If you’re an admirer of nineteenth-century freethought orator Robert Green Ingersoll, it’s been a red-letter year.
As many Free Inquiry readers know, the Council for Secular Humanism, Free Inquiry’s copublisher, operates North America’s only freethought museum at Ingersoll’s birthplace. The Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum stands in Dresden, New York, in the heart of New York State’s Finger Lakes region. The Museum has been open to the public on weekends each summer and fall since 1993. The Council also sponsors the Freethought Trail, a collection of historic sites relating to radical-reform causes including freethought, women’s rights, abolition, nonreligious utopianism, and anarchism. Ranging from formal museums to historic sites both marked and unmarked, all Freethought Trail sites lie within one hundred miles of the Ingersoll Museum. Why? It turns out that West-Central New York was once fertile ground for all sorts of social and cultural experimentation. The area encompassing Rochester and Syracuse was, essentially, the Southern California of the nineteenth century.
For reasons ranging from institutional capacity to sheer coincidence, the past twelve months turned out to be very special for aficionados of the Great Agnostic and for students of freethought history generally. Here’s a rundown:
• Late in 2015, the previously unmarked grave of Ingersoll’s brother, four-term U.S. congressman Ebon Clark Ingersoll (1831–1875), received a headstone. Ebon Ingersoll lay in Washington, D.C.’s Oak Hill Cemetery, and it is unclear why his grave was never marked. Ebon’s burial provided the occasion for what is probably Robert Ingersoll’s most impassioned graveside oration. The new stone, featuring a line from that speech—“In the night of death, hope sees a star”—was the single-handed work of an Ingersoll admirer previously unknown to us: Gerrie Paino of Berea, Ohio. Ms. Paino purchased the stone and saw to its design and installation. She reached out to Jeff Ingersoll, distantly related to the Great Agnostic and the volunteer chair of the Council’s Robert Ingersoll Memorial Committee, to provide a family member’s permission, required to modify Ebon’s gravesite.
• In December 2015, officials in Cazenovia, New York, with whom I had conferred, located the resting place of Mary Livingston Ingersoll. Mary, the mother of Robert, Ebon, and their siblings, died in Cazenovia, where the family had but recently moved, on December 2, 1835. She was thirty-six. Her husband, the Reverend John Ingersoll, lacked the money for a proper burial, and the family would move again mere months later. Knowledge of Mary’s resting place was lost.
I had shared this puzzle with Town of Cazenovia historian Sara Chevako, who in turn involved the town’s highway supervisor, Timothy Hunt. They deduced that Mary was probably interred in South Cemetery, a former private cemetery now operated by the town. Perusal of old records turned up a redrawing of the cemetery’s map from the 1950s: a margin note stated that Mary had been buried on Luther Myrick’s family plot. Myrick was a local preacher, an early abolitionist like Rev. Ingersoll, and a man of some means. It made sense that Myrick would donate a gravesite at his colleague’s time of need.
The old Myrick family plot was surveyed and staked. Mark Manzari of New York Leak Detection donated the use of ground-penetrating radar. Late in December, Manzari located a single unmarked burial on the Myrick plot. Mary Ingersoll’s resting place had been found!
• Spring 2016 saw two developments. First, the Center for Inquiry launched a targeted campaign to raise the funds for a proper gravestone for Mary Ingersoll. (True to form, Gerrie Paino gave the $1,000 “seed gift” that kicked off the campaign.) In fairly short order, $5,000 was raised, enough for a headstone and a formal dedication. Second, Jeff Ingersoll—before his retirement, a contractor specializing in historic building restoration—fabricated a new front porch attached to the main (two-story) wing of the Ingersoll Birthplace. The companion to a porch Jeff had added to the building’s smaller wing in 2003, the new porch restored the building’s appearance to match a photograph thought to date from about 1910, when the Birthplace sported the most attractive of several porch treatments for which there is historic documentation. The porch project was funded by a grant from the James Hervey Johnson Charitable Educational Trust.
• On Memorial Day (May 30), the Mary Ingersoll gravestone was formally dedicated at a ceremony in Cazenovia. Speakers included Town of Cazenovia Supervisor Bill Zupan, Sara Chevako, Jeff Ingersoll, and me.
• Throughout this period, our friends at the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) were wrangling a massive Ingersoll project of their own. The imposing full-length Frederick Triebel statue of Ingersoll (1911), which overlooks Glen Oak Park in Peoria, Illinois, was badly deteriorated and needed extensive repairs. (Why Peoria? Ingersoll first rose to prominence as a Peoria attorney, and it was there that he raised a Civil War regiment.) By “extensive repairs,” I mean taking down the statue to ship it to a bronze foundry in Philadelphia, where, after 106 years facing the elements, it was almost wholly remanufactured. FFRF raised and expended more than $27,000 to make this happen.
On August 11 (Ingersoll’s birthday), I had the honor of attending the statue’s rededication in Peoria. Speakers included Dan Barker, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Margaret Downey, and many others.
• Finally, during the past twelve months, the Freethought Trail has grown from sixty marked and unmarked sites to eighty-five, a new record.
The period from (roughly) 1865 to 1919 is known as the Golden Age of Freethought. Who knows, maybe someday freethinkers will look back on this as a golden age of freethought history.
I can’t end without reminding readers that the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum will be open each Saturday and Sunday through the end of October. If you’ll be in or near the Finger Lakes region, your visit would be most welcome. More information is available at http://www.secularhuman ism.org/Ingersoll and at http://www.freethought-trail.org.