Robert Ingersoll and Lew Wallace’s Legendary Train Ride

Robert Ingersoll (Left) and Lew Wallace (Right). Courtesy of the Library of Congress and Literary History Blog.
Robert Ingersoll (Left) and Lew Wallace (Right). Courtesy of the Library of Congress and American Literary Blog.

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) remains one of the most influential leaders and intellectuals in “The Golden Age of Freethought” in the United States from the 1870s to the 1910s. Its adherents advocated for skepticism, science, and the separation of church and state. Ingersoll, a Civil War veteran, parlayed his success as a lawyer into an influential career in Republican politics, social activism, and oratory. Ingersoll served as a counterpoint to rising participation and influence in government of religion in the United States, delivering speeches to sell-out crowds that decried religiosity and its public entanglements. Ingersoll was also an early champion of women’s rights, influencing such early feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and later ones such as Margaret Sanger.

Robert Ingersoll addressing an audience in New Rochelle, New York, May 30, 1894. Courtesy of the Council for Secular Humanism.
Robert Ingersoll addressing an audience in New Rochelle, New York, May 30, 1894. Courtesy of the Council for Secular Humanism.

He also spent considerable time and energy in Indiana, a state whose own religious diversity towards the late nineteenth century expanded, including German Lutherans to Catholics and other protestant denominations. From giving lectures throughout the state to influencing some of Indiana’s well-known historic figures, Ingersoll left a profound impact on the state and its development during the Gilded Age. As an example, Ingersoll delivered lectures at the illustrious English’s Opera House several times. The Indianapolis News wrote in 1899 that his lecture on “Superstition” was well attended and that “several people were shocked by the lecturer’s utterances, and left, some of them stopping in the lobby to ‘talk it over.’ The remainder seemed to enjoy the walk.”

General Lew Wallace, circa 1860s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
General Lew Wallace, circa 1860s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

To get a further sense of this influence, one particular story bears recalling, which involved a train ride with an old Civil War colleague. Lew Wallace, Indiana native, Civil War general, and the author of the novel Ben-Hur, cited Ingersoll as his influence in writing the Christian epic. As Wallace biographers Robert and Katharine Morsberger noted, Wallace “had written the story [Ben-Hur] partly to refute Robert G. Ingersoll’s agnosticism. . . .” The story surrounding this influence is near apocryphal to scholars of both Ingersoll and Wallace. However, Wallace intimated the story’s veracity in the preface to a selection from Ben-Hur entitled The First Christmas.

An example of a passenger rail car, circa 1870s. Image courtesy of Trainweb.org.
An example of a passenger rail car, circa 1870s. Image courtesy of Trainweb.org.

On September 19, 1876, both Wallace and Ingersoll supposedly shared a train ride to Indianapolis to attend a Civil War soldiers’ reunion (although one of Wallace’s accounts says it was a Republican convention); both men served the Union Army during the Civil War and fought at the battle of Shiloh. Wallace recounted the highlights of their conversation in his preface to The First Christmas:

[I] took a sleeper [car] from Crawfordsville the evening before the meeting. Moving slowly down the aisle of the car, talking with some friends, I passed the state-room. There was a knock on the door from the inside, and some one [sic] called my name. Upon answer, the door opened, and I saw Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll looking comfortable as might be considering the sultry weather.

General Wallace in his study, 1899. Courtesy of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum.
General Wallace in his study, 1899. Courtesy of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum.

Ingersoll invited Wallace to join him in conversation. Wallace accepted on the condition that he could dictate the subject. From there, Wallace asked Ingersoll if he believed in the afterlife, the divinity of Christ, and the existence of God, with the “Great Agnostic” answering in the resounding, “I don’t know, do you?” Then, Wallace asked Ingersoll to present his best case against the doctrines of Christianity, which Ingersoll did with such “a melody of argument, eloquence, wit, satire, audacity, irreverence, poetry, brilliant antitheses, and pungent excoriation [concerning] believers in God. . . .” Ingersoll’s views of both theological and biblical skepticism shook Wallace to the core, with the latter remarking that, “I was in a confusion of mind unlike dazement.”

The title page to the first edition of Ben-Hur, 1880. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.
The title page to the first edition of Ben-Hur, 1880. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Lew Wallace’s own theological confusion, what he called “absolute indifference,” seemed spurred into action by Ingersoll’s words: “. . . as I walked into the cool darkness, I was aroused for the first time in my life to the importance of religion.” Thus, Wallace began his own investigation into the doctrines and traditions of Christianity, culminating in the authorship of Ben-Hur and a “conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the divinity of Christ.” This story found its way into newspapers as well, with reporters recounting the meeting in the Terre Haute Sunday Evening Mail and the Indianapolis News. According to Wallace’s accounts and its echoes in newspapers, his evening with Ingersoll led to a full conversion to Christianity and the writing of one of the most successful religious novels of the period.

Wallace’s conversation with Ingersoll spurring him on to a religious awakening is indeed a compelling story.  However, a recently uncovered letter from Ingersoll gives cause to question the tale’s veracity. In 1887, seven years after Ben-Hur‘s publication, Ingersoll responded to a correspondent, Joseph Vardamann, asking about his role in inspiring Wallace’s novel.  Ingersoll wrote that he was “never well acquainted with” Wallace and did “not remember ever to have had a conversation with him on the subject of religion.” Ingersoll stressed that the story of their meeting on the train appeared to him as “without the slightest foundation.”

Ingersoll's letter to Joseph Vardaman, as reproduced in an 1922 issue of the Truth Seeker. Courtesy of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
Ingersoll’s letter to Joseph Vardaman, as reproduced in a 1922 issue of the Truth Seeker. Courtesy of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

For Wallace’s part in creating Ben-Hur, we know from documentary evidence that he was already well-advanced in writing the novel before the time he claimed the interaction with Ingersoll took place.  In 1874, Wallace wrote in a letter to his half-sister, “I have just come out of the court room, and business is over for the day. Now, for home, and a Jewish boy whom I have got into terrible trouble, and must get out of it as best I can.”  This letter clearly alludes to some of Judah Ben-Hur’s trials, whether being charged with the assassination of Valerius Gratus, being enslaved in a Roman galley, or surviving the sea battle.

While Wallace’s recollections with the “Great Agnostic” may have been a fiction, the story’s enduring popularity among Wallace scholars nevertheless speaks to Ingersoll’s intellectual and rhetorical power. The story of their supposed train ride in 1876 continues to interest scholars and the general public, but whether the event actually happened may be lost to history.

The Lew Wallace statue at the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
The Lew Wallace statue at the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
The Robert Ingersoll statue in Glen Oak Park in Peoria, Illinois. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
The Robert Ingersoll statue in Glen Oak Park in Peoria, Illinois. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

The Shared Humanism of Clemens and Kurt Vonnegut

Clemens (Left) was the Vonnegut family patriarch and lifelong freethinker. Kurt, Jr. (Right) was the great-grandson who carried his humanist heritage into his writing. Images courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections/citelighter.com.
Clemens (Left) was the Vonnegut family patriarch and lifelong freethinker. Kurt, Jr. (Right) was the great-grandson who carried his humanist heritage into his writing. Images courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections/citelighter.com.

The German-American community in Indianapolis, largely a product of mid-nineteenth century immigration, had a strong heritage of freethought (open evaluation of religion based on the use of reason). In particular, Clemens Vonnegut, the patriach of the Vonnegut family and lifelong freethinker, openly displayed his religious dissent through writings and community activism. This, in turn, influenced his family and the literary style of his great-grandson, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, especially the younger man’s ideas concerning God, religion, science, and ethics. The junior Vonnegut’s own midwestern brand of freethought, in the form of what literature scholar Todd F. Davis called a “postmodern humanism,” displayed a deep sense of skepticism about the irrationalism of his time, while simultaneously championing an ethical responsibility to ourselves and each other devoid of supernatural influences. Yet, true to his form as a freethinker, Kurt forged his own humanist identity. [*]

The Vonnegut Hardware Store, circa 1878. Founded by Clemens Vonnegut, the store would be an Indianapolis stable for well over a century. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The Vonnegut Hardware Company on Washington Street, circa 1878. Founded by Clemens Vonnegut, the store would be an Indianapolis stable for well over a century. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Clemens Vonnegut was born November 20, 1824, in Münster, Westphalia. In his early years, he studied in German public schools and apprenticed as a mercantile clerk. As recorded in the Indianapolis Press, a young Vonnegut came to the United States in the early 1830s, on assignment from his employer, J. L. de Ball and Company, which sold specialty fabrics. His year in New York convinced the young Vonnegut that America would be his permanent home. He then traveled to Indianapolis with his friend Charles Volmer to start a new life.

The Socialer Turnverein, a social club co-founded by Vonnegut, was the home of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. Image Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.
The Socialer Turnverein, a social club co-founded by Vonnegut, was the home of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. Image Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections.

He founded the Vonnegut Hardware Store in 1852, and was considered by the Indianapolis Star as “one of the city’s most respected citizens….” Like fellow Hoosier freethinker Hermann Lieber, he was a co-founder of the Socialer Turnverein and a forceful voice for public education. Clemens founded the German-English Independent School and served on its board for over 30 years. He also served as the first president of the Freethinker Society from 1870-1875, gave lectures to the society on occasion, and even translated the celebrated agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll’s Open Letter to the Clergy of Indianapolis into German for publication. His actions and beliefs heavily impacted the inception and growth of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis.

The German-English Indepdendent School, also co-founded by Vonnegut. He would work on multiple school boards for over thirty years.
The German-English Independent School, also co-founded by Vonnegut. He would work on multiple school boards for over thirty years. Image courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Archives and Collections.

After the end of the Freethinker Society in 1890, Clemens Vonnegut continued his activism more than any former member, mostly through writing. A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, published in 1900, enunciated Vonnegut’s philosophy of freethought, both in theory and in practice. This treatise also displayed a rhetorical flourish that Kurt would later cite as an influence in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday.  Echoing Ingersoll and Heinzen before him, Vonnegut declared that, “No religious creed has any real proofs. It rests simply on assertions.”

However, that does not mean that humanity cannot be moral. In fact, Vonnegut argued the opposite:

True virtue is its own reward, which is not enhanced but rather misled by belief. Belief deprives us of the joys of this world by teaching us that we must detest them, and instead of them we must hope for a heaven. Belief forms the germ for persecution of those who differ from us in their religious convictions.

A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, 1900. Published in both German and English, this pamplet by Clemens Vonnegut argued for a moral and just society without the need of superstition or religious beliefs. Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.
A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, 1900. Published in both German and English, this pamplet by Clemens Vonnegut argued for a moral and just society without the need of superstition or religious beliefs. Courtesy of IUPUI University Library, Special Collections and Archives.

Vonnegut saw morality as the wellspring of the “intrinsic quality of human character which ought to be nourished and cultivated early, continually, and carefully.” In subsequent pages, Vonnegut explained how such “cultivation” is achieved. Public education, family instruction, physical fitness, and social activities presented the means by which individuals perfected a moral life without the supernatural. Like Ingersoll, Vonnegut’s morality was clear, traditional, based in the family, and demonstrated a moral life without the need of God. While Clemens Vonnegut presented his philosophy clearly, the events surrounding his death were anything but.

Clemens Vonnegut’s death in 1906 created somewhat of a mystery for his family, and later his great-grandson. It was said that he died in the snow . . . or so the story goes. Kurt Vonnegut recalls this story in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday. In the winter of 1906, Clemens Vonnegut supposedly went for a routine stroll. Having lost his way, he wandered the streets of Indianapolis for hours before he was found dead by the side of the road by a search party. This story bewildered Kurt, whose own freethought can be traced to his great-grandfather and his own extended family. However, as with many family stories, this one stretches the truth a little.

Clemens did not die by the side of the road, but was rather found unconscious. The Indianapolis News reported that C. W. Jones, a local construction worker, found the 82-year-old Vonnegut nearly five miles from the city on Crawfordsville Pike. He sustained injuries to his head and right shoulder, but doctors feared that exposure to the elements might be his biggest challenge. After fighting for his life for five days, Clemens Vonnegut succumbed to pneumonia on January 13, 1906. His obituary cited his charity and love for knowledge, his activities within the Socialer Turnverein and the Freethinker Society, and his 27-year service for a local school board. True to his iconoclastic nature, Vonnegut wrote his own eulogy back in the 1870s and asked for its recitation when he died. As recorded in the Indianapolis Star, he railed against the creeds of Christianity:

I do not believe in the atonement to the blood of Christ or in the sin of incredulity. I do not believe in a punishment in a future life. I believe neither in a personal God nor a personal devil, but I honor the ideal which man has created as the tenor of all virtues and perfections, and has named God.

Until the very end, Clemens believed in the power of humanity to throw off the shackles of religion and embrace the values of inquiry and human-based ethics.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in New York City, 1979. Photo by Marty Reichenthal. Courtesy of slopemedia.org.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in New York City, 1979. Photo by Marty Reichenthal. Courtesy of slopemedia.org.

Nearly a century later, famed author Kurt Vonnegut (born in 1922 in Indianapolis) wrote in Palm Sunday that his great-grandfather’s freethought was his own “ancestral religion” and that he was “pigheadedly proud” of the heretical nature of his family. Kurt Vonnegut, a future honorary president of the American Humanist Association, carried the torch of freethought for his grandfather, and in some respects, introduced his ideas to a new generation.

In many of his works, Kurt would openly criticize religion, spirituality, and faith, so much so that it even contributed to the end of his first marriage. Nevertheless, echoing his grandfather in a 1980 speech at the First Parish Unitarian Church, Vonnegut declared, “Doesn’t God give dignity to everybody? No—not in my opinion. Giving dignity, the sort of dignity that is of earthly use, anyway, is something that only people do. Or fail to do.”

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) would become Vonnegut's most well known novel. Its open understanding of the barbarity of war, coupled with many humanist themes, continues to enthrall readers. Courtesy of In These Times.
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) would become Vonnegut’s most well known novel. Its open understanding of the barbarity of war, coupled with many humanist themes, continues to enthrall readers. Courtesy of In These Times.

His most popular novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), displays Kurt’s intense abhorrence of war (influenced by his own WWII POW experience) and a belief in a common humanity. Specifically, “so it goes” is a phrase that Vonnegut peppered throughout the novel, often after horrible events or even banal ones. This phrase conveys that no matter how bad things get, no matter how high one can get, the world (and indeed the universe) goes on. As an example, this passage from the novel, describing the protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s memory of a sculpture of Jesus, is fairly apt:

A military surgeon would have admired the clinical fidelity of the artist’s rendition of all Christ’s wounds—the spear wound, the thorn wounds, the holes that were made by the iron spikes. Billy’s Christ died horribly. He was pitiful.

So it goes.

“So it goes” becomes the novel’s panacea; a way for the narrator to deal with the grim realities of war without the comfort of religious beliefs. In some respects, it can be seen as a mantra for humanism.

Kurt's son Mark reading his late father's remarks of Clowes Memorial Hall in April, 2007. This event capped Indianapolis's "Year of Vonnegut" ceremonies. The author had died just weeks before he was to deliver this address. Courtesy of USA Today.
Kurt’s son Mark reading his late father’s remarks at Clowes Memorial Hall in April, 2007. This event capped Indianapolis’s “Year of Vonnegut” ceremonies. The author had died just weeks before he was to deliver this address. Courtesy of USA Today.

Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism continued until the end of his life, as displayed by an address he meant to give on April 27, 2007 for Indianapolis’s “Year of Vonnegut” celebrations (he died on April 11; his son Mark gave the address in his stead). In this address, from the posthumous work Armageddon in Retrospect (2008), Kurt espoused his continued commitment to humanism. He wrote:

Am I religious? I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves “Our Lady of Perpetual Consternation.” We are as celibate as fifty percent of the heterosexual Roman Catholic clergy.

Actually—and when I hold up my right hand like this, it means I’m not kidding, that I give my Word of Honor that what I’m about to say is true. So actually, I am honorary President of the American Humanist Society, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that utterly functionless capacity. We Humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an Afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

This emphasis on “community” squares nicely with Clemens’s own commitments to community, both with the Freethinker Society and with his advocacy of public education. Both Vonneguts believed that the values of sociality and comradery are essential to the flourishing of a community, and you can achieve that system without a supernatural element.

Clemens Vonnegut’s humanism carried through many generations of his family and left an indelible mark on Kurt Vonnegut. The two men’s rejection of religion and the supernatural reinforced their love for humanity, their desire for community, and their commitment to the truth, no matter how horrifying it may be. Kurt’s own success as a writer and social critic would have delighted Clemens, who participated in many of the same literary pursuits and civic activities decades before Kurt was born. As such, their two lives, separated by time, nevertheless became entwined by their ideals. Their humanist legacy reinforces the diversity of intellectual and moral philosophies that embody the American Midwest throughout the 19th, 20th, and early-21st centuries.

Both Vonneguts were proud to be from Indianapolis and the city proudly remembers them.

[*] Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism may also be described as “Modern Humanism,” or “Naturalistic Humanism, Scientific Humanism, Ethical Humanism, and Democratic Humanism, [is] defined by one of its leading proponents, Corliss Lamont, as “a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion.” Modern Humanism has a dual origin, both secular and religious, and these constitute its sub-categories” (Fred Edwords, “What is Humanism,” American Humanist Association, last updated 2008, accessed March 19, 2016, americanhumanist.org).