The original Bill Nye (click to enlarge)
A long time before he was born, “Bill Nye the Science Guy” was a national celebrity. Unfortunately, it wasn’t him.
Enter Edgar Wilson Nye, who wrote under the “pen name” of Bill Nye. Nye was born in Maine, educated in Wisconsin and moved to Wyoming Territory.
Nye was the postmaster in Laramie City, Wyoming Territory, and founded a newspaper that he named after his mule, which would confound generations of Laramites: Boomerang. Seems that old Boomerang really liked his owner and would follow him into Laramie saloons, giving him his name, and thence, the newspaper’s. He studied law in Wyoming and was admitted to the Wyoming Bar in 1876. But, as with the biographies of so many others, life had other plans.
Nye was a lawyer by training, but a “humorist” by avocation, and, like many avocations, it took over his life. In 1883, menengitis drove him to resign his government job during the Chester Arthur presidency.
President Chester A. Arthur
His letter of resignation propelled him to national fame, and decided his career thereafter. He was, as noted, sick, and he would die in his mid-forties of menengitis in his home in his final years, Arden, North Carolina. Here ’tis:
Laramie City, W.T.
Oct. 1, 1883
To the President of the United States:
I beg leave at this time to officially tender my resignation as postmaster at this place, and in due form to deliver the great seal and the key to the front door of the office. The safe combination is set on the numbers 33, 66 and 99, though I do not remember at this moment which comes first, or how many times you revolve the knob, or which direction you should turn it at first in order to make it operate.
There is some mining stock in my private drawer in the safe, which I have not yet removed. This stock you may have, if you desire it. It is a luxury, but you may have it. I have decided to keep a horse instead of this mining stock. The horse may not be so pretty, but it will cost less to keep him.
You will find the postal cards that have not been used under the distributing table, and the coal down in the cellar. If the stove draws too hard, close the damper in the pipe and shut the general delivery window.
Looking over my stormy and eventful administration as postmaster here, I find abundant cause for thanksgiving. At the time I entered upon the duties of my office the department was not yet on a paying basis. It was not even self-sustaining. Since that time, with the active co-operation of the chief executive and the heads of the department, I have been able to make our postal system a paying one, and on top of that I am now able to reduce the tariff on average-sized letters from three cents to two. I might add that this is rather too too, but I will not say anything that might seem undignified in an official resignation which is to become a matter of history.
Through all the vicissitudes of a tempestuous term of office I have safely passed. I am able to turn over the office to-day in a highly improved condition, and to present a purified and renovated institution to my successor.
Acting under the advice of Gen. Hatton, a year ago, I removed the feather bed with which my predecessor, Deacon Hayford, had bolstered up his administration by stuffing the window, and substituted glass. Finding nothing in the book of instructions to postmasters which made the feather bed a part of my official duties, I filed it away in an obscure place and burned it in effigy, also in the gloaming. This act maddened my predecessor to such a degree, that he then and there became a candidate for justice of the peace on the Democratic ticket. The Democratic party was able, however, with what aid it secured from the Republicans, to plow the old man under to a great degree.
It was not long after I had taken my official oath before an era of unexampled prosperity opened for the American people. The price of beef rose to a remarkable altitude, and other vegetables commanded a good figure and a ready market. We then began to make active preparations for the introduction of the strawberry-roan two-cent stamps and the black-and-tan postal note. One reform has crowded upon the heels of another, until the country is to-day upon the foam-crested wave of permanent prosperity.
Mr. President, I cannot close this letter without thanking yourself and the heads of departments at Washington for your active, cheery and prompt cooperation in these matters. You can do as you see fit, of course, about incorporating this idea into your Thanksgiving proclamation, but rest assured it would not be ill-timed or inopportune. It is not alone a credit to myself, It reflects credit upon the administration also.
I need not say that I herewith transmit my resignation with great sorrow and genuine regret. We have toiled on together month after month, asking for no reward except the innate consciousness of rectitude and the salary as fixed by law. Now we are to separate. Here the roads seem to fork, as it were, and you and I, and the cabinet, must leave each other at this point.
You will find the key under the door-mat, and you had better turn the cat out at night when you close the office. If she does not go readily, you can make it clearer to her mind by throwing the cancelling stamp at her.
If Deacon Hayford does not pay up his box-rent, you might as well put his mail in the general delivery, and when Bob Head gets drunk and insists on a letter from one of his wives every day in the week, you can salute him through the box delivery with an old Queen Anne tomahawk, which you will find near the Etruscan water-pail. This will not in any manner surprise either of these parties.
Tears are unavailing. I once more become a private citizen, clothed only with the right to read such postal cards as may be addressed to me personally, and to curse the inefficiency of the postoffice department. I believe the voting class to be divided into two parties, viz: Those who are in the postal service, and those who are mad because they cannot receive a registered letter every fifteen minutes of each day, including Sunday.
Mr. President, as an official of this Government I now retire. My term of office would not expire until 1886. I must, therefore, beg pardon for my eccentricity in resigning. It will be best, perhaps, to keep the heart-breaking news from the ears of European powers until the dangers of a financial panic are fully past. Then hurl it broadcast with a sickening thud.
The Laramie Daily Boomerang was my parents’ daily paper when I was a boy, and like a lunatic, I used to play a game in the early morning (then I was an early riser, life has since turned me into a night owl) when there was a fresh snowfall: in my robe, barefoot, I would open the front door, scan the fresh snow for the telltale hole where the paperboy had invariably chucked it, and run out through the new powder, extract the newspaper (hopefully not wet with early meltwater) and run back through the snow to the suddenly incredible warm carpet of the living room.
Nobody I ever talked to in Laramie ever knew who Bill Nye was, other than that mysterious slug under the headline: Founded by American Humorist Bill Nye.
The Carnegie Public Library had a “special collection” of Bill Nye books, but you had to apply for permission to view them, and I never did.
Edgar Wilson “Bill” Nye at the end of his short life
Many years later, I found a first American Edition of Bill Nye’s Remarks, which contains the famous letter. I gave it to my father for a Christmas present, but he evidently had no idea who Bill Nye was, either. He’s dead now, and so is Bill Nye.
But he was a funny guy and a contemporary of Mark Twain and Artemus Ward. Here’s the Laramie paper’s story about the mule whose name it bears:
Bill Nye and Clara Frances Smith were married March 7, 1887, in Laramie. Mrs. Nye remembered the entrance of another unexpected member of the family. “This funny little creature appeared on the streets of Laramie from no one knows where,” she wrote in later years. “It ambled up to Edgar and, rubbing its nose against his sleeve, brayed earnestly in his ear. From that time on, the arrival was known as Bill Nye’s mule, Boomerang.” Initial efforts to drive the creature off were unsuccessful, thus resulting in the name. The animal was a companion whenever Bill went fishing or to work his claim west of town. Nye wrote about their close relationship in one of his books. When local Republicans decided they needed a new political organ in Laramie, they backed the establishment of a newspaper and hired Nye to head the outfit. Nye accepted, named the sheet after his beloved mule and moved the shop into the upstairs room of a livery stable at Third and Garfield. He was given $3,000 by his backers to set up the paper and spent $1,800 of it on a “lemon squeezer” hand press and materials, and the rest for operating costs.
And that’s the tale.
The author and his imaginary mule, “Snuffles”