George Wilkes

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For the speedway rider, see George Wilks.
George Wilkes
George Wilkes.jpg
Born George Wilkes
New York
Died September 23, 1885
Occupation Journalist and editor
Children Alicia, George

George Wilkes (1817 – September 23, 1885) was an American journalist and newspaper editor. A native of New York, Wilkes became a journalist and after losing a libel case was imprisoned in New York City's jail; his imprisonment led him to write a pamphlet on the jail's conditions in 1844. The next year, Wilkes and a friend started publishing National Police Gazette, a newspaper dealing with crime reporting and other sensationalistic topics. In 1856 Wilkes bought a sporting newspaper called The Spirit of the Times, which he had previously worked for. After selling the Gazette, Wilkes continued to publish and edit the Spirit until his death in 1885. Wilkes also wrote a couple of books on non-sporting topics as well as introducing parimutuel betting into the United States.

Early life[edit]

Cover of an 1847 issue of the National Police Gazette, while it was published by Wilkes

Wilkes was born in 1817 in the state of New York in the United States. It is not sure who his parents were, although they may have been George Wilkes, a cabinet maker, and Helen. Little is known of his upbringing before he became a law clerk for Enoch E. Camp. But Wilkes left the legal profession for journalism, first working for a series of short-lived newspapers in New York City, the Flash, the Whip, and the Subterranean. He lost a libel case and was sentenced to a term in the city jail, The Tombs. From his experiences there, Wilkes wrote a pamphlet entitled The Mysteries of the Tombs: A Journal of Thirty Days Imprisonment in the N. Y. City Prison, which came out in 1844.[1]

Early writings[edit]

In 1845 Wilkes joined forces with Camp and began the National Police Gazette. The Gazette quickly became popular and within a few weeks of its founding had a circulation of 15,000.[2] Collier's Magazine once called the Gazette a most interesting record of "horrid murders, outrageous robberies, bold forgeries, astounding burglaries, hideous rapes, vulgar seductions, and recent exploits of pickpockets and hotel thieves."[3] Because of Wilkes' and Camp's efforts to combat crime in New York through the Gazette, the offices of the newspaper were the subject of attacks by mobs stirred up by criminals.[1][2]

Also in 1845, Wilkes wrote a History of Oregon, Geographical and Political, which was inaccurate. Notwithstanding this, an extract from the work was published as Project for a National Railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, also in 1845. It was popular, and was in its fourth edition by 1847. Around 1849 Wilkes went to California, either with or shortly after his friend David Colbreth Broderick.[a] Wilkes was a political advisor of Broderick's, but they quarreled over water issues in 1853 and Wilkes left California.[6] Wilkes then traveled to Europe, turning the experience into another book, this one entitled Europe in a Hurry.[1] Returning to California after Europe, he reunited with Broderick in late 1853 but another quarrel in 1854 over Wilkes' appointment to a judicial post led to Wilkes' leaving California permanently. The two men reconciled in 1859 during a visit by Broderick to New York shortly before Broderick's death.[6] Wilkes was the recipient of Broderick's estate,[1] and Wilkes wrote a long eulogy to his friend that appeared in the Spirit in October 1859.[6]

In 1866, Wilkes and Camp sold the Gazette to George W. Matsell, who had previously been Chief of Police for New York City.[2][b]

Spirit of the Times[edit]

When Wilkes returned from California to New York City, he began to work for William T. Porter at Porter's newspaper The Spirit of the Times. Porter sold the paper in 1856 to Wilkes, who retained Porter on the newspaper's staff until Porter's death in 1858. Wilkes, however, renamed the paper to Porter's Spirit of the Times, a title it retained until 1859.[1] In September 1859, Abraham C. Dayton, who had previously worked for the Spirit, left the paper and because he had purchased a share of the paper at one point from Porter, began publishing a paper he called Porter's Spirit of the Times. Dayton got a court order preventing Wilkes from using Porter's name, so Wilkes changed the name of his paper to Wilkes' Spirit of the Times, while Dayton continued to publish Porter's Spirit of the Times. Dayton was only able to publish until August 1861, however,[8] as Wilkes drove the other paper out of business.[9] Wilkes owned the surviving paper until his death in 1885.[1]

Under Wilkes' ownership, the Spirit, which previously had covered mainly sporting events, expanded its coverage to include political matters. When the American Civil War began in 1861, Wilkes covered the battles also. He was present at the First Battle of Bull Run and wrote an account of it. He continued to serve as a correspondent throughout the war and contracted the kidney disease which he later died from during his war journalism.[1] Wilkes also used literary feuds with other newspapers, both in and out of the sporting press, to help his subscription rates.[10] After the Civil War, Wilkes' Spirit was one of the three leading newspapers in New York City. Two, including the Spirit, of the three were mainly devoted to horse racing — the other being The Turf, Field and Farm by Sanders D. Bruce.[11]

Later life[edit]

Wilkes was active in Republican Party political affairs and ran for the United States Congress against James Brooks,[1] losing the race in 1870, with Brooks receiving 12,845 votes and Wilkes 7149 votes.[12] Wilkes, along with John Chamberlain and Marcus Cicero Stanley, introduced parimutuel betting in the United States. Wilkes also was active in promoting boxing, acting as the promoter for some prizefights.[1] Wilkes also became involved in an effort to colonize Baja California, becoming trustee of a colonizing company in 1867.[13] In 1877 he published his last work, Shakespeare from an American Point of View, which reflected his lifelong interest in William Shakespeare. This work was revised twice, with the third edition appearing in 1882.[1]

Married twice,[1] Wilkes had two adopted children, George and Alicia. He also had a sister, Catherine, and a brother, Henry.[14] He died on September 23, 1885 in New York City,[1] and was buried on September 26, 1885.[15] It is claimed that Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1870 inducted him into the Order of St Stanislas for Wilkes' promotion of a railroad route from Russia through India to China. The writer of his Dictionary of American Biography entry described him as a "master of a vigorous style that exactly suited his hard truculent disposition".[1]


  1. ^ The exact date of Wilkes' move to California is unclear. The entry for Wilkes in the Dictionary of American Biography states he moved in 1849.[1] Donald E. Hargis, writing in the California Historical Society Quarterly, stated it was in 1850.[4] Alexander Saxton stated it was 1852 in an article in the American Quarterly.[5]
  2. ^ Other sources state that Wilkes sold the Gazette shortly after his purchase of the Spirit of the Times in 1856, and that Matsell was the publisher of the Gazette through the American Civil War.[7] Another possible date for the sale of the Gazette is 1857.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o "Wilkes, George" Dictionary of American Biography Volume X p. 218
  2. ^ a b c Mott History of American Magazines 1741–1850 pp. 328, 418 and footnote 132
  3. ^ Quoted in Mott History of American Magazines 1741–1850 p. 418
  4. ^ Hargis "Straight Towards His Heart" California Historical Society Quarterly p. 197
  5. ^ Saxton "George Wilkes" American Quarterly pp. 443–444
  6. ^ a b c Hargis "Straight Towards His Heart" California Historical Society Quarterly' pp. 198–199
  7. ^ Betts "Sporting Journalism" American Quarterly p. 42
  8. ^ Yates William T. Porter pp. 195–196
  9. ^ Mott History of American Magazines 1850–1865 p. 203
  10. ^ Betts "Sporting Journalism" American Quarterly p. 42 and footnote 3
  11. ^ Betts "Sporting Journalism" American Quarterly p. 46
  12. ^ New York County Canvassers Board County of New York November elections, 1871, Volume 2 p. 2029
  13. ^ Saxton "George Wilkes" American Quarterly p. 449
  14. ^ Staff "George Wilkes' Will" New York Times
  15. ^ Staff "The Letter Came Too Late" New York Times