“The most remarkable American most people never heard of" spent two decades in Peoria.
Robert Green Ingersoll, once known as “The Great Agnostic,” was the greatest orator America has ever produced. Yes, I know about Patrick Henry and Daniel Webster, but believe me or not, Ingersoll was in a class of his own.
I often called him Peoria’s most famous citizen, which, for the folks who knew nothing about him, must have seemed a silly thing to say. In my lectures and radio appearances, I enjoyed the response I always got when I told people that Ingersoll was indeed our most famous person. They liked to counter with Richard Pryor, Fibber McGee and Molly, or a handful of others, but I never wavered. Truth is, I had an advantage because I studied the life of Ingersoll, and of course, I lived way back in the radio and early-TV days when their picks were at the peak of their careers. Ingersoll had none of those electronic miracles to enhance his popularity—just his oratory skills.
Twenty Years in Peoria
Born in Dresden, New York on August 11, 1833, “Bob” Ingersoll came to Peoria in 1857 with his brother Eben and opened up a law office. The Ingersolls eventually lived in a five- or maybe six-sided home on Fourth Street, and early on, even the house became famous. Ingersoll was involved in several famous law cases and traveled all over the United States and Europe as an orator and debater.
It was the golden age of free thinking, and that is when Ingersoll was tagged as “The Great Agnostic.” He was an author of note and even wrote a book explaining why he was an agnostic. For those who actually knew of Ingersoll here in Peoria, that is basically all they knew about him—sad that this great man, this genius, had his entire personality and life rolled up into one word: “agnostic.”
Ingersoll left Peoria in 1877 and moved to Washington DC, then to New York; but his time here was not forgotten. In 1911, a statue of him was dedicated in the lower entrance to Glen Oak Park. During World War II, some folks suggested it be scrapped for the war effort, and later, in 1950, the statue was tipped over on its face by vandals. But Old Bob was put back up and he stands in the same spot to this day, none the worse for this scandalous attack.
The Civil War
To some, Ingersoll was a hero of the Civil War, but there were people living in Peoria at the time who had their doubts. He got permission to raise his own army in this area, and he gave himself the rank of colonel. Men stood in line to join his group, and off they marched. One young man told a local reporter, “I sure hope we get to the war before it’s over.”
The first conflict with the Confederates ended with Colonel Ingersoll surrendering himself and a large number of his troops. One day, he came walking home down Main Street, smiling and waving at his friends. When asked about his soldiers, he told reporters they were in good hands and that he had “been paroled by a Confederate colonel.”
Robert Green Ingersoll died at Dobbs Ferry, New York on July 21, 1899. He was buried there, but his cremated remains were later buried in Arlington National Cemetery with military honors on May 4, 1932. Ingersoll’s wife, Eva, is there with him in Section 3, grave number 1620.
A Boys’ Night Out
Anyone can google Mr. Ingersoll, but I feel certain you will not find this Peoria connection. On a warm night in September of 1857, Robert Ingersoll and about 10 of his friends, mostly young lawyer wannabes, decided to have a night on the town. At that time, our population was 8,256, and Peoria was already the brightest spot on the map between Chicago and St. Louis.
The boys hit the local “groggeries”—as saloons were referred to way back then—making the rounds, singing and carrying on as they walked along. One bright young fellow shouted out that they should have a “town meeting.” At two in the morning, that was not the brightest of ideas, but all agreed just the same. They managed to build a rather large bonfire right there on Main Street and began to sing “Annie Laurie” at the top of their lungs. Well, the neighbors thought that was a bit much, and the boys were rounded up by two police officers. After all the paperwork was over, a hearing was set by a local magistrate and the boys went home.
The trial was held in a small courtroom by the magistrate, who thought the proceedings were a bit amusing. “Is there an attorney among the defendants?” he asked. Ingersoll stood. “I represent myself and all of the defendants, your honor.” “Fine… fine… how do you plead?” “Not guilty, your honor, and we wish to have a jury trial.” Local records do not show what the magistrate said, but if you look real hard, I bet you can see his eyes roll.
The assistant state’s attorney made a big fuss with all his witnesses, including the two police officers. Ingersoll sat staring at each witness, smiling and occasionally laughing out loud at what they had to say. He did not cross-examine anyone; he just sat there and smiled. Finally, he was called upon by the magistrate. He instructed the judge that he would address the jury with his opening, summation and closing statement, calling no witnesses.
In his elegant manner, Ingersoll soon had the jurors mesmerized by talking about everything from the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. Staring at each juror for a moment, he said, “Now gentlemen, if you will bring in a verdict in accordance with the laws and the evidence, I will get the boys together and we’ll sing you a few verses of ‘Annie Laurie.’”
Of course, the verdict was “not guilty,” followed by an outburst of cheering from the defendants and those present in the courtroom. One local reporter printed a line that was repeated over and over in Peoria: “Brilliant Mr. Ingersoll waved the Stars and Stripes into shreds and pinched the American eagle until it screamed.”
The next time you are in Lower Glen Oak Park, go on over and say hello to Peoria’s most famous citizen. He has been standing there since 1911, just waiting to say hello to you. iBi
Norm Kelly is a Peoria historian and author whose works can be found in the Peoria Public Library and online. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.