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William Wirt Sikes  1836-1883

  William Wirt Sikes was born 23 November 1836 to William Johnson Sikes, M.D. (1799-1872) and Meroe Redfield (1803-1888) in Watertown, Jefferson County, New York.  He was the seventh of eleven children of whom only six reached adulthood and two are known to have descendents.  His father was a respected Watertown physician and his mother’s father was one of the first trustees of the Presbyterian Society of Watertown. 

     He attended local schools and is said in several sources to have been an invalid in childhood.  His obituary in “The Watertown Post” on 21 August 1883 says, “An accident nearly ruined his hearing and destroyed the bright promise that opened before him, and (he) was driven to seek fame and fortune in the channels of the press and literature.”   At 14 or 15, he entered the office of Clark & Fayel, publishers of the “Jefferson County Journal,” in Watertown, where he learned the trade of a printer.

     According to his son, George Preston Sikes (1856-1957), “he early in life developed a strong taste for literature and the rostrum, and at the age of fifteen years began the delivery of temperance lectures.”  At age 19, on 28 August 1855 in Watertown, he married Jeannette Annie Wilcox (1837-1889), daughter of John and Fannie Wilcox.  They had two children both born in Watertown.  George Preston Sikes in 1856 and Clara Jeannette Sikes in 1858. 

    His son says, “From the date of his marriage the strong Bohemian instinct, which was one of his chief characteristics began to assert itself, and for a number of years he led an unsettled life.  He was an easy and graceful writer and both his poetry and prose found ready market in the metropolis.”  In 1856 he worked on the “Utica Morning Herald”, both as typesetter/proof-reader and contributor, and in 1858 some of his tales and poems were collected in a book under the title, “A Book for the Winter-Evening Fireside.”  From Utica his son says he went to Nyack on the Hudson, where he became part owner and editor of the “Rockland County Journal.” (Other sources say he went to Nyack about 1868 after living in Chicago)  In 1861 at age 24, through the influence of his brother-in-law, he was appointed State Canal Inspector of Illinois.  His headquarters were in Chicago and while holding this office his son says he became connected with local newspapers.

     While in Chicago, he and his wife separated by mutual consent and he was employed on the “Times” and “Evening Journal.”  Between 1865 and 1867, he went to New York and was employed on various journals and became ‘an earnest student of the lower classes of city life” according to Appletons Encyclopedia.  This source says he wrote
many poems, and published stories of adventure in the “Youth’s Companion” and “Oliver Optic’s Magazine.”  He also wrote two novels, “The World’s Broad Stage” (published serially starting on 2 January 1868 in the “Toledo Weekly Blade”) and “One Poor Girl” in 1869. His son says in 1869 he “associated himself with the actress and authoress, Olive Logan, and formed a news and lecture bureau on Pearl Street (in New York City).”  In 1870 his wife obtained a divorce in Chicago and on 18 December 1871 he married Olive Logan. 

     After their marriage, they spent some time abroad.   In June 1876, President Ulysses Grant appointed William U.S. Consul at Cardiff, Wales.  His son says, “He devoted his leisure time to a study of Welsh history, especially its legendary features.”  Shortly after his appointment he began a series of papers on Welsh history, archeology, and
social conditions, which attracted wide attention and the works that he subsequently published in London on these topics were received with praise by British critics according to Appletons.  Another source says his biographical and critical sketch of Antoine Wiertz (Wiertz Museum, Brussels) published in “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” in May 1873, was selected by the authorities of that institution for printing with their catalogue. 

     He is said to have employed as many as thirty pen names in contributing to the American press.  He was the author of “One Poor Girl: the Story of Thousands” (Philadelphia, 1869); “British Goblins; Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends, and Traditions” (London 1880); “Rambles and Studies in Old South Wales: (1881); and “Studies of Assassination” (1881).  His “British Goblins” has been reprinted several times and is currently available as a facsimile copy.  I have found it referenced as a source in current books on Welsh mythology.  The illustrations in the original volume are lavish.  Copies of a couple of his short works are posted on the Internet. 

     While all his obituaries say he died in Cardiff, Wales, 18 August 1883, the records of The Brookwood Cemetery Society give his place of death as 21 Michaels Grove, Brompton Road, Kensington.  Perhaps his remains were moved from Cardiff to this address prior to burial on 21 August 1883 in Brookwood American Cemetery, Brookwood, Woking Surrey, England.

Sources:  Appleton’s Encyclopedia of American Biography
               Scribner’s Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. XVIII, 1933, 157
               Buffalo Sunday News, August 26, 1883, obituary by his son
               New York Evening Post, August 20, 1883
               Watertown Post, August 21, 1833
Linda Garrett Whitson 

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