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One of the 19th century's greatest orators called Peoria home. A solitary statue is all that marks his legacy here today

Library of Congress
A photo of Robert G. Ingersoll captured by Mathew Brady sometime between 1865 and 1880.

Robert Green Ingersoll was one of, if not the most, famous public speakers of the 19th century. He called Peoria home for more than 20 of his 65 years of life, but has Peoria forgotten him?

That's the question Dr. Victoria Loberg asks in her new book about "Peoria's pagan politician," referring to his agnosticism and prowess working a crowd with his speech.

"Before the invention of radio, he drew crowds in the thousands to hear him speak," Loberg said. "He owned the stage. He had a lot of charisma. And he could speak for hours, because he had a photographic memory."

Ingersoll was born in New York State, the son of a reverend. He later moved to Illinois, and eventually settled in Peoria with his brother in 1857. In 1862, he married Eva Parker of Groveland.

An attorney by trade, Ingersoll pontificated on eclectic subjects varying from his love of Shakespeare to his advocacy for abolitionism and women's suffrage. Recorded fragments of his speeches are preserved by the Library of Congress.

Ingersoll's disdain for organized religion earned him some negative sentiment. The Republican politician was serving as Illinois Attorney General when the current Illinois State Capitol was constructed.

"His name was engraved on the cornerstone. And Christian groups did not favor that action," Loberg said. "An urban legend developed that lightning came and struck the cornerstone, and his name was erased. And that's not true. They just removed it to a different place."

Ingersoll famously declared he could have been elected president of the United States, if only he would renounce his agnosticism. Upon his death in 1899, his daughter lobbied to have a statue of her father erected in a prominent location somewhere in the nation's Capitol, but religious groups successfully pushed back on the proposal.

Peoria Public Library / Illinois Digital Archives
A vintage postcard depicts the Robert G. Ingersoll statue in Glen Oak Park. Created by artist Fritz Triebel, the statue was unveiled in 1911 on the site of Peoria's Camp Lyon, where Ingersoll raised a Union Army regiment to fight in the American Civil War.

In the end, only Peoria put up a statue dedicated to the "great Agnostic." It still stands today in a relatively isolated portion of Glen Oak Park, marking the location where Ingersoll raised the 11th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Cavalry at the outset of the American Civil War. Ingersoll was taken a prisoner of war, but later freed in a prisoner exchange. He returned to Peoria and was greeted by the community with a gift of silver.

The Ingersoll statue fell into serious disrepair over the decades, but it was restored a few years ago through a national effort.

He was a friend to famous figures of the age like Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Edison, and Luther Burbank. Loberg said his name belongs among their ranks in the annals of history.

"Everyone knows their names. They don't know Ingersoll," said Loberg. "And I think that's kind of a tragedy. Peoria is the only place that has really recognized him."

Though Ingersoll's father is buried at Springdale Cemetery, Ingersoll and his wife's cremains are at Arlington National Cemetery.

Loberg's book is Robert Green Ingersoll: Forgotten by Peoria? Contact her at vloberg@gmail.com to purchase a copy.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.