Charles Elmendorf (1829-1920) practiced dentistry in Penn Yan, New York (seven miles west of Robert Green Ingersoll’s birthplace). (At right, a Penn Yan streetscape circa 1920.) Elmendorf was a prominent community member active in numerous civic organizations and an open freethinker. His life demonstrates the degree of public acceptance enjoyed by many accomplished, openly-nonreligious people during what has been called the Golden Age of Freethought.
Elmendorf was born at Canandaigua, New York, on May 13, 1829, the eldest of three children. His father, Joseph Elmendorf, was a dentist; Charles followed him into the family business and continued an active dental practice until shortly before his death at the age of 91. It is unclear when relocation from Canandaigua to Penn Yan occurred. In his twenties Charles practiced in several area communities, including a two-year stint in Watkins Glen. From 1863 to 1865 Charles made an extended international tour, visiting Nicaragua and California over a period of nineteen months. His personal diary covering this period is in the collection of Syracuse University. In April 1865 he returned to Penn Yan, where he practiced dentistry and held many prominent posts in local lodges and businesses. He was also founding secretary of the Penn Yan Yacht Club, formed in 1869.
The History of Yates County (published 1892) profiled eminent citizens. Of Charles Elmendorf it said: “In politics he is a Republican, and in religion a Free thinker. He says he ’never took any stock’ in the supernatural religion of any church or sect, ’believing’ that just, charitable, moral conduct towards his fellow men is all that is necessary to become acceptable to any of the gods.”
Charles Elmendorf died on January 30, 1920, leaving a small estate.
A copy of Ingersoll on Blasphemy owned and inscribed by Elmendorf is in the collection of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. The book recounts Ingersoll’s courtroom defense of “freethought preacher” Charles B. Reynolds on charges of blasphemy.