RGI Museum Newsletter 2003




Buffalo painting and restoration contractor Jeff Ingersoll, a descendant of Robert Green Ingersoll’s family, donated labor and materials to restore the Birthplace Museum’s front porch to its original design. “Period drawings and photos show that there was a roof over the main porch, supported by turned wooden posts and attached to the main building just below the attic clerestory windows,” said Ingersoll. “We replicated the porch as closely as possible based on historical reference.”

The original porch was lost in 1979, when a passing truck apparently snagged a low-hanging electric wire running to the house, pulling down the badly-decayed porch. Jeff’s crew also painted the Museum interior – quite a job, since following 1830s practice the walls, floors, and ceilings are all painted. Thanks, Jeff!



The Council for Secular Humanism and the Robert Green Ingersoll Memorial Committee are establishing a new, informal “Freethought Trail” to help preserve an extraordinary side of the history of west-central New York. Quiet as it might seem today, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the area was a hotbed of intellectual heterodoxy and social reform. “West-central New York was the Southern California of the period,” said Museum director Tom Flynn. “It was where new religions originated, but also a breeding ground for freethought. It was where much of the seminal work of the abolitionist, women’s rights, and secular education movements got done.”

This history is preserved at almost a dozen sites within a short drive of the Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. “If they knew where to go, freethinkers might enjoy spending a day, or two, or three in the region taking in these sites,” Flynn said. “The area is that rich in the history of dissent, but much of it is easy to overlook.”

In addition to the Ingersoll Museum, sites on the Trail include:

  • Rochester, home of abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass
  • Seneca Falls, site of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention, the National Women’s Rights Historic Park, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and the home of pioneer feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton
  • Fayetteville, home of pioneer feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage
  • Syracuse, home of prominent freethinker C. D. B. Mills
  • Ithaca, where freethinker Andrew Dickson White cofounded Cornell, the nation’s first wholly secular institution of higher education
  • Elmira, sometimes home and gravesite of Mark Twain
  • Corning,birthplace of birth control pioneer and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger

During the 2003 season, the Robert Green Ingersoll Memorial Committee will compile comprehensive visitor information for each of these destinations and produce a website and a brochure distributed throughout the region. Concluded Flynn, “We hope the Freethought Trail will make it as easy as possible to appreciate the depth of social and cultural ferment that took place in this beautiful part of the country.”



The Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum has adopted a new theme which will drive its future interpretation of Ingersoll’s life and his impact on American life. The theme line: “Meet the Most Remarkable American You Never Heard Of.”

“Most people today have no idea who Robert Green Ingersoll was,” lamented Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry and director of the Birthplace Museum. “When visitors learn about Ingersoll’s life – about how well-known he was, and all the elite circles of politics and letters and the arts in which he moved – they’re astonished to discover that someone who was so famous in his own time can be so utterly forgotten today. They say, ‘This man was seen and heard by more Americans than any U.S. president, he debated Gladstone and inspired the writing of Ben-Hur, and just a century later, he’s forgotten?’

“Knowing Ingersoll’s story teaches visitors a new respect for the power of prejudice to warp the historical record, especially prejudice born of religious intolerance.”

With that in mind, the Museum is refocusing its interpretive presentations to emphasize the exciting events in Ingersoll’s life, the breadth of his fame during his life, and the nature of the social forces that have led to his virtual exile from the historical record. A new, all-digital orientation video (see related story in this issue) stresses all of those points in a mini-documentary titled: Robert Green Ingersoll: The Most Remarkable American Most People Never Heard Of. And of course, the theme line appears verbatim on our new full-color Museum brochures.

“The most important message our Museum can convey is not the fact that Ingersoll lived, but the reasons why he’s been forgotten,” Flynn concluded. “It’s a harsh example of how intolerance can bend our vision of the past – and of how quickly and easily an important figure can be driven out of the historical canon if enough of the right people yearn to do that.”



With the 2003 season, the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum has been open to the public for a decade. To celebrate, we’ve redesigned our promotional brochure and our visitor orientation video. Both reflect our new “signature” theme: Robert Green Ingersoll, the most remarkable American most people never heard of.

A new full-color promotional brochure will be displayed at information booths on the New York State Thruway and in tourist attractions throughout the region. Designed by Chris Fix and Lisa Hutter of the Center for Inquiry, it features photos of the 535-lb. Ingersoll bust and other historic Museum artifacts.

Museum visitors will start their tour with a new 11-minute orientation video, presented in digital picture quality and stereophonic sound. Written and directed by Museum director Tom Flynn, the new mini-documentary is rich with historic images from the Museum collection, the Center for Inquiry Libraries, and Doug Schiffer’s Ingersoll Chronology Project. “This new program is designed to give viewers a better feel for Ingersoll’s biography, and especially for the enormous role he played in the life of late 19th century America,” Flynn said. The video was created entirely in the studios of the Center for Inquiry, with narration by the indiscernible George Beazy and animations by the retrograde S. Selraef Rotcerid.


Jeff Ingersoll’s becoming a fixture around the Ingersoll Museum. Or he’s restoring the fixtures. Or both!

A painting and historic preservation contractor, Jeff operates out of Buffalo, New York. Ironically, much of his professional work revolves around restoring old churches. His other half, Sandra Parker, works for a major paint manufacturer and is an expert in historical coatings. The coincidence – Robert Green Ingersoll’s wife was a Parker, too – is not lost on Jeff and Sandy. “Ingersoll and Parker, it’s worked before,” he says with a smile. Both have given long hours to make the Museum a success.

The couple summers at a historic winery in the hills above Hammondsport, New York. Of course it wouldn’t be like Jeff and Sandy to just buy a place and move in – they acquired the property as a near-ruin and are restoring it to near-original condition.


Now available on DVD and videocassette, you can own your own copy of the Museum’s dramatic new orientation video. The 11-minute program is paired with 57 minutes of rare video from the Ingersoll Committee’s 1989 summer conference. This vintage program includes the dedication of the Birthplace prior to the start of final renovation, with a ribbon cutting by the late Phil Mass, founding chairman of the Robert Green Ingersoll Memorial Committee. Paul Kurtz, Tim Madigan, Thomas Paine historian David Henley, and others speak at this ceremony held on the front steps of the Birthplace.

The focus then shifts to Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, New York, where the foremost Ingersoll experts of the day, some now departed, shared insights on the “Great Agnostic.” The late Dixie Jokinen, who moved from Long Island to the Finger Lakes to help prevent demolition of the Birthplace, tells the story of her successful effort to locate the Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., mansion where Ingersoll died. Activist Arthur Harris sketches efforts to replace the defaced Ingersoll memorial plaque on New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel. Emmett Fields announces the launch of his Bank of Wisdom project to digitize vanishing freethought works. Norm Allen of African Americans for Humanism recounts the little-known history of Ingersoll and the African American community. The late Frank Smith, author of Robert G. Ingersoll: A Life,shares a half-hour of secrets about Ingersoll’s life and achievements. Additional remarks by Philip Mass round out this program, the best of the “memory lane” archives for those who recall the Museum’s early years.

The “combo” program is available on DVD or VHS videocassette. It is also offered as a “thank you” gift to anyone making a contribution of $250 or above during the 2003 season. Please contact Tom Flynn for details


Between terrorism concerns, war fears, and a slow economy, conference travel is down sharply in 2003. For that reason the Robert Green Ingersoll Memorial Committee chose to postpone its summer conference, normally held in each odd-numbered year. Organizers hope to restage the conference in the summer of 2004, probably in Corning, New York. The conference will focus on great freethought figures who made their homes in New York’s Finger Lakes region. (For example, Corning was the birthplace of birth control activist Margaret Sanger, who heard Ingersoll speak when she was a young girl.


Keep your ideas to yourselves; feed and clothe the ones you love; I will do your talking for you.

Closeted freethinkers are nothing new. In the so-called “Golden Age of Freethought,” popular antipathy towards declared unbelievers was probably considerably sharper than it is in most quarters today.

Robert Green Ingersoll addressed these people, men and women who agreed with his point of view but dared not reveal themselves in their community, in his famous oration “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child.”

Here are his words:

I have made up my mind to say my say. I shall do it kindly, distinctly; but I am going to do it. I know there are thousands of men who substantially agree with me, but who are not in a condition to express their thoughts. They are poor; they are in business; and they know that should they tell their honest thought, persons will refuse to patronize them–to trade with them; they wish to get bread for their little children; they wish to take care of their wives; they wish to have homes and the comforts of life. Every such person is a certificate of the meanness of the community in which he resides. And yet I do not blame these people for not expressing their thought. I say to them: “Keep your ideas to yourselves; feed and clothe the ones you love; I will do your talking for you. The church can not touch, can not crush, can not starve, can not stop or stay me; I will express your thoughts.

From “The Liberty of Man, Woman and Child”
Dresden Edition, Vol. I, pp. 354-5

See it at the “Inger-Hut”

We told you Ingersoll was a celebrity–and yes, his fame in the Gilded Age extended to doing product endorsements. Challenged by abstemious clerics when he said that he would give a friend whiskey as a Christmas present, Ingersoll ad-libbed an enthusiastic defense of the beverage, duly quoted on this 19th century label. Elsewhere, RGI confessed a prudent preference for wine over liquor: “Wine is a fireside, whiskey a conflagration.”

Ingersoll didn’t stop at whiskey, either. On two occasions he endorsed a line of cigars, once supplying the slogan, “Smoke in this life, not the next.”

Hours · 2003

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 24 to October 26, 2003). Admission is only $1.00!