The Strange, True Story of John Williams and Charles Pennock

In the early 1900s it wasn't unusual for men to suddenly go missing. Among them were two accomplished bird experts whose lives turned out to be surprisingly intertwined.


On a mid-December day in 1919, a travel-weary stranger stepped off the train in St. Marks, a forlorn fishing village along Apalachee Bay in northwestern Florida. He was there to find a man named John Williams.

Everyone in town knew Williams: the postmaster who shipped off Williams’s delicately crated bird skins and eggs; old Aunt Maria, whose restaurant chimney he had cleared of a flycatcher nest smoking out the kitchen; the young men he’d led in field drills during World War I; anyone who needed something notarized. Though Williams had lived in St. Marks for less than a decade, the entire community was at least decently acquainted with the slightly cross-eyed, middle-aged, avian-loving eccentric. 

The stranger most likely found Williams at Linton’s, one of several ramshackle canneries teetering on the bank of the St. Marks River where he kept the books. The two men immediately recognized each other, according to accounts. “Bystanders being present,” it was later reported, “they greeted each other casually, despite their amazement.” Williams invited his visitor back to his home, a three-room shack by the ruins of a Spanish colonial fort. Neighbors were not privy to what unfolded inside, but by the next morning, John Williams was gone, leaving the people of St. Marks to wonder if they had ever even known him at all.

Six and a half years earlier and a thousand miles north, another birder had disappeared. On Thursday, May 15, 1913, 55-year-old realtor Charles J. Pennock took his second wife, Mary, shopping in Philadelphia. While she returned home to Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, 40 miles away, he stayed in town for a meeting of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC) at the Academy of Natural Sciences

First came the announcement that a beloved young club member named William Crispin, just days earlier, had fallen to his death while searching a Delaware River cliff for the nest of a duck hawk (Peregrine Falcon). Crispin was an unrivaled egg collector, and the news hit the group hard. To clear the pall, member James Rehn followed up with a rich account of Great White Herons and Gray Kingbirds he’d seen on a recent trip to the Florida Keys.

Pennock left the meeting with Witmer Stone, his friend and mentor who was the curator at the Academy’s museum and editor of The Auk, the official publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU). They parted ways at the entrance to Broad Street train station, and from there, newspapers differed on where Pennock was last seen: either walking up the station stairs or sitting on a bench. Regardless, he never arrived home.

After two days of mounting worry, Richard “Dr. Dick” Phillips, Pennock’s friend and the brother of his first wife, Nellie, alerted the police, unleashing a rush of media speculation. Had he gotten lost in the woods around his farm? Had he sailed off to Puerto Rico to visit his brother? Had he suffered from another crack-up?

Pennock, it turned out, had gone missing before: Twenty years back, early in his marriage to Mary, he vanished for three days, coming to his senses on a train somewhere along the Hudson River. “I awoke up in a small town and cannot tell how I got there,” he told his stricken family when he staggered home, a mental and physical wreck. Given this history, it was unsurprising that, alongside Pennock’s photo on the “missing person” cards distributed by the Philadelphia police, the description specified not just his whitening beard, eyebrow scar, suit, and straw hat, but also this: “Probably slightly deranged.”

Charlie Pennock

All around young Charlie Pennock, human history was being made. His mother was a suffragist, and his father a radical Quaker abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor. But Pennock, as he would later recall, was mostly concerned with “capturing nests and stealing eggs,” a passion likely encouraged by his naturalist uncle. Though he formalized his ornithology education at Cornell and Princeton universities, Pennock instead wound up in the family’s Kennett Square business, a manufacturer of farm equipment and road graders.

For the next several decades, he had a haphazard career—factory secretary, florist, lumber dealer, realtor, along with stints as town burgess, magistrate, and tax collector—but birding was a constant. Pennock ogled new species on family vacations; tallied regulars at Lake Mokoma, a failed investment property; and mucked through practically every marsh in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey with “the boys” from the DVOC. In correspondence with Stone, he regularly shared sightings, club gossip, and pressed flowers and feathers, while also shipping his friend all sorts of freshly prepared bird specimens.

Even as he entered middle age, one faraway, long-ago birding spot remained on Pennock’s mind. From 1887 to 1889 he and Nellie had wintered in Thomasville, Georgia, a resort town popular with advanced-stage tuberculosis patients. They hoped that the warm piney air might slow Nellie’s decline, but she died there in late 1889, just 30 years old. At 31, Pennock had three motherless young children waiting at home in Pennsylvania. Nellie’s family was there, too, including Dr. Dick. Instead of returning to mourn with them, he had Nellie buried in Thomasville and then ventured farther south by train into the Florida panhandle, where he remained for weeks. By some accounts, he was on a collecting assignment for Cornell.

Even as he entered middle age, one faraway, long-ago birding spot remained on Pennock’s mind. 

Most people came to these parts for fishing, harvesting sponges, hunting, or sightseeing by steamer. Pennock came for the birds. The miles of coastal marshland flanking the Gulf of Mexico were a haven for migrants in need of a rest and they supported an abundance of resident species, too. The widower camped out among them, enchanted, his imagination captured by an unfamiliar hawk he saw repurposing an old heron nest and local yarns about elusive Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Before he could resolve either mystery, however, he had to return home.

Over the next few years the demands of Kennett Square life, business, family affairs, and an increasingly serious birding career kept Pennock busy. Preparing to take on the honorary role of state ornithologist of neighboring Delaware, he worried to Stone: “I may get into deeper water than I can wade. If I get cramps, I want you to fling me a line!” For a time, he thrived in that position, penning a lively treatise on the state’s “useful” but underappreciated birds and urging readers to build Purple Martin houses out of boxes and gourds. In 1912 he began rearranging and expanding the academy’s egg collection, but all the while he longed for the field. “I am doing no bird work,” he lamented to a friend.

During these years, Pennock’s personal sadness swelled: His parents died, his two adult sons from his first marriage to Nellie moved away, and their 22-year-old daughter, Margaret, perished after her clothing caught fire. Friends and family knew, long before he went missing on that May night in 1913, Charlie Pennock was fraying badly.

As the police search for Pennock dragged into June, the public lost hope. Not the Pennocks. “[We] feel that he is alive,” his adult son Richard told one newspaper, “and some time will turn up in some obscure place where he has been living with a changed name due to his memory failing him.”

Such a theory wasn’t outlandish. In 1887 a Rhode Island carpenter/preacher named Ansel Bourne, who had suffered from one notorious bout of amnesia 30 years before, vanished on a business trip, “awakening” to himself two months later in Norristown, Pennsylvania, where he was living as a shopkeeper named A.J. Brown. Met by psychologists and the public with equal parts fascination and skepticism, the case seemed to spark a trend among men, one abetted by an ever-expanding network of trains and trolleys: Step on as one person and off as another. In 1907 a New Jersey tailor, missing for four years, turned up across the state, working in a tailor shop under a different name, with no recollection of his past. In 1909 another serial amnesiac, a Wisconsin judge, was found toiling in a button factory three weeks after his disappearance, the only link to his former self being an obsession with daily baseball scores.

Was it fugue amnesia, a dissociative disorder spurred by psychological trauma? Split identities? Or were men simply feigning memory loss for a fresh start? No one knew.

Familiar with these stories, Pennock’s family could only hope that if he, too, had forgotten himself, some shard of his former life might bring him back. According to one account, Pennock’s leather climbing straps, used for scaling trees to inspect nests, had gone missing along with the man himself.

John Williams

On May 22, 1913, John Williams boated into a coastal salt marsh south of St. Marks. He had been in the area for only a few days, and the Gray Kingbirds had also recently arrived, he wrote, “on weary wing from across the broad waters.” A dozen feet up into a stunted live oak, he peered into the gaping cavity of a root-and-twig nest and took three eggs.

Williams wasted no time settling in. He fixed up a rented shack and began filling it with eggs and other specimens. He found work as a bookkeeper, first for a turpentine operation and then at Frank Linton’s fish house, where he soon became Linton’s “right-hand man.” Though he remained a curiosity—a regional newspaper observed the clean-faced newcomer’s black frock coat and other “habillement denoting an abundance of wealth and refinement”—the community warmed to him.

Key to the stranger’s appeal was his infectious passion for birds. Discovering that Linton and his two fisherman brothers were keen nature observers themselves, Williams mined their local expertise: John Linton had spotted Blue Grosbeaks, Williams noted, and in the remote swamps of nearby Taylor County, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker! Knowing of a colony of Louisiana Herons (Tricolored Herons) on a tiny, windswept island, a local boatman shuttled Williams out for visits. And beginning in 1914 Williams led a multiyear, community-wide effort to nurture returning Purple Martins each spring using nest boxes and gourds.

While his exact background remained mysterious, his stature grew well beyond St. Marks. Florida’s governor appointed him to be notary of Wakulla County, as well as second lieutenant of the County Guard. Later he was appointed county commissioner. As The Tampa Tribune would recall, Williams “took a prominent and interested part in all matters affecting the community.”

In the fall of 1917, during a cherished stint as substitute keeper at the St. Marks Lighthouse—a lonely old whitewashed brick cone overlooking the gulf, St. Marks River, and surrounding marshes—Williams cataloged more than 60 bird species. That same year he boated up the nearby untamed Aucilla River, spotting a male Ivory-billed himself. As his years of field notes accumulated into a real body of local knowledge, Williams wrote them up and sent them out for publication.

In Washington, D.C., one such dispatch published in the Wilson Bulletin caught the eye of R. W. Williams, a solicitor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an ornithologist, and a Tallahassee native. Curious about this new voice from nearby St. Marks, R. W. would recall, “I at once wrote him for notes on the birds of his region, and this letter opened up a correspondence which has continued rather frequently.”

A year and a half into this epistolary friendship, R. W. visited St. Marks in early May 1919, bringing his colleague T. S. Palmer of the U.S. Biological Survey and vice president of the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals (now the National Audubon Society). Both men had played major roles in the passage of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act and were increasingly focused on conservation of this unique section of Wakulla County, then under threat by timbering, a hydroelectric project, and a cross-Florida canal. They quickly recognized that Williams’s talent and work could be helpful in their efforts to safeguard the area. “Dr. Palmer and I found him a most estimable man...quite vigorous and keenly interested in and acquainted with the birds of that region,” R. W. later recalled. His bird collection also impressed them. “His bachelor quarters, where he resides alone but in rude comfort,” did not. They opted to stay in a hotel.

The visitors thoroughly enjoyed his grand tour of beloved birding haunts, especially the marshes by the lighthouse, where Williams hoped to become the permanent keeper. Here, on what Williams called “a red-letter day,” the trio spotted two rarities: a male Cape May Warbler and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.
The day they left, John Williams eagerly began corresponding with Palmer, too. Over the next several months, he asked Palmer for back issues of The Auk, sent skins and eggs, and regularly referenced their May outing with affection. The more Palmer and R. W. encouraged his work, the more Williams came alive. “I am always pleased to have your letters,” he gushed to Palmer. “After being on starvation rations (ornithologically) for so many years it is a great treat to me to get in communication with those so willing to help and sympathize with a novice.”

Thanks to his numerous publications, Williams was accepted as a member of the esteemed Wilson Ornithological Club and the AOU. Meanwhile, he wrapped up his magnum opus, a comprehensive survey of Wakulla County birds, which his new friends helped him submit, in installments, to both the Wilson Bulletin and The Auk. In the introduction, Williams thanked the Lintons for their exceptional local bird knowledge, and in the report itself mentioned Palmer and R. W. In his write-up of the Short-tailed Hawk, he included one other name as well: “The record by Mr. C. J. Pennock, of a nest with one egg, from this county,” Williams wrote, referencing a 29-year-old report in The Auk, “remains our complete history as far as I know.”


By 1919 the police had long since called off the search for Charlie Pennock, and his family had begun to legally accept his death. Within the birding community, however, it was hard to let him go: The DVOC member roster continued to list him as “Deceased (Disappeared).”

Witmer Stone had particular cause to hold out hope. For the past few years, brief notes from the Florida birder John Williams had been popping up in the Wilson Bulletin, a publication Stone read avidly. The work was detailed and sharp, but the author’s name unfamiliar. “I thought I knew all the men in the country who knew birds this way,” Stone would recall. The writing style reminded him of his old friend Charlie Pennock, and fleetingly, he had pondered if the two men might somehow be the same, before banishing the thought as preposterous.

But in the fall of 1919 Stone returned from one of his own expeditions to several new submissions from Williams—in handwriting very much like Pennock’s. Moreover, within these were at least two echoes of his missing friend’s long-simmering ornithological fascinations.

First was Williams’s mention of Pennock’s Short-tailed Hawk. As Stone knew, St. Marks was where Pennock ended up in 1889 after Nellie’s death. And thanks to an egg and skin mailed to him by a local once he had returned home, Pennock had finally identified his mystery raptor: Buteo brachyurus, until then thought to breed exclusively in the tropics. The bird was now known to nest hundreds of miles farther north and west than it had before—an ornithological breakthrough.

Then there was Williams’s write-up of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which bore distinct traces of Pennock’s own fixation with the rare bird. Back in 1900 another St. Marks local had mailed Pennock two freshly shot skins of the species. He had proudly shown them off to Stone and the rest of the DVOC.

Even if Stone missed these connections, Pennock had never made a secret of his enduring fondness for St. Marks. In 1904 he had written to Stone of their colleague James Rehn’s plans to trace his footsteps: “Rehn tells me he is looking forward to a trip to my old stomping ground—Thomasville and St. Marks. I hope he can get down there. I am going again sometime!”

Now unable to dismiss his hunch, Stone began to dig, writing to Florida birders who might know the mysterious John Williams. When Stone contacted R. W. Williams, the reply—detailing his and Palmer’s nascent relationship with John Williams—was confounding. He and Palmer had gleaned that John was from New Jersey and had a long-separated son, R. W. reported, but “[w]e were so engrossed with him in ornithology that we really had no time to think of anything else while we were with him.” Along with noting how highly respected John Williams was in the community, R. W. added this, with no elaboration: “He was well acquainted with Mr. Pennock.”


Even more vexing was the fact that Palmer had met both Williams and Pennock in person.


Acquainted? That certainly didn’t fit Stone’s theory that Pennock and Williams were one and the same. Even more vexing was the fact that Palmer had met both Williams and, as Stone knew, Pennock in person—the two attended the same AOU meetings prior to Pennock’s disappearance. If Pennock and Williams were the same man, why hadn’t Palmer recognized him when he and R. W. visited St. Marks in May?

Unbeknownst to Stone, the enigma had more layers still. Having made entrée into the ornithological elite, John Williams was communicating with at least a half-dozen other people who had known Pennock personally: the Biological Survey’s Alexander Wetmore, AOU member H.H. Bailey (whom Williams was feuding with over an Ivory-billed skin), and none other than Sam Rhoads, bookseller, DVOC founder, and Pennock’s very own co-writer on a 1905 survey of Delaware birds. If Pennock was truly trying to start a new life under a new name, why would he get in touch with so many of the same people from his past?

When Stone told R. W. of his growing suspicions that Pennock was Williams, R. W. offered to “do all I can to fathom the mystery” during his upcoming trip to the Tallahassee area. In his next note, after that trip, R. W. became cryptically urgent, insisting that Stone meet him in Washington on December 11 to receive the news in person. Stone heeded the call and at last learned the truth. “[R. W.] has positively identified Williams as Pennock,” Stone later noted, “but has not told him.” Immediately, Stone shared the news with Dr. Dick, who, on December 16, set out on the long train ride to Florida.

Charlie Pennock

When Dr. Dick and John Williams were alone that night in the shack, newspapers later reported, “[t]hey talked the thing out.” The next morning, however, Charlie Pennock was not eager to rush back to his old life. They stayed on through Christmas, according to the Reading Eagle, enjoying a Wild Turkey dinner, “the gift of a native who admired his friend ‘Williams.’ ”

Williams divulged his real identity to only a few of his closest St. Marks friends (presumably the Lintons) and left others to learn the truth by word of mouth and through the news. Before the new year, the cabin’s contents—nearly seven years of bird skins and specimens, a full library, 12 notebooks—were shipped north to Pennsylvania. Its mysterious occupant and his visitor followed, with a brief stopover in Tallahassee, where John Williams resigned his position as county commissioner.

“You sure fixed the lone fisherman for fair,” Pennock wrote to Stone. “I will be forever indebted to you for straightening out the web.” To another Philadelphia friend, he was triumphant: “The lost one has returned.”

Before heading back to Kennett Square, however, Pennock stopped in Harrisburg, home to his son Richard and Richard’s very pregnant wife. Pennock’s wife, Mary, was there, too, waiting for the baby. As the discovery of the lost birder became national news, reporters flocked to the city, eager to make sense—and a story—out of such a perplexing mystery. “Father tells us that his mind became a blank and he remembers nothing until a short time ago,” Richard relayed to reporters, though “just now we are not asking him too many questions.”

Newspaper clippings with headliens "Bird Expert 'Lost,' is Back" and "Lost Ornithologist Found by his Writing"

Pennock, by his own account, was relieved to be found and eager to move on. It was New Year’s Day, and he was soon to be a grandfather. After lunch with his family, he told a reporter for the Delaware County Daily Times, “Even the happy years I spent down there had no moments in them so happy as this moment with my loved ones.” Unsatisfied, the reporter kept pressing. Pennock insisted his break with his past had been decisive: “I was overworked and I suffered an attack of aphasia, that’s what the doctors call it.…When I got on the train six years ago, I was tired, my mind was full of my hobby, the birds.” He went on: “And somehow I wanted to go to Florida, where I had been before.”

As to why he chose a new name: “I didn’t remember my own.” Pennock described his return to “himself” as gradual, with “no clear line of demarcation.” As he put it, “along about two or three months ago, uncanny memories came back. My real name came back and my old life and the mental picture of my wife and Kennett Square. Then I realized the terrible thing which had happened. I wanted to return north immediately, but I was soon harassed by the thought that my people might not feel the same toward me after such a long absence.”

The struggle to understand and accept Pennock’s account has persisted for generations in his family.

And yet, during this same period of Pennock’s claimed reawakening, he wrote to Palmer as Williams describing his plans to permanently settle down: “I am buying my ‘house’ here, that big old barn of a shack in which I have my ‘corner.’ ”

What—or who—to believe?

The struggle to understand and accept Pennock’s account has persisted for generations in his family, where it was rarely a topic of conversation. As open as his son Richard was about the family’s history, this tale never seemed to come up, at least not with Pennock’s great-grandson Dick Pennock, who learned bits of the story only after his grandfather’s death. While Dick acknowledges that a breakdown may have caused Charlie to flee, he finds it “hard to imagine” that it took him so long to recall who he was. “I’m content with what little I know,” Dick says, “and at peace realizing I’ll never know the full story.”

The likeliest person to know the truth remained silent: Mary Pennock, who had waited and wondered for years. By public appearances, their marriage resumed where it left off. In fact, just two months after he was welcomed back to Kennett Square, Pennock brought Mary down to see St. Marks for herself—an effort, perhaps, to fuse his two lives. There is no account of how the community reacted. The only record of the trip is the handful of skins that Pennock brought back: a Red-cockaded Woodpecker, a Summer Tanager, and a dowitcher shot by the lighthouse. In May 1920 he presented these to a packed hall at the Society of Natural History of Delaware. “Returned Amnesia Victim Lectures on Bird Life,” announced the Wilmington Morning News.

For the next four years, another casualty of John Williams’ vanishing act pined for his lost friend. “I never shall cease to regret his removal from St. Marks to Philadelphia,” R.W. Williams wrote to Stone, “though, of course, it was proper that he should return to his family.” The next year: “When you see ‘John Williams’ again, will you kindly ask him why does he not drop me a line once in a while for the sake of old times if for nothing else? I am fondly attached to Mr. Pennock and I do not want to get completely out of touch with him.”

Meanwhile, Stone had his own troubles with Pennock. Mary had donated Pennock's old skin collection to the Academy in 1918. Now a frustrated Pennock wanted it back. But given the Academy’s investment in the restoration of the skins, Stone refused, leading to a deep rift between the friends.

Even after Pennock’s death, from a heart attack in 1935, the discord persisted, and Stone peppered his former friend’s obituary with subtle barbs—about the disputed collection, Pennock’s “purely honorary” position as state ornithologist, and the paucity of his publications. “There have been few more active ornithologists in Pennsylvania than Charles J. Pennock,” Stone summed up, “and it is to be regretted that the numerous and varied business activities that marked his life prevented a closer attention to ornithological research, which would undoubtedly have yielded great returns.”

But, in waving away those six remarkable years in St. Marks as “a curious incident in Pennock’s life,” Stone overlooked his most significant accomplishment.

John Williams

From 1913 to 1919 John Williams amassed an unrivaled expertise in the avian life of St. Marks and surrounding Wakulla County. His final, richly detailed surveys became what Ludlow Griscom—one of America’s most prominent ornithologists—would call the definitive record of the region, 239 observed species in all. Though published under his assumed name, they were the purest embodiment of Charles Pennock’s talent and passion.

This meticulous body of work was just what R. W. Williams needed in his push for the area to be conserved. In 1931, after years of behind-the-scenes wrangling with the county, suspicious sportsmen, and the lumber company that owned much of the land, R. W. spearheaded the federal purchase of a 14,000-acre tract of coastal marsh and woodlands—including the old lighthouse and the Aucilla River—named the St. Marks Refuge for Migratory Birds.

Now a national wildlife refuge, today it encompasses more than 80,000 acres. Visitors can climb the lighthouse where Williams stood post and enjoy the view themselves. The vast gulf to the south might pull their gaze at first. But shifting their focus toward the shore, they’ll take in the rich landscape that enamored Williams and kept Pennock yearning to return. Within these sprawling marshes and inlets and woodlands is a forever-shifting array of birds, settling in or passing through, filling each view and each season with fresh surprises. Within such a wondrous kaleidoscope, it’s easy to see how any person might be capable of ­losing—or finding—themselves.

This story originally ran in the Fall 2021 issue as “The Strange, True Story of John Williams and Charles Pennock.”​ To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.