As the Steamboat runners moved through lower Glen Oak Park recently, they passed two statues. One of them, a runner, matches their stride for a moment, while the other surveys the masses from a lofty pedestal.
The running figure depicts Michael Sonnemaker, a Peoria attorney and Steamboat volunteer, who died at age 37 in a 1986 plane crash. Local sculptor and runner Joy Kessler created the work, which was dedicated for Steamboat’s 25th anniversary five years ago.
The other bronze figure, created by Peoria-born sculptor Fritz Triebel and dedicated in 1911, is labeled simply “INGERSOLL.” With both hands firmly on his hips and arms akimbo, the statue asserts conviction.
An 1894 book entitled America’s Greatest Men and Women describes Robert Green Ingersoll as “a brilliant orator, a picturesque word-painter, a master of pathos and invective, an inexhaustible fountain of wit, poetry and the milk of human kindness.” The book, which featured “the most famous living people on the continent,” goes on to say “his latter-day fame rests largely upon his bitter denunciation of the Christian religion.”
The son of a Congregational minister, Ingersoll became a lawyer like his older brother, Ebon Clark Ingersoll, and followed when Clark came here in 1857 to practice.
When the Civil War broke out, Robert offered his services to Gov. Yates and organized the 11th Illinois Cavalry. Captured at Shiloh, Ingersoll so irritated his captors that, when prisoners were exchanged, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest reportedly said he would trade Colonel Ingersoll for an Army mule.
Following the War, Ingersoll, who’d waged several unsuccessful political campaigns as a Democrat, joined the party of Lincoln. In 1867, Gov. Oglesby appointed him the first Illinois attorney general, a position he held until January 1869.
Clark’s political success included election to the Illinois legislature and then, in 1864, to Congress, where he served until 1870. Clark decided to stay in Washington, and Robert ultimately joined him there. After Clark’s 1879 death, Robert moved to New York City.
Robert Ingersoll’s speech nominating James G. Blaine for president at the 1876 Republican National Convention marked one of the highpoints of Colonel Bob’s political career. Unfortunately, the Plumed Knight, Ingersoll’s term for Blaine, lost to Rutherford B. Hayes as successor to General Grant. In 1877, Ingersoll refused appointment by Hayes as minister to Germany.
Although popular as a campaign orator, Ingersoll abandoned politics to become a lecturer, “directing his keen shafts of criticism and ridicule at those who accept the dogmas of any of the old creeds,” the 1894 book reports.
A 1940 article on Ingersoll in Papers in Illinois History noted that, to his friends, Ingersoll was a paragon of virtue, while his enemies considered him “an agent of Satan … a Devil Incarnate, a roaring lion, walking about, seeking whom he might devour, carrying on the work of anti-Christ on earth.” Yet the article reviews family letters that “show that the Great Agnostic loved and respected his preacher father, and adored his own wife and children and brothers.”
Ingersoll also shared his father’s abolitionist views. He helped educate his Peoria housekeeper’s daughters, including Elizabeth Lindsay Davis, who became a civil rights leader; was instrumental in integrating Peoria public schools in 1871; and was a friend of former slave and distinguished orator Frederick Douglass.
Today, Ingersoll is also championed as a free thinker and secular humanist. His collected works fill 12 volumes. At Peoria’s Flanagan House Museum, Ingersoll’s portrait and desk are in the library.
Peoria newspaper editor Eugene F. Baldwin, president of the Ingersoll Monument Association, oversaw erection and dedication of the Peoria statue, with funds raised from throughout the country. The great-grandson of John Quincy Adams spoke before the crowd of some 6,000 people that included Ingersoll’s widow, Eva, and two daughters. Grandson Robert Ingersoll Brown unveiled the statue.
Enthusiasts have made a museum of Ingersoll’s 1833 birthplace in Dresden, N.Y. There—and on the Internet—visitors can listen to his voice as recorded by Thomas Edison, and see a sandstone bust that once topped the façade of a Michigan theater, as well as other memorabilia. A chronicle of his thousands of speaking engagements is being compiled. On hearing him, Mark Twain wrote, “Lord, what an organ is human speech when played by a master.”
Ingersoll’s Peoria home on Jefferson just northwest of Hamilton no longer exists. A house he built in 1865 as a summer home on Moss Avenue was occupied mostly by his in-laws.
Ingersoll died at Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., in 1899 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. AA!