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William Edgar Geil papers


Held at: Doylestown Historical Society [Contact Us]56 S Main St., Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 18901

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Doylestown Historical Society. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

William Edgar Geil (1865-1925) was an evangelical missionary and international explorer from Doylestown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania who was most likely the first individual--Chinese included-- to travel the entire Great Wall of China (in 1908). Geil achieved international fame as a brilliant preacher, and his travel exploits earned him comparisons with earlier explorers Henry Stanley and David Livingstone. He was a sought-after lecturer and orator, fascinating audiences with tales about his exotic travels. He authored 10 books, including his best-selling travelogue The Great Wall of China (Sturgis & Walton Company, 1909), that chronicled the peoples and cultures of the places he traveled, including China, equatorial Africa, Palestine, Australia, and the South Seas. Geil was also an accomplished and avid photographer whose work documented vanishing cultures.

The fame that Geil achieved, however, was fleeting. Often referred to as "America's Forgotten Explorer" he left no lasting legacy. "His wife, devastated by his death [at the age of 60], never recovered enough to promote his memory. Geil had no children. His personal effects were scattered and sealed under lock and key at private residences. He was virtually forgotten, his name left out of textbooks, museums and even the lore of his native Doylestown..." ("A Yankee in China")

William E. Geil was born on a farm in New Britain Township, Bucks County to Samuel Geil (1825-1903), a farmer, and Elizabeth Seese Geil (1831-1897). Geil enrolled in Lafayette College (Easton, Pa.), but did not graduate due to poor health and lack of money. He was licensed to preach by the First Baptist Church of Doylestown, but was never ordained a minister. In 1912, Geil married Lucy Constance Emerson (1873-1959) from Titusville, Pa., the daughter of an oil millionaire. The couple built a 30-room mansion just south of Doylestown, and named it "The Barrens."

Motivated by religion and a strong sense of adventure, Geil set out to explore the world. Many of his trips were to foreign missions, but much of his travels went beyond mission work. His most significant journey is arguably his trek across the Great Wall of China. Documenting his four-month, 1,800-mile trip with photographs and detailed field notes, Geil wrote the first book on the wall upon his return. He wanted the book to be "'so complete that the future historian of the Wall would find little to write about unless he pirated our notes...'" William Lindesay, a British authority on the Great Wall who followed Geil's trail almost 100 years later, has called Geil the "father of Great Wall studies." (Lin)

Besides traversing the Great Wall, Geil traveled to China several times to visit its provinces 18 capitals, and to climb the county's five sacred mountains. He also visited Palestine, Myanmar (Burma), equatorial Africa, Australia, and various Oceania islands. He sailed the Yangtze and Congo Rivers, and was one of the few white men to live with headhunters in Borneo and with pygmies in Africa. On one trip that lasted four years, he covered 100,000 miles, going from Samoa to Fiji, up into Japan and Korea, along China's Yangtze River, through the Malay Peninsula and Borneo, west to India and across Africa. Geil fastidiously chronicled all of his travels through diaries, field notes, and thousands of photographs.

William Geil died of influenza in Venice, Italy in 1925, after returning from what he called his "last trip" to Palestine. His wife Lucy continued to live in "The Barrens" until her death in 1959. Besides giving her consent to the publication of a biography on Geil by Philip Whitwell Wilson (a British Liberal politician, writer, and journalist), An Explorer of Changing Horizons: William Edgar Geil, F.R.G.S. 1865-1925 (George H. Doran Co., 1927), she rarely spoke about her husband and kept Geil's exploration memorabilia "secreted away in his library." (Ludwig) Having had no children, Lucy adopted Constance Emerson Kew Geil (1917-2007) (likely her cousin's daughter) shortly after her husband's death.


Ludwig, Ed and Fletcher Walls. "William Edgar Geil (1865-1925): Doylestown's Evangelical World Explorer." Prominent Doylestonians of Yesteryear Doylestown Historical Society, 2012.

"A Yankee in China.", August 01, 2008. Accessed July 23, 2013.

Lin, Jennifer. "Great Wall's Forgotten Man; Doylestown Explorer's Century-old Photos Are Back from Oblivion." The Philadelphia Inquirer. June 29, 2009. Accessed July 23, 2013.

This collection consists of various materials that document William E. Geil's extensive travels, including his trek across the Great Wall and other visits to China, as well as his travels to Patmos, Palestine, Australia, equatorial Africa, and Oceania. They also document his work as an evangelist and missionary.

About half of the collection is nearly 2,000 photographs, including 860 print photographs, over 500 glass plates, and some celluloid negatives. Some of the photographs are sorted by country or region, and some of the images are for stereoscopes.

A large portion of the collection is book preparation materials covering all phases of the editorial process, from handwritten travel notes and diaries, to typewritten carbon manuscripts, to plates for printing, to pen and ink illustrations (by Walter Hyslop, Kate Ruskin, and others). Also included are unpublished portions of books and unpublished manuscripts. The manuscripts include: Ocean and Isle, Adventures in the African Jungle, The Great Worldwide Tour, Eighteen Capitals of China, The Sacred Five, and Judas Iscariot.

Other materials included in the collection are diaries; field notes; personal correspondence; notebooks and writings on many subjects, including missions; newspapers and clippings; books and pamphlets; artwork; printing blocks; Bibles and religious ephemera; scrapbooks; speeches and addresses; and blueprints.

The collection also includes some family papers, especially letters to and from Geil's wife, Lucy Constance Emerson Geil, 1910-1927, with a few materials relating to Lucy's adopted daughter, Constance Emerson Kew Geil. There are also materials, such as photographs and genealogical research, relating to the Emerson family.

There are also materials by others about Geil, including contemporary news clippings from the early 20th century, biographical notes, correspondence with Lucy Geil, and chapter manuscripts by P. Whitwell Wilson for his biography of Geil. There are also materials about "The Barrens" as well as research materials created by the Doylestown Historical Society in preparation for its 2009 exhibition on Geil.

Lastly, the collection includes some oversize materials such as newspaper articles and posters, blueprints of "The Barrens" (located on South Main Street and Easton Road), and original artwork for Adventures in the African Jungle.

Gifts of W. R. Gustafson estate (2008) and Jim Myers.

Summary descriptive information on this collection was compiled in 2012-2014 as part of a project conducted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to make better known and more accessible the largely hidden collections of small, primarily volunteer run repositories in the Philadelphia area. The Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR) was funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

This is a preliminary finding aid. No physical processing, rehousing, reorganizing, or folder listing was accomplished during the HCI-PSAR project.

In some cases, more detailed inventories or finding aids may be available on-site at the repository where this collection is held; please contact Doylestown Historical Society directly for more information.

Doylestown Historical Society
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen and Faith Charlton through the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories
This preliminary finding aid was created as part of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories. The HCI-PSAR project was made possible by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
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