Saturday, May 31, 2008

Bill Nye

No, not "Bill Nye, the Science Guy," but the original, whom I like to call "Bill Nye, the Nineteenth Century Guy."

His real name was Edgar Wilson Nye, and he was one of America's most popular humorists until he died at the age of forty-six in 1896.

His pen name was actually taken from a character in one of Bret Harte's most famous (or infamous, if you will) poems, "Plain Language from Truthful James," published in the Overland Monthly in 1870, and later on widely reprinted for decades as "The Heathen Chinee." Harte himself said it was "the worst poem I ever wrote, possibly the worst poem anybody ever wrote."  The poem is about a Chinese card sharp pretending to be totally ignorant of the game, and a cowboy named Bill Nye, whom he tries to trick. Here is the poem, for better or worse:

Which I wish to remark,
And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar,
Which the same I would rise to explain.

Ah Sin was his name;
And I shall not deny,
In regard to the same,
What that name might imply;
But his smile it was pensive and childlike,
As I frequent remarked to Bill Nye.

It was August the third,
And quite soft was the skies;
Which it might be inferred
That Ah Sin was likewise;
Yet he played it that day upon William
And me in a way I despise.

Which we had a small game,
And Ah Sin took a hand:
It was Euchre. The same
He did not understand;
But he smiled as he sat by the table,
With the smile that was childlike and bland.

Yet the cards they were stocked
In a way that I grieve,
And my feelings were shocked
At the state of Nye's sleeve,
Which was stuffed full of aces and bowers,
And the same with intent to deceive.

But the hands that were played
By that heathen Chinee,
And the points that he made,
Were quite frightful to see, --
Till at last he put down a right bower,
Which the same Nye had dealt unto me.

Then I looked up at Nye,
And he gazed upon me;
And he rose with a sigh,
And said, "Can this be?
We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor," --
And he went for that heathen Chinee.

In the scene that ensued
I did not take a hand,
But the floor it was strewed
Like the leaves on the strand
With the cards that Ah Sin had been hiding,
In the game "he did not understand."

In his sleeves, which were long,
He had twenty-four packs, --
Which was coming it strong,
Yet I state but the facts;
And we found on his nails, which were taper,
What is frequent in tapers, -- that's wax.

Which is why I remark,
And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar, --
Which the same I am free to maintain.

The nickname stuck to Edgar Wilson Nye like glue for the rest of his life. He was an educated man, born in Maine, who spent a good number of years in Wisconsin, and after migrating to the wilderness of Laramie, Wyoming, set up shop as postmaster and the proprietor of a weekly newspaper called "The Laramie Boomerang" in 1881 (which is still being published to this day).

The Boomerang catapulted Nye to fame. It was filled with witty stories, and rough and tumble crude frontier humor. The stories were often reprinted in other newspapers around the world. and circulation of the Boomerang rose to record levels. 

Nye went on tour, often with poet James Whitcomb Riley, and eventually moved to New York and North Carolina, where he died of meningitis (there were some contemporaries who claimed he drank himself to death after a string of disappointing stage performances).

We will go into more detail here regarding Nye in the future, but it really is worth going to the Basement podcast web site and searching out his many fun stories that I have read. As ever, your comments are welcome.


bnye14221 said...

I am Bill Nye's great, great, grandson. My father is Edgar Wilson Nye III.

I didn't realize his pen name was derived from that poem.

What made you write about him? I'm curious.

Mister Ron said...

Hi bnye14221,

Please send me your email address (mine is and we can discuss your great-great grandfather in more detail.

If you haven't seen it yet, my Podcast, "Mister Ron's Basement" features a large number of humorous stories from the 19th and early 20th Century. There are almost 60 Episodes featuring Bill Nye's wonderful stories, some of them quite rare.

The Nye stories are indexed at:

I have most of Bill Nye's books, and one of the prizes of my collection is "Bill Nye, His Own Life Story" which was put together in 1926 by his son Frank Wilson Nye (who was nicknamed "Jim" after family friend James Whitcomb Riley).

The book contains a hand-letter written by Frank, which I have scanned:

There are some nifty photos in the book, and most of it is Bill Nye's own writing, assembled as if it was an autobiography.

Your great-great grandfather was a much-beloved American writer during his time, and long afterward, although he seems to have vanished from the public eye in recent decades.

I am assuming you are descended from Frank Wilson Nye, since he had a son, Edgar Wilson Nye, the Second. There's a photo of them I scanned from the book taken in 1925 at the Bill Nye Memorial.

Here is is:

All the best,

Dale said...

My nephew put our family on to your site. What a wonderful treat. My father was Edgar Wilson Nye, the second. He died in 1963.

I have many of my great grandfather's books and also a copy of "Bill Nye, His Own Life Story." I'm enjoying some of his other works online - the internet is really something!

Mister Ron said...


You're welcome. I am thrilled to be in contact with the Nye Family. Sometimes I feel like there ought to be a Bill Nye Library or Museum somewhere. Anyway, I am doing my best to bring his works back in the limelight.

Meanwhile, all the stories have been updated to the new server at:

Your comments on those or suggestions for new ones to post are always welcome.