Edgar Wilson “Bill Nye” (1850-1896) was editor of the Boomerang for two short years and might have continued longer had it not been for a nearly fatal bout with spinal meningitis. The 1883 illness required him to recuperate elsewhere than the Gem City and left him with a “delicate” constitution, as those who knew him remarked.

Despite that, when he felt better, Nye wrote weekly syndicated columns and produced eight more books in addition to the two he’d written in Laramie. Eventually he joined the lecture circuit.

CHATTANOOGA ACCOLADES

In 1893, at the height of his notoriety, Nye notified editors of newspapers like the Chattanooga Daily Times that he was ill and would be unable to send his usual weekly column. These columns were in the form of letters, often written about his travel mishaps while lecturing.

Apparently, the illness that Nye was suffering from in 1893 was a painful broken bone that he received from an accident that happened when he was on stage in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1891 he had tried to give up lecturing and relocated his family to Asheville, North Carolina. But traveling the country gave him inspirations for his weekly columns, so he didn’t stay retired for long.

An 1893 editor, E.J. Edwards of the Chattanooga newspaper, took it upon himself to furnish a biographical sketch of the author in place of the usual Nye column. Editor Edwards (self-described as “Writer of the Philosopher”) made some observations gleaned from Nye’s own writings, particularly Nye’s seven books of humor that had been published up to that time.

There are some pitfalls in depending upon Nye himself as a source of facts. No doubt Edwards was well aware of that. His account of Nye’s life also strays a bit from the factual, perhaps, but no worse than Nye’s own accounts would have it.

NYE AND THE BOOMERANG

Edwards writes: “About twelve years ago there began to appear in different newspapers extracts which were said to have been copied from a journal published at Laramie, Wy., the name which was alleged to be the Boomerang.

“These sketches were delicious, but for a long time many of those who enjoyed the humor of them were very doubtful about the existence of a newspaper with such a seemingly absurd name. However, it began to be understood that a new humorist had arisen and was located on the windy uplands of the Northwest. …

“Of course it was asked who this genius of humor of the Wyoming uplands was, and the papers began to circulate a rumor that his name was Bill Nye.”

EARLY CAREER GLIMPSED

Edwards truthfully recounts that “this genius of humor was baptized Edgar Wilson Nye; was born near the pine forests of Maine, reared on the frontier of Wisconsin, was bred a lawyer and had ventured as far as Laramie while a young man that he might practice law or grow up with the territory in any way that offered.”

The part about “bred a lawyer” is a stretch, though it is true that after quitting his first job in Laramie with the Sentinel newspaper, he did obtain the ability to hang out his shingle as a lawyer and justice of the peace. After failing to attract many clients, he grasped the chance to become the editor of a new competing newspaper in Laramie. The founders apparently didn’t plan to pay him much, so they found him a paying job on the side as the Laramie postmaster.

They also didn’t lavish expenses on a fine office — the first home of the Boomerang was above a livery stable, with all the attendant flies and odors that go with such places.

Edwards apparently didn’t know those details.

Edwards truthfully writes that Nye’s Laramie experiences “brought him small honor and much misery, but it also gave him, though at the time he little suspected it, a rich fund of experience which is now serving him in drama and higher literature and is giving delight to almost countless readers.”

That “almost countless” is a bit of Nye-style humor creeping into Edwards’ account.

HUMOROUS APPEARANCE

Edwards added, “The Nye of the newspapers stands six feet in his stockings, and ... until recently was of such slender build as made his height all the more conspicuous. Bill Nye has made humorous capital by reason of his baldness.”

Edwards further remarks that, as a tall, thin, bald, beardless orator wearing glasses, Nye supplied fodder for the caricaturist to exaggerate. Indeed, the sketches by his illustrator, Fredrick Burr Opper, were humorous in themselves and were features of his books, columns and publicity ads for his talks.

“Nye’s popularity has become universal wherever the English language is read,” says Edwards. Yet, “in all the accounts of Nye, nothing has been said of one qualification, which must have brought him success sooner or later, and that (is) his business capacity. It is remarkable. No other humorist excepting Mark Twain has revealed such a gift.

“Other humorists have ... done well if they have been able to make a bare living with their pen.

“Nye, however, has the business instinct as a native gift and he has cultivated it well. When he began to write his sketches for the Boomerang he had no idea that they would be of more than local interest, nor in fact did he realize the humor that was in them or its market value.

“He simply reported things in Laramie as he saw them, not understanding that his mental vision and his capacity to reproduce it on paper was of such peculiar nature as would gain for him fame, would create in the popular mind a demand for a constant supply of it, and would therefore have a pecuniary value.“

NYE’S BUSINESS SENSE

Edwards claims that when Nye was sufficiently recovered from meningitis, he wisely abandoned Laramie where the newspaper had folded (obviously a mistaken assumption), and that he turned down an offer from the New York World to become a staff writer.

Instead, according to editor Edwards, “He chose to write over his own nom de plume, to be subject to none of the restrictions of the office ... (where his work) would become forced and artificial, his identity lost and he would sink to the dead level of the average.”

He offered his work to the New York World as a syndicated columnist, says Edwards, and was “surprised” when it was accepted. “He was engaged to write what he chose, as he chose ... and it was (a) common report that he was to receive $5,000 a year for this undertaking.

“This shrewdness of management unquestionably saved Nye from being buried in that mighty wave of literary endeavor which produces anonymously the best in our daily newspapers. It revealed that Nye was as strong in business as he was great in humor, and from that time on his pathway has been one of ever increasing prosperity.”

Further, Edwards says, “His fame being established he was able to make other newspaper connections so that in the course of a year or two he was in receipt of an income of over $10,000 a year.

“His business instincts served him well also when he entered the lecture field. The work is hard and dreary, and entails prolonged absences from a most charming family, but it pays well.”

MONEY ROLLS IN

“His profits are commonly reported to have been as high as from $25,000 to $30,000 a year, so that in the past four or five years Mr. Nye’s income has equaled that of the greater lawyers, has been as large as the individual profits which many bankers and merchants have received from their business, and has been equaled among literary men probably only by the income of the Rev. Dr. Talmage,” Edwards wrote.

An online inflation calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that $30,000 in 1890 would be worth approximately $901,869 today. Thus, the figures given by Edwards may be close to what Nye earned. His actual income would have been more if Edwards did not include income received from his books.

As for comparing him with Dr. Thomas De Witt Talmage, I suspect that was done facetiously by Edwards. Though the theologian “was said to have preached to audiences of 8,000 people,” according to Wikipedia, he was a strait-laced orator of the Dutch Reformed Church. His sermons on temptations and sins were a far cry from the spontaneous humor that Nye delivered.

A CHILD AT HEART

Edwards ends his piece with the statement praising Mrs. Nye (a Laramie girl, Clara Frances “Fanny” Smith Nye) who is “just the helpmeet for such a man, and with his four children he is as much a child as any of them.”

Those who knew Nye well were aware that his health was probably affected by the after-effects of meningitis. The lecture circuit and weekly columns were a strain — a pace that he could not sustain. Edwards ended his assessment of Nye with these words: “Mr. Nye has barely entered the prime of life, being in his 40th year, and if his present prosperity attends him he seems likely to become the wealthiest of our literary men.”

That prophecy was not to be — Nye died of a sudden stroke in February of 1896 at age 45. A month later, his widow Fanny gave birth to their fifth son.

Fellow writers and humorists wrote tributes to him that were published in many papers after his death. Another very nice though exaggerated prophecy about Nye’s staying power was by Walt McDougall in the New York World, which was reprinted in the Owensboro (Kentucky) Messenger on March 10, 1896.

McDougall wrote: “To us who knew him and loved him Bill Nye is dead ... but to you who knew him in his writings he is still alive ... his books are classic monuments of American humor ... he who makes us laugh is greater than he who makes us weep. Bill Nye’s name will be a household word a century hence, for his wit was gentle, wholesome and American.”

Editor’s note: Judy Knight (je.judy@gmail.com) is Collection Manager at the Laramie Plains Museum Visit the website wyoachs.com to see this story and others in the Boomerang history series, archived on the website of the Albany County Historical Society.

The article by Edwards quoted here appeared in the Chattanooga Daily Times (Chattanooga, Tennessee), 17 Jan 1892, page 10. That and other nationwide citations were accessed on the website “Newspapers.com.”

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