The Shattuck Opera House was Hornell's largest auditorium during the late nineteenth century and the site of several significant freethought events, including two national freethinker conventions and three lectures by agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll.
On September 24, 1879, Ingersoll delivered "The Mistakes of Moses," one of his most popular and controversial lectures on religion, at the Shattuck.
The New York Freethinkers Association, despite its name a national organization, held conventions at the Shattuck in Hornellsville on September 2–6, 1880, and again on August 31–September 4, 1881. In both years, opera house proprietor Sewell E. Shattuck, an open freethinker, donated the use of his facility at no charge.
The 1880 convention was described by the New York Times as "the largest and most important convention of the kind ever held in the country." Attendance was roughly evenly divided between materialists (who today might be called atheists) and spiritualists, with whom freethinkers of the time made common cause because both opposed Christian orthodoxy. Speakers included Ingersoll; famed abolitionist, atheist, and reformer Elizur Wright; nationally prominent atheist activist Thaddeus Burr Wakeman; a dynamic atheist named Amelia Colby; and regional abolition and freethought activist Lucy N. Colman. During the 1880 convention, Ingersoll lectured on September 5 at the Shattuck, delivering his controversial oration "What Must We Do to Be Saved?". The freethought newspaper The Truth Seeker reported that Ingersoll spoke for "two hours and a half without losing the interest and control of the audience for a single moment." Another speaker at the convention was the Reverend George Chainey, a recent convert from Christianity to freethought who became unable to earn a living. Ingersoll directed that part of his lecture fee be paid instead to Chainey for his living expenses. The Truth Seeker also retained Chainey to author its report on the proceedings.
The New York Freethinkers Association met again at the Shattuck on August 31–September 4, 1881. Compared to the 1880 convention, the 1881 event was smaller: about 275 persons attended most of the sessions, with 500 present for the closing session. Speakers included Rev. Chainey; W. S. Bell, who had been arrested alongside Truth Seeker publisher D. M. Bennett at the Watkins convention of 1878; Prof. John H. W. Toohey of Boston; the suffragist and social radical Mrs. H. S. Lake; and the nationally prominent freethought activists Thaddeus B. Wakeman and Samuel Porter Putnam. Freethought journalists attending the event included H. L. Green, publisher of Free Thought Magazine, and Eugene Macdonald, editing The Truth Seeker while publisher D. M. Bennett was on a world tour paid for by his supporters following his 1880 release from prison. Ingersoll, who had headlined the 1880 convention, was unable to attend in 1881. Elizur Wright was unable to attend for health reasons; his prepared remarks were read to the assemblage by Bell. This reduction in "star power" may explain why the convention of 1881 was less well attended than its predecessor. Still, the organizers reported that they more than broke even.
On May 5, 1894, Ingersoll made his final appearance at the Shattuck, once more presenting "What Must We Do to Be Saved?".
The Building and Site. The Shattuck Opera House was erected in 1873 by Sewell Shattuck, a physician and surgeon whose practice focused mostly upon dentistry. It was one of the largest concrete structures erected in south-central New York State to that time. The building was 100 feet long, 60 feet deep, and 43 feet high with four stories. The auditorium occupied the building's third floor and offered 1,357 seats, making it Hornellsville's largest auditorium, eclipsing the previously erected Metropolitan Hall.
By 1914, the Shattuck had converted to exhibiting motion pictures. By 1926, it was known as the Shattuck Theatre. It closed in 1930. It was sold in 1940 and subsequently demolished. A one-story building was erected that occupied part of its site.
Today the Shattuck's location is remembered informally by Opera House Lane. Once a pedestrian walkway off Broadway Mall (the former Broad Street) that included a small veterans' park, the Shattuck's site is now fenced off. The fate of the veterans' park is unknown. The fenced-off area serves an adjacent tavern as an outdoor seating area.
Many thanks to Alice Taychert of the Southern Tier Library System for research assistance.