King of the Soapboxers
The dingy dean of soapboxers, celebrated in Hyde Park, Union Square and Columbia Circle, one Fred M. Wilkes, died in Bellevue hospital a few days ago. He was 77 years old, and from prattling juvenility almost to the last breath he spent his life in preparation for and the practice of soapbox oratory. Born an Englishman, he is said to have been the first exhorter to use a soapbox as the rostrum of a public forum. This was more than half a century ago, in Hyde Park in London. The word itself in its forensic and social implications, is to be found in our dictionaries, but the lexicon of Oxford is silent on the subject. It is a sound word, none the less, and the original soapboxer must have guessed our gratitude.
But apart from lexicographic considerations, here we have – or had – a man who thought nimbly and talked readily, a man of much reading, albeit lopsided, a lifelong follower of Nietzsche, but with an appetite for any doctrine teaching that things as they are are not as they should be, such a man in brief as would not only tell you how to live your life, but who would essay to manage the world with equal cheer. And what becomes of him? His declining years were passed in a condemned building, where rental was not asked, and he expired in the chill arms of institutional charity. Shortly thereafter one called for him who said his name was “Potter,” which seems not to have been a sorry pun, but the sombre actuality. It seems some friends were bestirring themselves lest the old soapboxer'[s] clay should rest where common indigence Is laid.
As a thorough and somewhat conspicuous failure poor Wilkes, the so-called king of the soapboxers, was an outstanding success. But, soft; such fellows care little for the more material regards. Give them a dozen listeners and they are happy on slim rations. Theirs is, indeed, the conviction of a great mission and whether this is the occasion for sustained garrulity, or the unconscious pretext, who shall say? Without ability or prompting to administer their own affairs, they insistently engage to attend to ours. Yet it would not be well to reckon them as without more significance than is superficially evident. For we well know that in our times such men have been a factor in the preparation for change and in change itself.
Sitdown Strike Founder Dead
The Sitdown Strike Founder Dead / Was Also Original Soapbox Orator and Came to New York From England.
Fred M. Wilkes, who was called the original soap-box orator and who claimed to have founded the sitdown strike is dead at the age of 77.
Taken to a hospital last week from the four-room flat he occupied in a condemned and otherwise deserted tenement, he died yesterday of pulmonary disease.
His lungs gave out after years of shouting against the din of traffic and the jeers of hecklers on the street-corners of two nations.
In Columbus Circle, which shares with Union Square the distinction of being Manhattan’s free speech forum, Wilkes was fondly acknowledged as the king of the soap-boxers.
It was in Hyde Park in London that he, a native of Nottingham, England, claimed to have been the first man to use a soap box for a platform.
By turns a Socialist and Anarchist, Wilkes came to America in 1885 as a “supercrat” – a word he coined himself. Fifteen years later, he established a temple of wisdom in Chicago. It last two years.
His claim to founding the sitdown strike was based on a motto he coined years ago: “S. I. B. – R. I. P.” or “Stay In Bed – Rest In Peace.”
Fred M. Wilkes, 77, soap-box exponent of the “super-man” philosophy of Frederick Nietzche [sic] for many years, died of pulmonary disease at Bellevue yesterday. His once great frame of 240 pounds was wasted to a shadow.
Last Friday Wilkes was taken in an ambulance from a condemned tenement at 344 First Ave. when his “companion and biographer,” known only as “Potter” decided that life was ebbing.