Biography of Populist Protester Ignatius Donnelly Part 2

About the Populist leader and protester Ignatius Donnelly, history and biography of the political figure.


IGNATIUS DONNELLY (1831-1901). Apostle of protest.

Donnelly had turned an important corner. Never again would he knuckle under to party policy. Subsequently, he bounced from the Granger movement to the Greenback party, from Farmers' Alliance to the Populist party, drumming always for the reform of a government rigged to benefit industry. He was a ferocious independent. "If a platform is demanded, I plant myself on the platform of Ignatius Donnelly," he said. But he paid a high price for this independence. Although he continued to serve in the Minnesota legislature, he never again held a federal office.

After reaching the age of 50, Donnelly retired to his book-lined study in deserted Nininger City long enough to write Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882), in which he contended that the legendary lost continent not only had existed, but had been the cradle of civilization. Encouraged by Atlantis's runaway success, energetic Ignatius squeezed time from his perpetual politicking and his popular lecture tours to write seven more books. They were as controversial as his political views; he was still the "Prince of Cranks."

In 1888 he unleashed a thunderbolt on the literary community. He was convinced that Shakespeare was nothing but "a guzzling, poaching, lying play-actor," and that the plays attributed to him had actually been written by Sir Francis Bacon. But how to prove it? One day he picked up his son's copy of Every Boy's Book and found his inspiration in a chapter on cryptography. After months of analyzing a facsimile of a Shakespeare folio, he wrote The Great Cryptogram. He had "found" an incredibly complex cipher in the plays which, he insisted, proved Bacon's authorship. The Baconian Society invited him to come to England, where he debated a Shakespearean scholar before 500 people. In an audience vote, his arguments for Bacon were defeated 120 to 101. "But," he gleefully reported, "nearly 300 were so bewildered they refused to vote!" The book itself was a financial flop, but his amazed followers hailed him as the "sage of Nininger."

He rivaled Jules Verne with his Caesar's Column (1891), in which he depicted not only radio and giant dirigibles but 20th-century television. More than mere science fiction, the book was a social protest, predicting a bloody cataclysm unless the U.S. effected social and economic reforms. The title derived from a dominating symbolism. A drunken revolutionary named Caesar, hard pressed to dispose of the bodies of slaughtered plutocrats, decreed that their corpses should be piled in a gigantic column and then covered with cement. Five publishers turned the book down as "inflammatory," but once published it became an explosive success, contributing to Donnelly's leap to leadership in the Populist party.

Donnelly was the constant rebel. Born a Catholic, he was a religious skeptic and dropped his middle name of Loyola. In 1898, four years after the death of his wife, Kate, Donnelly-at age 66-defied convention by marrying his 20-year-old secretary. In his last years, he became intrigued with spiritualism and experimented with the "speaking dial," a kind of Ouija board.

His last hurrah was his appearance as the vice-presidential candidate on the unsuccessful Populist ticket of 1900. He died two months after the election. Donnelly once said to his Populist followers, "We have performed work which will affect the politics of this country for the next 50 years." History proved him right.

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