A program of the Center for Inquiry
The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 21, Number 2 (Summer 2005).
Generous donations last year, coupled with some very special volunteer work, mean a record amount of new and/or refurbished material going on display at the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum in 2005. The birthplace museum, located in Dresden, New York, in the world-famous Finger Lakes wine district, is open Saturdays and Sundays from Noon to 5 P.M. between Memorial Day weekend and Halloween.
The museum’s audio-listening station has been completely revamped. Instead of a single telephone handset on which one could hear a scratchy copy of three brief Ingersoll statements recorded by Thomas Edison, there are three handy headsets and a bank of pushbuttons. Users can choose to listen to any of the three Edison recordings of Ingersoll’s actual voice. They can also listen to piano and full-orchestral performances of the nineteenth-century Ingersolia March, composed by John Philip Sousa imitator George Schleiffarth and unearthed by supporter Martin Lif schultz. The march clips will soon join the Edison recordings on the museum Web site, www.secular humanism.org/ingersoll. Center for Inquiry staffers Vance Vigrass installed the electronics, Andrew Skolnick digitally enhanced the Edison recordings for improved clarity, and Lisa Hutter and Chris Fix of the CFI art department produced the colorful signage.
Speaking of colorful signage, there’s a new welcome sign inside the museum entryway that offers free copies of Free Inquiry and Prometheus Books catalogues.
Other new acquisitions at the museum include an original 1890s newspaper cartoon of Ingersoll, a period drawing of the 1876 Republican Convention in Cincinnati, where Ingersoll launched his national career, and an artifact from the launching of the U.S.S. Robert G. Ingersoll, a World War II “Liberty Ship.” This year also marks the return of several items that had been withheld from display while they underwent preservation and rebinding: lavishly bound editions of Crimes Against Criminals, Little Journeys to the Homes of Eminent Orators, and Prose Poems and Selections, as well as one of the museum’s treasures: the original manuscript, largely in Ingersoll’s hand, of his famous speech “Ghosts,” presented to us years ago by supporter Philip Thorek.
We must also acknowledge the continuing support of Jeff Ingersoll, an Ingersoll family descendant and chair of the Friends of the Center for Inquiry in Amherst. By trade, Jeff is a painting contractor, and over the last few seasons he has donated a complete, professional paint job to the museum and repaired much of the roof in the bargain. Jeff’s generosity has saved us thousands of dollars, some of which we were able to apply to costly historic book repairs and the creation of new displays.
Some of the most impressive 2005 additions won’t appear at the museum at all. Thanks to Center for Inquiry research fellow Christopher Whittle, student interns Michael Korona and Matthew Licata applied themselves to two long-delayed Internet development projects.
By the time you read this, Mike Korona’s “Virtual Ingersoll Museum” will be available online. It’s an online tour of the entire Ingersoll Museum, including detailed photos and descriptions of every document and historical artifact displayed at Dresden. There are also video clips and the eleven-minute museum visitors’ orientation video—literally hundreds of elements. A broadband connection is definitely recommended for the virtual tour, though dialup users can access it too if they’re patient.
Matt Licata’s remarkable Freethought Trail Web site will be online soon at http://www.freethought-trail.org. This site documents a dozen historical sites within a short drive of the Ingersoll Museum that are part of America’s freethought and radical reform history. West-central New York was the Southern California of the nineteenth century—the cradle of social and cultural innovations from women’s rights to Spiritualism, from popular freethought to the Mormon Church. At the suggestion of Sally Roesch Wagner, director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation in Fayetteville, New York, we decided to create an informal Freethought Trail that acknowledges these sites and makes an itinerary available for people wishing to take the tour. Included are fully developed historical sites like the Women’s Rights Historic Park in Seneca Falls, the Susan B. Anthony house in Rochester, the Gage home in Fayetteville, the Mark Twain gravesite and other displays in Elmira, and, of course, the Ingersoll museum. Other sites are intact but unmarked: you can see the grade school Margaret Sanger attended in Corning; the home in Palmyra occupied by attorney Abner Cole (better known as crusading journalist Obadiah Dogberry) when he got a sneak advance look at galley proofs of the Book of Mormon, enabling him to publish a point-by-point refutation of Joseph Smith’s latter-day scripture in his newspaper before the Book of Mormon was published; and the meeting hall in Watkins Glen where Truth Seeker editor D.M. Bennett was arrested by agents of decency czar Anthony Comstock during an 1878 freethought convention. (It’s a pizzeria now.) Other sites are, well, just sites: most of the places anarchist Emma Goldman worked or lived in Rochester are now empty lots or housing projects. On the Freethought Trail Web site, you can find photos and descriptions of each of these sites, along with interactive driving directions to reach any other site on the Trail. The Ingersoll Museum lies at the heart of a region rich in freethought and radical reform history. The Freethought Trail Web site will enable any one to learn about and appreciate this legacy.
Tom Flynn is director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, as well as editor of Free Inquiry magazine.