IN THIS ISSUE…
- Bust Arrives at Museum
- Website Tracks RGI Travels
- Conference Wrap-Up
- New Signs Herald Virtual Museum
- See it at the “Inger-Hut”
- Year 2002 Museum Hours!
535-lb. RGI Bust Now “Anchors” Museum
The red sandstone bust of Ingersoll that once decorated a Michigan theater now has a permanent home in the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. At 535 pounds, it would probably anchor almost anything – but in the Museum it now “anchors” the Ingersoll displays in the Museum’s main, hardwood-floored exhibit room.
Mounted on an attractive custom base and surrounded by new interpretive signage, the bust will be the first thing visitors see upon entering the birthplace’s former living room. This room, one of two principal exhibition rooms, also houses the Museum orientation video and such signature artifacts as Ingersoll’s Masonic sword, the original manuscript of his famous speech “Ghosts,” the original printing plate from a Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Book edition of Ingersoll’s speech “Crimes Against Criminals,” and more.
Ingersoll Committee Chairman Roger Greeley personally supervised every aspect of the bust’s odyssey. Originally attached to the 19th century Beckwith Theater in Dowagiac, Michigan, the large sandstone “medallion” of Ingersoll was believed lost when the theater was torn down in 1968.
In 2000, Greeley discovered that the sculpture still existed. Michigan freethinker Jack Ruple had acquired the damaged medallion and displayed it in his Glenwood, Michigan, backyard. Most of the sculpted cameo frame surrounding the Ingersoll likeness had broken away – the sculpture’s days as a medallion were long over. But the Ingersoll bust at the medallion’s center had sustained only minor damage. Ruple offered to gift the bust to the Museum – if we could take it away!
Greeley and longtime associate Floyd Smith dug out the ponderous sculpture and set about rebuilding the nose and chin. Volunteer artisan John McCartney (who restores churches for a living!) completed the restoration and built a custom mounting stand.
Greeley, McCartney, and McCartney’s son Alex journeyed to Dresden in spring 2001 to install the bust. There they were joined by Center for Inquiry physical plant manager Vance Vigrass to wrestle the bust inside, a major undertaking that involved protective covers for Museum floors and the manipulation of a large hydraulic jack inside.
The bust was unveiled in July at the “Mormon Origins in Ingersoll Land” conference. Specially-built custom interpretive signage will debut when the Museum opens for business on May 25, 2002.
The Beckwith Theater bore reliefs of reformers, artists, scientists…and Ingersoll.
Center for Inquiry’s Vance Vigrass, left, and RGI Committee chair Roger Greeley, right, lower the bust onto its custom base under Alex’s careful supervision. Inside the wooden base is a frame of welded steel.
Rediscovering America’s Freethought Heritage
Somebody ought to find out the truth about where Bob Ingersoll delivered his many lectures. Theistically minded historians dare not – they might find out what a rich a heritage freethought has in North America. Busy Freethinkers can’t – they don’t have the time. Agnosto-atheists without easy access to great libraries can not – they don’t have the tools readily available. And so I thought I would do it myself.
The Ingersoll Chronology Project represents the confluence of several interests of mine. First, there is my love of history. Secondly, I have something of a knack for research. Thirdly, I was interested in exploring Internet database technologies. But most importantly, I was curious about the life and times of Robert Ingersoll, and how the people who lived in the towns of my area had reacted to his frequent lectures. Born of the juncture of these interests, the Ingersoll Chronology Project is an Internet site that list hundreds of lectures that The Great Agnostic delivered over 33 years of his career. It currently includes over 730 lectures and other events in his life, and it has as its ultimate goal the documentation of every lecture that he ever gave. It is not only a list of lectures, but also includes newspaper ads and coverage of these lectures, interviews, and even some of Ingersoll’s own manuscripts – digitized and available in on-line form.
Like many such projects, it started with a much simpler goal – I was wondering if Robert had ever visited my birthplace of Utica, NY. In the beginning I was uncertain if Ingersoll had even visited my area of the country. My readings of his speeches on Internet Infidels and other freethought sites had given me the idea that he had criss-crossed the nation giving lectures, but I didn’t have any idea where or when he may have visited.
In the Spring of 2001 all this changed. I had purchased a copy of “65 Press Interviews with Robert Ingersoll”. In there, I learned that Ingersoll was in Buffalo on Febuary 24th, 1878. On a hunch, I checked a newspaper in Rome, NY around that date and discovered that a lecture had been delivered in Utica, NY just 4 days earlier – and that lecture was “The Ghosts”. I had bagged my first lecture. Checking with libraries in Syracuse, Utica and Albany uncovered other lectures in those cities. Often the coverage of one lecture led to the discoveries of still others in other cities. It was a big detective mystery with clues scattered here and there. Tom Flynn of the Ingersoll Birthplace Museum in Dresden suggested the biography written by Frank Smith in 1990 as a rich source of dates and locales – which it was. Tom also sent a photograph containing an itinerary from 1884 which listed 75 dates in 1884. Tom’s generous assistance led to about half of the current entries either directly or indirectly. At this point I was hooked, and the chronology became much larger in scope. It no longer was about my hometown, or even New York state, but a much more ambitious goal – to document all of Ingersoll’s numerous lectures. I estimate that these may have numbered about 2 to 3 thousand in number.
From Frank Smith’s biography I was led to the Truthseeker newspaper – published weekly starting in 1873. This newspaper is a wealth of information of about the lecture tours of not only Ingersoll, but other freethinkers of the time such as John E. Remsburg, Franklin Steiner, Samuel Putnam and Helen Gardener. The Truthseeker has been responsible for well over 300 lecture discoveries.
The latest rich source of information has been Ingersoll’s own manuscripts, which are available on microfilm at several libraries throughout the country. These manuscripts reveal not just Ingersoll the lecturer – but him as a lawyer, partner and as devoted husband and father. I have only had time to look through 10% of his manuscripts so far, but it is clear that this will be a major new source of information.
Now I am interested in getting others involved. While I have documented every lecture that I have uncovered in New York state to date, there is still many lectures throughout the continent that await discovery. The trail has been blazed, and we now know many places where Robert was and when. Yet, there is more information that can be gleaned. People who can spare an hour or two at their local libraries can help to document what happened in their area when Colonel Bob came to town. The Chronology includes provisions to credit contributors, or their organizations. If you are interested in helping, the website has instructions on how to do the research, and how to submit any findings.
Visit the Chronology website and discover for yourself the rich legacy of freethought in North America. The site includes a quote of the day from Ingersoll’s lectures, as well as randomly selected newspaper ads, articles and interviews as well as the complete chronology itself. I also welcome your suggestions and comments to make the chronology an even more useful tool.
2001 CONFERENCE SUCCESSFUL
Almost 100 people attended our 2001 conference, “Mormon Origins in Ingersoll Land.” It focused not only on Ingersoll, but also on the Mormon church, which had its controversial origins a handful of miles away from the Ingersoll birthplace. Joseph Smith published the first edition of the Book of Mormon in 1830 in Palmyra, New York; skeptics have reviled the book – and Smith – as frauds ever since. Conference attendees heard from Mormon and secular scholars, then toured the many nearby historical and missionary sites operated by the Mormon church. Ours was probably the largest group of humanists, atheists, and freethinkers to visit Palmyra in one group!
An ironic “highlight” was the Hill Cumorah Pageant, one of America’s largest and longest-established outdoor pageants. The night we attended, this lavishly-produced dramatization of Book of Mormon stories was hampered by heavy rain. Just before the show began, a pageant staff member took the stage to lead a public prayer for the rain to abate – and the harder she prayed, the harder it rained!
No decision has yet been made on when to hold the next Ingersoll summer conference. Friends of the Museum will get the most timely advance notification.
New Signage First “Sign” of Virtual Museum Project
For the first time since its opening in 1993, the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum will sport all-new interpretive signage. Museum director Tom Flynn rewrote all the signage over the winter, and laid it out using the “official” Ingersoll Committee typefaces used in this newsletter. “Some of the changes are minor,” Flynn said, “and others reflect changes in the order in which visitors will encounter key artifacts. But we’ve also decided to put Ingersoll’s agnosticism more front and center.”
The new interpretive signage is more open about the aspect of Ingersoll’s genius that freethinkers find most engaging: his confrontations with the religious leaders and dogmas of his day. For instance, Ingersoll’s famous quote “An agnostic is an atheist, an atheist is an agnostic” will now appear on an interpretive sign.
In the process of rewriting the signage, Flynn also rendered all the interpretive material into a common electronic format. This is the next step in our ongoing project to create a virtual Ingersoll Museum on the web, announced last year. “We’re a bit behind schedule, but still moving on this,” said Flynn. “The next task is to develop the directory structure for the new site. Then it goes into the hands of Terry Rozelle, our very capable webmaster out at Center for Inquiry – West in Los Angeles.”
See It at the “Inger-Hut”
The actual printing plate from which pioneer freethought publisher Emanuel Halderman-Julius printed his popular
“Little Blue Book edition of RGI’s speech ‘Crimes Against Criminals.'”
Ingersoll’s Masonic sword, issued when he still lived in Peoria, Illinois. Judging by the conspicuous cross, the resolutely theistic Masons must have awarded “Colonel Bob” his sword before he won fame as the “Great Agnostic.”
The Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum at 61 Main St., Dresden, N.Y. will be open from 12 noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day weekend through Hallowe’en (May 25 to October 27, 2002). Admission is only $1.00!