This November marks the 187th birthday of one of Minnesota’s most prominent and eccentric figures of the 19th century — Ignatius Donnelly. While his name is less known to Minnesotans today, Donnelly not only held numerous public offices (including lieutenant governor at an exceptionally young age), but he also went on to become a best-selling author and a famed Shakespeare conspiracy theorist.
Born on Nov. 3, 1831, in Philadelphia, Donnelly visited Minnesota Territory in 1856 at age 25 and quickly became part of a land-speculation scheme establishing the townsite of Nininger, located on the Mississippi River near Hastings. Donnelly soon moved his family to Nininger — named for his business partner, John Nininger — and took on the role of promoting the new town.
By the summer of 1857, new construction was booming, and Donnelly and John Nininger were selling land for almost 20 times the original price. But the town’s promise was quashed by the financial panic of 1857. By 1869, the town had largely disappeared with Donnelly’s home and a post office standing among the few remaining buildings.
Though their town venture failed, Donnelly’s relationship with John Nininger connected him with Nininger’s brother-in-law, Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota’s first territorial governor. When Ramsey ran for state governor in 1859, Donnelly was his Republican running mate and he became lieutenant governor at age 28.
A critical misstep
In 1862, Donnelly was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, the youngest member at the time. He served several terms and worked on a variety of issues, including land grants for western railroads and the education of former slaves.
But his national political career went downhill when Rep. Elihu Washburne of Illinois accused Donnelly of taking bribes from railroad companies.
In response, Donnelly delivered a vulgar, hour-long speech on the House floor, saying, “If there be one character which, while blotched and spotted all over, yet raves and rants and blackguards like a prostitute; if there be one bold, bad, empty bellowing demagogue, it is the gentleman from Illinois.”
Donnelly’s speech shocked the country, and the St. Paul Pioneer called him “the nastiest and most foul-mouthed wretch who ever had a seat in the American Congress.” The Republican party turned against him, and Donnelly ended up losing his House seat in his fourth reelection bid.
Donnelly soon left the GOP and — while he never won statewide office again — was elected to the Minnesota legislature nine times as a third-party candidate between 1874 and 1901. Throughout the 1870s, he lectured around the state on behalf of farmers and helped form the Anti-Monopoly Party, advocating for farmers who were exploited by railroads and banks. In the 1890s, he also became a leader of the Populist Party, a coalition of populist third parties, and drafted the party’s platform in 1892.
The prince of ‘cranks’
In addition to his political career, Donnelly was a prolific writer. He published his first book of poetry at age 19. The pseudoscience book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World was published in 1882, in which Donnelly argued that Atlantis had existed, but was destroyed by a natural disaster. He also claimed that all ancient civilizations had originated from the island.
The book was a bestseller with 23 U.S. editions by 1890 and several foreign translations. Donnelly received letters about the book from luminaries such as British Prime Minister William Gladstone and Charles Darwin, who was skeptical of Donnelly’s science.
His writing remained fairly fantastical, earning him the nickname “the prince of American cranks.”
The Great Cryptogram, published in 1888, detailed how he’d cracked a secret code in Shakespeare’s works, proving they’d actually been penned by English philosopher Francis Bacon.
Donnelly’s personal copy of the book, now in the Minnesota Historical Society collections, is full of his handwritten notes as he continued to revise his analysis even after publication.
Holding out for Populism
Donnelly also published a dystopian sci-fi novel, Caesar’s Column, in 1890. Set in 1988, the book told the story of a scientifically advanced, but nightmarish future, in which the United States is ruled by a financial oligarchy that is eventually overthrown in a bloody rebellion. The book mirrored his populist political views advocating for ordinary people and sold an estimated 200,000 copies. Donnelly saw his book as moral fiction, modestly calling Caesar’s Column “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the new revolution.”
In 1899, he published his final book, The Cipher: In the Plays, and on the Tombstone, which continued his elaborate theory that Francis Bacon was the real Shakespeare. (It’s still in print today and for sale on Amazon, courtesy of London-based Forgotten Books.)
In the 1900 presidential election, Donnelly ran as the Populist Party’s vice presidential candidate with Wharton Barker, and the duo received about 50,000 votes. A few months later, Donnelly died of a heart attack at age 69.
Today the Minnesota Historical Society’s collections house numerous editions of Donnelly’s writing as well as his extensive personal papers, including letters and diaries.
Lauren Peck is a public relations specialist for the Minnesota Historical Society.