The Great Agnostic praises a fine dram

For a lighthearted end of the day, here’s a series of letters from and to the Great Agnostic, Robert G. Ingersoll. I’ve read quite a bit of his stuff, and he was the most eloquent and “strident” atheist writer of his time—the Hitchens of the 19th century. By all accounts Ingersoll, despite his nonbelief, was a saintly man, widely beloved and, like Hitchens, a fierce and unbeatable speaker on the platform.

Reader Ginger K. called my attention to a new post at Letters of Note, which reproduces a lovely letter that Ingersoll sent his future son-in-law, Walton Brown, along with a bottle of fine whiskey (Ingersoll was, as befits a heathen, a lover of good food and drink). The letter was apparently widely circulated and reprinted in The Nation; but it angered J. M. Buckley, editor of The Christian Advocate, who printed a response. Both letters are reproduced below:

89 Fifth Avenue
New York

Walston H. Brown, Esq.

April 16, 1887

My dear Friend,

I send you some of the most wonderful whiskey that ever drove the skeleton from a feast or painted landscapes in the brain of man. It is the mingled souls of wheat and corn. In it you will find the sunshine and the shadows that chased each other over the billowy fields; the breath of June; the carol of the lark; the dews 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 and maidens singing the “Harvest Home,” mingled with the laughter of children.
Drink it—and you will feel within your blood the star-lit dawns, the dreamy, tawny dusks of many perfect days.

For forty years this liquid joy has been within the happy staves of oak, longing to touch the lips of men.

Yours always,
R. G. Ingersoll

My dear Bob,

I return to you some of the most wonderful whiskey that ever brought a skeleton into the closet or painted scenes of lust and bloodshed in the brain of man. It is the ghost of wheat and corn, crazed by the loss of their natural bodies. In it you will find a transient sunshine chased by a shadow as cold as an Arctic midnight, in which the breath of June grows icy, and the carol of the lark gives place to the foreboding cry of the raven.

Drink it—and you will have woe, sorrow, babbling and wounds without cause. Your eyes shall behold strange women and your heart shall utter perverse things.
Drink it—and you shall hear the voices of demons shrieking, women wailing, children mourning the loss of a father who yet lives.
Drink it—and long serpents will hiss in your ears, coil themselves about your neck and seize you with their fangs. ‘At last it biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder.’

For forty years this liquid death has been confined with staves of oak, harmless there as pure water. I send it to your mouth to steal away your brains, and yet I call myself your friend.

Rev. Dr. J. M. Buckley

R. G. Ingersoll


  1. GBJames
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Heh. I prefer Ingersoll’s verse. 😉

  2. Art
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Both letters contain a “grain” of truth. I speak from experience.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      Here here. Aged spirits make us the paragon of animals but they also make a proud man’s contumely.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      In the “spirit” of the letter, let’s mingle wit and scorn.

  3. Posted August 1, 2016 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Makes me want to go off the wagon. Thanks Robert.

  4. steve oberski
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Puritanism: “The haunting feeling that someone, somewhere, might be happy”

    Puritan: “A pious gentleman, who believed in letting all people do as he liked”

    Ambrose Bierce

    • Hempenstein
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

      Beat me to it, but I think the first one’s HL Mencken.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Dear. Rev. Buckley,

    Spoken as if a true alcoholic, maybe reformed, maybe not.

  6. yiamcross
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    I imagine the Rev Buckley didn’t get many party invitations. Certainly a testament to the saying that mystery loves company.

    • yiamcross
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      Misery. I love phone spell checkers.

  7. Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Where can I buy some?

  8. bluemaas
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Just within the last two weeks’ worth of national news, thus re “Peoria’s Infidel”:

    And, today actually, from our ever vigilant Freedom From Religion Foundation as well, thus:


    • Randall Schenck
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      To be the greatest orator of the 19th century, that is saying the 19th century was the greatest time of the orator.

      Ingersoll quotes are some of the best –

      If a man would follow, today, the teachings of the old Testament, he would be a criminal. If he would follow strictly the teachings of the new Testament he would be insane.

      • GBJames
        Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

        An excellent quote.

    • rickflick
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      Good links! Thanks. Nice to see fine work by the FFRF.

  9. Posted August 1, 2016 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Lovely writing, by both.

  10. Posted August 1, 2016 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    The following is a Wikipedia article on whiskey in America:

    There was a period of time when it was thought that drinking spirits was healthier than drinking water. There was an element of truth in that notion, as much water was contaminated and caused disease. This (and other factors) led to whole families drinking alcoholic beverages, including the children in some cases. And, some people overindulged with negative consequences to family. Taxation efforts at various times on the part of the government and legislation to prevent the sale of alcohol led to prohibition and all that entailed.

    In these two letters, you see both extremes of the position on alcoholic beverages.

    • Posted August 1, 2016 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

      Does Ingersoll’s missive represent an extreme? I don’t think so. Only the poetic creativity of a connoisseur.

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted August 2, 2016 at 5:35 am | Permalink

        Agreed. I’d love to know which whisk(e)y he is praising so fulsomely. All we know is that it has been aged 40 years, which is exceptional. His reference to corn implies an American version, but I’d like to think perhaps a fine soft Speyside malt.

        • darrelle
          Posted August 2, 2016 at 6:23 am | Permalink

          Touring the Malt Whisky Trail has been high on my list of things to do before the end. Haven’t managed it yet. Perhaps within the next couple of years. I haven’t been to the UK since about 1978.

  11. Dave
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure which is the better ad for the whiskey!

  12. Posted August 1, 2016 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    I am honored to live on Ingersoll Place, named for the man!

  13. Mike
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    I think being in the company of Dr Buckley would drive any man to drink. Miserable old cove.

  14. Vaal
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Loved it, thanks!

    I’m so often amazed by the writing of people in the past. Ingersoll is obviously a talent, but even war letters to lovers or to home from men serving in the first world war and before…the use, and grasp, of language seemed so much richer and more evocative.

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