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Indiana historian cites Ingersoll’s accomplishments in Peoria speech

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

One of Peoria’s foremost historical figures was the topic of a presentation by a member of the Indiana Historical Bureau, speaking at the GAR Hall in Downtown Peoria earlier this year.

Justin Clark, a public historian at the bureau based in Indianapolis, spoke about the friendship between Peoria’s Robert Ingersoll and Eugene Debs, the Indiana labor organizer and Socialist presidential candidate.

Both men were outstanding orators who had something in common: both voiced ideas that were unpopular with mainstream America, said Clark. Ingersoll, who served as an attorney in Peoria from 1858 to 1878, was known as “The Great Agnostic” due to his opposition of organized religion while Debs supported labor unions and enthusiastically promoted the concept of socialism.

“They became friends after Ingersoll gave a speech in Indiana in 1878,” he said.

Clark said his interest in Ingersoll led him to Southern Illinois University to access the collection of Ingersoll material at Southern Illinois University while working on his master’s thesis. “On my way back from Carbondale to Indiana, I stopped in Peoria to see the Ingersoll statue at Glen Oak Park,” he said.

“I find Ingersoll to be an immensely fascinating figure and wanted to delve further into the impact he had on the Midwest as well as his relationship with the Free Thinkers Society in Indianapolis,” said Clark.

“Next to Mark Twain, Ingersoll was the most famous public speaker in America in the late 19th century but today is largely forgotten. I thought this is the guy I want to do research on,” he said, reciting Ingersoll’s famous “happiness creed:” “Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.”

While Ingersoll’s views on religion clashed with the Victorian views of the time, he was universally respected, said Clark. “He was a veteran of the Civil War and a family man. In some ways, he was very Lincolnesque. Neither man went to college. Like Lincoln, Ingersoll taught himself the law. As lawyers, both men made a lot of money defending railroads,” he said.

While Ingersoll earned top dollar as an orator, he was known for his charity, said Clark. “He gave away most of the money he made,” he said.

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Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.