Ignatius Loyola Donnelly (1831-1901) was born in Philadelphia to an Irish Catholic immigrant family. His father, a doctor, died young, and his mother opened a pawnshop. Nevertheless, he grew up in comfortable surroundings. His family home often hosted groups of Catholic intellectuals.
Thanks to his mother’s hard work, he was able to attend Philadelphia’s prestigious Central High. He became a lawyer, got married, and became involved in communal building schemes. He and his wife moved to the Minnesota territory in 1857. Despite his upbringing and his family (his younger sister, Eleanor C Donnelly, was a leading Catholic writer of the era), he had sloughed off the faith in time to run successfully for lieutenant governor of Minnesota in 1860.
He then served successively in Congress, the state senate and the state house of representatives. In his political life, he favoured radical causes, being at different times a Radical Republican, Farmers’ Alliance and Populist Party member.
No less radical was Donnelly’s version of anti-Catholic materialism. In a series of books, he championed lost Atlantis (Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, 1882); catastrophism (Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel, 1883); and the Baconian theory of Shakespeare’s authorship (The Great Cryptogram, 1888). His books inspired many later writers, including Immanuel Velikovsky, and caused him to be bracketed with the likes of Helena Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner and Col James Churchward – hence the frequent dismissal of his works as “pseudoscience” and “pseudohistory”.
In his later years, he became much involved with spiritualism, investigating mediums and various ouija board-like apparatuses. He came to like especially the Dempsey Speaking Dial, named after its inventor.
Donnelly was buried in a Catholic cemetery in St Paul, Minnesota.