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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
Subscribers Edition
The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit

Covers from British Columbia to Puget Sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan, Snohomish & BC. An evolving history dedicated to committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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William Lightfoot Visscher, Poet of Chicago,
Fairhaven and Tacoma, and his Pony
Express and Buffalo Bill books, Part Two

By Noel V. Bourasaw, humble ink-stained wretch, Skagit River Journal, ©2006
(Nye, Visscher and Field)
From l. to r.: Bill Nye, William Lightfoot Visscher and Eugene Field, circa 1890s. Original courtesy of William K. Bixby Collection, Washington University Libraries, St. Louis.
Two years in Fairhaven
      In 1888-90, Nelson Bennett established Fairhaven, now South Bellingham, as his company town, from which he extended the Fairhaven & Southern Railroad to old Sedro on the Skagit River. In 1890, he decided to publish a newspaper that would glorify his boom town and that newspaper has evolved into today's Bellingham Herald. The tri-weekly Fairhaven Herald launched on March 11, 1890. Bennett's Fairhaven Land Co. soon spent a lot of cash on a new two-story building and a flatbed double-rotation cylinder press, then called "the best newspaper plant north of Seattle." Bennett stole the colorful and outspoken Visscher from the Tacoma Globe and set him up as the managing editor. When Vissch arrived in Fairhaven, the town was in full-boom mode. Bennett's Fairhaven Land Co. sold lots and James Wardner, C.W. Waldron and others were making a killing in real estate and banking. Bennett bought most of the townsite from Dirty Dan Harris in 1888 and from Seattle interests headed by Arthur Denny, who had established the town of Unionville/Bellingham several years before at the site of a coal mine just north of Fairhaven. Bennett completed the Fairhaven & Southern between Bellingham Bay and old Sedro on Dec. 24, 1889, the first standard-gauge line north of Seattle, and he was in the process of building the Fairhaven & Northern railroad north to Westminster, B.C. In his later book, Way Out Yonder, Visscher would tweak the town by calling it St. Movadu. But in the first issue, Visscher bragged about the wonder of electricity coming to town:
      After three months' fighting against the elements the [Fairhaven Electric Light and Motor Company] started their wheels Saturday night last. A test of the plant alone was made, and not until Sunday night was the current turned on the outside circuit. That the test was a perfect success, goes without saying as the brilliantly lighted streets and store and office rooms were prima facie evidence of that fact. Not a single disagreeable occurrence or accident happened and even the most sanguine friends and those most interested [in] the plant were satisfied beyond their hopes and expectations.
      There was stiff competition from another newspaper during Visscher's years there. Charles S. Rice edited the Fairhaven Plaindealer, upstairs in a building on McKenzie avenue near 5th street, with Seneca G. Ketchum, the future Skagit County Times editor, on his staff. The towns of Sehome and Whatcom, located north and east on Bellingham Bay, also had their own newspapers. But the Herald, with Bennett's deep pockets, was off to the races. Lottie Roeder Roth (History of Whatcom County, 2 vols., 1926) wrote that, "The first issue of the Daily Herald, with the late Col. Will L. Visscher famous journalist, poet, author and lecturer, as editor, appeared September 1, 1890. P. E. Tarbell was general manager, and the paper continued daily with issues of eight, twelve and sixteen pages." Bennett soon spent $2,000 and erected a building for the newspaper at the corner of 14th and Larrabee streets. Jay B. Edwards, the original editor of the Plaindealer, was the local editor, Aaron A. Rosenthal was city editor and Charles D. South was associate editor. In August 1890, the Washington Press Association elected Visscher as its president. Visscher showed off that first Christmas by printing a holiday edition, with 24 illustrated pages. At the top of the front page, he heralded the growth of the boom town, showing the population at 150 in September 1889; 500 when he began publication on March 11, 1890, and 8,000 on December 29, 1890, the date of the holiday issue.

Visscher's family and social life in Fairhaven

(Fairhaven 1890)
      This photographer in 1890 was looking north on 11th Street. This was the boom year. Within 18 months, hopes for a terminus of a transcontinental railroad and the dream faded.

      We find the only evidence of Visscher's religion in the surviving log books of the St. James Episcopal Church in Fairhaven. His wife was listed Emma Blanche and they had a daughter listed as Viva Glen, 14. He was listed as being baptized and confirmed and they are listed as baptized. According to the 1890 R. L. Polk & Co. city directory for Fairhaven, their home was at Larrabee at the southwest corner of 14th Street, just two blocks away from downtown. Almost immediately after he arrived, Visscher was one of the signatories of the Fairhaven incorporation papers of April 1890, as reported in the April 15, 1890, Whatcom Evening Bulletin. In a July 1993 Pacific Northwest Quarterly article on Bill Nye and the Northwest, Saum noted that Nye discovered that Emma Blanche "was lonely and sought to keep him home in the evenings by the fireside, reading from 'Plutarch's Lives' and giving the children their bath." That was not Visscher's style.
      Susan Nahas, the Whatcom County Rootsweb coordinator ( ), also found a document that provides the most biographical details about Visscher as a young man and soldier. In the June 10, 1892, issue of the Fairhaven Herald, published after he had left the paper's employ, he wrote about his personal action in getting the new Fairhaven post of the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) named for an old friend, Coleman Rogers "Collie" Apperson, who fell in battle during the war. (You can see that column in our companion collection of Visscher documents.) Visscher's impassioned recounting supplied evidence that he witnessed much bloodshed and death during the war as his unit was decimated. Just a few months after launching the Herald, Visscher traveled across the country and attended the 23rd National Encampment of the G.A.R. in Boston in mid-August 1890.
      As with all good things, the Fairhaven boom had to end, however, and when it did, Visscher soured on his Movadu, or at least its king, Nelson Bennett. The first sign came at the time of the nominating conventions of 1891. Visscher, always a staunch Republican, put up his name to run for the State Senate, against F. H. Richards and J.P. de Mattos. The GOP nominated Richards. Roth noted that signs of impending disaster in paradise showed by late 1891. Bennett had sold his F&S line to James J. Hill, who was building his Great Northern/Seattle & Montana railroad empire west from Spokane Falls. Although Hill visited Fairhaven and claimed to have an open mind about the West Coast terminus for his transcontinental railroad, those without pixie dust in their eyes realized by the summer of 1891 that Hill was saying sweet nothings to all the boom girls along Puget Sound, from Anacortes to Mukilteo to Port Townsend, but his heart was already in Seattle. Several writers have concluded that Visscher's end at the Herald came because of a feud with Nelson Bennett. Roth wrote:

      Early in 1891 the rush began to diminish, and the Herald was losing money. . . . The paper was published by the Fairhaven Publishing Company, headed by [E.] M. Wilson, an 1847 pioneer of Oregon and one of the founders of - Fairhaven and of the Fairhaven Land Company, as president. Tarbell had retired from the general management after serving only a few months. In August 1891, O. H. Culver succeeded in framing a deal with Wilson and C. X. Larrabee, president and financial head of the Fairhaven Land Company, by which the Herald and World [a third newspaper in Fairhaven] were consolidated under complete control of O. H. Culver and E. G. Earle. Col. Will L. Visscher was replaced by O. H. Culver as editor. . . . Upon the retirement of Colonel Visscher, the Fairhaven Herald declared that it could not continue to print an eight page paper in a four page town, and in September there was a succession of failures among the retail merchants of Whatcom. There was growing uneasiness as to the intentions of the Great Northern Railway, the Anacortes boom had already burst and hard times were really being felt throughout the East. . . .
      Colonel Visscher was a genius. His literary ability, both as a newspaper man and a writer of verse, was known and recognized throughout the country. . . . He had a reputation as a lecturer and platform orator. With his genius, however, there was a carefree attitude toward life, which had led him to many scenes of activity and through many vicissitudes. He was a bon vivant" as well as a genius, and this, while it doubtless contributed to his lack of ultimate financial success, added greatly to the picturesqueness of his career. He came to Fairhaven in February 1890, and at once became an active factor in the political, civic and literary life of Bellingham Bay. It was his pen which painted the glowing pictures of Fairhaven's prospects which were given publicity from coast to coast.

      Saum suggested another reason for the falling-out between Visscher and Bennett, which he suggests may have lay in Visscher's failure to provide enough of the "statistics" that Nye jested about in 1889. Bennett cared only about the bottom line and he was losing money as was the town. Another figure rose in Bennett's estimation, Robert E Strahorn, who was listed in the 1890 Fairhaven Polk Directory as the advertising agent for the F&S Railroad and who lived in a suite in the fabulous Fairhaven Hotel that Wardner and others had built as the finest hotel north of Seattle. Strahorn eventually became known as "Propagandist for the West" (Pacific NW Quarterly, Vol. 59, 1968), pages 33-35). Saum notes that
      Whether the real Will Visscher was eased out of the Fairhaven Herald would be exceedingly difficult to determine; but there is no doubt that Nelson Bennett's Fairhaven Land Company acquired the help of a quite different type of promoter, one who had large regard for those statistics that Bill Nye had puckishly urged upon Visscher, one who had great talent for making crop reports persuasive if not "mirth inspiring." Colonel Robert Strahorn had vastly less of romance and sentiment than did [Visscher] . . .
      Visscher must have enjoyed his circle of friends in Fairhaven, however, because Roth noted that he stayed on for a few months after stepping down as editor, and served on the State Harbor Lines Commission. Back in the fall of 1889, as Washington became the 42nd state, Visscher lobbied Elisha P. Ferry, the first State Governor, to appoint him to the new commission. It was chock full of Tacoma noteworthies, including the governor's nephew, C.P. Ferry — the "Duke of Tacoma," Nelson Bennett, real estate king W.J. Fife and Elwood Evans, an author and secretary of state, among others. But his hopes and aspiration were dashed back then. Instead of a post on the commission, the governor appointed him as assistant commissary general on the general staff of the Washington National Guard, probably on the strength of his years on the general staff during the civil war. We learned through Roth that he finally got his wish with the commission.

Hurrah for the land of the setting sun!
(George Francis Train)
George Francis Train, self-styled "World Citizen," departs on the steamer Premier to Victoria from Fairhaven on May 8, 1891, on the first leg of his round-the-world trip.
      Just two years after leaving, Visscher returned to Tacoma. A check of addresses in Tacoma shows that a very short street was named for him and still exists under the name of Visscher Street, but that may have occurred after he moved back east. Back in Tacoma, his old job was gone because the Globe suspended publication in February 1892, an early casualty of the spreading financial slowdown. Murray Morgan wrote: "The Globe scored points, gained circulation, lost advertisers, and, after two years of understated vindication of vice, went under." Visscher set up his family in Tacoma on April 1, 1892, where Emma listed herself in the 1892 Washington State Census as an artist and Viva Glen began acting in local legitimate theater. That period was the last time that the family lived together as a nuclear unit.
      Although financial rain-clouds were gathering, Visscher was not ready to leave Washington completely. The booster in him came out when he coined a phrase that was part of a poem that he read at a meeting of the State Historical Society in Tacoma in May 1892 and repeated in other venues: "Hurrah for the land of the setting sun!/Hurrah for the state of Washington!"
      Visscher apparently did not want to go back to the daily grind of newspapers, at least not immediately. He seems to have had a brief connection in 1892 with the newly founded Tacoma Evening Call, which rose and fell even faster than did the Globe. He appears to have never considered a position in Seattle. He may have shared the same antipathy towards the city to the north on Puget Sound as did the Northern Pacific officers and Tacoma City Fathers. In true paragrapher style, Visscher ridiculed Seattle in a one-line editorial comment in 1894: "A suicide club has been organized at Seattle. It deserved to succeed and it will." (Tacoma Union, April 25, 1894)
      Tacoma had been taunting Seattle since the NP chose Commencement Bay as the transcontinental railroad's western terminus in 1873. In that time of high spirits, George Francis Train spat in Seattle's direction and declared: "Seattle! Seattle! Death Rattle, Death Rattle; Tacoma! Tacoma! Aroma, Aroma." The Aroma part was truly a joke to those of us who grew up in the state during the last glory days of mills and held our noses as we passed through Everett and Tacoma on old Hwy. 99. And in Visscher's era, as the economy went south in 1892-93, Train's other famous slogan for Tacoma, "The City of Destiny," caused hoots of laughter from those skedaddling out of town.
      Like Visscher, Train had his ups and downs, one day a hero and the next day the butt of jokes. As far as we know, Visscher is the only editor to have been on duty in both towns that were the base for Train's international fame in 1890-91. Born in Boston in 1829, Train was an industrialist who made a fortune in the U.S., Australia and England and then settled in the Midwest before coming to the West Coast in his 60s. In 1867, he became a champion of women's suffrage and then he began a series of publicity stunts that led many to dismiss him as an eccentric. In 1870, 19 years before Nellie Bly, he circumnavigated the Globe by various modes of travel in 80 days, including a brief period in a French jail for his flirtation with the hated Communards. Train and many others have claimed that Jules Verne stole Train's thunder by creating the fictional character of Phileas Fogg in his book, Around the World in Eighty Days, published in 1873. In 1872, Train campaigned for president as the Greenback Party and after he published literature that many considered obscene, a prosecuting attorney tried to commit him for being insane.
      In 1890 when many eyes around the nation looked at Tacoma and Puget Sound as the natural base for the shortest route of trade with Asia, Train decided to beat his own record for world travel and raised funds in Tacoma for the trip. The Ledger became an enthusiastic backer in 1890 and Visscher's Globe went along with the idea, one of the few times that he agreed with the competing newspaper. In fact, all the city's newspapers joined together in the publicity stunt, including the News, which Visscher often lampooned and which was headed by Franklin K. Lane, who later became Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of the Interior. Train succeeded in breaking his own record, leaving Tacoma on March 18, 1890, and returning on May 24, 1890, for a total of 67 days.
      Train may have gone to the well once too often, however, because he decided to repeat his fete a year later, using Fairhaven as his base, and announced his goal of completing his trip in 60 days. Visscher, the editor of the Fairhaven Herald, was again on hand as a booster. Almost every source dates this trip in 1892, but both Roth and Lelah Jackson Edson in The Fourth Corner detail his departure from the Fairhaven wharf on May 9, 1891, after he raised $1,000 locally to defray expenses. He returned 64 days later after two missed ships and by that time the luster was off his rose.

Time to visit the White City and promote Washington state
(Pacific Avenue Tacoma 1891)
Pacific Avenue in Tacoma, 1891. Original courtesy of Wilcox Collection, Seattle-King County Historical Society
      Even though Vissch stayed in Washington, he was getting ants in his pants again and decided that it was time to go cavort with his fellow humorists in his old haunts. In July 1892 the Washington Standard newspaper of Olympia announced his Humor and Pathos lecture tour, which continued for about two years, and the reporter noted Visscher's "phenomenal" popularity as a lecturer. His occasional tours outside the Northwest often matched him up with Opie Read. We know that he continued the lecture tour through early 1894 because the Salem Daily Oregon Statesman published a review on February 10 that year.
      Then an opportunity arose for him to split time between two of his favorite cities, Tacoma and Chicago. As the economy turned sour, Edmond Meany and others decided that Washington had to conduct positive public relations by making a big splash with an eye-catching exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition, which was planned for Chicago in 1892-93. Meany, who is arguably the most quoted of the University of Washington's early professors, has drawn criticism for romanticizing Washington state's past but he was a booster for the area from the time his family moved to Seattle when he was a boy and when his father drowned in the Skagit River while prospecting for gold. Meany actually began preparing in 1890 for Washington's show at what was also called the Chicago World's Fair, which was billed as celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landing in the New World.
      His sarcastic fellows in the press must have chuckled when the News, his longtime punching bag, announced in the late spring of 1893 that Visscher would be that newspaper's special correspondent from the Expo. After all, Lane's News was the Democratic Party organ in town and Visscher was always a staunch Republican. The fellows should not have been shocked at the rapprochement between the former enemies, however, as Saum showed in his profile of Visscher:

      At other times — as in the summer of 1893 — an editor needed to assume a larger view of things. "My friend and everybody's friend Col. Will L. Visscher can do this State more good at Chicago than any other single State exhibit" — thus exuded Franklin I. Lane of the Daily News in a letter of recommendation to the Executive Committee of the Washington World's Fair Commission as its preparatory work came down to dead earnest. "Take him in tow," Lane urged the commission, "and give a choice location and finest pedestal you have." (Lane to Executive Committee, March 8, 1893, Washington World's Fair Commission Records, University of Washington Libraries.)
Visscher must have thought he had died and gone to heaven. Someone else was paying for his hotel in Chicago, his favorite playpen, and presumably picking up his tab at the Press Club, where he could belly up to the bar, hand out daily releases about Western red cedar and Washington cows as big as Paul Bunyan's Babe, and buy the assembled national reporters a drink if they didn't wad up the release and throw it away. He was very successful as Lane noted in August that year:
      Back in Tacoma, Lane, recently married to a sister of Visscher's doctor, boasted that the colonel's reports were the best coming from the fair and that the paper was receiving requests for copies from "the most remote corners of the country," "Won't California turn green with envy when she reads this paragraph . . . " Thus began a Daily News editorial that dealt with Visscher and the land for which he acted, according to the paper, as "missionary." The editorial was titled "The Eden of the West," a phrase borrowed from Eugene Field along with his words of praise for the "living, prowling, singing advertisement of Washington, the Evergreen state — Colonel Will L. Visscher." . . .
      But, by and large, Visscher luxuriated in Chicago. He hobnobbed with his journalist-artist cronies, giving, for example, a performance at the legendary Whitechapel Club, which featured mimicry of George D. Prentice dictating to him an editorial regarding George Francis Train. The Illustrated World's Fair devoted an editorial to his work for Washington, and that publication chose him to do a poem treating a grim episode which thousands, including Visscher and Opie Read, had witnessed. When fire broke out high in a tower of a cold storage building, several firemen went up to fight it, only to be trapped when flames erupted below them. As if in a spectacle staged for horrified onlookers, they leaped, one by one, to their deaths. (Saum)

His last year in Tacoma
      If anyone suspected that Visscher would stay in Chicago and not return to Tacoma, they were proven wrong. The fair got off to a late start for the public. Although the opening ceremonies were staged on Oct. 21, 1892, the grounds were not opened to the public until May 1, 1893, and the last day was October 30. The fair only began generating substantial revenue when the delayed gigantic Ferris wheel was installed. Along the way, Chicago showed the world that it had risen from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871, technocrats showed off the miracle of electricity that lit up the White City every night and Washington showed that off its resources and its zeal for new business.
      Visscher returned to Tacoma that fall and actually went to work as a journalist again. He saw a most intriguing opportunity when some of the pressmen and reporters of his hated Ledger rose up against the owner, Nelson Bennett, and his manager, C.A. Snowden. They launched their own new newspaper, the Morning Union. Visscher soon became the editor. He was still a staunch Republican and still identified the Democratic party with disloyalty and disunion, but he had a new enemy to fight: the parvenus, those who had suddenly become rich on the backs of workingmen before they knew their responsibility. In his book, Puget's Sound, Murray Morgan explained just how dire the economic situation was:

      Others got out of town. They fled by the thousands. Abruptly the tide of westward migration, which had reached flood in the late 1880s, reversed in Tacoma. Population ebbed eastward. The little wooden station at Seventeenth was full of people spending their last cash on one-way tickets back to where they came from. Those without money or work hung around for a time, subsisting on clams, berries, charity, and editorials in the papers which recommended that the unemployed prospect for gold, oil, or other improbable geologic possibilities on nearby streams.
      The rolls of the unemployed increased rapidly and talk of a needed revolution could be overheard in the dozens of saloons in town. The Union listened to the former workingmen and sometimes spoke for them. It is difficult now to look back and realize that the editor who penned an editorial on May 14, 1894, titled "Man's Inhumanity to Man," was our Republican Visscher.
. . . anything in the nature of shoddyism must bow before the necessities of the populists. We have before hinted at the condition of a parvenue [sic] who sits before the glowing fire of a rich club in an upholstered chair, wearing of the poor devils who are riding upon the brake beams and upon the top of box cars in the rains of this region, trying to go as a petition in boots to the powers that be.
(Mark Twain)

Mark Twain arrives in Spokane
Spokane Spokesman-Review, Aug. 7, 1895

    "Yes, my health is good," the humorist replied to a question, "with the exception of an abominable carbuncle, and that is improving. I wrote to my friend Carey of the Century, giving him a minute description of my affliction. He replied that he was an expert on buncles, and from my description he was convinced that this one did not belong to the ordinary or plebeian family, generally known as carbuncles. He said it must be an aristocratic Pullman car-buncle." . . .
    "You know Will Visscher and Captain Jack Crawford, the poet scout?"
    "I know John W. Crawford, but Visscher — Visscher, did you say? The name is familiar."
    "In polite circles he is known as Colonel Will L. Visscher."
    "Does he move in polite circles?"
    "Oh, yes, he does that."
    "Then I guess I don't know him."

      While berating the Bennett-led parvenus, Visscher could not resist beating up on the Ledger once again. When the Democratic Ledger accused Republicans of faintheartedness and heterodoxy, Visscher struck back on the Union pages by describing the Ledger as "an Esau in brotherhood, an Arnold in Warfare, a Nast in art, a Judas in Christianity."
      The last major controversy during Visscher's final year in Tacoma revolved around an uprising of angry unemployed and veterans across the country. The bottom fell out from underneath workingmen officially when the stock market crashed on June 26, 1893, and the nationwide Depression began. Hundreds of banks failed, along with railroads and steel companies and thousands of manufacturers, and capital dried up, so millions of workers lost their jobs that summer. President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, expressed sympathy with the downtrodden but insisted that the federal government was not responsible for throwing them a life line. By the spring of 1894, poorhouses and churches across the country were dry of resources. That is when Jacob S. Coxey, an Ohio businessman and social reformer, gave the "tramp gangs" and most vocal complainers a platform. He proposed that Coxey's Army be formed and that they deliver "a petition with boots on" and demand passage of a Good Roads Bill and a Non-Interest-Bearing Bond Bill at Congress.
      Looking back on the scene, one cannot help but notice what a Keystone Kops affair the army really was. The humor began when Coxey, an inept speaker, scrambled about to find someone who could be his frontman and he chose Carl Browne, whom Murray Morgan described as "a house-painter, cartoonist, theosophist, snake-oil salesman and private secretary to Dennis Kearney during that demagogue's anti-Chinese agitation [in San Francisco]." Browne may have known how to wave the bloody shirt in the best agitator fashion, but he dressed as a buffoon, with stereotypical Mexican-bandit costume and he rarely took time to bathe.
      Tacoma became the West Coast base when a local front-man popped up who competed with Browne's clown act. Frank P. "Jumbo" Cantwell had been a prize fighter and then was a bouncer for Harry Morgan's Theatre Comique, so Visscher knew him well. Morgan died back in 1890, leaving a convoluted estate and a grieving widow named Dora Charlotte, who soon married Jumbo.
      Browne named the marchers, who planned to depart from Massillon, Ohio, on Easter Sunday, the "The Commonweal Army of Christ." Jumbo formed his own ranks from the Tacoma chapter of the Commonweal and proposed to finance a march across the country by raising ten cents from "every feller" who fell in with the Commonweal, and proceeds from events like a smoker where he entered the ring again. Visscher had been ill but he returned to the Union and took Cantwell seriously, at least initially, and presented him in a favorable light, drawing historical parallels between the dissidents and Swiss patriots of the past.
      Coxey led the Ohio group of about 240 in his piano-box wagon drawn by his $40,000-pacer, Acolyte, and his second wife rode along with their infant in her arms, named Legal Tender Coxey. Out here, Cantwell — who had promoted himself to General, led 400 vagabonds in commandeering several boxcars of an eastbound train after the Northern Pacific refused free passenger seats. At North Yakima, after Governor John H. McGraw tried to intervene, gunfire broke out, two federal deputies were wounded and 153 of the train-riders were arrested. Coxey's original army petered out when the organizers went broke, Congress ignored the petition and Coxey returned to Massillon to run unsuccessfully for Congress, while Browne chased a woman to New Jersey. Charlotta, who was both comely in her mid-20s and shrewd, managed to keep part of the Northwest contingent together until they reached St. Cloud, Minnesota, on the Fourth of July. "General" Cantwell, as he had promoted himself, lit out of Tacoma soon after they returned to town, and wound up in Chicago; Charlotta waited in Tacoma until 1902 to find out none of Morgan's estate was left, and then she disappeared; and by then the Coxey movement was over. Many of the sympathizers wound up at one of the communes that sprang up around Puget Sound in the next 20 years, including Equality Colony near Bow in Skagit County.
      Visscher apparently lost his zeal for politics that spring and summer. He only published one more work, a review of the 1893 State Legislature. Some of his energy and his interest seemed to switch to the theater, the legitimate kind. On June 19, 1894, he actually trod the boards himself, playing Dentatus, a battle-scarred old Roman general who was killed by the tyrannical Decemvirs. (Decemvirs were the ten roman magistrates who drew up laws in 451 BC, and in mythology they were a permanent group of ten powerful priests who guarded the Sibylline Books.) Englishman James Knowles's play of Virginius was originally written decades before to feature the famous actor, Edmund Kean, and in Tacoma it was produced by W.J. Fife, a real estate promoter and namesake of the present town east of Tacoma, but most important, he was an amateur actor with professional aspirations. Visscher's daughter, Viva Glen, then 17, acted in the play with him and afterwards she announced her intention in the Washington Standard of Sept. 28, 1894, of becoming an actress as a career. Her father saw portents of trouble ahead for his daughter and commented on them in one of his last columns in the Union, on July 6, 1894.
      And then Visscher was gone from the Northwest, permanently as far as we know. Sometime in 1894, he moved back to Chicago permanently, joining Opie Read and making a stool at the bar of the Press Club his own, a place for him to rest his bones daily for the next 30 years, except when off on a tour.

Off to see the Wizard in Chicago
(Whitechapel Club, Chicago)
The Whitechapel Club, where journalists of the Chicago Press Club conducted merriment maid ghastly props of Jack the Ripper.
      For the Chicago period through his death, we have had to rely on observations by Visscher's friends and critics along with reviews, so the rest of the article will largely be a summary and bibliography, except for excerpts from the widely disseminated books about the Pony Express and Buffalo Bill and the reviews that they generated, both pos
      He seems to have hit the ground running back there, because he published three works there that fall. Perhaps they were in the pipeline from the summer before and their publication is what determined the timing of his move. They were amusements, not great literature, and included: Uncle Dan, a collection of songs with collaborator W Herbert (Chicago, Huyett Music Co., 1894); Harp of the South and other poems, (Chicago: The Bow-knot Pub. Co., 1894); Where my honey sleeps, with L P Coffin, and Aunt Sis Tabb, with W. Herbert Lanyon (Chicago, The Bow-knot Pub. Co. and Huyett Music Co. 1894). He was eclipsed, however, by his old friend Bill Nye's publication of History of the United States in 1894, followed by his equally humorous and well-received History of England in 1896.
      One of Visscher's early, new Chicago friends was L Frank Baum, who certainly was the most universally admired writer of Visscher's peers, even though his bibliography is thin. In 1897, Baum published Mother Goose, which featured illustrations by artist Maxfield Parrish and introduced a girl named Dorothy in the last chapter, two years before she would star by herself in his The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. First editions of Opie Read's A Kentucky Colonel, and Baum's Mother Goose, both inscribed to Visscher, have recently been presented on the Internet, fetching high asking prices. The Goose book's value was enhanced in value in the last half of the 20th century because of the strong revived interest in Baum's collaborator — even though they never met in person; the lithographs were by a young artist named Maxfield Parrish.
      The next two years were marked by mourning as two of Visscher's fellow humorists and best friends died — Eugene Field and Bill Nye, and both of them in their 40s. Field died at Chicago on Nov. 4, 1895, and Bill Nye died of a stroke at his home near Asheville, North Carolina, on Feb. 22, 1896. That left Visscher and Opie Read in Chicago as the last of the four. We think that Visscher met Read, a Tennessee native, in Chicago rather than in a previous location, maybe during the World's Fair. Read was ten years his junior and had headed to Chicago in 1888 from Visscher's native Kentucky and from Arkansas, where Read had published five newspapers. In 1882, Read started his own humor magazine, The Arkansas Traveler, and he brought the operation to Chicago with him, editing it there until 1893. Read became one of the most prolific Chicago writers of the day, and also penned a play, The Starbucks, (1902) in which Visscher played a part. They may have met at the Chicago Press Club, where Visscher plied his trade for the next two decades. Like Visscher, Read eventually became a target of critics who suggested that Read's characters were often mere stereotypes of Southerners rather than profiles. Field's enemy in much of his writing was modernism, which he identified as ruining the character of the South. He largely retired in 1908 after fathering eight children and has faded in popularity except for A Kentucky Colonel, published in Chicago in 1890.
      In 1897, Visscher published Chicago: an epic (Chicago White City Art, 1897); and a second addition of Black Mammy, this time illustrated by a new Chicago friend, Thomas J. Nicholl, (Chicago: H.J. Smith Publishing Co., 1897. Those were just tuneups for his next novel, which was aimed at the parvenus back in Washington state.

Way Out Yonder
(Drawing of Visscher by Tom Nicholl)
Tom Nicholl sketched Visscher in pencil sometime in his latter years. Original courtesy of Nicholl Collection, Washington State Historical Society.
      In 1898, Visscher published his first novel, a thinly veiled satire of Fairhaven and the Northwest called Way Out Yonder (Chicago: Laird &: Lee, 1898). You can find a copy at the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies in the Washington State Regional Archives near the Western Washington University campus in Bellingham. The late Ty Tillson and others annotated the copy with the actual names of the main characters.
      The book includes biting, satirical humor that skewers the parvenus of a frontier town named St. Movadu, or Fairhaven. Saum observed:

. . . the story of Fairhaven — Visscher's St. Movadu — consisted of boom and collapse; prosperity followed by panic and depression. And the novel repeatedly serves as a vehicle for the author's diatribes on the parvenuism that blights St. Movadu even in its palmiest days. That Visscher assumed two roles in the book — an insight, probably accurate, of Fay Fuller — also evidences an undercurrent of grimness. Jack Lacey, the bohemian and "Quixotic" from the South, overcomes occasional defeats by the bottle and gains success and a beautiful wife. But newsman Van Waters suffers total defeat, and, exhausted in a futile effort to retain control of his paper, Lacey's alter ego and the other half of Visscher's self-portraiture dies in his sleep.
Fay Fuller was a woman who grew up in Yelm and in 1870, she became the first woman to climb to the summit of Mount Rainier, in 1890, while Visscher edited in Tacoma. Her climbing feats made her an honored member and heroine of the mountaineers clubs that sprang up all over the Northwest, including the Mazamas of Portland, formed the day that she and others ascended Mt. Hood in 1894. Edward N. Fuller, Fay's father, was editor of newspapers in Tacoma, including the Ledger, Every Sunday and the Tacomian, and Fay was a reporter for them, and wrote a bylined column, "Mountain Murmurs," for climbing enthusiasts. In 1900 she moved back East and worked as a journalist in Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York, where she met and married attorney Fritz von Briesen.
      In the spring of 1899, Visscher was informed of his wife's death back in Oregon. There is no sign that she ever joined him in Chicago and we have no information about the life of their daughter. Her obituary in the Oregon Statesman of Mar. 5, 1899, is terse but provided some welcome details. She was 49, born in Cook County and died in Salem on March 4 in the Rowland House Hotel, with daughter Viva Glen at her side, and "The deceased was known to the citizens of Salem as 'Madam Vascha' the palmist and came to the Rowland house early in January. Her daughter Viva, accompanied her, and was a constant attendant at her bedside during her last illness. A husband, Col. Visscher, a newspaper writer, survives her, he residing in Chicago at present. For several years she suffered with dropsy which suddenly culminated in death."
      A year later, Visscher published a book called Blue Grass Ballads and Other Verse (New York 1900; rpt. 1971) that included a poignant poem, The Kentuckian's Lament, which ended with the line: "I'm goin' back — you hear me shout — clean back to Washin'tun; I wanter find Old Skookumchuck, an' stay thar, too, mer son." Saum discovered that Visscher's marriage had long been over, even before Emma's death:

      In some 100 pages of sketches, photos, composites, verse, song and prose, the aging troubadour told the story of "An Old Man's Love," in which an Orcas Island man marries a much younger woman only to have her precede him to the grave. Visscher, widowed in 1896, had fallen in love with a woman of beauty, fine family, artistic promise, and half his age. But the object of his love had not died, she had gone away, leaving him standing alone "on the wreck of my soul." And this was now Chicago, ordinary quarters on Belden Avenue, not Orcas Island, not Fairhaven, nor Tacoma.
Vissch was now 57 and his contemporaries were dying. For the next four years he took a break from publishing, but kept touring with his "Humor and Pathos." We do not know if his daughter ever visited him after her mother's death or if he returned to Oregon for the funeral. In the 1900 Federal Census, Visscher was recorded as living alone in Ward 34 of Chicago, his profession was a journalist and he was recorded as a widower. In the 1920 Census, he was recorded as living in Chicago in Ward 23 as a roomer in a large house with other boarders.

Riding with Buffalo Bill
      In 1904, he published Coming down the Pike, Snap shots of the Saint Louis Exposition, (commemorating the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, one of the greatest events in the history of our country — Chicago White City Art Co., 1904). In the next year he published two minor books and then he published an autobiographical book that discussed going back home to find his own roots, Are you from Kentucky?: Don't you want to come home and see the folks? Home coming for all Kentuckians, which was a compendium of several lectures that he and Madison Julius Cawein presented in June 1906 at the Commercial Club in Louisville (Louisville, Ky.: J.P. Morton & Co., 1906). Presumably Visscher spent some of the intervening 12 years interviewing William Cody, whose life as Buffalo Bill would be the subject of two of Visscher's major works.
      In 1908, Visscher made quite a splash with A Thrilling and Truthful History of the Pony Express (Chicago, Rand-McNally, 1908). That book is still included in most Pony Express bibliographies, but those who have studied original sources in the last century largely dismiss the book as myth-making and hagiography, the latter indicating that he interviewed Cody extensively. His Pony Express was surprisingly the first overall history of the short-lived postal company that the freight-hauling firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell launched on April 3, 1860, to carry mail via mustang and rider over the 1,966 miles from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento. In those days before telegraph lines were stretched across the plains and desert of mid-America, the quickest messages and mail took several weeks to be carried from the West Coast by ship, then carried over the Isthmus of Panama by hand to another ship that departed for New York. The company's plan was to cut the mail time to ten days or less and although they succeeded, they never made a profit. The Express ended on October 26, 1861, because the telegraph connection had been completed to San Francisco. Lower-priority mail continued to be carried by the ship route or by riders who took weeks or months to cross the 2,000 miles until the transcontinental railroad was completed to the West Coast in 1869.
      Visscher did not invent the term, Pony Express, but he did popularize it with his book. The company's original name was "Central Overland, California and Pike's Peak Express Company" and most California newspapers referred to it as "The Pony," even though ponies were never used and mustangs were. Visscher's book likely took off quickly because it also included information about Buffalo Bill, who introduced Easterners to the Wild West and the lonely miles that stretched to the Mississippi. Followers of Buffalo Bill inferred that he was a Pony Express rider, but he was too young to be hired. He actually worked at various stations along the route, as did another teenager who became known as Wild Bill Hickock. Christopher Corbett, who researched the Pony Express extensively and wrote thebook, Orphans Preferred, writes:

      But the chief reason we remember the Pony Express is William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill. When he was a fatherless 11-year-old boy, Cody was hired as a messenger by Alexander Majors (one of the Pony's owners). Cody never forgot that. Buffalo Bill put the Pony Express in his Wild West Show, and from the day it opened in Omaha, Nebraska in 1883 until the day it closed during the First World War, wherever Buffalo Bill took the show, the Pony Express rider went, too. Queen Victoria came out of mourning to see the rider of the Pony Express. Buffalo Bill took the Pony to see the Kaiser in Berlin and the Pope in Rome. Later, Hollywood was especially generous to the memory of the Pony Express, even if no film of it contains a shard of fact. Hooray for Hollywood. How did the story of the Pony Express become such a whopper of contradiction, confusion and exaggeration? An old horseman in western Nebraska offered this explanation to me one day. "What you have to understand," he told me, "is that we don't lie out here. We remember big."
      Critics over the decades have pointed out that Visscher apparently became a close friend of William Cody and printed near-verbatim what the famous buffalo hunter told him in detail over a number of years. Several sources over the years and an early book cover claimed that Visscher and Cody were childhood friends, but we found no evidence of that. Visscher grew up in Kentucky and Cody, four years younger, was born in Iowa and was orphaned early after his father, an abolitionist, moved the family to Kansas and died there in 1857 after being stabbed by a supporter of slavery in the territory. The two men likely met at the Press Club or at one of Cody's shows, possibly introduced by Jack Crawford, the "Poet Scout" and Visscher's fellow trouper in California in the late 1870s. Visscher wrote about Cody's magnetic personality: "Many a time have I seen the Colonel, an island in an ocean of small boys, telling them stories of the past. And what wonderful stories they would be!"
      We wonder if the two men possibly met outside the gates of the Columbian Exposition in 1893. The Expo's directors made a crucial mistake when they spurned staging "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show" inside the gates. Cody did not miss a beat as he set up his widely popular show almost next door to the Expo, and fetched a mountain of cash. Visscher, who roamed the show nearly every day, surely would have smelled a story there.
      After Cody died of kidney failure on Jan. 10, 1917, at his sister's house in Denver, Visscher's publisher commissioned him to update Cody's original autobiography of 1879 by adding a preface and a final chapter in Buffalo Bill's Own Story of His Life and Deeds (Chicago: Homewood Press, 1917). The book was originally billed as "Buffalo Bill's own story of his life and deeds; this autobiography tells in his own graphic words the wonderful story of his heroic career; his autobiography is brought up to date, including a full account of his death and burial, written by his boy-hood chum and life-long friend, William Lightfoot Visscher. The whole comprising an authentic history of many incidents inseparably interwoven with the exploration, settlement and development of the great western plains." Louis S. Warren, the author of Buffalo Bill's America (2005), explains the problems with Visscher's research:

(Opie Read)
Opie Read with Eulalie Grover at Hannibal Square 1932
      In the meantime, Buffalo Bill's Wild West show became the primary keeper of the pony legend. By the 1890s, when William Lightfoot Visscher began gathering material for his history of the Pony Express, the business records of Russell, Majors, and Waddell had long since vanished, and Buffalo Bill's Wild West show had been promoting William Cody's version of the pony's history for the better part of two decades. Cody was the world's most renowned showman and westerner, and had made himself far and away the most famous rider of the legendary pony line. He was also a personal friend of Visscher's. When the journalist's Thrilling and Truthful History of the Pony Express appeared in 1908, it was less history than hagiography, a devotional recounting of the heroic lives of saints. The author repeated Cody's stories without any criticism.
The sunset years
      We have found 34 publications credited to Visscher, almost equally distributed between song lyrics, collections of poems and non-fiction books. The publication of the Pony Express seems to have marked the end of his prolific book-writing, just as it marked the end of Opie Read's active writing career in Chicago. With Read in semi retirement, Visscher would have been one of the old hands at the Press Club at age 66.
      In 1911 he published Poems of the South and other verse (Chicago, David B. Clarkson Co.). In 1915 he wrote a series of stories for and in the same year of his Buffalo Bill book, he published The Stars of Our Country: Poems for Each State of Our Union, which appears to have been his last book. In the late Teen years, Visscher helped Paul P. Harris publicize and promote the concept of the American Rotary Club.
      On Feb. 11, 1924, the Chicago Daily Tribune published an obituary on page ten, headlined, "Col. Visscher, 81, Author, Raconteur, dies, lived adventures told in his novels." We have not yet seen the complete obituary or the photo that was included in the picture section. We hope that a reader has access in their library and will share with us. The first paragraph sums up a lonely death for a man who had entertained so many: "Col. William Lightfoot Visscher — picturesque soldier, writer, actor, newspaper man, and model of bonhomie, came to the end of an adventurous career last night in a little room at 817 Beiden avenue. He died from heart trouble after an illness of nearly a month.
      Opie Read died on Nov. 2, 1939, in Chicago after a fall. He had published five more books in the intervening three decades since his retirement from newspapers. He survived his friend Visscher by 15 years and Time magazine announced his death on November 13: "Died. Opie Read, 86, homespinning Tennessee wit, last of the Mark Twain school, "greatest literary shortstop of his time"; of old age; in Chicago, Ill. . . . Like Oklahoma Wit Will Rogers, he belittled his own peculiarities by exaggerating those of others. Example: When a relative entered politics, said towering Opie Read: 'He was so big that they didn't put him on a stump. They dug a hole for him to stand in.' "

(bullet) Return to Part One: Visscher's genealogy, youth, civil war, early editing and performing in Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri, Illinois, Wyoming, Colorado, California and Tacoma
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