Ten Takes on New England History by Maine Humorist Bill Nye

Edgar Wilson Nye left Maine (he was born in the small town of Shirley) as a small child, but somehow the dry humor that Maine is so famous for stayed with him. Publishing under the name “Bill Nye,” not to be confused with the other Bill Nye. Nye grew up in Wisconsin and launched his career as a humorist there while still serving as a judge and lawyer.

He began publishing a comic newspaper, The Boomerang, which circulated throughout the country. At the urging of publishers, he moved east to Staten Island, publishing a series of highly successful books: “Bill Nye and the Boomerang,” 1881; “The Forty Liars,” 1883; “Bailed Hay,” 1884; “Bill Nye’s Blossom Rock,” 1885, and “Remarks,” 1886.

Illustration from Bill Nye’s Comic History of the United States

Illustration from Bill Nye’s Comic History of the United States

His last works were and Bill Nye’s Comic History of the United States, published in 1894 Bill Nye’s Comic History of England, published in 1896 (posthumously). By 1895, Nye’s work was appearing in numerous newspapers via syndication and he was an active and sought-after public speaker. His income reached well into the tens of thousands of dollars. Nye told friends he was growing weary of his reputation as one of America’s leading humorists because no one took anything he said seriously. He had a goal of transitioning away from comic to serious writing, but he never got the chance. He died at age 45.

other bill nyeBy his death in 1896 from meningitis, his health had suffered greatly; he had moved to North Carolina for the warmer climate. Some of Nye’s work would be considered politically incorrect by today’s audiences, but below are 10 excerpts from his Comic History of The United States:

  1. On the increasing number of colonists in the 1620s:

The Mayflower began to bring over quantities of antique furniture, mostly hall-clocks for future sales. Hanging them on spars and masts during rough weather easily accounts for the fact that none of them have ever been known to go.

  1. On the establishment of the Plymouth Colony:

In the fall of 1620 the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth during a disagreeable storm, and, noting the excellent opportunity for future misery, began to erect a number of rude cabins. This party consisted of one hundred and two people of a resolute character who wished to worship God in a more extemporaneous manner than had been the custom in the Church of England.

The Mayflower, laden with antiques, as imagined by Bill Nye.

The Mayflower, laden with antiques, as imagined by Bill Nye.

They found that the Indians of Cape Cod were not ritualistic, and that they were willing to dispose of inside lots at Plymouth on reasonable terms, retaining, however, the right to use the lands for massacre purposes from time to time.

  1. Early agricultural success of New Englanders:

Money-matters, however, were rather panicky at the time, and the people were kept busy digging clams to sustain life in order to raise Indian corn enough to give them sufficient strength to pull clams enough the following winter to get them through till the next corn crop should give them strength to dig for clams again. Thus a trip to London and the Isle of Wight looked farther and farther away.

  1. Puritan pastimes:

During dull times and on rainy days it was a question among the Puritans whether they would banish an old lady, bore holes with a red-hot iron through a Quaker’s tongue, or pitch horse-shoes.

  1. On the Opening of “witch hunting season.”

The year 1692 is noted mostly for the Salem excitement regarding witchcraft. The children of Rev. Mr. Parris were attacked with some peculiar disease which would not yield to the soothing blisters and bleedings administered by the physicians of the old school, and so, not knowing exactly what to do about it, the doctors concluded that they were bewitched. Then it was, of course, the duty of the courts and selectmen to hunt up the witches. This was naturally difficult.

Fifty-five persons were tortured and twenty were hanged for being witches;

“Be you a witch?” asked one of the judges of Massachusetts, according to the records now on file in the State-House at Boston.

“No, your honor,” was the reply.

“Officer,” said the court, taking a pinch of snuff, “take her out on the tennis-grounds and pull out her toe-nails with a pair of hot pincers, and then see what she says.”

It was quite common to examine lady witches in the regular court and then adjourn to the tennis-court. A great many were ducked by order of the court and hanged up by the thumbs, in obedience to the customs of these people who came to America because they were persecuted.

  1. On his home state of Maine’s early history…
A visitor seeking refreshment at Bar Harbor.

A visitor seeking refreshment at Bar Harbor.

Shortly after the landing of the Pilgrims, say two years or thereabouts, Gorges and Mason obtained from England the grant of a large tract lying between the Merrimac and Kennebec Rivers. This patent was afterwards dissolved, Mason taking what is now New Hampshire, and Gorges taking Maine. He afterwards sold the State to Massachusetts for six thousand dollars. The growth of the State may be noticed since that time, for one county cost more than that last November.

In 1820 Maine was separated from Massachusetts. Maine is noted for being the easternmost State in the Union, and has been utilized by a number of eminent men as a birthplace. White-birch spools for thread, Christmas-trees, and tamarack and spruce-gum are found in great abundance. It is the home of an industrious and peace-loving people. Bar Harbor is a cool place to go to in summer-time and violate the liquor law of the State.

  1. On the Puritans and their taxes…

Having banished Roger Williams and Mrs. Hutchinson to be skinned by the Pequods and Narragansetts over at Narragansett Pier, they went on about their business, flogging Quakers, also ducking old women who had lumbago, and burning other women who would not answer affirmatively when asked, “Be you a witch?”

Then when Roger began to make improvements and draw the attention of Eastern capital to Rhode Island and to organize a State or Colony with a charter, Plymouth said, “Hold on, Roger: religiously we have cast you out, to live on wild strawberries, clams, and Indians, but from a mercantile and political point of view you will please notice that we have a string which you will notice is attached to your wages and discoveries.

Afterwards, however, Roger Williams obtained the necessary funds from admiring friends with which to go to England and obtain a charter…

  1. On the New England Colonists’ contribution to the capture of Cape Breton…

King George’s War, which extended over four years, succeeded, but did not amount to anything except the capture of Cape Breton by English and Colonial troops. Cape Breton was called the Gibraltar of America; but a Yankee farmer who has raised flax on an upright farm for twenty years does not mind scaling a couple of Gibraltars before breakfast; so, without any West Point knowledge regarding engineering, they walked up the hill, and those who were alive when they got to the top took it. It was no Balaklava business and no dumb animal show, but simply revealed the fact that brave men fighting for their eight-dollar homes and a mass of children are disagreeable people to meet on the battle-field.

  1. On Dictionary publisher Noah Webster’s darkest secret…

I might add, though I dislike to speak of it now, that Mr. Webster was at one time a member of the Legislature of Massachusetts. I believe that was the only time he ever stepped aside from the strait and narrow way. A good many people do not know this, but it is true.

  1. On the Puritan influence in Boston…

Salem and Charlestown were started by Governor Endicott, and Boston was founded in 1630. To these various towns the Puritans flocked, and even now one may be seen in ghostly garments on Thanksgiving Eve flitting here and there turning off the gas in the parlor while the family are at tea, in order to cut down expenses.

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