“Death-Bed Conversion of Robert G. Ingersoll”

August 18, 2014

The Ingersoll Conference occurred this past weekend here at CFI, and while I was preparing some display cases for the event, I re-discovered many interesting items that are part of our libraries’ collections. I also discovered some history about Ingersoll and his supposed conversion while on his death-bed back in 1899.

Ingersoll passed away on July 21, 1899 at a home in Dobbs Ferry, NY. The New York Times reported it the next day, and a rather lengthy article about his death followed by his accomplishments appeared with the following titles over the article:

Robert G. Ingersoll Dead
The Famous Agnostic Passes Away Suddenly at His Summer Home
Religious Views Unchanged
No Evidence that He Abandoned Agnosticism, Though He Expressed Hope of Immortality

One would think that that the statement “Religious Views Unchanged” would be sufficient to dissuade people from thinking otherwise. However, stories regarding a ”conversion” on his death-bed began circulating, and, finally having enough of these rumors (mostly spread by highly evangelical clergy), Eva A. Ingersoll, RGI’s wife, with two others who were present (Sue M. Farrell, RGI’s sister-in-law, and Sue Sharkey, the housekeeper) signed an affidavit on March 17, 1906. This notarized affidavit restated and confirmed everything that was mentioned in the New York Times newspaper article.

In June, 1909, David Eugene Olson, an evangelical preacher from Oregon, published another affidavit, this one signed by an Archie E. Berry, which stated Berry’s father, Joehiel, heard Ingersoll’s confession on his death bed and that Joehiel was Eva Ingersoll’s brother! A refutation of these falsehoods followed with a second affidavit by Eva, and one by Maud, Ingersoll’s daughter, who was mentioned in Berry’s statement. (“Lying About Ingersoll” by George MacDonald, Blue-Grass Blade, Lexington, Kentucky, February 27, 1910, page 4.) This notarized statement indicated that not only were no outsiders present, but Eva was not related to Berry. An offer of $1,000 was made to anyone who can prove the statement by Berry as true.

Warren C. Banes wrote the booklet pictured here on the incident, and stated within that people still believe that Ingersoll recanted his Agnosticism despite all the statements and evidence to the contrary. The booklet itself is located in the CFI Libraries’ Rare Book Room, and is one of only four known copies.