Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

NYE, BILL (1850-1896)

Edgar Wilson "Bill" Nye was born on August 25, 1850, in Shirley, Maine. His family moved to Wisconsin when he was two years old. Nye attempted farming and teaching but was unsuccessful. He also studied law but did not pass the bar in Wisconsin. Leaving Wisconsin in 1876, he made his way to Laramie City, Wyoming Territory, where he worked as a reporter for the Laramie Sentinel. Nye next began a two-year stint as editor of the Laramie Boomerang, a newspaper named after his unpredictable mule. His satirical editorials and feature stories soon spread his fame far beyond Wyoming.

In addition to his work as an editor, Nye passed the Wyoming bar and practiced law. He also served as justice of the peace, U.S. commissioner, and U.S. postmaster. In 1877 he married Clara Francis Smith, and together they had seven children. He published two works while living in Wyoming, Bill Nye and Boomerang (1881) and Forty Liars and Other Lies (1882). In 1883 spinal meningitis forced him to seek healthier surroundings. Following a short recuperative period in Greeley, Colorado, Nye returned to his childhood home of Hudson, Wisconsin.

In 1885 Nye began a second career as a platform lecturer. He was wildly successful, rivaling Mark Twain in popularity. He delivered his humorous lectures, sometimes alone and sometimes with other humorists such as James Whitcomb Riley, until his death in 1896. He was soon a household name, and his gangly, bald figure, familiar through both the lecture circuit and the humorous illustrations included throughout his books, made him a particularly well-known celebrity.

Nye continued to write throughout his career as a lecturer, his style becoming progressively more refined and containing less of the jocular humor that had been in vogue during the previous decades and that reads poorly today. In 1887 he published Bill Nye's Remarks, and in 1888 he and his longtime partner, Riley, published Nye and Riley's Railway Guide, their take on the popular railroad guides of the era. In 1887 Nye returned to regular newspaper work when he became a writer for the Sunday edition of the New York World. He moved to New York City in that year, remaining there until 1891, when his newspaper columns became syndicated in seventy newspapers.

With his health still frail from spinal meningitis, Nye left New York City for Asheville, North Carolina. He continued writing and lecturing, producing his two best-known works, Bill Nye's History of the United States (1894) and Bill Nye's History of England from the Druids to the Reign of Henry VIII (1896).

A gentle wit, Nye himself was often the focus of his jokes. Regretfully, he also adopted the prejudices of his day. He specialized in lampooning the self-important, including politicians and recent arrivals to the Plains from back east. Although he spent less than ten years in the Plains, the experience proved to be central to his writings. Nye adopted the western love of play on words, exaggeration, and a sense of pragmatism. In early 1896 Nye suffered a series of strokes that finally took his life on February 22 at his home near Asheville, North Carolina.

Charles Vollan University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Keterson, David B. Bill Nye: The Western Writings. Boise ID: Boise State University Press, 1976.

Nye, Frank Wilson, ed. Bill Nye: His Own Life Story. New York: Century Company, 1926.

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