RGI Museum Newsletter 2006


Clipping Sheds Light on Birthplace’s First Restoration

Doug Schiffer’s tireless research has struck again, yielding a micrograph from the Plattsburgh (N.Y.) Sentinel of May 27, 1927 that illuminates hitherto-forgotten details about the first restoration of the Birthplace Museum in 1921. Headlined “Old House May Not Be Open to Visitors,” the article warned that the “civic center” sited in the Ingersoll birthplace may not open for the summer season in 1927, owing to a decline in donations and the death of Clarence Birkett, formerly of Dresden, the longtime local “point man” for matters relating to the birthplace. (The Museum displays Birkett’s bulging scrapbook of articles pertaining to the first restoration’s gala opening in 1921.)

The article is rich in background information on the birthplace, which it incongruously calls a “manse.” When Ingersoll was born there, it was the residence for Dresden’s Presbyterian preacher (which Ingersoll’s father, the Rev. John Ingersoll, was). Apparently the house continued in that capacity until about 1918, when the Dresden church was dissolved by the Presbytery (regional church office) in nearby Geneva. At that point a private buyer purchased the house as a dwelling.

Three years later members of the Ingersoll family purchased the house, commissioned some restoration work, and gave the building to the village of Dresden for use as a community house. In addition to some Ingersoll memorabilia the house also contained a civic meeting room and a lending library. (The Museum still holds – and occasionally uses – wooden folding chairs that bear library stickers on the underside of their seat panels.)

The house was dedicated on August 11, 1921, the 88th anniversary of Ingersoll’s birth, with an extravagant ceremony that brought some 5,000 persons to Dresden – whose population at the time was about 350. An Ingersoll niece from Cleveland engaged a landscape gardener to create lush “border gardens” that ran along the backyard property lines all the way back to Avenue A, the alley just north of Dresden’s Main Street. The Ingersoll family held title to the house, paid the taxes on it, and contributed to its maintenance until 1927. With the cessation of that support – and the death of Clarence Birkett – the civic center apparently teetered on the verge of extinction.

It remains unknown whether the community house indeed failed to open in 1927, or whether operations staggered on another year or two. It is definitely known that by the time the Great Depression struck, Ingersoll’s birthplace had been shuttered and was beginning to decay. It would be restored again by atheist leader Joseph Lewis in 1954 and most recently by the organization now known as the Council for Secular Humanism in the late 1980s.

In the column right next to the story about the birthpalce, by the way, ran an article apparently based on a press release from Ford Motor Company … announcing the pending discontinuation of the Model “T” Ford – to be replaced by a new model whose name was still secret. (It was, of course, the Model “A.”) The article even quotes Henry Ford, who promised that the new model would continue to deliver “high quality, low price, and constant service.” Having owned a couple of Fords, this writer knows just what ol’ Henry meant by “constant service” …

Ingersoll Chronology Project Update; Help Discover the “Lost Lectures”

Doug Schiffer

The Ingersoll Chronology Project has been tracking the life and speaking engagements of Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll. Since its founding in 2000, the Chronology has tracked down almost 1300 previously-forgotten Ingersoll lectures. In addition, the Chronology has been accumulating interviews, notices of court trials, political speaking engagements, and other events.

During the past year about twenty new lectures have been discovered, and a similar number of political speaking engagements. A dozen new interviews have been documented. All told, over more than 100 new-found events in the life of Ingersoll have been added to the chronology, as well as 250 citations to original source materials that document these and also previously known events.

The pace of discovery has certainly slowed, but this does not mean that there is nothing left to find. Indeed, of the almost 1300 lectures we now believe that Ingersoll delivered, we still do not know what exactly which lecture was delivered in over 200 cases. In addition, there are some clear gaps in the known lecture tours. These lectures have been “lost” and could be discovered – often, all it would take it for an Ingersoll aficionado to make a trip to the newspaper files at the local library.

As I write this, I’m about to add a special web page to the Chronology’s website that will list all of the lost lectures, as well as all the known tour gaps. The “lost” will be broken down by state and city. If you’d like to help out the Chronology project and see if your area is among the missing – check out HYPERLINK www.funygroup.org/Ingersoll. Also included will be tips on how to help with the project. Any assistance will be credited in the chronology, and become a part of the official chronology project records.

Director’s Perspective

Tom Flynn

One of the stories in this newsletter concerns the first restoration of the Ingersoll birthplace, which probably opened to the public for the last time in 1926 after opening in 1921. In 1954 atheist campaigner Joseph Lewis opened the second restoration. We’re not certain exactly when it closed, but by 1962 it no longer had regular operating hours.

When I realize that the first restoration failed after just six years, and the second failed after no more than eight years, I take what I hope is forgivable pride in the fact that the third restoration of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum is about to begin its thirteenth consecutive season – with no end in sight. We’ve not only maintained the structure, we’ve made improvements that increase its functionality. (No small credit goes to volunteer restoration contractor – and Ingersoll relative – Jeff Ingersoll and his wife, historical coatings specialist Sandy Parker.) We’ve become the nation’s leading force for Ingersoll scholarship and artifact preservation. Credit here goes to Ingersoll Committee chair Roger Greeley, who among countless other services located, restored, and installed the Ingersoll bust from the long-razed Beckwith Theater; Doug Schiffer of Syracuse, whose tireless search for forgotten Ingersoll lectures, political speeches, and press clippings has deepened our knowledge of Royal Bob’s public life; and Tim Binga, director of the Center for Inquiry Libraries. Ray Welker, historian of the village of Dresden, has been our anchor to the local community and the curator of the Museum’s local history exhibit.

Birthplace of Robert Ingersoll
Of course, none of this would have been possible without the dynamic leadership of Paul Kurtz, founder and chair of the Council for Secular Humanism. Nor should we forget absent friends, including the late Phil Mass – who kept calling Paul Kurtz at home until we bought the birthplace, saving it from the wrecker’s ball; Dixie Jokinen, who uprooted her household to Penn Yan in order to make sure the birthplace was saved; and Gordon Stein, first librarian of the Center for Inquiry, who build the entire edifice on which contemporary Ingersoll scholarship takes place.

I also thank my longtime “other half” and, more recently, wife Sue Gibbons, who has been my right hand on all those countless trips to the Finger Lakes and my “go–to” person each time we make the important choice of a new docent to greet our visitors.

But finally, the credit goes to hundreds of donors and friends who have contributed artifacts, information, and – indispendably – the dollars it takes to keep the Museum healthy and open every summer and fall. As Ingersoll said, “The hands that help are better far than the lips that pray.” Know what? That’s really, really true.

It’s way, way past time that we stopped being humble about what the Ingersoll Museum represents. It’s an achievement that Ingersoll’s family could only sustain for some six years in the 1920s … an achievement that the best–known atheist leader of the 1950s could sustain for no more than eight years. Working together, we are striding into the thirteenth year for this, the third restoration of Ingersoll’s birthplace. I don’t know about you, but my sights are set on the twentieth anniversary … and the thirtieth.

Meet Ingersoll Contemporary … and Finger Lakes Fixture … Andrew D. White

Tom Flynn

Andrew D. White

The section of New York State within a hundred miles of Ingersoll’s birthplace in Dresden was the southern California of 19th century America … a seething hotbed of social, intellectual, religious and educational innovation. One of its towering figures was Andrew Dickson White, first president of Cornell University in Ithaca.

White (1832-1918) studied at Geneva (now Hobart) College, Yale, and in Europe. Joining the faculty of the then-new University of Michigan, he distinguished himself as a teacher and as an abolitionist, bringing freed slave and activist Frederick Douglass to campus to speak. (Douglass and Ingersoll would become fast friends.)

Returning to his native New York, White secured election to the state senate. There he met fellow senator Ezra Cornell, who had made a fortune wiring the nation for telegraphy. New York was pondering how to manage its windfall under the Morrill Act of 1862, which gave states tracts of western land the proceeds of whose sale must fund higher education. White and Cornell found they entertained compatible visions for New York’s land grant university. It would offer scientific and technical education as well as humanities degrees. And it would be nonsectarian – the first major nonsectarian college in the United States. After political controversy, Cornell University was chartered in 1865. White would be its first president.

Sectarian newspapers savaged the fledgling institution, accusing it of infidelity and worse – raising such a stink that New York Governor Reuben E. Fenton refused to attend Cornell’s 1868 opening ceremonies. Frustrated, White delivered a pugnacious 1869 literature indicting religion as the greatest enemy of scientific discovery. The lecture became a series of articles in a popular magazine, and became central to a growing national dialogue over whether science and religion stood inevitably in conflict.

More than two decades later, White shaped his thinking into his magnum opus, a two-volume work published in 1896 as A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. In correspondence he wrote that he intended the work to stake out a position between “such gush as [Catholic apologist John Henry] Newman’s on one side and such scoffing as Ingersoll’s on the other.” Though White meant to depict religion as science’s victim as much as the other way around, most readers thought A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom did as much as any published work, in historian Paul Carter’s words, “toward routing orthodoxy in the name of science.”

White wrote that his objective was, in fact, to preserve “the faith … in a Power in the universe good enough to make truth-seeking wise and strong enough to make truth-telling effective.” Yet atheist booksellers added White’s book to their lists. Ingersoll even wrote White a letter of praise, though he mocked White’s deism, quipping: “The only power in the universe strong enough to make truth-seeking safe is man.”

White and Ingersoll had two other odd linkages. On an 1878 Transatlantic crossing (White was probably on his way to help establish the pioneer international tribunal at The Hague), Ingersoll and White found themselves aboard the same ship. They spoke not about science or religion, but rather about art ! White and Ingersoll would also share a posthumous maritime connection, both having their names attached to U.S. “Liberty Ships” during World War II.

White died in 1918, having led a successful life whose principal blemish was the unplanned effect of his History of the Warfare of Science with Theology. However involuntarily, he wound up doing more than any other American – even Ingersoll! — to establish the idea that science and religion were at war – and that the right lay with science.

Andrew D. White's mansion
Andrew D. White's mansion
White built an impressive mansion on the Cornell campus. Converted to academic offices, it can still be visited today. It is one of west-central New York’s sites on the Freethought Trail (http://www.freethought-trail.org).

This article incorporates material from Tom Flynn’s article on Andrew D. White in his upcoming New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, a major reference work forthcoming from Prometheus Books.