On Saturday, June 24, 1876, news reached Laramie of a murder in the vicinity of the Little Laramie River about 20 miles west of town.
The Sentinel newspaper, founded in 1869, had a new assistant editor and reporter, Edgar Wilson “Bill” Nye, newly arrived from Wisconsin. Nye had been hired the month before in May 1876.
Sentinel columns are not signed, so we don’t know for sure if the June 26, 1876, column was written by James Hayford, the Sentinel founder and editor, or Nye. The newspaper account said the victim was Albert Curtis, a graduate of Michigan University who was “beloved and respected by all who knew him.”
Curtis was a sheep rancher on his way to a new claim with his partner, Howard Clugston, when he was shot. The two men were in a wagon with supplies to build a corral. The Sentinel account said that it would be necessary for the sheep herd to be driven over a corner of a neighboring claim, a ranch owned by men named Larkin and Hands.
A “sort of hermit,” A.W. Chandler, took it upon himself to confront the alleged trespassers. Details are scarce on why he did that as he was apparently not the landowner. He “began to curse and rave about their herding their sheep on his hay land,” the paper reported.
The Sentinel reporter learned that Curtis “replied in a mild and conciliatory way, that the sheep were not being herded there, and that Chandler need not make such a fuss about nothing. Chandler retorted that if Curtis said any more, he would put a hole through him, to which Curtis mildly replied, ‘O, no, you would not shoot anybody.’”
At that, Chandler promptly aimed and shot Curtis, who fell out of the wagon and said, “Boys, I am killed!” He died a few moments later.
In the style of the day, the Sentinel account described the murderer thusly: “The general verdict is, that the world is well rid of him. It was rumored and suspicioned yesterday that he was hung by the ranchmen out there, instead of having poisoned himself.”
Somehow the paper had obtained information about the possibility that Chandler was determined “not to be taken alive” and had fled into his house and swallowed a dose of powdered opium.
This was the basis of the story as Nye developed it later with embellishments in the retelling. Nye had discovered in Laramie that people were amused by the stories he told whether they had a factual basis, like this one did, or not. He had a knack for finding something humorous in nearly anything that happened, whether it be a murder or a man delivering coal to his house.
He liked to refer to Western vigilante committees as the “Salvation Army,” though that reference was not made in the original account of the murder of Albert Curtis. The paper did report that when news of the murder first reached town, “a party of gentlemen went out from here to aid in the securing the murderer.” However, their assistance was not needed because “on arriving at the scene of the killing, the criminal was found to be dead or nearly so,” said the Sentinel account.
The “gentlemen” from Laramie who went out to apprehend the perpetrator weren’t inclined to bring the body back to town and turned a “cold shoulder on the corpse,” said the Sentinel. But someone began a rumor that there was a $730 reward for bringing in Chandler, “whether dead or alive.”
At that point a bystander found a wagon, snatched the body and “started for town at a break-neck pace.” This “volunteer undertaker,” as the paper put it, was pursued by those who were also eager to claim the reward. “It is probably the fastest time ever made by a funeral procession,” said the Sentinel story. The “body snatcher” was disappointed to learn there was no reward.
The bodies of both the victim and the reported murderer were brought to town, though it is not clear if the reporter actually saw either of them.
“An inquest [was] held and verdict rendered in accordance with the above facts,” said the Sentinel. The victim’s father, Judge Curtis of Ashland, Ohio, was notified and requested that his son’s body be forwarded to him. Mr. Vine, local casket-builder, took care of that detail, according to the paper.
Some said the murderer was from Hopkinton, New Hampshire. His age wasn’t known, but he was thought to be at least 50. Though described by the paper as a “crabbed man,” people were surprised that he could be capable of cold-blooded murder. “His body was buried by the county authorities yesterday morning,“ said the Sentinel.
Nye embellishes the story
This account of the murder contains some turns of phrase that sound a lot like Bill Nye’s style. “Volunteer undertaker” and “funeral procession” are not the way strait-laced editor Hayford, Nye’s employer, would have described a body snatcher taking off with a corpse.
After Nye left Laramie, he developed a nationwide fan base for his humor writing and lectures. A book he published in 1887 called “Remarks by Bill Nye” contains a version of this story titled “Early Day Justice,” which turned the whole thing into fiction. The murderer is given the name Esau, the bystander who brought the body to town for the reward is called James Whatley, and the gentlemen who left Laramie hoping to catch the murderer are the “Salvation Army.”
Nye’s fictious story goes on in this fashion:
“The news spread and the authorities began in the routine manner to set the old legal mill to running. Someone had to go down to The Tivoli and find the prosecuting attorney, then a messenger had to go to The Alhambra for the justice of the peace. …
“In the meantime, the Salvation Army was fully halfway to Clugston’s ranch. They had started out, as they said, ‘to see that Esau didn’t get away’ … I got it from one of those present, that they found Esau down in the sage brush down on the bottoms that lie between the abrupt corner of Sheep Mountain and the Little Laramie River. They captured him, but he died soon after, as it was told to me, from the effects of opium taken with suicidal intent. I remember seeing Esau the next morning and I thought there were signs of ropium, as there was a purple streak around the neck of the deceased, together with other external phenomena not peculiar to opium.
“But the great difficulty with the Salvation Army was that it didn’t want to bring Esau into town. A long, cold night ride with a person in Esau’s condition was disagreeable. ... So the Salvation Army stopped at Whatley’s ranch to get warm, hoping that someone would steal the remains and elope with them. They stayed some time and managed to ‘give away’ the fact that there was a reward of $5,000 out for Esau, dead or alive. The Salvation Army even went so far as to betray a great deal of hilarity over the easy way it had nailed the reward, or would as soon as said remains were delivered up and identified.
“Mr. Whatley thought that the Salvation Army was having a kind of walkaway, so he slipped out at the back door of the ranch, put Esau into his wagon and drove away to town. … Mr. Whatley went from house to house like a vegetable man, seeking sadly for the party who would give him a $5,000 check for Esau. ... One man went out and looked at him. He said … anybody who would pay $5,000 for remains such as Esau’s could not have very good taste.
“Gradually it crept thru Mr. Whatley’s wool that the Salvation Army had been working him, so he left Esau at the engine house and went home. On his ranch he nailed up a large board on which had been painted ... ‘Vigilance Committees, Salvation Armies, Morgues, or young physicians who may have deceased people on their hands, are requested to refrain from conferring them on to the undersigned. James Whatley.’”
A later story by Nye in the same book, titled “The Opium Habit,” carries the death of the alleged murderer further by adding:
“I was present at the inquest, so that I could report the case. There was very little testimony, but all the evidence seemed to point to the fact that life was extinct, and a verdict of death by his own hand was rendered.
“It was the first opium work I had ever seen, and it aroused my curiosity. Death by opium, it seems, leaves a dark purple ring around the neck. I did not know this before. People who die by opium also tie their hands together before they die. This is one of the eccentricities of opium poisoning that I have never seen laid down in the books.”
Nye moves on
In his fictitious account of the story, Nye doesn’t mention the unfortunate murder victim. That might remind the listener or reader that this really was a tragedy that Nye was reporting — it was more amusing to dwell on the alleged murderer who did, after all, receive “justice” the frontier way.
Nye didn’t last long at the Sentinel, just two years before quitting to pursue a career in law. But he said he was “out of coal much of the time,” so he jumped at the chance to get back into writing when the founders of a new Laramie newspaper hired him to be their first editor.
They let him name the new paper, and he chose to repurpose the name he had given his mule, Boomerang. The mule always came back, perhaps he thought the readers would too. The first offices were above a stable, where the air was smelly and the flies thick. Nye joked that there was an outside elevator to the offices: “Just pull the tail of Boomerang and he’ll elevate you.”
Laramie historian T.A. Larson says that the Boomerang had a circulation of 300 when Nye started. Many of those were undoubtedly free “exchanges” with other newspapers, providing Nye with material to reprint in Laramie and letting them lift material from the Boomerang. Thus, Nye’s humor columns quickly gained a national following, and it is likely there were as many subscribers in the East as there were in Laramie for the Boomerang during his two years as editor.
He might have stayed longer had a case of spinal meningitis not laid him low. It took several years for him to recover. His early death may indicate that he never fully recovered despite moving with his family to lower elevation. First he made his home in Wisconsin and later in North Carolina, where he died and is buried.