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Nasby, Petroleum V. (1833-1888)

Editor, Journalist, Lecturer

Known best by his pseudonym of Petroleum V. Nasby, David Ross Locke was born in upstate New York near Binghamton to a poor family. According to his biographer, John Harrison, Locke had "little formal education." (5) Instead, Locke built his career off his own hard work and ingenuity, starting from a very young age. When he was 12, Locke became an apprentice at a Cortland newspaper called the Democrat, a position that lasted for seven years. He then went to the Pittsburgh Chronicle, before starting another newspaper, the Plymouth (OH) Advertiser, with one of his friends, Jim Robinson (Pierpaoli Jr. 1148-9; Harrison 26). At the start of the Civil War, Locke was the editor and publisher of the Bucyrus Journal. Harrison argues that it was during his time here that Locke first began to develop the figure of Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby, which would first appear as a pseudonym at the Ohio Jeffersonian on March 21, 1861 (Harrison 66).

The figure of Nasby allowed Locke to "further a cause in which [he] believed passionately," which he did through a series of letters authored by the imaginary character (Harrison 4). Harrison contends that "the Nasby letters are not a collection of humorous sketches but parts of a series of campaigns Locke carried on...with zeal and determination" (5). Counting Abraham Lincoln among his admirers, Locke continued to write Nasby letters until the end of his life. On the night of the 1864 election, as Lincoln awaited the returns, the following scene occurred: "Going to the War Department in the evening, Lincoln amused the company by reading some of Petroleum V. Nasby’s amiable nonsense while the returns trickled in" (L. Starr 333). He later used these letters as a forum for his support of the prohibitionists. The Nasby letters were collected and published in book-form as The Nasby Papers (1864). Locke also wrote longer works like The Morals of Abou Ben Adhem (1875) and the political novel The Demagogue (1891). Though he was offered political appointments by both Lincoln and Grant, Locke refused and instead served as an alderman in Toledo, an office he held until his death (J. Estes).

Nasby's exact connection to Pfaff's is uncertain. Pfaff’s visitor and caricaturist Thomas Nast would later create an accompanying caricature for Locke's imaginary persona of Nasby, but there are no sources that directly link Nasby to Pfaff's or note that he was a visitor to the establishment (Harrison 168-70). The only source that provides any sort of reference to Nasby and Pfaff's is A. L. Rawson's article, "A Bygone Bohemia." On one of the pages of the article, Rawson includes an image entitled "Three American Humorists, in the Pfaffian Days." The three men pictured are: Josh Billings, Mark Twain, and Petroleum V. Nasby (Rawson 98). The article, though, does not place the image in any sort of context or discuss any of the the men pictured in the image to any great detail. Consequently, this vague reference that alludes to Pfaff's does not serve as adequate evidence to establish a concrete connection between Nasby and Pfaff's.