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Molly Crusen Bishop: When Ingersoll spoke, people listened

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Robert G. Ingersoll
ingersoll kid pic

Robert Green Ingersoll was one of the most popular speakers in the latter half of the 19th century. He lived in Peoria around the time of the Civil War. His statue stands today at the very bottom of Glen Oak Park.

Ingersoll was the first Illinois Attorney General and was a famed orator who travelled across the United States for decades, speaking to sold-out crowds and gaining nationwide fame. One of his personal favorite subjects to speak on was William Shakespeare.

Ingersoll had a controversial dislike for organized religion and was often referred to as the “Great Infidel,” yet he spoke tirelessly on his anti-slavery position, for women’s rights, and about maintaining a positive family life.

During the 1850s Frederick Douglass was asked to come to Peoria by a group called the Anti-Slavery Society to speak about the evils of slavery. Peoria at the time was a hotbed on both sides of the slavery issue. In 1853 Illinois passed laws that held fines and imprisonment for any African American, free or slave, coming into Illinois with the intention to settle here.

Douglass mentioned Ingersoll in his autobiography “Life and Times”, when speaking of a visit to Peoria after the Civil War. He said he was told to search for Bob Ingersoll for hospitality if he were refused lodging in Peoria hotels again, as he had been in the 1850s, when Douglass was forced to walk the freezing streets of Peoria all night long.

He did find a hotel room on this visit but decided to call on Ingersoll the next morning. He spoke about how much warmth and human kindness came from him. Ingersoll’s abolitionism was known in Peoria and nationwide.

Robert Ingersoll was born Aug. 11, 1833 in Dresden, New York to a John and Mary Ingersoll, who were both ardent abolitionists. She died when Robert was small. His father was a preacher in a Congregationalist Church and gave fiery sermons against slavery.  

Rev. John Ingersoll would be let go from church to church every few years because his strong beliefs angered his congregants. His father’s treatment by the church had an impact on Robert’s strong dislike for organized religion. Incidentally, Rev. John Ingersoll and Ebon Ingersoll’s daughter, Robert niece, are the only two family members buried at Springdale Cemetery.

The Ingersoll family came to Illinois in the early 1850s and Robert became an attorney in 1854. He opened a law firm with his brother Ebon Clarke Ingersoll named E.C. and R.G. Ingersoll. Robert married Eva Amelia Parker of Groveland, Illinois in 1862 and later had two daughters named Maud and Eva. He strongly believed in the foundation of a happy family.

Robert helped raised the 11th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Cavalry and took command as the head of Cavalry. He fought in the famed Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee, which was a Union victory, but he was captured by Confederate forces. He was released when he promised not to take up arms again against the Confederacy. This was a common practice in the early part of the Civil War.

He then became the first Illinois Attorney General and was staunch member of the Republican Party. He was quite active politically and his party wanted him to run for governor of Illinois. The party thought he would be an excellent leader and asked him to run and requested him to hide his agnostic beliefs. He ended up not running because he refused to hide his anti-religious beliefs because he wanted to be honest.

Robert gained most of his fame and fortune from speaking. During the second half of the 19th century going to public speeches was a popular form of entertainment. He did numerous national tours to sell-out crowds and filled halls and theaters. He had a charismatic and exciting speaking style and spoke from memory and emotions. He often charged a dollar to listen to him speak, which was a large sum of money at that time. He spoke about his views on agnosticism during the golden age of “Free Thought” amid much controversy and he was despised for his views. He spoke about literature, on women’s rights such as suffrage, and gave commentary on political views. He talked about rights for African Americans, gave biblical criticism, and philosophy.  He was known as the greatest orator of the second half of the 19th century.

Robert and his family later moved to New York. He died July 21, 1899 in Dobbs Ferry, New York and Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was an abolitionist, a lawyer, and a Civil War veteran and also a beloved family man to his wife and daughters and grandchildren.  

About the Author
Molly is a life-long Peorian and an author, speaker, and storyteller. She is married to Doug Bishop and has five children and one grandchild. Molly loves history and Peoria and loves to share her passions with anyone she can get to listen to her. She loves to research, interview, and write or speak about history. The youngest and ninth child of Don and Joani Crusen, she grew up on the West Bluff in the house her great grandparents built in the 1880s. She writes a historical column in Woman’s View magazine, and will be writing a column called The Peorian Perspective in The Peorian.