RGI Museum Newsletter 2005


New, Returning Exhibits Enliven 2005 Season

Welcome sign

A cheery new welcome sign beckons as visitors enter the museum.

audio kiosk

The new audio kiosk lets up to three visitors listen
to any of five audio tracks.

Much is new at the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum for 2005. Generous giving by donors last year, coupled with some very special volunteer work, mean that a record amount of new or refurbished material will appear in the Museum’s display cases this year.

The museum’s audio listening station has been completely revamped. Instead of a single telephone handset on which one can hear a scratchy copy of three brief Ingersoll statements recorded by Thomas Edison, there are three handy headsets and a bank of pushbuttons.

Users can choose to listen to any of the three Edison recordings of Ingersoll’s actual voice. And they can listen to piano and full-orchestral performances of the 19th century Ingersolia March, composed by John Philip Sousa imitator George Schleiffarth and unearthed by supporter Martin Lifschultz. Volunteer perfomers James Kurtz and Robert Guillory contributed the march recordings. Center for Inquiry – Transnational superintendent Vance Vigrass installed the electronics, Andrew Skolnick digitally enhanced the Edison recordings for improved clarity, and Lisa Hutter and Chris Fix of the fearless CFI art department produced the colorful signage.

Speaking of colorful signage, there’s a new welcome sign inside the museum’s first room that offers free copies of Free Inquiry, Prome-theus Books catalogues, and a greeting by Council for Secular Humanism founder and chair Paul Kurtz.

Other new acquisitions include an original 1890s newspaper cartoon of Ingersoll, a period drawing of the 1876 Republican Convention in Cincinnati, where Ingersoll launched his national career, and an artifact from the launching of the World War II Liberty Ship Robert G. Ingersoll (see related story, p. 6).

This year also marks the return of several items withheld from display while they underwent preservation and rebinding: lavishly-bound editions of Crimes against Criminals, Little Journeys to the Homes of Eminent Orators, and Prose Poems and Selections, as well as one of the museum’s treasures: the original manuscript, largely in Ingersoll’s hand, of the Great Agnostic’s famous speech “Ghosts,” presented to us years ago by supporter Philip Thorek.


See it at the “Inger-Hut”

This remarkable magazine illustration depicts the 1876 Republican National Convention, held in a long-gone assembly hall now the site of Music Hall, itself the venerable home of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. On the stage in the far distance, Robert Green Ingersoll launched his national reputation with his impassioned “Plumed Knight” speech nominating James G. Blaine for the GOP nomination.
Image courtesy Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, Fremont, Ohio.

This vintage calfskin-bound Roycroft copy of Crimes Against Criminals required painstaking rebinding by an artisanal book restoration service. After delaying for several years, the Museum was able to make the investment to rebind this and three other endangered volumes.

Freethought Trail, Virtual Museum Online at Last!

Some of the Museum’s most impressive 2005 additions won’t appear at the Museum at all. Center for Inquiry research fellow Christopher Whittle recruited two State University of Buffalo student interns, Michael Korona and Matthew Licata, who finally completed two long-delayed Internet projects for the Ingersoll Museum. Museum director Tom Flynn had compiled images and information for the two sites for several years, but it took the interns to assemble those raw materials into web sites.

By June 2005 at the latest, Mike Korona’s “Virtual Ingersoll Museum” will be available at http://www.secularhumanism.org/ingersoll/virtualtour.html. It’s an online tour of the entire Ingersoll Museum, including detailed photos and descriptions of every document and historical artifact displayed at Dresden. There are also video clips and even the 11-minute museum visitors’ orientation video available for download — literally hundreds of images, clips, and files. A broadband Internet connection is not required but definitely recommended.

Freethought Trail LogoAt about the same time, intern Matt Licata’s completed Freethought Trail web site will go live at http://www.freethought-trail.org. This site documents a dozen historical sites within a short drive of the Ingersoll Museum that form part of freethought and radical reform history.

This informal Freethought Trail ( don’t look for signs on the highways yet) acknowledges this rich heritage and provides all the information needed to plan and take a half-day, daylong, or weekend tour.

The Freethought Trail includes several fully developed historical sites like the Women’s Rights Historic Park in Seneca Falls, the Susan B. Anthony house in Rochester, the Matilda Joslyn Gage house in Fayetteville, the Mark Twain gravesite and other Twain displays in Elmira, and of course the Ingersoll Museum.

Other sites are intact but unmarked. You can see the grade school Margaret Sanger attended in Corning. You can stand outside the Palmyra home occupied by attorney Abner Cole (better known as crusading journalist Obadiah Dogberry) when he got a sneak advance look at galley proofs of the Book of Mormon, enabling Cole to publish a point-by-point refutation of Joseph Smith’s latter-day scripture in his newspaper, the Palmyra Reflector, before the Book of Mormon was published. And you can visit the Watkins Glen building where Truth Seeker editor D.M. Bennett was arrested by agents of decency czar Anthony Comstock during an 1878 freethought convention.

Other sites are, well, just sites: most of the places anarchist Emma Goldman worked or lived in Rochester, N.Y., are now empty lots or housing projects.

On the Freethought Trail web site, you can find photos and descriptions of each site, along with interactive driving directions to reach any other Trail attraction.

Whether or not you plan to visit west-central New York this travel season, visit the Freethought Trail online and sample our region’s rich historical legacy!


What’s on the Freethought Trail?

On the Freethought Trail …

In 1878, the third floor of this building in Watkins Glen, New York, was a meeting hall, the site of a freethought convention at which Truth Seeker publisher D. M. Bennett and two other freethinkers were arrested (for selling a birth- control pamphlet) at the instigation of decency crusader Anthony Comstock. The bad news: There’s no historical marker. The good news: The Chinese and Italian restaurants on the ground floor are pretty good.

Thanks, Harper’s!

In the May 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine, editor Lewis H. Lapham praised Robert Green Ingersoll, Mark Twain, and Ambrose Bierce as three nineteenth-century voices that twenty-first-century Americans should pay more attention to, lest militant evangelicals complete their takeover of American life without so much as a single bleat of protest.

Mourning in his editorial “The Wrath of the Lamb” that “the delusional is no longer marginal,” Lapham warned that “[t]he faith-based initiative descends upon the multitude in the glorious cloud of unknowing that over the last twenty years has engulfed vast tracts of the American mind in the fogs of superstition.”

He quoted, among others, the following passage from Ingersoll:

When the theologian governed the world, it was covered with huts and hovels for the many, palaces and cathedrals for the few.. There is more of value in the brain of an average man of today, than there was in the brain of the world four hundred years ago (“God in the Constitution,” Dresden Edition, Vol. XII, p. 133).

In a way he himself might never have imagined, Robert Green Ingersoll might be just the man this country needs to hear a great deal more of!

Ingersoll’s “Vision of War” Speaks to Today

Ingersoll’s most impassioned oration on the sacrifices made by Civil War veterans and their families was the prose poem that became famous as “A Vision of War” (“The past, as it were, rises before me like a dream .”). First delivered to an Indianapolis audience in 1876, it was an oration Ingersoll was asked to give time and again, especially at Decoration Day (today’s Memorial Day) observances. What touched hearts and minds in the nineteenth century still resonates today, as historian and Galena, Ohio, village-council member David A. Simmons discovered.

Simmons, who edits the Ohio Historical Society’s magazine Timeline, rediscovered Ingersoll and “A Vision of War” . and put them to use in his community’s 2004 Memorial Day celebration. He reports:

I am in charge of a Memorial Day Service every year in Galena .. We assemble on the Village Square for speeches and music and then troop to the nearby cemetery for a few remarks, a gun salute, and taps. Finding a good, concise speaker has become increasingly challenging. . [A]s I got to know Ingersoll’s writings and read his Indianapolis speech, I was impressed with how well it resonated with today’s issues. I shared it with the retired speech teacher, Roy Merchant, who lives in the village and who is also commander of the local American Legion unit (and an agnostic of long standing), and he enthusiastically agreed to read it. I afterwards received several positive comments on it from members of the assembled residents.

To read the “Vision of War” speech yourself, visit http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/robert_ingersoll/vision_of_war.html, or turn to the Dresden Edition, Vol. IX, pp. 157 – 187. Fair warning: before he gets to the inspiring “Vision of War” passage, Ingersoll (foremost political speechmaker of, you will recall, the Republican Party) unleashes oceans of turgid prose accusing Democrats of responsibility for the Civil War, complicity with slaveholders, and tearing apart the Union (“Every man that endeavored to tear the old flag from the heaven it enriches was a Democrat”). It’s instructive to read these passages today and reflect on how the meaning of party labels has changed.

ingersoll memorial day speech

Ingersoll: A Memorial Day Tradition

On Memorial Days of yore (then called Decoration Day), all eyes … and ears … turned to Ingersoll. Historical research coordinated by the Ingersoll Committee has unearthed new facts about this photo, displayed as a mural in the Museum front hallway. It depicts a Decoration Day tribute to Thomas Paine held at his New Rochelle, N.Y., homesite on May 30, 1894. The remarkable image was made by a professional photographer, Miss S. Lavin of 828 Broadway, New York City, and published in the freethought paper The Truth Seeker on June 9, 1894.


Book Review

Tom Flynn

What’s God Got to Do With It? Robert Ingersoll on Freethought, Honest Talk, and the Separation of Church and State, edited and with an introduction by Tim Page. Hanover, N.H.: Steerforth Press, August 2005. ISBN 1-58642-096-8. Paper, 144 pages, $10.00.

For decades Ingersoll admirers have nurtured the hope that some enterprising writer or filmmaker would rediscover the Great Agnostic and restore him to the place of recognition he deserves. With this slim volume Tim Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning chief music critic for the Washington Post and scholar of mid-20th century comic novelist Dawn Powell, takes a bold stab at reacquainting American readers with Ingersoll.

The book begins with a 17-page biography and appreciation. Comprehensive and concise, it may be the best capsule introduction to Ingersoll yet published. Best of all, Page presumes that his reader is neither a freethinker or a history buff. Instead he presents Ingersoll to the general educated reader on that reader’s terms.

That approach continues throughout the rest of the book, which consists of short and midlength Ingersoll quotations, heavily edited and adapted for modern audiences. Be warned: Page planes down Ingersoll’s most florid rhetoric, which may draw the ire of purists. And he excerpts, condenses, and retitles with abandon. From a single lecture, “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child,” he draws three focused reflections on Lincoln, human happiness, and evolution. Such heavy editing carries risks, but in my opinion Page succeeds mightily. The end result preserves most, if not quite all, of Ingersoll’s rhetorical sparkle while making the prose far more accessible for today’s readers. And Page’s rearrangement of the material makes manifest the relevance of Ingersoll’s thinking for the burning issues of today.

Those of us who keep a volume from the Dresden Edition on our nightstands might draw limited benefit from Page’s book. But we should keep a few copies on hand to share with friends. It’s just the thing to offer a curious acquaintance who might not have the time or the historical erudition to benefit from Susan Jacoby’s magisterial Freethinkers. It offers enough information to steer intrigued readers to reliable primary sources, whether they want to read Ingersoll in the original or learn more about secular humanism. Who knows? Tim Page’s bold, accessible book might just succeed in its aim of making Robert Green Ingersoll a household name once more.


( Actually, He’s Spoken For on 2 New CDs )

Now available at the Museum gift shop (and by mail order), a new 2-CD set offers up a double helping of Ingersoll’s wisdom – recorded at a professional studio and performed by a regionally prominent Shakespearean actor and director.

Included are unabridged (and impassioned) readings of Ingersoll’s lecture “About the Holy Bible” and his 1890 magazine article “Why Am I An Agnostic?” There’s also a brief introduction to Ingersoll and his life and times by Museum director Tom Flynn. The project was recorded at Starfields Productions of Buffalo by engineer/owner Alan Dusel, who has recorded numerous music albums, radio commercials, and the like. The result is a 100 percent professional recording of a performance by an anonymous master of the spoken word … if you will, an Ingersoll for our own age.

Funded by a grant from Canadian Ingersoll aficionado George Baker. The 2-disc set sells for $30.00, lower at the Gift Shop, and proceeds benefit Museum operations.

Museum Video Wins Award

Robert Green Ingersoll: the Most Remarkable American You Never Heard Of, the 11-minute orientation video produced for the Museum in 2003, was recognized as Best Documentary in the FutureVision Festival sponsored by MacroSystem, manufacturer of the video editing system used to create the production.

The video is available on a large TV/DVD player in the Museum’s front room. It can also be accessed as part of the Virtual Museum Tour. A revised version of the video will be produced during 2005, incorporating some newly-unearthed graphics and the new recordings of George Schleiffarth’s Ingersolia March.

Museum Hours for 2005

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 28 to October 30, 2005). Admission is only $1.00!