Boston Herald, July, 1894
His Mentality Seems to be Duplex, Quadruplex, Multiplex.
Col. Robert G. Ingersoll represents what is intellectually highest among the whole world’s opponents of religion. He counts theology as the science of a superstition. He decries religion as it exists, and holds that the broadest thing a man, or all human nature, can do is to acknowledge ignorance when it cannot know. He accepts nothing on faith. He is the American who is forever asking, “Why?”—who demands a reason and material proof before believing.
As Christianity’s corner-stone is faith, he rejects Christianity, and argues that all men who are broad enough to know when to narrow their ideas down to fact or demonstrable theory must reject it. Believe as he does or not, all Americans must be interested in him. His mind is marvelous, his tongue is silvern, his logic is invincible—as logic.
Col. Ingersoll is a shining example of the oft-quoted fact that, given mental ability, health and industry, a young man may make for himself whatever place in life he desires and is fitted to fill. His early advantages were limited, for his father, a Congregational minister whose field of labor often changed, was a man of far too small an income to send his sons to college.
Whatever of mental training the young man had he was obliged to get by reason of his own exertion, and his splendid triumphs as an orator, and his solid achievements as a lawyer are all the result of his own efforts. The only help he had was that which is the common heritage of all American young men—the chance to fight even handed for success.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Col. Ingersoll feels a deep interest in every bright young man of his acquaintance who is struggling manfully for the glittering prize so brilliantly won by the great Agnostic himself. He does not believe, however, that the young man who goes out into the world nowadays to seek his fortune has so easy a battle to fight as had the young men of thirty years ago. In conversation with the writer Col. Ingersoll spoke earnestly upon this subject.
Col. Ingersoll’s views regarding the Bible and Christianity were not generally understood by the public for some time after he had become famous as an orator, although he began to diverge from orthodoxy when quite young, and was as pronounced an Agnostic when he went into the army, as he is now.
Col. Ingersoll is an inch less than six feet tall, and weighs ten more than two hundred pounds. He will be sixty- one next August, and his hair is snowy. His shoulders are broad and as straight as they were eighteen years ago when he electrified a people and place! his own name upon the list of a nation’s greatest orators with his matchless “Plumed Knight” speech in nominating James G. Blaine for the presidency.
His blue eyes look straight into yours when he speaks to you, and his sentences are punctuated by engaging little tricks of facial expression—now the brow is criss-crossed with the lines of a frown, sometimes quizzical and sometimes indignant—next, the smooth-shaven lips break into a curving smile, which may grow into a broad grin if the point just made were a humorous one, and this is quite likely to be followed by a look of such intense earnestness that you wonder if he will ever smile again.
And all the time his eyes flash, illuminating, sometimes anticipatory, glances that add immensely to the clearness with which the thought he is expressing is set before you. He delights to tell a story, and he never tells any but good ones, but—and in this he is like Lincoln—he is apt to use his stories to drive some proposition home. This is almost invariably true, even when he sets out to spin a yarn for the story’s simple sake.
His mentality seems to be duplex, quadruplex, multiplex, if you please—and while his lips and tongue are effectively delivering the story, his wonderful brain is, seemingly, unconsciously applying the point of the story to the proving of a pet theory, and when the tale has been told the verbal application follows.
His birthplace was Dresden, N. Y. His early boyhood was passed in New York State and his youth and young manhood in Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin.
His handgrasp is hearty and his manner and words are the very essence of straightforward directness. I called at his office once when the Colonel was closeted with a person who wished to retain him in a law case involving a good deal of money. After a bit I was told that I could see him, and as I entered he was saying: “The case can’t be won, for you are in the wrong. I don’t want it.”
“But,” pleaded the would-be client, “It seems to me that a good deal can be done in such a case by the way it is handled before the jury, and I thought if you were to be the man I might get a verdict.”
“No, sir,” was the reply, and the words fell like the lead of a plumb line; “I won’t take it. Good morning, sir.”
It has been sometimes said, indulgently, of Col. Ingersoll that he is indolent, but no one can hold that view who is at all familiar with him or his work. As a matter of fact, his
industry is phenomenal, though, indeed, it is not carried on after the fashion of less brainy men. When he has an important case ahead of him his devotion to the mastery of its details absorbs him at once and completely.
It sometimes becomes necessary for him to take up a line of chemical inquiry entirely new to him; again, to elaborate genealogical researches are necessary; still again, it may be essential for him to thoroughly inform himself concerning hitherto uninvestigated local historical records. But whatever is needful to be studied he studies, and so thoroughly that his mind becomes saturated with the knowledge required. And once acquired no sort of information ever leaves him, for he has a memory quite as marvelous as any other of his altogether marvelous characteristics.
It is the same when he has an address to prepare. Every authority that can be consulted upon the subject to be treated in the address, is consulted, and often the material that suggests some of the most telling points is one which no one but Ingersoll himself would think of referring to. Here again his wonderful memory stands him in good stead for he has packed away within the convolutions of his brain a lot of facts that bear upon almost every conceivable branch of human thought or investigation.
His memory is quite as retentive of the features of a man he has seen as of other matters; it retains voices also, as a war time friend of his discovered last summer. It was a busy day with the Colonel, who had given instructions to his office boy that under no circumstances was he to be disturbed; so when his old friend called he was told that Col. Ingersoll could not see him “But,” said the visitor: “I must see him. I haven’t seen him for twenty years; I am going out of town this afternoon, and I wouldn’t miss talking with him for a few minutes for a good deal of money.”
“Well,” said the boy, “he wasn’t to be disturbed by anybody.” At this moment the door of the Colonel’s private office opened, and the Colonel’s portly form appeared upon the scene.
“Why, Maj. Blank,” he said, “come in. I did tell the boy I wouldn’t see anybody, but you are more important than the biggest law case in the world.”
The Colonel’s memory had retained the sound of the major’s voice, and because of that, the latter was not obliged to leave New York without seeing and renewing his old acquaintance.
Col. Ingersoll’s retorts are as quick as a flash-light and as searching. One of them was so startling and so effective as to give a certain famous long drawn out railroad suit the nickname. “The Ananias and Sapphira ease.” Ingersoll was speaking and had made certain statements highly damaging to the other side, in such a way as to thoroughly anger a member of the opposing counsel, who suddenly interrupted the speaker with the abrupt and sarcastic remark: I suppose the Colonel, in the nature of things, never heard of the story of Ananias and Sapphira.”
There were those present who expected to witness an angry outburst on the part of Ingersoll in response to this plain implication that his statement had not the quality of veracity, but they were disappointed. Ingersoll didn’t even get angry. He turned lightly, fixed his limpid blue eyes upon the speaker, and looked cherubically. Then he gently drawled out.
“Oh, yes, I have, yes, I have. And I’ve watched the gentleman who has just spoken all through this case with a curious Interest. I’ve been expecting every once in a while to see him drop dead, but he seems to be all right down to the present moment.”
Ingersoll never gets angry when he is interrupted, even if it is in the middle of an address or a lecture. A man interrupted him in Cincinnati once, cutting right into one of the lecturer’s most resonant periods with a yell:
“That’s a lie. Bob lngersoll, and you know it.” The audience was in an uproar in an instant, and cries of “Put him out!” “Throw him down stairs!” and the like were heard from all parts of the house. Ingersoll stopped talking for a moment, and held up his hands, smiling.”Don’t hurt the man,” he said. “He thinks he is right. But let me explain this thing for his especial benefit.”
Then he reasoned the matter out in language so simple and plain that no one of any intelligence whatever could fail to comprehend. The man was not ejected, but sat through the entire address, and at the close asked the privilege of begging the lecturer’s pardon.
Like most men of genius, Colonel lngersoll is a passionate lover of music, and the harmonies of Wagner seem to him to be the very acme of musical expression….
Notwithstanding his thoroughly heretical beliefs or lack of beliefs, or, as he would say, because of them, Colonel lngersoll is a very tender-hearted man. No one has ever made
so strong an argument against vivisection in the alleged interests of science as lngersoll did in a speech a few years ago. To the presentation of his views against the refinements of scientific cruelty he brought his most vivid imagination, his most careful thought and his most impassioned oratory.
Colonel Ingersoll’s popularity with those who know him is proverbial. The clerks in his offices not only admire him for his ability and his achievements, but they esteem him for his kindliness of heart and his invariable courtesy in his intercourse with them. His offices are located in one of the buildings devoted to corporations and professional men on the lower part of Nassau Street and consist of three rooms. The one used by the head of the firm is farthest from the entrance. All are furnished in solid black walnut.
In the Colonel’s room there is a picture of his loved brother Ebon, and hanging below the frame thereof is the tin sign that the two brothers hung out for a shingle when they went into the law business in Peoria. There are also pictures of a judge or two. The desks in all the rooms are littered with papers. Books are piled to the ceiling. Everywhere there is an air of personal freedom. There is no servility either to clients or the head of the business, but there is everywhere an informal courtesy somewhat akin to that which is born of a fueling of great comradeship.
Of the Colonel’s ideal home life the world has often been told. He lives during the winter at his town house in Fifth Avenue; in the summer at Dobbs Ferry, a charming place a few miles up the Hudson from New York.