Freethinkers Meeting Site (hall)

Front view of the Freer Opera House. Constructed in 1860, it features a facade of regular ashlar rusticated stone with sills and lintels of the same material. Meeting hall was on top floor (taller windows). In 2014 the upper floors of the building, long abandoned, were renovated with loft- style apartments on the second floor. Outdoor meeting site (the park) is in deep background at far left of image, about two blocks away from the camera.

The August 22 - 25, 1878 convention of the New York Freethinkers’ Association (despite its name, a national conference) was held in part in this building, built as the Freer Opera House, and in a park about 500 feet to the east (far background at the left side of this photo). At this convention, feminist and suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage gave her first public freethought lecture. Famously, atheist publisher D. M. Bennett and two others were arrested under obscenity laws for selling a marriage reform and birth control tract, Cupid’s Yokes by Ezra Heywood. The Convention met at the Opera House on the evening of Saturday, August 24, and on the morning and evening of Sunday, August 25. At the Sunday morning session, the noted atheist and life-insurance reformer Elizur Wright read a paper on the false claims of Christianity.

The Freer Opera House accommodated retail storefronts and commercial tenants on the ground and second floors; the ballroom/meeting hall occupied the topmost floor. Note the extra-tall third-floor windows. Nineteenth-century meeting halls often placed the main assembly space on an upper floor, a practice curtailed with the advent of modern fire codes. The building now hosts a popular restaurant and pizzeria on the ground floor and loft-style apartments on the upper floors.

The New York State Freethinkers Association convened again in Watkins on August 23 - 27, 1882. Because of rainy weather, all conference sessions were held at the Opera House. Speakers included Matilda Joslyn Gage and D. M. Bennett, celebrating a triumphant return after his release from prison and a world tour. Among the attendees were Geneva philanthropist/freethinker William Smith; Rochester abolitionist/suffragist Amy Post; Rochester freethinker Elias Gault; freethought advocate Samuel Porter Putnam; suffragist Juliet Severance; freethinker Charles Bright, visiting from Australia; and W. S. Bell and Josephine Tilton, both of Boston, who had also attended the 1878 event. (Bell and Tilton had been Bennett’s co-arrestees.) A banquet honoring D. M. Bennett was held off-site at the Glen Park Hotel, attended by some 120 persons.

On Wednesday, August 23, activist Mary Tillotson spoke on dress reform.

The 1882 convention had one historically intriguing consequence. Apparently the convention passed a resolution predicting the gradual extinction of Christianity in America. The Rev. C. C. McCabe, a leader in new church development for the Methodist church, read of the resolution in a newspaper and cabled the convention with the following message: "All hail the power of Jesus’ name. We are building more than one Methodist church for every day in the year, and propose to make it two a day." Convention president Thaddeus Burr Wakeman cabled back, in part: "Build fewer churches and pay your taxes on them like honest men. Build better churches, since liberty, science, and humanity will need them one of these days and will not wish to pay too much for repairs." McCabe gained wide publicity from this exchange. He became known as "Two-a-Day McCabe"; his cable even inspired a popular evangelical camp song. By the time of McCabe’s death in 1906 it was widely believed he had directed his famous 1882 cable to the celebrated agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll. But in late August, 1882, Ingersoll was fully engaged in conducting what would become the lengthiest criminal defense in U. S. history to that time in the Star Route Trials. Ingersoll almost certainly did not attend the Watkins conference, and thus could have played no role in composing either the resolution that provoked McCabe’s message or the convention’s reply.

The conventions of 1878 and 1882 were, respectively, the Association’s second and third such events. The Association, then known as the Liberals and Freethinkers of Central and Western New York, held its first convention, or “Grove Meeting,” on August 17-19, 1877, at the farm of freethinker James Madison Cosad in Huron, New York. (Some sources give the place name as Wolcott.)