Dr. William Edgar Geil
the Great Wall of China
Picture: iStock.com / Songquan Deng
Video: iStock.com / konaandcooper
Dr. William Edgar Geil
Our adoptive grandfather, Dr. William Edgar Geil (1865-1925), is the first person of any race or nationality documented to have walked the entire length of the Great Wall of China — roughly 1,500 miles. He did so between June 1 and August 21, 1908. "Uncle Edgar," as he was known to us, was a missionary and explorer. He traveled widely throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere.
Dr. Geil filled huge auditoriums worldwide as tens of thousands came to hear of his travels and experiences — yet after his death in 1925 he was largely forgotten. I find no reference to him as recently as the 2013 print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, nor its online edition. A major reason for this was my grandmother's grief at his death. Constance Emerson Geil, or "Grandy" to us kids, locked up his study and papers after he died in 1925. She remained in mourning until her own death in 1959. When the house was closed most of his papers were bought at auction and remained in storage for another 50 years.
I'm embarrassed and a little ashamed to admit that within the family we hadn't understood our grandfather or appreciated the magnitude of his accomplishments. We knew of his travels and trek along the Great Wall, but didn't grasp its importance. We certainly were not aware of his stature in China or that his books were translated and read there. To me, certainly, he just seemed odd and eccentric.
But history has a way of correcting things — and in 2008 history was making up for lost time!
Between January and June 2008 we exchanged e-mails with William in Beijing. He opened our eyes to our grandfather as never before. Dr. Geil wrote ten books and countless articles. As of 2008, four of his books have been translated into Chinese, including The Great Wall of China. Published in 1909 this was probably his seminal work. All his books are in the public domain, some of which are available for free download at Google Books.
We also learned more of the Great Wall generally and William Lindesay's work specifically. William has also walked the entire Great Wall, retracing Dr. Geil's steps before he even realized he was doing so. William has devoted his life to documentation and preservation of the Great Wall, and is the founder of International Friends of the Great Wall.
As if William's email wasn't amazing enough, another surprise followed shortly afterward. In March, the current owner of "The Barrens" tracked down my brother Brad in Virginia. "The Barrens" is a house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania — specifically Doylestown — near Philadelphia. It's a 10,000-square-foot mansion built after my grandparents married. It's constructed of reinforced concrete and took three years to build, from 1912 to 1915. Brad had tried to contact the owner in 1999, but I guess the stars weren't aligned yet. Now they were. My brother's letter surfaced whereupon the owner searched for Brad and found him!
My mother grew up at the Barrens after she was adopted at age 8 when her mother died. Years later my parents lived nearby in Abington, a suburb of Philadelphia, until I was 5 years old. I have fuzzy memories of visiting the Barrens when Grandy was alive, and later while staying there several weeks in the summer of 1959 following her death. My parents had to close up the house, a monumental task I'm sure! I don't what all happened subsequently except that it stood vacant at one point for several years. Kids would party there and some damage was done. Eventually the current owner bought the property in 1988 and restored it. He had heard of Dr. Geil and paid particular attention to my grandfather's study, keeping it as accurate as possible.
The Emerson Family
But "coincidence" wasn't finished yet! One Saturday morning in early June I received a message on my home answering machine here in Cleveland. The caller was John Emerson Viele, a distant relative in Maine who wanted to connect up with extended family. My grandmother had been Lucy Constance Emerson before she married Dr. Geil on June 6, 1912. She was related to Ralph Waldo Emerson but I don't know the exact connection. At that point in 2008, John Viele's parents owned the Emerson homestead in York, Maine, where Grandy and my mother had spent time during the summers. The house had been in the Emerson family for over 200 years. It had previously been the Woodbridge Tavern during the Revolutionary War and John Adams stayed there in the 1770s, years before becoming President.
Geil Papers Opened
As our family was experiencing these amazing events, unbeknownst to us other developments were occurring simultaneously in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. As I mentioned, Dr. Geil's papers had been purchased at auction when the Barrens was closed and sold in 1959. They were bought by Walter Gustafson and were contained in about 21 tin boxes that Dr. Geil had carried with him during his travels.
The boxes were stored in Mr. Gustafson's barn until his death 2005. Fast forward to 2008, around February Tim Adamsky, a local Doylestown resident and volunteer with the Doylestown Historical Society (DHS), learned of the existence of this material. He reached out to Mr. Gustafson's daughter, Marilyn Gustafson. This contact resulted ultimately in a very generous contribution of the material to DHS.
But still there's more. About this time Tim was Googling to find people and information related to the Great Wall and stumbled upon references to William Lindesay. Tim wrote William and now they were connected as well.
Return to Doylestown
So here we were. On New Years Day 2008 no one had found each other — and I didn't even know anyone was looking! By June, just six months later, an astonishing set of "coincidences" had taken place stretching from Beijing to Cleveland to Doylestown to Virginia and Maine. The stage was set, but for what?
The answer was quickly obvious. In late June everyone convened in Doylestown — just in time — to commemorate the 100th anniversary of William Edgar Geil's traverse along the Great Wall of China.
Present were my family (brothers Brad & John, myself, and my companion David Lansaw), a delegation from China (William Lindesay, Piao Tiejun, Wang Baoshan), and the good people of Doylestown and the Doylestown Historical Society. They are too numerous to list but a few must be mentioned, starting with Judge Ed Ludwig, a retired U.S. District Court judge. He has since passed away but was then President of the Doylestown Historical Society. There was also Fletcher Walls; Tim Adamsky; Carol, Marilyn and Eugene Gustafson; Doris Carr; and Bill Symonds.
This remarkable gathering over several days was captured in photographs and in HD video for Chinese Central Television (CCTV).
We arrived in Doylestown on Monday, June 23rd. Within minutes, my brothers, David and I met William for the first time standing outside the historical society office. I was a little stunned as Piao rapidly snapped pictures of our meeting and Wang filmed us with a large video camera mounted on his shoulder. I had not yet grasped the significance of all this. After a quick greeting we headed immediately to the Barrens at the edge of town.
I can only describe the experience there as surreal. We hadn't been to the Barrens since 1959 — just shy of 50 years. I was only 6 years old at that time, yet there we were again. I swear the house hadn't changed, except it was probably nicer! The restoration was meticulous. It was beautifully done. We were and are so pleased and grateful! We were greeted with the warmest hospitality and marveled at being in this precious place again. Having only known the house as a small child, I would have expected it now to seem a little smaller. It didn't! It's still a huge home.
On Tuesday morning, June 24th, William Lindesay led a ceremony at Dr. Geil's graveside in Doylestown Cemetery marking the Centenary of William Geil's Exploration of the Great Wall, 1908-2008. On behalf of himself and the International Friends of the Great Wall, William placed a plaque there which is now permanently installed. The ceremony was well attended by DHS officials and members, and the general public. The Philadelphia Inquirer and other local papers reported on the event.
Dr. William Edgar Geil
William Lindesay, OBE
Return to Doylestown
Sometimes you learn the most about yourself from a stranger. Such was the case in 2008 when I received a message from clear around the globe — Beijing, China. One January morning I received an email forwarded to my desk at work in the City of Cleveland's Community Development Department. William Lindesay, a British geologist, explorer and author now living in Beijing, wrote to the Cleveland Planning Commission hoping to contact me. He tells me it apparently sat for several weeks. Luckily it was found and forwarded to me. I replied to William and there began a most remarkable journey for my entire family.
Past, Present & Future
A Journey Begun
And so began a journey — for me, my family, everyone. William Lindesay had been working for years to recover the history and legacy of Dr. William Edgar Geil. It seems literally beyond chance that everything could come together in just six months, on multiple levels and worldwide, resulting in this magnificent gathering in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. And yet it happened — exactly 100 years from the date my grandfather conducted his historic walk. That was just the start. So much more has happened since this initial gathering in 2008.
I just know I will be forever grateful for the work that William Lindesay does, together with his associates and his whole family. His wife and sons are all involved. And I'm especially grateful he found us! It's enriched my life and valued friendships have been forged. Everyone from China has helped me with preparation of this website. Piao Tiejun and his wife, Shu, have visited us here in Cleveland. They've named their two children after our grandparents, Edgar and Constance. Such an incredible honor!
And to think that William's email almost didn't reach me. Except it did! I think it was meant to be. Absolutely nothing was going to stop it.
Dr. William Edgar Geil
I have to confess I am not an expert on my grandfather or his work. One would think I should be by now, eight years after the first gathering in Doylestown. Perhaps someday I will be. For now, I will use the miracle of the Internet through this website to bring forth other people and resources that can tell the story.
This section of my website is divided into several pages each focused on a specific aspect of the story. You'll find links at the top and bottom of this page. There's a lot here, so... Enjoy!
An Introduction to Wiliam Geil
Although never an ordained minister, Dr. Geil began evangelical work in 1890 and traveled to Palestine and the Island of Patmos in 1896. In 1897 he published The Isle That is Called Patmos. He later conducted a "Great World-Wide Tour" going to Hawaii, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Papua, New Guinea, Equatorial Africa, Australia and New Zealand. He also traveled to Japan and Korea. In China he followed the course of the Yangtze River which he extensively photographed and published A Yankee on the Yangtze in 1903.
In 1904 Dr. Geil published A Yankee in Pigmy Land. At this point he was becoming quite famous and spoke to huge audiences in the United States and abroad. In 1908 he returned to China where he conducted his 1,500 walk across the full length of the Great Wall. After doing this he published The Great Wall of China.
Thus began a new era in William Lindesay's work — and indeed in William Geil's work as well! These two Williams, about a century apart, have been following parallel paths. Comparing his book to my grandfather's book, William said it was almost like seeing a reflection of himself. He joked that perhaps he's even a reincarnation of William Geil! Whatever the case, we now refer to " The Wall of Two Williams."
In July 2006, William was awarded the rank of OBE (Officer, Order of the British Empire), by Queen Elizabeth II in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
Geil's Life and Work
Professor Robert André LaFleur of Beloit College in Wisconsin is the leading expert in the United States on Dr. William Edgar Geil. Professor LaFleur is an anthropologist, cultural historian and author. He focuses on China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. He delivered this lecture on Dr. Geil at the Doylestown Historical Society.
Doylestown Historical Society Database
There are two excellent online resources at which original source material can be found on Dr. Geil. First is Google Books where some of his titles can be downloaded and read for free. These include The Great Wall of China, A Yankee on the Yangtze, A Yankee in Pigmy Land, The Isle that is Called Patmos, Adventures in the African Jungle Hunting Pigmies, Ocean and Isle, and Eighteen Capitals.
Next is an incredible database set up and maintained by the Doylestown Historical Society. They've assembled over 4,300 documents, most of it from the Gustafson collection that was donated in 2008.
Doylestown Historical Society
Speaking of the Doylestown Historical Society (DHS), I can't say enough for the phenomenal work they are doing to document and revive the legacy of our grandfather. The over 4,300 documents digitized and available online (link below) are just a fraction of their collection, which includes 1,500 pages of Dr. Geil's handwritten journals and diaries. They are preparing to scan and post the rest of this collection — a monumental job!
DHS has commissioned two books now in the works, have assisted a production team from Chinese Central Television (CCTV) on 6-part television documentary to air in China, and are working to have an IMAX movie produced for international release. They also commissioned the 2013 documentary Geil of Doylestown: Forgotten Explorer which I cover on my Geil Documentaries page.
And all this work is just on William Geil. DHS is also working on other luminaries from Doylestown including James Michener, Oscar Hammerstein, W. Alter Burpee (Burpee Seeds), Pearl Buck and Margaret Mead. One has to think there's something in the water there!
I encourage everyone who is interested and appreciates this terrific work that DHS is doing to please support the organization. And if you are in Doylestown sometime, by all means check them out! They are open Saturdays and will make special arrangements when needed. Visit their website to learn more and provide support.
©2016-2020 Robert C. Laycock
Some of the material in this section of my website is original and copyrighted. This includes most pictures and videos posted without attribution (unless they're public domain or deemed "Fair Use"), the articles above (Return to Doylestown and Dr. William Edgar Geil), the remembrances appearing in " Remembering the Barrens," and the various narratives appearing throughout. Please do not use any of this material without my written permission.
Other material here is not mine. This includes all the videos from YouTube or Vimeo which stream from their servers, as well as photographs and other items that are posted with attributions. I also do not own any material on the various external websites that I link to. Permission regarding any of these items must come from the original source.
If you have questions about any of this, or wish to use material subject to my copyright, please contact me via The Fine Print page.
If I have messed up and used something without proper permission or attribution, please contact me by the same means. I will respond by email within 24 hours. I can remove the offending content, of course, but hope we can arrive at a resolution satisfactory to us both which allows the content to remain.
In 2008, brothers John Laycock, Bob Laycock and Brad Laycock (L-R) at the gravesite of grandparents Dr. William Edgar Geil and Constance Emerson Geil in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Geil married Lucy Constance Emerson on June 12, 1912. The Barrens was then built, a 30-room, 10,000-square-foot mansion in Doylestown. They traveled together to Palestine in 1924 where he contracted influenza and died as a result in Venice, Italy, on April 11, 1925. He was 60 years old.
My grandfather wrote ten books during his lifetime. His biography was published in 1927 with assistance from my grandmother. That task done, my grief-stricken grandmother locked up his study and all the notes and papers it contained. Everything remained sealed off until she died in 1959 and my parents closed down the house. The papers were sold in auction to Walter Gustafson in 21 tin boxes that Dr. Geil had carried on his travels. Gustafson stored the boxes in his barn some 40 years until the family donated them to the Doylestown Historical Society in 2008.
An Introduction to Wiliam Lindesay
British native William Lindesay became passionately interested in the Great Wall of China as a youth, eventually traveling there in 1985. He encountered numerous run-ins with Chinese authorities and was thrown out of the country a few times, but he kept going back. In 1987 he walked 1,500 miles along the Great Wall — as it turned out, nearly duplicating Dr. Geil's journey. William wrote about his journey in his first book, Alone the Great Wall, which was released in 1991.
But William Lindesay didn't know of William Geil until that same year when he received a letter in November 1991 from author Marjorie Hessell Tiltman. Tiltman wrote William saying she had a collection of Great Wall pictures and also a book by an American, William Edgar Geil, titled The Great Wall of China.
Tiltman wrote, "It is an impressive account, about 340 pages long, with more than 100 photographic illustrations." William got a copy of the book and described the experience in this brief clip from a 10-part documentary that's posted online at Chinese Network Television (CNTV).
With everything locked away between 1927 and 2008, William Edgar Geil was nearly forgotten — but his books were out there... waiting... waiting... for the next William.
Courtesy of William Lindesay
Doylestown Historical Society
Come Back Soon!
This section is an ongoing work in progress. I expect to update it from time to time with new material and corrections when necessary. Check back often!
Photographs are courtesy of the Doylestown Historical Society,
are public domain, and/or appear in William Edgar Geil's books.
This section of my website has very special meaning for me. As I describe in "Return to Doylestown" above, 2008 was an astonishing year. We witnessed a chain of events unfold over six months that stretches the limits of "coincidence." In Beijing, Doylestown, Cleveland, Maine and elsewhere people who didn't know each other reached out simultaneously and made contact. In some cases, they hadn't known the other person even existed! In the short span of six months this group of strangers-turned-friends convened in Doylestown at exactly the 100th anniversary of my grandfather's historic journey along the Great Wall. What are the odds versus a lightening strike or winning lottery ticket?
The story of William Edgar Geil and the Great Wall of China as I present it here is told mostly from a personal perspective, which is how I've experienced it. Despite whatever impression I may create, my knowledge of my grandfather and his explorations is regrettably limited. They say you teach what you need to learn, and so it may be with this website.
The events of 2008 and since have broadened my perspective in many ways, including the importance of family, family history and legacy. And friendship. I am so grateful for the people I've met and the outstanding work they do. There are so many people to acknowledge and thank. It's risky to start because I'll surely overlook deserving contributors that have made so much possible. I guess I'll go with the few with whom I've had the most contact and know the most about. My sincerest apologies to the rest!
In China there's William Lindesay (and his family), Piao Tiejun and Wang Baoshan — and then there are the good the people of Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Among them is Tim Adamsky, with whom I've had the most continuous contact (Facebook helps). Tim has been wonderful, inviting me to his home, helping me with this project, and more. As I understand it, Tim was the first person to have contact with the Gustafson family and the first from Doylestown to connect with William Lindesay. He also leads great cemetery tours recounting the lives and extolling the virtues of Doylestown's departed. You can watch him on my Doylestown 2009 page.
Most recently, I've connected with Stu Abramson, President of the Doylestown Historical Society (DHS). Stu has been helpful with this project, and under his leadership the historical society is carrying out an ambitious set of projects all aimed at documenting and reviving my grandfather's legacy. And while I haven't had much direct contact with him, I have to acknowledge Fletcher Walls at DHS. Fletcher has been the Administrator for years. It's hard to imagine how they could accomplish all this without him.
But on the subject of reviving Dr. Geil's legacy, I have to come back to William Lindesay. William has said it feels like he's almost the reincarnation of William Edgar Geil. He may not have meant that literally, but it's an apt description regardless whether it's true. William discovered that he'd been retracing Dr. Geil's footsteps. Since then William has been doing more than "simply" reviving legacy. He's continuing Dr. Geil's work — perhaps not as a Christian evangelist, but certainly as an explorer and educator.
I would be remiss also if did not acknowledge the Gustafson family. I haven't had any contact with them in connection with this project, but their central and indispensable role in the revival of my grandfather's legacy is well documented throughout the public record. First I must recognize Walter Gustafson for purchasing the 21 tin boxes of Geil papers at auction in 1959. And then Marilyn Gustafson and her family for their gracious donation of this material to the historical society in 2008. Little of what's being discussed here could have happened without them. William Lindesay would still know about Geil and so would my family — for what little we've contributed till now — but that would be it. Dr. Geil would still be an obscure footnote in history, if even that!
While this story and section is important to me, I believe others will find it important to. It's about more than my grandfather. It's about history, people and culture. It's about where we've been and where we're going.
One last thing... There are incredible resources available on the web, but in preparing this section I found they aren't interconnected. Each site seems to be an island onto itself. As a result, what I've ended up trying to create here is a kind "One Stop Shop" on William Edgar Geil. I try to link to as many places and resources as possible. I've also organized individual and independent YouTube videos in a sequence that hopefully tells a larger and more complete story than they do alone.
So far I have barely scratched the surface. There are six more pages in this section which you can access at the links below. Each page focuses on a particular aspect of this story. You will find links at the top and bottom of each page to help you get around. I invite you to explore and I hope you enjoy yourself.
Back to Top
A Little "Legalese"
OK... Let me squeeze down the type a bit. I think that's how it's done.
Record of Updates & Corrections
Visit these Pages in the William Edgar Geil Section
Wall of Two Williams
Beijing Exhibit 2008
Remembering the Barrens
About This Section
About This Section
The picture below illustrates the worldwide interest in Dr. Geil's work. This was May 13, 1902, at the YMCA Exhibition Building in Melbourne, Australia. 8,000 are pictured at this men-only gathering but the audience totaled 10,000. In addition to Dr. Geil's talk, a 1,000-voice male choir performed. This event is described in Dr. Geil's book, Ocean and Isle, pages 298-300.
Courtesy of Doylestown Historical Society
In addition to his ten books, articles and speeches like the one in Australia, Dr. Geil also wrote and distributed various tracts.
The Great Wall of Two Williams