Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Fossil Hunters, Biographers, and Chas. Insco Williams

Fossil Hunters, Biographers and Chas. Insco Williams                                       

Skywatchers readers,

Please bear with me in these first four paragraphs while I set up an analogy that will be exemplified at the end of this essay…

When a Tyrannosaurus’s skeleton or millenias-old Hominid jawbone is found, paleontologists are usually able to tell us the nearly miraculous way they were preserved in rock.  The typical process I remember reading about was that a corpse was quickly buried by river silt which prevented oxygen from decomposing it.  Ages passed with more sand burials, and the bones petrified in their sandstone matrix.  Eventually a fossil hunter wins a grant for exploration because of her insight about probable burial locations; she chips and scrapes away rock layers and uncovers a prized specimen.  Sometimes a scientist’s analysis and explanation of the burial scene provides us with a description of the animal’s last moments, perhaps even what led to its death; reading the rock tells the fateful story.

People’s life events are preserved by the written word in documents: their birth dates and parents’ names, school sports feats, graduations, marriages, work achievements, awards, failures, and their death dates and places.  Our lives are recorded in lines of printers’ ink and on social media pages.  Over time these pages accumulate in layers in archives, waiting for the probing biographer to locate and open the correct one. Then, the writer can reconstruct a biographical narrative from a life’s sequence of events. 

Fossil hunters and biographers have a lot in common task-wise. Displaying a new fossil specimen requires assembling scattered bones that were freed from a rocky matrix; publishing a person’s life narrative means sequencing life events found in scattered texts in archives.

However, many peoples’ biographies are not written even though their facts are archived.  They await the investigator whose interests lead to the archive with their records. I consult archives containing records about astronomers.  That’s how I have publicized people whose vitae may not have been cited beyond a death notice, or an obituary in a newspaper or online funeral notice. My privilege has been to introduce Skywatchers’ readers to some little-celebrated lives; people who have engaged in observational astronomy.  For me, that was their ticket to a memorial on these pages.  I like to unearth accounts of those people who have studied the heavens; I believe that readers would like to know about them.

Popular Astronomy’s volumes are the archives I often peruse.  Its 1934 tome contained two lines of print about a man named “Chas. Insco Williams” who had submitted a sky watch report.  He was one of the citizen scientists who assisted astronomer Charles P. Olivier to record ‘shooting stars’ during 1933’s Leonid display.[1,2,3]  Williams reported his address as, ‘Eglinton’ in King George County, Virginia about 80 km from where I live. I became curious about him simply because he had lived so nearby. [1, 2]  Williams had counted Leonid meteors during the height of the shower’s 1933 return, when Olivier had cautiously hoped a stupendous ‘storm’ of meteors would fill the sky. Specifically, Williams spent 8.5 hours during two early mornings, on November 16 and 17, waiting for the sky to fill with fire.  That never happened.  But he did count 32 Leonids on the 16th and 9 the next day. [3] He also reported that he had company during those predawn hours because he noted that “we” had watched meteors. [3]

So there were three questions to answer: who had Charles Insco Williams been, where was Eglinton located; and who were his meteor watch companions? has been a dependable go-to archive when I need to learn someone’s history, but it disappointed me.  It did not reveal a specific person to the prompt of ‘Chas. Insco Williams, Eglinton, Virginia.’  However, it did have two ‘Charles Insco Williams’ in its databases.  One was born in 1853 and had been a noted architect; the second was born in 1906 and had been an executive for a refrigerator manufacturer.  Unfortunately those men had lived in Ohio and additional information about them showed that neither had lived in Virginia.  Compounding the confusion over Charles’ identity, my colleague, Tim Manley found a third man with the same three names who had been born in 1873 in My’s database.  Had Charles number 3 migrated to Virginia?  Did any of the three Charles have a summer cottage or estate in Virginia that he called Eglinton?

Locating Eglinton was frustrating too.  Scrutiny of a King George County geographical map, where Williams had claimed residence did not show Eglinton. I wrote to the King George County Historical Museum in King George, the county’s seat, asking if staff had records identifying Williams and his residence.  The staff had no information about either one. So, I was stumped with the same two mysteries: who was Williams and where did he live?

Investigating Williams online and by postal mail had reached a dead end   There was nothing left to do but take a field trip to a regional historical archive in Fredericksburg, about 10 miles (16 km) west from King George village.  In a breakthrough, its online search engine had revealed some documents related to a Charles Insco Williams who had lived locally.  Indeed, it contained letters written to Williams in his role as Secretary of Fredericksburg’s Masonic Lodge No. 4. [4] There was also a music score and lyrics written for Fredericksburg’s James Madison High School’s song that was attributed to him. That score provided a crucial clue that led to identifying the correct Charles.  It had been published by “E.H.S. Williams.” [5]

When that publisher’s name was entered into’s search engine, the 1930 U.S. Census’ database offered ‘Elsie H. S. Williams.’ And she had had a husband named Charles.  He had been 57 years old in 1930, so he was the Charles who had been born in 1873! [6]  At last the correct Charles was known.  The 1930 Census showed the Williamses to have lived in King George County, but not precisely where: ‘Eglinton’ was not mentioned as a location. The most direct way to locate their residence was to consult the Deed Books in the county’s Circuit Court Clerk’s office.  Indeed, it was the correct place to look: in 1931, Elsie had purchased 25 acres from another county resident; the parcel was on the western outskirts of King George village. [7]

Her property’s location was found on a county real estate plat, but neither the plat nor the Deed Book entry was labeled Eglinton. [8] Disappointed, I guessed Eglinton had been an informal name that the couple gave Elsie’s property. Above, Eglinton’s location is shown as the pink-outlined area on an excerpt from a real estate plat in Deed Book 38.  North is toward the bottom of the diagram.  The village of King George is to the left on the State Highway.

Finally, we had found the correct Charles, Eglinton’s location, and his Leonid watch partner’s name; I assumed that the “we” Williams had referred to in his report to Olivier was a reference to Elsie.  Although those three data points were exciting by themselves, they only furnished a skeleton sketch of the sky watching couple in 1933 Virginia.  Tim and I wanted a description of them with more ‘meat on the bones.’ 

With persistence, we succeeded in finding more information which filled out our understanding of the couple: meaty ‘bones’ were added to the skeleton.  Newspaper accounts as well as the high school song gave evidence of Charles’ musical performance and composition skills.  Even though he claimed in the 1940 U.S. Census that he was a “retired artist” [13], there was better evidence that he had had a successful career in music. [11, 12, 15] Elsie’s newspaper and Census records show that she had had a long-term career as an educator. [6, 10, 14]  The 1910 Census reported that the couple had had a son born in 1904 and a daughter in 1907. [16] A newspaper obituary documented Charles’s death in 1940. [9] Elsie published Charles’ song posthumously in 1941 [5] and she sold Eglinton for $100 on May 30 of the same year. [17] Elsie relocated to Ohio after Charles’ death to live with their daughter Virginia.  Elsie died in 1960 at age 83. [10] She and Charles are buried together in a rural family‘s private cemetery in Louisa County, Virginia. [9, 10]  

A photograph of Elsie H.S. Williams taken from an unknown local newspaper circa 1936. 

Courtesy of King George County Historical Museum, King George, Virginia

In retrospect, Charles’ 1933 report in Popular Astronomy was a fact that served as analog to a fossil hunter’s discovery of a fossilized bone fragment: it led to ‘digging further’ to find more. As Tim and I explored more archival strata, the history of Charles and Elsie Williams emerged as a coherent whole instead of remaining buried in scattered records.


[1] Olivier, C. P, 1933. Bulletin 14, List of Members, American Meteor Society, p.4

[2] Olivier, C. P, 1934. Bulletin 15, List of Members, American Meteor Society, p.4

[3] Olivier, C. P, 1934. Meteor Notes, Popular Astronomy, volume 42, pp.100 and 102

[4] Messrs Timberman and Uhlman, 1930.  Two letters to Williams from Masonic Lodge Officers in Northern Virginia. Central Rappahannock Heritage Center, File number


[5] Williams, C. I., 1941.  The James Monroe High School Song, words and music by

Charles Insco Williams.  King George, Virginia: E.H.S. Williams.  Central Rappahannock Heritage Center, File number 2007-044-004

[6] United States Census for 1930; Rappahannock Magisterial District of King George

            County, Virginia.  Household of Elise (sic) H. S. Williams, Husband: Charles S. (sic)


[7] King George County, Virginia Deed Book 43, p. 84.  Purchase date was May 9, 1931.

[8] King George County, Virginia Deed Book 38, p.636  Williams’ property location was

            deduced using a plat that accompanied this deed.

[9] C. Inscoe (sic) Williams Buried in Louisa. Free Lance Star (Fredericksburg, VA),

            August 24, 1940, p. 1

[10] Long Illness Fatal to Mrs. Williams.  Free Lance Star (Fredericksburg, VA), October 5,


[11] Charles Insco Williams, Musician, Palladium-Item (Richmond, Indiana), February 5, 1900,


[12] Musical Club Recital, Palladium-Item (Richmond, Indiana), March 17, 1900 p.4

[13] United States Census for 1940; Jackson District of Louisa County, Virginia; House hold of

            Dr. S.F. Hart.  Lodger there: Charles I. Williams, “retired artist”

[14] School Officials Meet in Fredericksburg, Northern Neck News, volume 57, number 22,

            October 25, 1935, p.5

[15] 1901 City Directory, Cincinnati, Ohio, p.1857

[16] United States Census for 1910; Westmoreland County, Virginia, House hold of  

            Charles Williams

[17] King George County, Virginia Deed Book 50, p. 528.


I had help to ‘unearth’ the facts in this detective saga; Timothy P. Manley was the able investigator who shared the laborious searches needed during the ten months it took to reconstruct Charles and Elsie’s story.

Ms. Elizabeth Lee, Historian at the King George County Historical Museum allowed me to use a 1936 newspaper photo of Elsie Williams, who was the first Principal of King George County High School, opened in 1927.  Ms. Lee also provided a history of Willow Hill, the general area where the Williamses had lived. 

Staff members of Central Rappahannock Heritage Center in Fredericksburg helped Tim and I find photocopies of Charles’ correspondence and a high school’s song he wrote. 

Staff at the King George County Circuit Court Clerk’s office helped Tim and I locate property deeds and real estate plats in its Deed Books.