Saturday, December 24, 2011

Our Most Famous Citizen



It would be interesting to ask Peorians, whom, in their opinion, was Peoria’s most famous citizen? The answer would reflect the age of the person guessing, you think? Now I am talking 1845 to the present time. The guesses would vary from Fibber McGee and Molly, to Amos and Andy, to Richard Pryor to Dan Fogelberg, and quite a few others most folks have never even heard about. My choice, based on his incredible life would be Robert Green Ingersoll. For those few readers that know the name, all they could tell you was that he was a famous agnostic or even an atheist. So how could a guy like that be Peoria’s most famous citizen? Well…I’m glad you asked.

Born in Dresden, New York in 1833, he went on to be a teacher and finally a lawyer. He was known as the greatest orator of our time, and easily compared to Patrick Henry and Daniel Webster. He was referred to as the great infidel and the great agnostic, but to many he was much, much more. He came to Peoria, Illinois in 1857, remaining here until the middle of 1877. He was also the Attorney General of Illinois, 1867-1868. Ingersoll was a local hero here in Peoria during the Civil War. He gave himself the rank of Colonel, and organized a regiment of cavalry. The new colonel gathered his men out at Camp Lyons, where we now call Glen Oak Park. There is a monument there on Prospect Road to commemorate the setting. Colonel Ingersoll was captured during a battle with the Confederate Army but released, and came home to Peoria a hero.

The great man practiced law with his brother Eben, and became nationally famous when he nominated James B. Blaine for president at the Republican Convention in 1876. For two full decades after that he was known as “The premier orator of the nation.” He spoke on many subjects, but religion was the subject people flocked to hear. Here is what he said about religion. “Christianity was good when it taught the beauty of love and the kindness in man. It was bad when it carried a message of eternal grief and damnation.”
Known as a seeker of the truth, Ingersoll fought for free thinking and free speech. He confronted religious leaders pleading with them to seek the truth as well. They, on the other hand, looked upon him in many cases as the Devil incarnate. All anyone has to do is go to our local library and learn the truth of this most honorable, independent thinker, Peoria’s most famous citizen. Although he was a man of the world, he was proud of his connection with Peoria, Illinois.


On October 28, 1911 a large crowd gathered at Glen Oak Park to dedicate the Ingersoll Statue
and offer it as a gift to all Peorians. It was Eugene Baldwin, founder of The Peoria Star that labored long and hard to bring the Frederick Triebel monument to Peoria, Illinois. Baldwin opened the ceremonies by telling the crowd that they were there to “Honor the great apostle of liberty.” The statue stands to this day, even though vandals tipped it over in 1950 and during the war there was talk of melting it down for the war effort. It is still there, staring out over the beautiful park drive, not far from Woodruff High School.

Some quotes from the man himself. “The word of God is the creation we behold.” Billed as one of the world’s free thinkers, he said, “I have never denied the immortality of man. I have simply said, ‘I do not know.’ Hundreds of stories were written about Ingersoll, and during the ceremonies yearly in front of the statue, speakers reminded folks of the greatness of Robert Ingersoll. Baldwin said,
“He uttered nothing base. But his heart was all aglow for liberty, for freedom. For the emancipation of the mind and the redemption of the soul.”

Colonel Ingersoll came home to tell of his capture by the ‘Sesesh’, a word coined from secession during the Civil War. He then went on to practice law here in Peoria, which included some famous and important cases throughout the United States. Robert Ingersoll lived by his creed: “Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.”

Ingersoll remained in Peoria until 1877 when he moved to Washington D.C., then on to New York,
where he died in 1899. Mark Twain said of Robert Green Ingersoll, after hearing the orator speak, “It was the supreme combination of English words that was ever put together since the world began.” In 1932 the ashes of Ingersoll were reburied with honors in the Arlington National Cemetery.
One biographer summed up Ingersoll’s speaking technique as follows: “The language of Shakespeare,
the tenderness of Burns.” Robert Ingersoll lived and worked right here in Peoria, Illinois, bringing fame to himself, and honor to this city. Gone now for so many, many years, his words still ring true. Robert Ingersoll was a great American, a loyal patriot and he was proud to call Peoria his home.


Here in Peoria, Illinois the news of the death of Ebon Clark Ingersoll, Robert’s brother and law partner reached the city here on June 3, 1879. Ebon was Peoria’s Congressional Representative after the Civil War, and a man admired locally in his own right. Robert Ingersoll delivered the funeral oration and as usual his words were considered among the finest ever spoken by any man in our history.
“Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities.
We strive in vain to look upon the heights. We cry aloud and the only answer
is the echo of our wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead
there comes no word; but in the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening
can hear the rustling of a wing.

He who sleeps here, when dying, mistaking the approach of death with the return
of health, whispered with his last breath: ‘I am better now.’

Let us believe, in spite of doubt and dogmas, of fears and tears, that these dear
words are true of all the countless dead.”

As a historian of Peoria history I am often amazed at how truly wonderful this city was, from its beginnings as a trading post, to its peak as a small, cosmopolitan city in the heart of this great nation.
I am proud of the people that have lived here all or most of their lives and went on to fame, fortune and influence throughout this nation and the world. They were all influenced by what they saw and learned here in the heart of Illinois. Robert Ingersoll was just one of them.

Editor’s Note: Norm is a lifelong Peorian and author of ten books on its history.

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