll was attacking. Lyman Abbott had declared that much of the Bible was folklore; David Swing had described it as a poem rather than a factual account. Nevertheless, lngersoll was the object of frequent and vigorous attacks. It become the pet ambition of many a young clergyman to take him on in print, and their most respected elders, like the Reverend Dr. Henry Field and Cardinal Henry Manning, engaged him in newspaper debates.
One of the most publicized of Ingersoll’s confrontations with the clergy took place in Hoboken, New Jersey. Invoking New Jersey’s century-old blasphemy statutes, a group of ministers managed to get the theater in which Ingersoll was to speak closed down. One of them explained, “Hoboken is bad enough without an advent of Ingersollian blasphemy.”
Hoboken’s city attorney pointed out, however, that Ingersoll could not violate the blasphemy statutes unless he was permitted to speak, and so the theater was reopened. Ingersoll lectured to an audience sprinkled with clergymen and law officers, all waiting for him to utter the words that would land him in jail. Again one can imagine Ingersoll’s sly wink as he declared: “Mind you, I don’t say that the Scriptures are not inspired. On the contrary, I admit that they were—in New Jersey. That’s in accordance with the statutes, and I’m not foolish enough to fight any statute. You see, if the Legislature of New Jersey says a thing, that ends it with me.”
He went on to point out various contradictions in the Bible. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” he said. “If it were not for the Jersey blasphemy statute I might know. As it is, I don’t. The Hoboken parsons know. Ask them.” Even the detectives in the audience were reduced to laughter.
But Ingersoll could not always meet his opponents face to face, and their attacks had some effect. He had fully expected that for his services in the campaign of 1876 he would be named to the Hayes cabinet or to a ministerial post. But when Hayes considered him for the German mission, a great outcry arose. Declared the Boston Post , “The religious community rises as one man to demand that he shall not be sent to Berlin to represent a Christian people.” Apparently because of such pressure, Hayes backed away from naming Ingersoll to appointive office.
Ingersoll’s period of greatest political influence was probably during James Garfield’s brief Presidency. He had worked hard for Garfield during the campaign of 1880, and a warm friendship developed between the two men. After the election, Ingersoll, who had now moved to Washington and was living in a handsome home on Lafayette Square, frequently walked over to the White House to visit with the President.
Ingersoll had given up the idea of office for himself, but his access to Garfield made him an important contact for those who wanted appointment. One of the office seekers who came to his home was Charles Guiteau, a man whom Ingersoll, like Garfield, discouraged in his aspirations for political appointment. When Guiteau shot Garfield on July 2, 1881, rumors made the rounds that the Great Agnostic had somehow influenced Guiteau’s actions. Ingersoll pointed out that Guiteau had, to the contrary, considered himself a Christian, so much so that he had shadowed Ingersoll on a lecture tour through New England and attempted at stops along the way to reply to Ingersoll’s lectures.
In spite of his political involvement, his lecturing, and his dedication to family life, Ingersoll found time for his law practice. Gradually he became one of the most successful lawyers of his day, in terms of both the verdicts he won and the money he made. In what were perhaps the century’s most famous legal proceedings, the Star Route trials, Ingersoll was chief attorney for the defense.
At issue was the handling of certain rural mail routes. A group of Republican politicians and appointees, including a former senator from Arkansas, Stephen Dorsey, was accused of conspiring to defraud the government by unjustifiably increasing the price at which contracts had been let on these routes. One route in the Dakota Territory, which was to cost $398 to operate, ended up costing $6,133.50, and the yearly return on the route was only $240. In all, increases on the routes in question came to some $2,000,000.