God lets Ingersoll off

The legend of the Statehouse cornerstone

God lets Ingersoll off
Robert G. Ingersoll
Robert G. Ingersoll
Atheists don’t expect to rise from the dead, but one famous dead agnostic came up, as it were, when I was reflecting last week on the fear and loathing that atheists excite among some Illinoisans. Attorney Robert G. Ingersoll, blasphemer and Bible skeptic, was Peoria’s gift to the lecture circuit in the latter 1800s. (Lecture circuit? Try to imagine a TED talk that you have to leave the house for.) He was as popular with audiences as he was despised by the pious. He also was, astonishing as it might seem today, a conservative Republican politician.

Which brings me to my tale. Ingersoll in 1867 was appointed by Gov. Richard Oglesby to be attorney general for a two-year term. Construction on the present Illinois Statehouse began when Ingersoll was in office. The cornerstone was of a size appropriate to that building, being more than 8 feet long, 4 feet wide and 3 feet thick. It was inscribed with the names of Ingersoll and other senior state officials, and put in place with the full ritual of the Masonic order while cannon boomed and bands for some reason played “Auld Lang Syne.”  

Sharp-eyed visitors to the Statehouse know, of course, that the cornerstone there today is bare of any inscription. I will let historian Paul Angle explain what happened next. “Ardent Masons, it is said, and others of tender religious sensibilities, were deeply offended by the inclusion on the stone of the name of Robert G. Ingersoll, notorious for his agnosticism. These people, the story goes, banded together soon after the ceremony, surreptitiously removed the stone and buried it in a deep pit on the Statehouse grounds.” Exactly how a stone that size might have been removed and buried and the scar of its entombment concealed, was not explained. No doubt God helped.

The Masonic theft was scarcely less fantastic than the story told by the New York Times on Jan. 24, 1921. It announced, “Stone bearing name of Ingersoll vanishes.” It was not exactly breaking news, since the stone had been bare for a half-century by then. The story opens thus: “Considerable speculation has been aroused that some mysterious agency has made away with the three-ton cornerstone of the Illinois state house, which bore, despite protests, the name of Robert G. Ingersoll, the atheist.”

Allow me to interrupt long enough to explain that an agnostic is not an atheist (nor was Ingersoll) but the distinction seems to be as puzzling to believers as unbelievers find the distinctions between, say, Baptist sects.

Back to the story: The unnamed reporter passed along rumors that lighting struck the stone nearly every time a summer cloud passed over the Capitol, and that each bolt “seemed to aim itself” at the stone, with the result that over time Ingersoll’s name was nearly erased. Who might start such rumors? Certainly there were, and are, people who hope to blacken Ingersoll’s name. But I suspect that his admirers would have liked people to believe him dangerous enough to merit a bitch slap from God, maybe enough to start the rumors themselves..

Reading this wonderful nonsense is almost as much fun as reading the Times’ lifestyle columns today, and part of me wishes – as I do about the lifestyle columns – that these reports were true. Nonetheless, questions must be asked. If God was so offended by the blasphemer that He wanted to erase his name, why did He not simply shoot a bolt at the man himself, leaving God free to go back to his usual chores of bringing pestilence and damning helpless sinners to eternal torment? For that matter, if the Grand Lodge of Illinois Masons were so offended by Ingersoll’s name adorning it, why had they laid it in the first place?

It seems a pity to ruin a good story with evidence (a point Ingersoll gleefully made from the lecture stage about the Bible) but evidence there appeared, finally, in 1937. A report was found that explained that the original stone had cracked badly and had been removed some two years after it had been laid and buried nearby beneath the east lawn of the Statehouse to save having to haul it away.

Some people – you know who you are – refused to believe it. What God failed to do, apparently the Masons might have. Angle, writing in 1937: “Many, however, still insist that the supposed cracking of the stone was mere subterfuge, that it is as sound as it ever was, and that the name of Robert G. Ingersoll was the sole reason for removing it. Apparently the question can be settled only by unearthing the stone.” That was finally done, in 1944, when the long-missing original stone was found a few feet away from where it was removed, “just where workmen with a calcareous white elephant on their hands would have put it.” It was indeed split badly, but it was not defaced, by the Masons or any supernatural power; it has been on display at the spot ever since, ignored by most tourists and, apparently, by God.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at [email protected].

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