- 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
That he was generous may have added to the fervor with which believers frequently tried to lead him to salvation. One of the faithful prayed on his doorstep every morning, a Methodist minister wrote him once a month trying to convert him, and every week a woman sent him the Bible lessons she had clipped from the county news, neatly pasted to notepaper. This last proselytizer may have been nearsighted, for one week she reversed one of the clippings, so that in the middle of a page of biblical exhortations was an ad reading “Drink ——’s brand of Rock and Rye, warranted pure, only 50 cents a pint.” Ingersoll could not resist and wrote her a letter lecturing her for urging him to strong drink.
The most massive attempt to convert Ingersoll came on Thanksgiving Day, 1895. Every soldier in Cleveland’s Salvation Army, several hundred members of the Epworth League, and three thousand Christian Endeavorers all offered mass prayers for Ingersoll’s conversion. He took their efforts in stride. “I feel pretty much as the pretty girl did towards the young man who squeezed her hand,” he observed; ” ‘It pleased him,’ she said, ‘and it didn’t hurt me!’”
His temperament was so naturally sanguine that there was little about life he did not find enjoyable, and no doubt his enthusiasm for the here and now helps explain the vigor with which he attacked the dogma of the hereafter. But while he was sure that religious descriptions of immortality were uninformed, he would not deny the notion itself. When his brother Ebon died, he was devastated, and in his own reaction he saw the depth of the human desire to believe in an afterlife. “From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead, there comes no word,” he said in Ebon’s funeral oration, “but in the night of death hope sees a star and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing.”
To hope for immortality, however, to say that it might be so, was quite different from knowing it. “In my judgment, no human being knows whether there is another life or not,” he wrote, and he wondered if, after all, it really made much difference: “If there is no other life, we should make the best of this,” he explained, and “if there is another life, we should still make the best of this.”
His death came in July 1899, when he was not quite sixtysix. He had been lecturing on religion just the month before, and he was working on new lectures at Walston, his son-inlaw’s elegant estate at Dobbs Ferry on the Hudson. There, surrounded by a family constantly concerned with his comfort and happiness, he died suddenly of what the doctors called angina pectoris. Quickly, rumors began circulating. Ingersoll had recanted on his deathbed, went one. Another held that he had been thrown into such despair by his beliefs that he committed suicide. Although it was strenuously denied by those who were with him when he died, for some the notion was irresistible that Royal Bob, the Illustrious Infidel, dreading the hellfire, had seen the light at the end.