Born in Dresden, New York, in 1833 in the modest home shown here, Ingersoll was the son of a fire-and-brimstone Congregationalist minister. Although his formal education was limited, he read widely, especially in the classics. After teaching school for two years in Illinois and Tennessee, he studied law at a firm in Marion, Illinois. In 1854, Ingersoll passed the Illinois bar, and within a few years had established a successful legal practice in Peoria, Illinois. He is shown below as a young man.
Blessed with a powerful speaking style, Ingersoll made several unsuccessful tries for political office and at the onset of the Civil War, raised and commanded the 11th Regiment of the Illinois Volunteer Cavalry. He saw action at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862), but was captured later and released upon a promise to refrain from further combat. Upon his return to Illinois he rapidly gained national fame as a stump speaker for political and other causes.
In an era when radio, television and other electronic devices did not exist, people in locations all over America would flock to hear a well-known orator. Ingersoll became the chief of that tribe. As shown above in what may be the only photo of him at an outdoor gathering, he could command the presence of thousands with his speeches.
Ingersoll also had a flair for the dramatic. A Chicago Tribune reporter captured some of his persona in a 1876 courtroom appearance: “…Col. Ingersoll walked into the room , took off a broad-brimmed felt hat, which gave the barrister, while he has it on, somewhat the appearance of a full-grown, well-developed Quaker….When he has the hat removed, however, the counsellor’s appearance undergoes a marked change. He then looks like the crop-haired follower of the house of Montague in the Shakepearean play.” The reporter also noted that Ingersoll never took a note: “What he cannot recollect, he does not have any use for.” This refusal also carried over into his stump. Ingersoll could speak for hours without a single note.
This courtroom appearance may well have a link to Ingersoll being given his own brand of whiskey. On trial was Daniel W. Munn, a deputy supervisor of Internal Revenue in Chicago who was accused of being a part of the “Whiskey Ring.” This was a giant conspiracy during the Grant Administration to defraud the U.S. Government out of millions in liquor tax revenues. When the plot was discovered, it resulted in the arrest of more than 200 revenue officers, distillers and liquor wholesalers in cities throughout the Midwest.
Munn was accused by a Chicago politician named Jacob Rehm, an alleged ringleader of the conspiracy, as a participant in the fraud. Ingersoll defended Munn vigorously, declaiming: “Is there any safety in human society if you will take the testimony of a perjured man…If the statement of a confessed conspirator makes the character of a great and good man worthless?” A jury found Munn, a Civil War veteran and respected local lawyer, innocent of the charges, a result that was popular in Chicago and further enhanced Ingersoll’s reputation.
In the course of Munn’s defense, however, Ingersoll took a hard line against whiskey: “I believe to a certain degree with the District Attorney in this case, who has said that every man who makes whiskey is demoralized. I believe, gentlemen, to a certain degree, it demoralizes those who make it, those who sell it, and those who drink it. I believe from the time it issues from the coiled and poisonous worm of the distillery, until it empties into the hell of crime, dishonor and death, that it demoralizes everybody that touches it.”
This diatribe is a far cry from the lavish praise to be found on the Ingersoll Whiskey label that opens this post, to wit: “The most wonderful whiskey that every drove the skeleton from the feast or painted landscapes in the brain of man. It is the mingled souls of corn & rye. In it you will find the sunshine & the shadow that chase each other over the billowy fields, the breath of June, the carol of the lark, the dew of night, the wealth of summer and autumn’s rich content. All golden with imprisoned light. Drink it and you will hear the voices of men & maidens singing ‘The Harvest Home,” mingled with the laughter of children. Drink it and you will feel within your blood the star-led dawns. The dreamy, tawny dusks, of many perfect days. For 40 years this liquid joy has been within the happy staves of oak. Longing to touch the lips of men.”
Ingersoll scholars like Tom Flynn at the Center for Inquiry at Amherst, New York find “much mystery” in the whiskey label. Flynn says the text comes almost verbatim from an oration entitled “A Christmas Sermon” in which Ingersoll apparently quoted from something he had written earlier. An article in “The Christian-Evangelist” publication later identified the screed as a note Ingersoll sent with a bottle of liquor to a reputed boyhood friend, Judge Joel W. Tyler of Cleveland. Although the accuracy of this attribution is questionable, the florid language might well have originated in a personal communication.
While it is impossible to understand everything about the circumstances of Ingersoll Whiskey, some knowledge of the liquor industry of the time provides suggestions. While the brand name was never trademarked, courts frowned on appropriating the name of a living individual for commercial purposes. This suggests that Ingersoll agreed to the use of his name, picture, words, and signature, almost certainly for some manner of compensation. Later Ingersoll also allowed his name to be used by a cigar manufacturer.
Making and selling liquor was an important industry in Illinois. Ingersoll had his offices, shown here, in Peoria, a city known for its distilleries. Chicago teemed with wholesale liquor dealers, many of them whiskey “rectifiers” who bought raw product from states like Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio and blended it to achieve a particular taste, color and smoothness. Bottling the whiskey with their own label designs, those liquor houses sold to it by the case to saloons, bars, and liquor stores throughout the Midwest. It was common to include on such labels “bottled by…” with the bottom left blank. The retailer usually would stamp his own name on the label, apparently to convince the consumer of its local origin.
Wholesalers might feature as many as thirty or forty brands, many of them named to appeal to the drinking public, often with similar, if not identical, contents. Ingersoll’s national fame, coupled with his known opposition to prohibition, may have prompted a liquor establishment to print up labels with Ingersoll’s purple prose to see what marketing possibilities might exist. “Col. Bob” clearly, however, was not attuned to aging in whiskey. None is aged 40 years, as he declared. After 25 years in the barrel no additional benefit accrues. Most was bottled well before a quarter century. I would be astonished if Ingersoll Whiskey was aged more than five years.
As for Ingersoll’s own drinking habits, in his biography of Ingersoll, Orville Larson has asserted: “After meals he would take a drink or two of whiskey because it was good for the digestion. ‘Whiskey is what you need,” he once wrote his indisposed secretary, Newton Baker. ‘After every meal take a good swallow. One swallow will not make a summer but will make you feel as though summer has come….’”
Against this report must be balanced Ingersoll’s statement in a press interview: “In my opinion there is a vast difference between distilled spirits and the lighter drinks, such as wine and beer. Wine is a fireside and whiskey a conflagration.”
It would appear that despite having his own brand of whiskey “The Great Agnostic” may have been of two minds on the subject.
Note: The information for this post has been gathered from multiple sources. I am grateful to Tom Flynn for the information he provided in an email. The photo of the Ingersoll birthplace, which I have visited, is through the courtesy of Dr. John P. Sullivan. The house has been restored as a memorial to Ingersoll's life and work and the Freethought movement he championed.