February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
He built a career and a fortune out of shocking his fellow Americans
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.
But even people who did not agree with Ingersoll came to his lectures and listened in wonder. Observers could not adequately describe an Ingersoll performance: to understand his full effect, they said, one had to see him in action. “His voice and gesture and laugh,” wrote an Iowa reporter, “are as inseparable from his address as warmth from the sunlight.”
While recapturing Ingersoll’s spell a century later is even more difficult, certain passages from his lectures still hint at the magic the man created. Defending himself against a charge of blasphemy, he gave his own definition of that word: “To live on the unpaid labor of other men—that is blasphemy. To enslave your fellow-man, to put chains upon his body—that is blasphemy. To enslave the minds of men, to put manacles upon the brain, padlocks upon the lips—that is blasphemy. …”
The great sums of money Ingersoll made expressing such ideas did not escape notice. The Milwaukee Sentinel suggested once that he include in his lecture titled “Why I Am an Agnostic” some reference to the rewards he reaped lecturing on the subject. He was also spectacularly successful as a lawyer, but the public did not seem to hold his wealth against him. For one thing, it was possible to point to—as the contemporary press frequently did—the money Ingersoll donated to charities and the eloquence with which he supported a variety of humanitarian causes. Just as important, his wealth added an air of respectability to his antireligion stance. This was no ragtag eccentric from society’s fringes but a man who was, according to the standards of the Gilded Age, an unqualified success. He was also eminent in the Republican party and a staunch defender of hearth and home, so that while listening to him might have meant chancing damnation, at least it did not mean risking communism, anarchy, or free love. Ingersoll made that abundantly clear over the years as he stumped for Republican politicians or used his wit to put down advocates of the new morality. “Let them spend their time in examining each other’s sexual organs,” he once said of free lovers, “and in letting ours alone.”
Ingersoll was born in 1833, the fifth child of a Congregational minister who also preached in Presbyterian pulpits. His mother died early, and the family moved often, largely because his father, who was bluntly outspoken in opposing slavery, was unable to hold any pastorate for more than a short time. The family moved across New York, through Ohio, on to Wisconsin, and then into Illinois. Robert’s schooling was erratic, and he never attended college, but he developed a passion for reading, and among the books he devoured were the religious commentaries in his father’s library. They did not have their intended effect, perhaps because of the uncharitable behavior Robert had observed in various Christian congregations toward his abolitionist father, or perhaps because of the frequent whippings his father, a man of otherwise tender and affectionate behavior, felt obliged to administer to Robert in the name of the Lord. Whatever the reason, young Robert read with skeptical eyes. He found, as he remembered later, “that God so loved the world that he made up his mind to damn a large majority of the human race.” He read John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards and later called them “infinitely cruel,” adding, “I have kindness and candor enough to say that [they] were both insane.” He also discovered Shakespeare, and by comparison he found that Jehovah simply was not a very good writer. “The sacred books of all the world,” he said, “are worthless dross and common stones compared with Shakespeare’s glittering gold and gleaming gems.”
In 1852 Ingersoll began to make his living as a teacher. Although he was popular with his students, he found it a discouraging vocation, particularly since the small towns where he taught had little tolerance for his religious views. Residents of Metropolis, Illinois, later remembered that his school was closed after he had a particularly pointed exchange with a group of Baptists who were staying at the same boardinghouse. They asked him what he thought about baptism, and the young teacher responded, “Well, I’ll give you my opinion: With soap, baptism is a good thing.”
When teaching failed to work out, Robert and his brother Ebon decided to read for the law. Since becoming a lawyer was scarcely more difficult than becoming a teacher, they were admitted to the bar six months later, and in 1858 they set up a law practice in Peoria. Almost inevitably the brothers became involved in politics, for that summer and fall Abraham Lincoln was trying unsuccessfully to unseat the Illinois senator Stephen Douglas. In the presidential election year of 1860, Robert, who would later be one of the country’s most famous Republicans, was the Democratic nominee in Illinois in the fifth congressional district. He lost the race, just as Douglas, whom Ingersoll supported, lost his race for the White House against Lincoln.
When the Civil War broke out, Ingersoll became a popular speaker at war rallies, and he also turned his energies to raising a cavalry regiment later known as the Eleventh Illinois. As a colonel he commanded that regiment at Shiloh, but in December of 1862. at Lexington, Tennessee, he was captured while attempting to hold off a Confederate advance until Union reinforcements arrived. He was paroled after only a few days, as was customary in the early days of the war, and in 1863 he petitioned the War Department for permission to resign his commission and return home. “I have seen enough of bloodshed and mutilation,” he wrote his brother.
Back in Peoria, Ingersoll began to speak in favor of President Lincoln and against slavery. “I am a free man,” he declared. “I intend to live and die free, nor will I stand between a man and his freedom.” When he was pushed on the point, however, Ingersoll, like many an abolitionist before him, distinguished between what he meant when he talked about freedom for blacks and what he meant when he talked about his own. To a heckler in Pékin, Illinois, who demanded to know if he wanted freed blacks in the North, Ingersoll replied, “No, I would send them to some country by themselves.”
In the decades after the war, however, Ingersoll came to support the blacks’right to equal opportunity. He brought a black law student into his office, he helped the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar get the job he wanted at the Library of Congress, he opened his Home to blacks when hotels refused to admit them, and he spoke out. Although by now Ingersoll seldom passed up a chance to pin all the nation’s ills on the Democrats, on this issue he began to say that both parties bore blame and responsibility. To a black audience in Galesburg, Illinois, he pointed out that both Democrats and Republicans had supported the Fugitive Slave Law. When the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional, Ingersoll told a Washington, D.C., audience to ignore party slogans and promises and to vote for individuals willing to protect the rights of black citizens.
As a Republican, Ingersoll managed his brother’s successful campaign for Congress, and in 1868 he himself ran for the governorship. He was defeated, and he said later that his agnosticism had adversely affected his bid. One story had it that a friend visiting Ingersoll’s office saw a copy of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason , a book often denounced by nineteenth-century churchmen. “How much did this cost you?” the friend asked him. “The governorship of Illinois.”
Ingersoll’s feelings about politics were always somewhat ambiguous. It was, he wrote, “a low dirty scramble, through misrepresentation, slander, falsehood, and filth, and success brings nothing but annoyance & fear of defeat next time. …” Still, it was a fascinating game: “I find myself planning & scheming all the time, thinking what I will try for, and calculating the chances.” But his unsuccessful run for the governorship helped resolve his conflict. He would turn to law, lecturing, and, most of all, to his family.
During the war Ingersoll had met and married Eva Parker, a handsome, dark-haired woman who charmed her contemporaries. She came from a family distinguished both for its openhanded hospitality and for its unorthodox religious views. Friends from the East who came to visit Eva’s grandmother sometimes ended up staying for years, and while there they doubtless received strong infusions of liberal religious thinking, for the Parkers were followers of Paine and Voltaire.
The Ingersoll household reflected Eva’s upbringing as well as Robert’s generous impulses. Eva’s mother lived with them, as well as her sister, her brother-in-law, and their child. Eva and Robert had two daughters themselves, and when one of them married, the family was expanded to include the new son-in-law, with the whole entourage living some months at the Ingersolls’ and some months at the son-in-law’s estate.
Over the years scores of journalists visited the Ingersolls to report on the home life of the Great Infidel. Their rapturous accounts would strain belief, were they not so consistent. The two daughters were healthy, pleasant, intelligent girls, seldom reprimanded or refused a request. The adults treated one another with love and respect. A Galveston newsman, whose description is typical, came away talking about “the happiest home I ever saw, and … the most devoted and affectionate family I ever knew.” Not surprisingly, some of Ingersoll’s most sentimental rhetoric over the years was a paean to domestic life. “Let me tell you …,” he said, “it is far more important to build a home than to erect a church. The holiest temple beneath the stars is a home that love has built. And the holiest altar in all the wide world is the fireside around which gather father and mother and the sweet babes.”
After his marriage to Eva, whom Ingersoll called “a woman without superstition,” he began to explore in depth the writings of men like John Draper, Auguste Comte, and Voltaire. But it was not until the 1868 gubernatorial race extinguished l his desire for elective office that he began to deliver the outspoken lectures that would later make him famous across the nation. In “The Gods,” for example, he told his audiences that men had always created a divinity in their own image: “He hated and loved what they hated and loved, and he was invariably found on the side of those in power. Each god was intensely patriotic, and detested all nations but his own.” Generally these gods were “revengeful, savage, lustful, and ignorant,” Ingersoll declared, and Jehovah was no exception to this pattern. But because man was no longer so brutal and ignorant as he had once been, the days of Jehovah and his ilk were numbered: “The people are beginning to think, to reason and to investigate. Slowly, painfully, but surely, the gods are being driven from the earth. Only upon rare occasions are they, even by the most religious, supposed to interfere in the affairs of men. … As a general thing, the gods have stopped drowning children, except as a punishment for violating the Sabbath. … In wars between great nations, the gods still interfere; but in prize fights, the best man with an honest referee, is almost sure to win.”
Ingersoll also began to speak out about women’s rights. In 1870, appearing on a platform with Susan B. Anthony, he resolved that the gathering should pledge itself, “irrespective of party, to use all honorable means to make the women of America the equals of men before the law.” And his beliefs about women’s rights began to appear in his lectures on religion: “Nearly every religion has accounted for all the devilment in the world by the crime of woman,” he noted. “As long as woman regards the Bible as the charter of her rights, she will be the slave of man. The Bible was not written by a woman. Within its lids there is nothing but humiliation and shame for her.”
Ingersoll did not, however, always speak about the rights of women in ways likely to elicit feminist approval. He sometimes tended to be of the put-her-on-a-pedestal school, regarding woman as the “sanctuary of all the virtues” and asserting, “She has all the rights I have and one more, and that is the right to be protected.” But he was educable on the issue. Although “short-haired women who denounce the institution of marriage” were always too much for him, he finally accepted the idea that a woman might not want to be protected. “The new woman is looking out for herself,” he said. “I am on her side.” Once when Dr. Mary Walker, the Civil War surgeon, appeared at his house in bloomers, Ingersoll, who was famous for never turning anyone away, asked her to leave. But eventually he came around. Woman should wear whatever makes them comfortable, he said later, adding that it was absurd to think bloomers were immodest.
It was the centennial election that catapulted Ingersoll to national prominence. The Republican senator James G. Blaine of Maine had noted Ingersoll’s forensic talents, and 1876 found Blaine much in need of them, for his name had been touched with scandal. In 1869, as Speaker of the House, Blaine had saved the land grant of the Fort Smith and Little Rock Railroad, and then he had sold bonds on commission for the railway. The Democratic House of Representatives decided to launch an investigation. Much of the evidence as to the propriety of Blaine’s connection with the railroad was in a group of letters Blaine had written, but Blaine chose not to make full transcripts of those letters available. Instead he appeared before the House and read selectively from them, and so effectively did he read that he was given an enthusiastic ovation.
Still, his name was tainted, and at a time when the nation was rocking from disclosures of official corruption in the Grant administration, Blaine needed a nominating speech that could turn his difficulties to advantage, and he asked lngersoll to deliver it for him.
That summer’s Republican convention was in Cincinnati. It was a hot June, and the convention delegates were stupefied by the heat in the sweltering convention hall. Water was being carried around in horse buckets and doled out in tin cups. People were fanning themselves or trying to find solace in tobacco plugs and well-chewed cigar ends as lngersoll mounted the platform. But when he began to speak, the stupor of the convention hall cleared away, for he used the one set of images sure to start a Republican’s adrenaline flowing. He equated Blaine’s performance in Congress with the Union’s (i.e., the Republicans’) victory in the Civil War; he equated Blaine’s enemies with the South’s (i.e., the Democrats’) infamy. “This is a grand year,” lngersoll intoned, “a year filled with recollections of the Revolution; filled with proud and tender memories of the past … a year in which the people call for the man who has preserved in Congress what our soldiers won upon the field; a year in which they call for the man who has torn from the throat of treason the tongue of slander—for the man who has snatched the mask of Democracy from the hideous face of rebellion; for the man who, like an intellectual athlete, has stood in the arena of debate and challenged all comers, and who is still a total stranger to defeat.
“Like an armed warrior, like a plumed knight, James G. Blaine marched down the halls of the American Congress and threw his shining lance full and fair against the brazen foreheads of the defamers of his country and the maligners of his honor. For the Republican party to desert this gallant leader now, is as though an army should desert their general upon the field of battle …
“Gentlemen of the convention, in the name of the great Republic, the only republic that ever existed upon this earth; in the name of all her defenders and of all her supporters; in the name of all her soldiers living; in the name of all her soldiers dead upon the field of battle, and in the name of those who perished in the skeleton clutch of famine at Andersonville and Libby, whose sufferings he so vividly remembers, Illinois—Illinois nominates for the next President of this country, that prince of parliamentarians—that leader of leaders—James G. Blaine.”
The hall went wild. There was a tumult of applause, a mad waving of fans, hats, and handkerchiefs. The effect, declared the Chicago Times , “was indescribable. The coolest-headed in the hall were stirred to the wildest expression.”
With his “plumed knight” speech, Ingersoll gave Blaine a nickname that would stick with him throughout his career, and he almost gave him the nomination as well. But when Blaine’s supporters, trying to ride on the momentum Insersoll had created, reauested that the convention go into night session, they were told that the hall’s gaslights were unsafe. The convention was adjourned, and the spell weis broken. The next day the Republican party nominated the dark horse Rutherford B. Hayes.
At the request of both Hayes and Blaine, lngersoll went on the stump for the Republicans. He spoke to twenty thousand in Elkhart, Indiana, twenty-five thousand in Cleveland, thirty thousand in Chicago, and now he pulled out all the stops. The “plumed knight” speech seemed subtle by comparison as lngersoll declared: “I claim that the Democratic party embraces within its filthy arms the worst elements in American society. I claim that every enemy that this Government has had for twenty years has been and is a Democrat … every State that seceded from this Union was a Democratic State. … The man that shot Lincoln was a Democrat. And every man that was glad of it was a Democrat.”
Ingersoll’s rabid partisan speeches have been a source of embarrassment to his advocates over the years, and there have been various attempts to explain them away. It has been argued, for example, that such speeches reflected his bitter and deep-seated hatred of slavery, but that argument loses force in the light of Ingersoll’s own admissions that the black issue, like the female issue, transcended party.
A certain historical perspective does need to be brought to bear, however. When lngersoll spoke, he was not addressing the nation, as politicians do now. He was addressing partisan gatherings, and audiences wanted and encouraged the most outrageous overstatements. They also delighted in the rhetorical games lngersoll played. An lngersoll speech reported in the Cincinnati Commercial in 1880 is a case in point. Probably with the sly wink that cartoonists were beginning to use to identify “Pope Bob,” lngersoll said: “I admit that the Republican party is not altogether good. [Laughter.] I admit, and you will wonder at my candor, that the Democratic party is not altogether bad. [Renewed laughter.] I admit that the Democratic party in its great and splendid effort to do wrong has sometimes by mistake done right. [Laughter and applause.]”
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.
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.
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.