Charles (Vera) Williams
May 21, 2014
No one alive knows the full story of native Ocracoke
islander, Charles Irvin Williams, born 1898, the son of Tilmon L. Williams and
Elizabeth Scarborough Williams.
From the moment of his birth, Charles’ mother considered him a girl, called him
Vera and dressed him in feminine clothes.
For twenty-one years Vera pursued conventional female
activities, grew long curly tresses, attended school as a girl, and presented
herself everywhere as female. No one suspected that she might actually be a male.
Vera’s neighbors, teachers, and siblings all thought she was
a girl. Vera learned to cook and sew at her mother’s side, played house with
other young girls, and tended to babies in her teenage years. She entertained
suitors, once nearly accepting an offer of engagement. No one may have known the truth.
In 1919 Vera Williams ordered a suit of clothes and assorted
other items from the catalog of a New York City enterprise, The Charles William
Stores, an early twentieth century mail order competitor to Montgomery Ward and
Sears & Roebuck. Vera adopted a new name, borrowed from the cover of the
catalog – Charles Williams.
The next morning, with a few dollars in his pocket, his hair
cut short, and attired in his new wardrobe, Charles Williams boarded the daily mailboat
bound for the mainland. So complete was his transformation, that fellow
passenger, cousin Stacy Howard, did not recognize him.
From North Carolina Charles traveled by bus to Baltimore. He
easily found employment in a restaurant. For more than a year Charlie Irvin
Williams, as he was now called, remained in Baltimore. He rented a room in a
boarding house, and slowly adapted to city life. Before long he was dating
But, like so many young men who left home to work far away,
Charlie Irvin was homesick for his beloved island and the simple joys of his
tiny, isolated community. Unsure how he would be treated at home, however, he
hesitated to return. After careful consideration, he finally decided to travel
back to Ocracoke to visit his family.
As it turned out, islanders demonstrated their charitable
natures and accepted Charlie Irvin for the man he had become. For the next few
decades he worked in various cities along the eastern seaboard, both in
restaurants and on the water. Charlie Irvin married and fathered two children,
Isabelle and Charles.
Charlie Irvin returned to Ocracoke frequently. On several
occasions he remained on the island for extended periods. In the late 1930s he
rented a small cottage on Howard Street with his wife and small daughter. They
stayed for the summer, and Charlie secured a job cooking at the Pamlico Inn.
Sometime after WWII Charlie Irvin worked as a crew member on a
vessel on its way to Norfolk, Virginia when a storm overtook them. The vessel
broke apart, and Charlie Irvin drowned.
Charlie Irvin Williams’ story is
one of confusion, uncertainty,
and difficult decisions. It is also the story of determination,
and the triumph of tolerance over prejudice. There is some oral
Ocracoke Island tradition which suggests that Charlie Irvin was
hermaphroditic (intersexed). According to Alice Dreger in her 1998
book, Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex,
"The appearance of the genitals might...change over the course of
the lifetime. Change in sexual anatomy...is the rule for most of us,
but in some hermaphrodites, genitalia have been observed to undergo
unusual transformations from a more female-like to a more male-lke
conformation, and vice versa." Dreger mentions in particular a major
type of male pseudohermaphroditism known as 5-alpha-reductase
(5-AR) deficiency, which "results in an apparent female-to-male
transformation at puberty."
Following are several independent
accounts of the Charlie
Irvin Williams story. Several of these stories claim that his mother
deliberately deceived him and the community into thinking that he was
female. The truth might be that Charlie's mother and the attending
midwife were unsure of Charlie's gender...or truly believed he was a
This first account is a transcript of a 1968 interview with Ms. Bessie Howard, wife of Ocracoke’s
long-time postmaster, Mr. Tom Wallace Howard. She tells the story as she knew it.
-- “A young man was born on Ocracoke. He lived [as] a girl for 21 years, and sent
off and ordered a suit of clothes, shoes, and everything, and his mother cut
his hair. He was wearing long hair. His
mother cut his hair, and he left next morning on the mailboat. He’d already procured him a job in Baltimore
to go there to work. So his cousin was
on the mailboat and didn’t even know who he was. And his cousin asked him where he was
from. He said “Ocracoke.” He [the cousin] said, “Well you look like some
of my folks.” [The young man] said, “I
may be, for all you know.” So his cousin
didn’t know who he was till he [the cousin – Stacy Howard] got a letter from
his wife after he got to Norfolk telling him Charlie Irvin, that Vera, had left
home and gone off dressed as a man. He’d
changed to a man, and changed her name to Charlie Irvin.
“He went to Baltimore and worked in a job there. ‘Twas
during the First World War, for a year or more, and he came back. And he told his mother when he left, if
everybody thought it was such a disgrace to him that he’d never come back
again, but if they didn’t, why he might come back to see her sometime. So, of course, people didn’t think it was so
bad, so he came back to visit her.
“And he came to our house, and my husband’s sister was
there, and my husband’s mother, and nobody knew him when he came in. My husband met him to the door and talked to
him. It was Charlie Irvin. And in the meantime [she means “years ago”],
while my second son was born, and he [Vera/Charlie Irvin] lived with me and
took care of the baby, and waited on me while the baby was little. And that was while he was wearing dresses and
doing all of the housework and all. And
so it seemed odd to me to see him being there dressed as a man.
“So his [Ms. Bessie’s husband’s] sister said to him, said,
“Charlie Irvin,” said, “how did you get along while you were gone?” He said, “I never made a mistake from the
time I left here till I come back, except the night I was leaving Baltimore I got
on the wrong streetcar with my girl.”
Sissie said, “Whoopee, I’ll go home after that, ‘cause he might want to
go home with me.”
“And this was…. He
lived 21 years as a girl, and had changed to a man, and went away, and that is
hard for people to believe, but I know it to be the truth. And he’s come back to Ocracoke several times,
cooked in the Coast Guard Station several times, and last year he was drowned
off of a tugboat out in…., near Norfolk somewhere.”
-- On July 27, 1921 the following report ran in The Wilmington [NC] Morning Star:
“BOUGHT PANTS AND THINGS
“Washington, July 26 –
Verification has been had here of the
story of Charles, alias Vera, Williams. Born a husky boy [I think this
is speculation on the part of the reporter; at birth Charlie may have
appeared to be a girl, or of ambiguous gender], Charles Williams was
dressed as a girl. His mother, an Ocracoke woman, had hoped for a
Charles grew up and reached the age of 21. He was courted by island
Tired of the life he was living, he wrote a mail order house for a suit
clothes. He left the island one morning, a stranger youth nobody had
arrive. He went to Baltimore and sought employment. He remained there
time. Now Charles Williams has returned to Ocracoke. He is a fine
man. The novelty of his career will not wear off.”
This account appeared in The Morning Oregonian
[Portland, Oregon], Thursday, September 22,
1921. (Although much is accurate, we do not know that his mother
deceived him (she may simply have been confused about his gender), and
oral tradition on Ocracoke does not support
the assertion that when Charlie Irvin returned home he reverted to
living as a
girl. Also, the geographic description of the island is mistaken, and
certain that Charlie Irvin Williams did not row a small boat 25 miles
“GIRL FINDS SHE IS YOUTH, DECEIVED BY MOTHER RETURNS TO
“Simple Life on lonely Ocracoke Island Appeals to Man Who
Thought He Was Woman.
“NORFOLK, Va,. Sept. 21. (Special.)
“Charles C. Williams, who spent 21 years on the island of
Ocracoke as a girl, has just returned from the outside world as a man. He says
he prefers to don dresses and remain at Ocracoke rather than battle with life
and temptations among the people of big cities.
“When Williams was born his mother was so disappointed
because he was not a girl she put dresses on him. Hs was named Vera, and to his
girl playmates, what few there were on the island, he was known as Vera Williams.
He had light hair, inclined to curl, and his features were fair.
“As Vera Williams he wore dresses for 21 years. Nobody knew
his sex but his mother, and nobody doubted but that Vera was a girl. He grew
into a decidedly good-looking ‘girl,’ too; attended church and took part in outdoor
meetings on the island. Vera acted just like any other girl would act.
“Ocracoke Is. one of the strangest of all islands in
America, and perhaps anywhere else. There are about 500 inhabitants. The island
has the Atlantic ocean on the north and west side and Ocracoke inlet on the
east. The island is separated from the mainland by the Inlet, which is about
ten miles wide. A boat from the mainland stops at Ocracoke once a week. Three-fourths of the population of the island has
never been to the mainland. Vera Williams, until he was 21 years old, was one
of those who had never seen any other town, city or hamlet but Ocracoke.
“Vera was taken over to the mainland a few months ago by his
mother, dressed like a young woman. Vera saw things that opened his eyes. Vera
had been taught to read and he bought a magazine. He saw an advertisement of a
mail order house. He sent away for a suit of men's clothes. When they arrived
he concealed them in his room. He made alterations. He had learned to sew well and had made money
making seines and repairing clothes for the fishermen, who are the chief
inhabitants of the island. He cut off his hair and left the house before
daybreak. He covered the distance between the mainland and Ocracoke island in a row boat. Vera could handle a boat
like a veteran sailor. When Vera reached the mainland be wrote his mother
declaring he had learned something about the world and was tired of being a girl
“Then Mrs. Williams wrote her son that his name was Charles
E. Williams and not Vera. She told him why she had tried to make a girl out of
him. She warned him to be careful of the outside world, and now that he had
learned he was a man to be a real man. Charles E. Williams set out to earn his
living in the outside world. He found it very hard. He got a job in a
restaurant in Baltimore. He worked there two months. Charles Williams is back
at Ocracoke now. He says he thinks he will stay there. He likes the place,
because people there live the simple life. They go barefooted to camp meetings,
they have their own laws and they know little about the outside world. Charles
says he saw enough in one city to make him love Ocracoke more than he ever
loved it, even when he was known as Vera Williams and had girls for his playmates.”
-- On Tuesday, October 25, 1921 The Pittsburgh [PA] Press
ran the following story. (Again, oral tradition on Ocracoke does not support
the assertion that when Charlie Irvin returned home he reverted to living as a
“’Vera,’ Boy Raised as Daughter, Goes Back to his Sewing
“Norfolk, Va., Oct. 25, -- A strange story of a boy raised
to manhood as a girl without anyone but his mother suspecting his real sex
comes from the isolated island of Ocracoke. Charles C. Williams, according to
the accounts, has found after a brief struggle with the world he would prefer
life at home as a girl to the struggles and temptations of a youth in the city
“When Williams was born his mother was so disappointed that
he was not a girl that she called him ‘Vera,’ and dressed him as a girl. ‘Vera’
had light hair, was of fair complexion and as ‘she’ grew up developed into a
decidedly good looking ‘girl.’ For the first 21 years of his life Williams
lived on his island without ever having crossed the waters to the mainland.
“Ocracoke supports about 500 persons, most of whom live all
their lives on the island, but it is said none of them except Mrs. Williams
knew that ‘Vera’ was a boy. Williams himself was perfectly satisfied with his
lot until, when he was 21, his mother took him, dressed as a young woman, to
“There, according to the story, he bought a magazine and
from it and his observations of city folk learned that Ocracoke was, after all,
only a little place.
“In the magazine was the advertisement of a mail order
house, and when he got home Williams sent to it for an outfit of men’s
clothing. When it arrived he cut his hair, took the money he had earned by
sewing and rowed to the mainland in a small boat. From here he wrote his mother
telling her he was ‘tired’ of being a girl. In return, Mrs. Williams told him
that his real name was Charles.
"Baltimore was selected by Williams as a starting place for
his life as a man, but after two months of it he is back at Ocracoke, and glad
to be there. During his absence he worked in a restaurant, and while he was
there, he says, he saw enough to make him return to the island and his skirts.
“Girls for companions, sewing and the other domestic virtues
for occupations and the name of ‘Vera,’ all these Charles will accept gladly if
he can have with them the simple life of Ocracoke’s fisher folk. “
-- Several other newspapers eventually picked up the story.
The following account appeared in the The
Wapanucka Press [Wapanucka, Okla.], Friday, June 9, 1922; The North Platte [Neb.] Semi-Weekly Tribune, June 16, 1922; The South Jersey Republican [Hammonton,
N.J.], Saturday, June 17, 1922; and The
Clyde [NY] Herald, June 21, 1922:
“Raised as Girl, Boy Runs Away
“Mother Wanted a Girl and Concealed Sex from ‘Vera’ for
“Ocracoke, N.C. – Charles Williams of Ocracoke, who lived
the first twenty-one years of his life as a girl on isolated Ocracoke Island
and then fled from his first contact with the cruel, cold world, has
disappeared again. It is thought he may have become a sailor and gone on a
“When Charles was born his mother was so disappointed that
he was not a girl she decided to bring him up as one. So under the name of Vera
he grew up in the little community of fishermen which constitutes Ocracoke
“He was a popular ‘girl.’ He learned the domestic arts; he
even had sweethearts, for he is pretty.
“Then about a year ago, shortly after his twenty-first
birthday, it was made known that he was a man. He wrote to a young man in New
York, a former resident of Ocracoke, to whom he was almost engaged, that he
could not continue their correspondence because it wasn’t ‘manly.’ The next
step was to provide himself with man’s attire and go out into the world.
“In Baltimore he got a job, but soon he became homesick and
in a few months went home. He followed the only occupation possible on Ocracoke
and became a fisherman, but in many other ways his home island was changed. His
friends, who had so long regarded him as a girl, could not treat him as they
had before, and Williams became restless
‘He recently told friends he would like to become a sailor and see the world,
and they believe he has done so. But they say they like him and want him to
come home again."