A Prisoner Reflects on Robert G. Ingersoll

Leslie Zukor runs the Freethought Book Project, which sends books about atheism to prisoners across the country.

Recently, she received a letter from Michael L., a prisoner from Peoria, Illinois.

She had sent him a book called American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll, about the Great Agnostic.

Michael wrote a very moving letting back to her. You can see his writing for yourself here, but the transcription is below:

Howdy,

Thank so much so much for the books you sent. Please note that they all arrived in good order and without unusual delay.

As a native Peorian, I was especially delighted to find the biography of Robert Ingersoll. In Peoria’s Glen Oak Park, at the bottom of a steep and circuitious road, is a secluded little court just off the park’s egress. In the center of this quiet plaza stands the monument to Ingersoll pictured in American Infidel. I recall many winters when the snows would close this road to motorized traffic and adventuresome sledders would try its serpentine slope. Those of us who didn’t wipe out on the road’s low embankment or fly off into the trees beyond would end our rides in the shadow of Ingersoll’s likeness.

All that time, I had no idea who Robert Ingersoll was, nor, I am certain, did any of my companions. Of course, he was not taught in school. This can probably be attributed more to the unfortunate fact that none of our colorful local history was taught, than that an icon of American Freethought in the area was one of Peoria’s dirty little secrets. (Although the placement of his memorial is in a spot so discreet, that to my knowledge, it has never attracted vandals. Shortly after I had outgrown sleds, its shadow was also an ideal location to pack a few one-hitters or make out with a companion while visiting the park.)

In the thirty or so years since skidding to a powdery halt at his feet, I have learned a little about Robert Ingersoll and even read a few of his lectures and essays. Now, with American Infidel, I can make a deeper connection with this great man and with my own heritage as a Peorian, an American, and a human being of liberated reason.

Again, my thanks go out to you and your sponsors for these good books. Keep up the important work.

Much joy to you and yours this holiday season.

Be Well,

Michael L.

If you’d like to contribute to the Freethought Books Project, you can do so here.

  • muggle

    Can you donate books? (I understand that they’d have to be freethought themed.) I live in a small apartment so I only keep the absolute best books, about half a dozen. So I tend to buy them, read them and pass them on (usually to my local library). Is it possible to donate books instead of cash?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant

    muggle — Good question. I would email Leslie via that website and ask her directly. My guess would be yes.

  • http://www.reedsecular.org/freethought-books-project/ lazukor

    Thanks for your interest. Of course, you can donate books; such contributions are much appreciated. Here is the address where they can be sent:

    Freethought Books Project
    Reed Secular Alliance
    c/o Leslie A. Zukor
    3203 SE Woodstock Blvd., #1170
    Portland, OR 97202

    I know the prisoners will enjoy them. And you can send the books out media mail, so it won’t cost too much.

    -Leslie

  • Jim H

    I’m just glad to see that someone not like Charles Colson is reaching out to prisoners…

  • muggle

    Thanks, Leslie! I’ve printed that out to have on hand.

    One more question then: what are the guidelines? Fiction? Nonfiction? Poetry? Copies of newsletters from places like FFRF or AU that I toss when I’m finished? Wish I’d known about this before I finished “The God Delusion” but I’m sure I’ll have some forthcoming.

    I concur with Jim H. And I figure some enlightenment couldn’t hurt. Given the pressures in our society to conform, I figure it can only help if they can see you can be a noncomformist and moral. Who knows how many are there because they feel outcast by society? I’m sure many are and the report that they’re responding so well to these books would only seem to affirm that.

  • http://www.reedsecular.org/freethought-books-project/ lazukor

    You can send whatever you want, and it will be put to good use. We have more use for freethought books than for poetry, but if it’s secular poetry, that’s even better.

    If you have back issues of Freethought Today, I know that would excite many a prisoner. We have gotten requests for such materials. I’m sure they would enjoy an AU mag or two.

    Thanks so much for your interest.

    -Leslie

    Freethought Books Project

  • muggle

    Thanks, Leslie. I’ll send them on from now on instead of tossing them.

    Actually I have two books of freethought poetry but I like them so much I’m hanging on to them. Check out Phillip Appleman and “Rhymes for the Irreverant” by Yip Harburg at ffrf.org if you’re looking for something along that line with donated money.

    I’ve had Phillip Appleman’s “Collected Poems” for a while. He’s an excellent freethought poet and they’re putting one of his in each issue of “Freethought Today” so they’ll read them in those.

    Yip Harburg is the guy who wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” along with dozens of others for Broadway and the movies so they’ll know the name and it’s an easy read. I finished it in just over an hour. Some great poetry but some of the drawings are a bit risque though nothing truly offensive, but I don’t know how strict the prisions are about that!

  • http://www.reedsecular.org/freethought-books-project/ lazukor

    Thanks. We have been giving away Rhymes For the Irreverent for quite some time now. Prisoners seem to like humor, especially since it helps them deal with their long sentences. I will check out Appleman. Thanks again.

  • http://onestdv.blogspot.com OneSTDV

    Anyone else surprised a prisoner is so eloquent?

  • Matt D

    I’m with you OneSTDV, i was struck by the apparent paradox. then i realised that there is no valid basis on which I can assume ALL inmates lack an education.

    I’m sure there is a strong correlation between low intelligence/poor education and criminality. But we shouldnt be shocked to find there are those who defy the broader trend.

    with prose like that you gotta wonder what the guy is in for? hard to imagine he’s a bank robber.

  • http://www.reedsecular.org/freethought-books-project/ lazukor

    I did a search, and the prisoner is for murder and armed robbery. He has an opportunity for parole within the next 15 years, I think. Has been behind bars since the 1980s.

    There are a lot of prisoners, and after reading what they write, it’s surprising how eloquent they can be. Many committed crimes because of alcohol and drug dependence.

    In my work with the Freethought Books Project, I’ve learned how flawed the prison system is. With good drug rehab programs, many of these prisoners could live productive lives.

    Instead, they languish in prison. It’s amazing what people will do in the name of “get tough on crime”. They aren’t helping anyone be productive and aren’t addressing the root problem.