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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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Documents by and about
William Lightfoot Visscher

(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, Wshington University Libraries, St. Louis.
      In this section, we share some background documents about Visscher and his humorist friends.

Humorous Profiles of Will Visscher
From Remarks,by Bill Nye
(Chicago, A. E. Davis & Co., 1887, public domain

1. A Peaceable Man
      Will L. Visscher always made a specialty of being a peaceable man. He would make most any sacrifice in order to secure general amnesty. I've known him to go around six blocks out of his way, to avoid a stormy interview with a belligerent dog. He was always very tender-hearted about dogs, especially the open-faced bulldog.
      But he had a queer experience years ago, in St. Jo, Missouri. He had been city editor of the Kansas City Journal for some time, but one evening, while in the composing-room, the foreman told him that the place for the city editor was down stairs, in his office. He therefore ordered Visscher to go down there. Visscher said he would do so later on, after he got fatigued with the composing-room and wanted change of scene.
      The foreman thereupon jumped on Mr. Visscher with a small pica wrought iron side stick. Visscher allowed that he was a peaceable man, but entered into the general chaos of double-leaded editorial, and hair and brass dashes, and dashes for liberty and heterogeneous "pi," and foot-sticks and teeth, with great zeal. He succeeded in putting a large doric head on the foreman, and although he was a peaceable man, he went down to the office and got his discharge for disturbing the discipline of the office.
      He went to St. Jo [St. Joseph, Missouri, 55 miles north] the same day, and celebrated his debut into the town by a little game of what is known as "draw." He was fortunate in "filling his hand," and while he was taking in the stakes, a young man from Arkansas, who was in the game, nipped a two-dollar note in a quiet kind of way, which, however, was detected by Mr. V., who mentioned the matter at the time. This maddened the Arkansas man, and later on he put one of his long arms around Mr. Visscher so as to pinion him, and then smote him across the brow with an instrument, known to science as "the brass knucks." This irritated Mr. Visscher, and as soon as he had returned to consciousness he remarked that, although it was rather an up-hill job in Missouri, he was trying to be a peaceable man. He then broke the leg of a card-table over the head of the Arkansas man, and went to the doctor to get his own brow sewed on again.
      While he was sitting in the doctor's office a friend of the Arkansas man came in and asked him to please stand up while he knocked him down. Visscher opened a little dialogue with the man, and drew him into conversation till he could open a case of surgical instruments near by, then he took out one of those knives that the surgeons use in removing the viscera from the leading gentleman at a post mortem.
      "Now," said he, sharpening the knife on the stove-pipe and handing down a jar containing alcohol with a tumor in it, "I am a peaceful man and don't want any fuss; but if you insist on a personal encounter, I will slice off fragments of your physiognomy at my leisure, and for twenty minutes I will fill this office with your favorite features. I make a specialty of being a peaceable man, remember; but if you'll just say the word, I'll put overcoat button-holes and eyelet-holes and crazy-quilts all over your system. If I've got to kill off the poker-players of St. Jo before I can have any fun, I guess I might as well begin on you as on any one I know."
      He then made a stab at the man and pinned his coat-tail to the door-frame. Fear loaned the bad man strength, and, splitting the coat-tail, he fled, taking little mementoes of the tumor-jar and shedding them in his flight. When Mr. Visscher went up to the Herald office soon after to get a job, he was introduced casually to the foreman, who said:
      "Ah, this is the young man who licks the foreman of the paper he works on, is it? I am glad to meet you, Mr. Visscher. I am looking for a white-eyed son of a sea-cook who goes around over Missouri thumping the foremen of our leading journals. Come out into the ante-room, Mr. Visscher, till I jar your back teeth loose and send you to the morgue in a gunny-sack." Mr. Visscher repeated that he was trying to live in Missouri and be a peaceable man, but that if there was anything that he could do to make it pleasant for the foreman, he would cheerfully do it.
      Mr. Visscher was a small man, but when he felt aggrieved about anything he was very harassing to his adversary. They "clinched" and threw each other back and forth across the hall with great vigor. When they stopped for breath, the foreman's coat was pulled over his head and the bosom of Mr. Visscher's shirt was hanging on the gas-jet. There were also two front teeth on the floor unaccounted for.
      Visscher pinned on his shirt-bosom and said he was a peaceable man, but if the custom seemed to demand four fights in one day, he would try to conform to any local usage of the city. Wherever he went, he wanted to fall right into line and be one of the party.
      When he got well he was employed on the Herald, and for four years edited the amnesty column of the paper successfully.

2. You Heah Me, Sah! Vissch's
Introduction to a lobster in Louisville

      Col. Visscher, of Denver, who is delivering his lecture, "Sixty Minutes in the War," tells a good story on himself of an episode, or something of that nature, that occurred to him in the days when he was the amanuensis of George D. Prentice.
      Visscher, in those days, was a fair-haired young man, with pale blue eyes, and destitute of that wealth of brow and superficial area of polished dome which he now exhibits on the rostrum. He was learning the lesson of life then, and every now and then he would bump up against an octagonal mass of cold-pressed truth of the never-dying variety that seemed to kind of stun and concuss him.
      One day Mr. Visscher wandered into a prominent hotel in Louisville, and, observing with surprise and pleasure that "boiled lobster" was one of the delicacies on the bill of fare, he ordered one. He never had seen lobster, and a rare treat seemed to be in store for him. He breathed in what atmosphere there was in the dining-room, and waited for his bird. At last it was brought in. Mr. Visscher took one hasty look at the great scarlet mass of voluptuous limbs and oceanic nippers, and sighed. The lobster was as large as a door mat, and had a very angry and inflamed appearance. Visscher ordered in a powerful cocktail to give him courage, and then he tried to carve off some of the breast.
      The lobster is honery even in death. He is eccentric and trifling. Those who know him best are the first to evade him and shun him. Visscher had failed to straddle the wish bone with his fork properly, and the talented bird of the deep rolling sea slipped out of the platter, waved itself across the horizon twice, and buried itself in the bosom of the eminent and talented young man. The eminent and talented young man took it in his napkin, put it carefully on the table, and went away.
      As he passed out, the head waiter said:
      "Mr. Visscher, was there anything the matter with your lobster?" Visscher is a full-blooded Kentuckian, and answered in the courteous dialect of the blue-grass country.
      "Anything the matter with my lobster, sah? No, sah. The lobster is very vigorous, sah. If you had asked me how I was, sah, I should have answered you very differently, sah. I am not well at all, sah. If I were as well, and as ruddy, and as active as that lobster, sah, I would live forever, sah. You heah me, sah?
      "Why, of course, I am not familiar with the habits of the lobster, sah, and do not know how to kearve the bosom of the bloomin' peri of the summer sea, but that's no reason why the inflamed reptile should get up on his hind feet and nestle up to me, sah, in that earnest and forthwith manner, sah.
      "I love dumb beasts, sah, and they love me, sah; but when they are dead, sah, and I undertake to kearve them, sah, I desiah, sah, that they should remain as the undertakah left them, sah. You doubtless heah me, sah!"

Edgar Wilson "Bill" Nye (1850-1896)
      Bill Nye was born in Maine and moved out west to Laramie, Wyoming, where he became a judge, a postmaster and then founded the Laramie Boomerang newspaper, which he named for his obstreperous mule. In 1886, Joseph Pulitzer hired him for the staff of the New York World, where Nye gained national fame for his dry wit and unique humorous columns. He also wrote several books, some based on his columns. While in New York he became widely known as a humorist and lecturer.
      He adopted the name "Bill Nye" after the card shark in Bret Harte's poem, "Plain Language from Truthful James." Nye and William L. Visscher became friends after working together briefly on newspapers in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Like Nye, he used his tall, lanky figure, and a shiny bald head to great effect and Nye added a blank expression to accentuate his dry humor.
      Late in his career, he was briefly associated with James Whitcomb Riley with whom he wrote two books. They also appeared together on the lecture circuit. He also traveled and lectured with Luther Burbank. tall, lanky figure, the shiny bald head, and blank expression. An excerpt from this review below explains more of Nye's appeal.

The literary comedians and the language of humor
By David B. Kesterson (
      One of Bill Nye's frustrations as a journalist was in having to meet such frequent deadlines that there was not enough time to work with the language as needed. For journalism students he facetiously advocated a rigorous ninety-five-year academic curriculum, upon the completion of which the student "will have lost that wild, reckless and impulsive style so common among younger and less experienced journalists."
      Bill Nye leans heavily on understatement and anticlimax. In a sketch called "Mania for Marking Clothes" a friend puts three shots through the narrator's valise of clothing in order to mark the contents for future identification. Nye remarks, "After that a coolness sprang up between us, and the warm friendship that had existed so long was more or less busted." Anticlimax tops off the incident "A Hairbreadth Escape" in which Nye recounts losing a mole to a careless barber: "I did not care very particularly for the mole, and did not need it particularly, but at the same time I had not decided to take it off at that time. In fact I had worn it so long that I had become attached to it. It had also become attached to me."
      Bill Nye's language of humor is characterized by picturesque speech and clever phraseology. In one piece, "A Thrilling Experience," he tells of retiring to his hotel room after a lecture, believing he hears breathing in the room, and shooting his revolver in the dark only to discover the culprit is a steam radiator. He is supposedly lying in bed reading a Smith & Wesson instruction book at the time of the shooting, and he describes his reaction to the hissing steam as opening "the volume at the first chapter and [addressing] a thirty-eight calibre remark in the direction of the breath in the corner." He describes a hanging as the culprit's being "unanimously chosen by a convention of six property-holders of the county to jump from a new pine platform into the sweet subsequently." In an essay on noses, Nye proclaims a wax nose attractive, "but in a warm room it is apt to get excited and wander down into the mustache, or it may stray away under the collar . . . " He jests at the smell of codfish: "When he enters our household, we feel his all pervading presence, like the perfume of wood violets, or the seductive odor of a dead mouse in the piano"

      Ed. note: Susan Nahas, the Whatcom County Rootsweb coordinator (xx), 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, Colie Apperson, who fell in battle during the war. His impassioned recounting supplied evidence that he witnessed much bloodshed and death during the war as his unit was decimated.

Coleman Rogers Apperson
(Visscher mug)
William Lightfoot Visscher
      The beginning goes back to the days of the war. In the Kentucky regiment to which I belonged was a boy one year younger than myself, who was my dearest friend. He was the quartermaster-sergeant, and I being on the colonel's non-commissioned staff, we were thus thrown together in camp. On this march my place was near the colonel. He was on horseback in charge of the regimental train. I loved him like Jonathan did David, and he loved me like David did Jonathan. We were nicknamed in the brigade "The Siamese Twins."
      Whenever a battle was imminent he would leave his horse, buckle on a cartridge box, and with musket and bayonet would go into the fight. He was as brave as an old-time knight, as handsome as Apollo, and as patriotic as Putnam.
      On the morning of the battle of Resacca we sat together on a fallen tree, taking our breakfast of boiled bacon, hardtack and coffee, drinking from the same cup. He was accoutred for the fight, and I pleaded with him not to go into it, arguing that men who had no special business in such places were more frequently struck than others - a belief that largely obtained in the army. "I want to go through one more big fight like Chicamauga," he said, "then I will be content."
      "But suppose you should get killed in this?" He always accompanied the color squad, and his reply was: "If I am killed I will die on the dancing shadow of my country's flag."
      he charge began shortly afterward, across a young wheat field and a brook over stony ground and two lines of the enemy's rifle-pits. There on a slight activity the regiment lay, every man on his face, under a terrific hail of shot and shell. Every man who raised up was struck. We had a saying in the regiment that had been obtained at Shiloh. It was a cry of "Where's the landing!" In that awful storm of missiles my comrade raised upon his knees and with a laugh called out, "Where's the landing!" A minnie ball pierced his heart and he died with a laugh on his lips, never knowing what had hurt him. After the battle two other comrades and myself secured his body, slept by it that night and buried it next day with the assistance of a chaplain. After the war, one of these men and myself went to Resacca field, brought away the bones of the gallant fellow, and they now lie in Cave Hill cemetery at Louisville, and a marble shaft marks the spot where repose the remains of that tenement which once held the gallant soul of Coleman Rogers Apperson. . . .
      "I do not think that any other member of our regiment ever set foot on Washington soil. From an enlistment roll during the war of 1,600 we mustered out 197. There are perhaps not more than 50 out of that command alive today. Therefore the name of Colie Apperson had not, probably, ever been mentioned before in this state.

      Return to the Visscher Introduction portal for links to our profiles of the man and his humorist friends and a list of background sources.

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