July 1995

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A Note on

Robert G. Ingersoll

contributed by

Herbert S. Wisbey

The item in the May 1995 issue of the Crooked Lake Review about a Memorial Day speech supposedly given by Robert G. Ingersoll in Dresden in 1866 raises some questions. Thanks to the courtesy of Mrs. Betty Smalley, Torrey Town Historian, I have examined the notes of the speech and seen the newspaper article from the Geneva Daily Times, of May 31, 1951. The notes are on four 5" by 8" sheets of paper now encapsulated in plastic. The handwriting on all the pages and the signature, Robert G. Ingersoll, on page 4, seem to be unquestionably authentic. The title, "A Memorial Day Vision," is printed and may have been added by another person. A crudely printed note following the signature that reads "Born Dresden. 1830. Died 1899." is certainly by someone else.

The problems about dating this speech in 1866 and locating it in Dresden are several. Memorial Day was not a holiday in 1866. The first official Memorial Day was in 1868, although an unofficial celebration, credited as being the first, was held in Waterloo, on May 5, 1866. Robert Ingersoll was not part of that festivity. A search of the Yates County Chronicle from May through July, 1866, had no mention of a Memorial Day commemoration or of a visit to the area of Robert G. Ingersoll. The Chronicle was a Republican newspaper and the visit of Robert Ingersoll would certainly have been noted. At that time Ingersoll was known for his partisan Republican oratory rather than the anti-religious speeches that made him famous later. In fact, letters he wrote that are referred to in his biography by Frank Smith indicate that Robert was in Illinois campaigning for the reelection of his brother to Congress in the summer of 1866.

When Ingersoll did visit Yates County to speak at the Yates County Fair in Penn Yan on September 25, 1889, the visit was described as the first time he had returned to the area. Mrs. Smalley says Ingersoll did visit Dresden at that time.

A possible explanation for the notes of the speech may be found in the history of the Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. The first attempt to establish a museum in the birthplace house was in 1921. Members of the Ingersoll family and several celebrities attended the dedication that brought out what the Yates County Chronicle described as the largest crowd in the history of Dresden. Certainly every effort was made to collect memorabilia relating to Ingersoll for the museum. It would be logical for the family to present some notes in Ingersoll's own hand for display in the museum. When the museum closed, the notes would probably have been relegated to the attic.

Asa Dunlap who brought the notes to the attention of the Geneva Daily Times in 1951, was then living in a retirement home in Geneva. He had been a handyman-caretaker of the Ingersoll birthplace when he lived in Dresden. He told the newspaper that he had found the notes in the attic there. It was the 1951 newspaper article that first printed the 1866 date, an almost certain error.

The present Robert G. Ingersoll Museum is the third and by far the most successful of the attempts to commemorate Dresden's most famous son.

© 1995, Herbert S. Wisbey
More on Robert Ingersoll by Herbert Wisbey
Index to articles by Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.
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