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Ignatius L. Donnelly
atlantis catastrophism pseudohistory

1. Introduction

Ignatius Loyola Donnelly (November 3, 1831 – January 1, 1901) was a U.S. Congressman, populist writer, and amateur scientist. He is known primarily now for his theories concerning Atlantis, Catastrophism (especially the idea of an ancient impact event affecting ancient civilizations), and Shakespearean authorship, which many modern historians consider to be pseudoscience and pseudohistory. Donnelly's work corresponds to the writings of late 19th and early 20th century figures such as Helena Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, and James Churchward.

2. Life and Career

Donnelly was the son of Philip Carrol Donnelly, an Irish Catholic immigrant who had settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His sister was the writer Eleanor C. Donnelly. On June 29, 1826, Philip had married Catherine Gavin, a second generation American of Irish ancestry.

After starting as a peddler, Philip studied medicine at the Philadelphia College of Medicine. He later contracted typhus from a patient and died at age 31, leaving his wife with five children.

Catherine provided for her children by operating a pawn shop. Ignatius, her youngest son, was admitted to the prestigious Central High School, the second oldest public high school in the United States. There he studied under the presidency of John S. Hart, excelling primarily in literature.

Donnelly decided to become a lawyer, and became a clerk for Benjamin Brewster, who later became Attorney-General of the United States. Donnelly was admitted to the bar in 1852. In 1855, he married Katherine McCaffrey, with whom he had three children. In 1855, he resigned his clerkship, entered politics, and participated in communal home building schemes. He quit the Catholic Church some time in the 1850s, and thereafter was never active in any religious group.[1]

Donnelly moved to the Minnesota Territory in 1857 amidst rumors of financial scandal, and there he settled in Dakota County. He initiated a utopian community called Nininger City, together with several partners. However, the Panic of 1857 doomed the attempt at a cooperative farm and community, and left Donnelly deeply in debt.

His wife Katherine died in 1894. In 1898, he married his secretary, Marian Hanson.

Donnelly died on January 1, 1901, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, age 69 years. He is buried at Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul, Minnesota. His personal papers are archived at the Minnesota Historical Society.[2]

3. Political and Literary Career

Donnelly entered politics and was lieutenant governor of Minnesota from 1860–1863. He was a Radical Republican Congressman from Minnesota in the 38th, 39th, and 40th congresses, (1863–1869), a state senator from 1874–1878 and 1891-1894 and a state representative from 1887-1888 and 1897-1898.[3] As a legislator, he advocated extending the powers of the Freedmen's Bureau to provide education for freedmen so that they could protect themselves once the bureau was withdrawn. Donnelly was also an early supporter of women's suffrage. After leaving the Minnesota State Senate in 1878, he returned to his law practice and writing.

In 1877, Donnelly spoke at a meeting of 10,000 people where he read his preamble to the conference platform. The document of twelve short paragraphs, as altered slightly for the party’s first nominating convention in Omaha that July, was the pithiest—and soon became the most widely circulated—statement of the Populist credo[4]. Donnelly talked about the corruption of politics and voting, newspapers giving out false and bias material, and how the Populists needed to take back the country that was their own.

In 1882, he published Atlantis, his best known work. It details theories concerning the mythical lost continent of Atlantis. The book sold well, and is widely credited with initiating the theme of Atlantis as an antediluvian civilization that became such a feature of popular literature during the 20th century, and contributed to the emergence of Mayanism. Donnelly suggested that Atlantis, whose story was told by Plato in the dialogues of Timaeus and Critias, had been destroyed during the same event remembered in the Bible as the Great Flood. He cited research on the ancient Maya civilization by Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg and Augustus Le Plongeon, claiming that it had been the place of a common origin of ancient civilizations in Africa (especially ancient Egypt), Europe, and the Americas). He also thought that it had been the original home of an Aryan race whose red-haired, blue-eyed descendants could be found in Ireland.

A year after Atlantis, he published Ragnarok, in which he expounded his belief that the Flood (as well as the destruction of Atlantis and the extinction of the mammoth) had been brought about by the near-collision of the earth with a massive comet. This book also sold well, and both books seem to have had an important influence on the development of Immanuel Velikovsky's controversial ideas half a century later.

Donnelly circa 1898 by Frederick Gutekunst.

In 1888, he published The Great Cryptogram in which he proposed that Shakespeare's plays had been written by Francis Bacon, an idea that was popular during the late 19th and early 20th century. He then travelled to England to arrange the English publication of his book by Sampson Low, speaking at the Oxford (and Cambridge) Union, where his thesis "Resolved, that the works of William Shakespeare were composed by Francis Bacon" was put to an unsuccessful vote. The book was a complete failure and Donnelly was discredited.

Donnelly also made several other campaigns for public office during the 1880s. He made a losing campaign for Congress (this time as a Democrat) in 1884. In 1887, he successfully campaigned for a seat in the Minnesota State Legislature as an Independent. During this period, he was also an organizer of the Minnesota Farmers' Alliance.

In 1892, Donnelly wrote the preamble of the People's Party's Omaha Platform for the presidential campaign of that year. He was nominated for Vice President of the United States in 1900 by the People's Party, also known as the Populist Party. The People's Party was a development of the national Farmers' Alliance, and had a platform that demanded abandonment of the gold standard (and later for free silver), abolition of national banks, a graduated income tax, direct election of senators, civil service reform, and an eight-hour day. That year, Donnelly also campaigned for governor of Minnesota, but was defeated.

The People's Party protested the railroad companies corrupting government, and advocated government regulation of the railroads. Donnelly had a key leadership role in this party, yet he received $10,000 from the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad Company.[5]

4. State Park

During the 1930s, an organization was formed to lobby for the creation of a state park at Donnelly's home at Nininger near Hastings, Minnesota. The house was still standing in 1939, but the effort failed and the house has since been demolished.[6]

5. Reception

Donnelly's writings on Atlantis have been rejected by scholars and scientists.[7] He has been described as a crank and pseudoscience promoter.[8][9]

Gordon Stein has noted that "most of what Donnelly said was highly questionable or downright wrong."[10]

6. Works

His books include:

  • The Mourner's Vision: A Poem (1850), a long poem he wrote at the age of 18.
  • Atlantis (1882), in which he attempted to establish that all known ancient civilizations were descended from its high-Neolithic culture.
  • Ragnarok, the Age of Fire and Gravel (1883), in which he proposed that a comet hit the earth in prehistoric times and destroyed a high civilization.
  • The Shakespeare Myth (1887)
  • Essay on the Sonnets of Shakespeare
  • The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon's Cipher in Shakespeare's Plays (1888), in which he maintained he had discovered codes in the works of Shakespeare indicating that their true author was Francis Bacon.
  • Caesar's Column (1890), a science fiction novel set during 1988 about a worker revolt against a global oligarchy. (Published under the pseudonym of Edmund Boisgilbert.)
  • Doctor Huguet: A Novel (1891) (Published under the pseudonym of Edmund Boisgilbert.)
  • The Golden Bottle or the Story of Ephraim Benezet of Kansas (1892)
  • The Bryan Campaign for the American People's Money (1896)
  • The Cipher in the Plays, and on the Tombstone (1899)
Further Reading
In this part, we encourage you to list the link of papers wrote by the character, or published reviews/articles about his/her academic contributions. Edit


  1. Walter H. Conser; Sumner B. Twiss (1997). Religious Diversity and American Religious History: Studies in Traditions and Cultures. University of Georgia Press. p. 185. 
  2. MnPALS Union Catalog – Basic Search at
  3. "Donnelly, Ignatius". Legislators, Past and Present. Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. Retrieved March 14, 2016. 
  4. Kazin, Michael (1995). The Populist Persuasion. eReader. ISBN 978-0801485589. 
  5. Lens, Sidney. The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sitdowns. Doubleday & Co.: NY, 1973. 365 pp., p. 36.
  6. A personal reminiscence of a visit to Nininger during the 1930s is available at the Internet Sacred Text Archive|Sacred-Texts website.
  7. Linse, Pat. (2002). Atlantis: The Search for a Lost Continent. In Michael Shermer. The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience. ABC-CLIO. pp. 297-307. ISBN:1-57607-654-7
  8. Gardner, Martin. (1957). Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Dover Publications. pp. 35-37. ISBN:0-486-20394-8
  9. Floyd, E. Randall. (2005). The Good, the Bad and the Mad: Some Weird People in American History. Fall River Press. p. 52. ISBN:978-0760766002
  10. Stein, Gordon. (1993). Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Gale Group. p. 52. ISBN:0-8103-8414-0
Name: Ignatius L. Donnelly
Born: Nov 1831
Died: Jan 1901
Ignatius Loyola Donnelly; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Titles: Writer Amateur scientist
Affiliation: Unknown
Honor: Unknown
Subjects: Others
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View Times: 627
Entry Collection: HandWiki
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Update Date: 23 Nov 2022