- 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
“If you have but a dollar in the world,” Ingersoll once told an audience, “and you have to spend it, spend it like a king.”
Popular opinion held that Dorsey and those indicted with him were guilty of lining their pockets at public expense, and historians since have often made the same assumption. But in two trials that extended for more than a year, the defendants were acquitted, largely due to Ingersoll’s efforts. His closing address in the second trial went on for six days, “long enough,” lngersoll noted, “to kill all concerned.” In his various defense speeches he used every oratorical trick, including one magnificently irrelevant but apparently effective declamation in which he compared the presence of Dorsey’s wife at the trial to Mary Magdalene’s presence at the crucifixion.
The Star Route trials were such a compound of legal technicality and human absurdity that it is difficult, on the face of it, to see in them any great significance. There were reports of bungled bribery attempts by both sides, one juror went berserk after he accidentally swallowed his tobacco quid, and the judge set his moustache on fire by putting the lighted end of a cigar into his mouth. But underlying many of the commentaries on the trials and Ingersoll’s role in them, one does sense an important question that is still unresolved. Specifically, should Ingersoll have defended and won acquittal for the Star Routers, or were they so obviously guilty that he called his own integrity into question by doing so? Ingersoll himself frequently declared belief in his clients’ innocence—leading one cynic to observe that if he could believe in them, surely he could believe in Moses and the prophets.
Ingersoll was well aware that lawyers skilled at defending accused parties could make a great deal of money. In family letters he made no bones about referring to his legal practice as a “business,” and a highly profitable one at that. The public was fascinated by speculations about his fees, and newspapers used estimates of his income for one- or two-line fillers. Cartoonists had a field day picturing him carrying money away from courthouses or shaking it out of the Bible. His annual income during his peak years probably ranged between $150,000 and $200,000.
“Oh, I tell you,” Ingersoll said in one of his lectures, “if you have but a dollar in the world, and you have got to spend it, spend it like a king; spend it as though it were a dry leaf and you the owner of unbounded forests!” He followed his own advice and lived very well indeed. James Garfield had called him Royal Bob, and the name fit Ingersoll’s lavish life-style. He made glamorous and almost always unprofitable investments in mining and cattle. His homes in Washington and later New York were splendid—the one at 220 Madison Avenue had a fully equipped theater on its roof that sat two hundred. He was an extravagant host, and Sunday-evening receptions at the Ingersolls’ were an important part of both Washington and New York social life. Rich, famous, and powerful people came to enjoy music, conversation, and great quantities of food. On the Ingersolls’ twenty-first wedding anniversary, some five hundred guests attended their weekly soiree.
Ingersoll was a bon vivant , and it showed. As the scale gradually crept up to 234 pounds, he made valiant attempts to diet, but with short-lived success. His family urged him to exercise, yet when he tried a lengthy hike, he ended up with blistered feet and swollen knees and announced, “I think I have walked enough.” He declared tobacco to be the best plant on earth and said, “Personally, I would rather do without any other vegetable.” Once, when he tried giving up tobacco, alcohol, and coffee, he was so miserable that he complained, “Total abstinence has killed thousands.”
Ingersoll’s family adored him: he had a large and loyal circle of friends and a group of supporters so disparate that it included both Eugene Debs and Andrew Carnegie; even people who could not agree with his theology, like Frederick Douglass and Walt Whitman, responded warmly to him. Probably part of what made him likable was his lack of conceit. “If any man will go over his own life honestly,” he once told a reporter, “he will find that he has not always succeeded because he was good, or that he has always failed because he was bad.” Consequently Ingersoll found unconscionable the arguments that Social Darwinism made fashionable, arguments that the poor had only themselves to blame, arguments that they ought to work if they were hungry. Ingersoll often gave benefit lectures for causes ranging from the San Francisco Hebrew Orphan’s Asylum to the Actor’s Fund. He made donations, some of them substantial, to a number of organizations. Once he even made a contribution to a black Baptist congregation in Texas whose church needed a new roof, though it passed his understanding, he claimed, why a group so fond of water should want to keep out of the rain. One of Ingersoll’s biographers estimates that his charities ran between twenty-five and forty thousand dollars a year.