Ernest M. Viquesney , for unknown reasons familiarly known as “Dick”, was born in 1876 at Spencer, Indiana, a sleepy little town on the edge of the Indiana limestone belt, about 60 miles southwest of Indianapolis.
His father had a stone carving and monument business and young Dick grew up in the trade. However, he volunteered for military service in 1898 but passed his war at Pensacola, Florida.
Subsequently, he spent 17 years working away from Spencer, mostly in Americus, Georgia, where in 1920 he created a sculpture that he called “The Spirit of the American Doughboy”. He returned to Spencer in 1922, where he realized that metal reproductions of his statues could be produced faster and priced more attractively than the carved stone versions. He manufactured them either by pressing copper sheets around a carved form or by casting them in zinc and plating them with copper.
He circulated a catalog which depicted all of the different sizes, poses and variations available; a typical statue cost about $1,200. Additionally, there was a line of decorative statuettes and table lamps featuring tiny doughboys. Apparently he carried them in inventory because there is evidence that his products were being sold years after his death.
He also produced many other significant works in his lifetime, including the statuary for the large Sedgwick County Soldier and Sailor’s Monument in Wichita, which was built as a Civil War memorial in 1913.
In the heyday of his success, he built a magnificent vaudeville/movie theater in Spencer, which he named the TIVOLI, which locals said stood for “This Is Viquesney’s Odd Little Idea”. The depression wasn’t kind to him and he lost most of his assets, including the theater, which fell into disrepair, but was rescued by local preservation efforts.
His eccentric streak never shown brighter than when he started a fraternal lodge he called the Beaver Clubs (Beaver Dam No. 1 was in Spencer), which was so unsuccessful that no trace of it can be found today on the internet.
Depressed by failures and grieving over the death of his second wife (he had lost his first wife in 1933), he rather dramatically committed suicide in 1946. He had no survivors. There is a website devoted to the Viquesney story.
It isn’t known how many Spirit of the American Doughboy statues were made. The Smithsonian says that there are 159 of them remaining, although others say only about 140 – some may be in storage, and some are known to be in pieces, their future uncertain. Many of the statues still standing are missing parts, particularly the rifle and/or bayonet.
Most of the Viquesney statues are found in smaller towns, including the three examples here in Kansas, which are located in Axtell (pop. 401) in Marshall County, Oakley (pop. 2,045) which is mostly in Logan County and Parsons (pop. 10,164) in Labette County, the latter example is a less-than-life-size carving, probably in Indiana limestone. A glance at the map shows that these three places are nowhere near each other.
There are a number of statues extant which are similar to Viquesney’s . For example, the statue in Leavenworth is a bronze casting made by John Paulding in Philadelphia (he had a catalog too). In fact, Paulding and Viquesney spent many years advertising against each other. Viquesney’s company was named ‘American Doughboy Studio’ while Paulding’s was ‘American Art Bronze Foundry’. Each claimed that the other was a copycat, and their statues are strikingly similar but were apparently developed independently, although there is a modern claim that both are derivatives of a popular French memorial statue, Le Poilu Victorieux.
Nevertheless, there are blatant copies out there of both Viquesney and Paulding statues.