It came to my attention last Friday night in the midst of the 300th birthday celebration of the College’s founder and namesake, Ephraim Williams, that there had been a terrible mistake in the celebration. I saw a photo that a friend of mine had taken of Ephraim’s tomb in Thompson Chapel that states that his birth date was February 24, 1714. Why, then, was Alumni Relations so intent on celebrating Ephraim’s birthday this year and on March 7? Had they forgotten about it last year and wanted to cover it up? Had they gotten the date wrong? What was going on here? I took it upon myself to get to the bottom of this conundrum and educate the Williams student body about our “300-year-old” benefactor.
As with all good investigative work, I started with the evidence. The photo clearly showed a birth date of Feb. 24, 1714. Had the photo been doctored, I wondered? The answer was no, as I made a quick trip over to Thompson Chapel to see with my own eyes the “scene of the crime.” My next step was to contact Alumni Relations, who was mysteriously silent and refused to respond to my emails. Channeling my inner Sherlock Holmes, I sat down to have a quick think, and in no time, I had come up with a plan. I took out my computer and went to Wikipedia.
There are actually six Ephraim Williams listed on Wikipedia. One was a 19th century mayor of Flint, Michigan. Another was a Welsh footballer, a third was a mariner from Connecticut, yet another was a ship that sunk off the coast of North Carolina in 1884 and one, nicknamed Eph, was a variety show proprietor. The sixth, obviously, was our own illustrious Colonel, who is actually Ephraim Williams, Jr. Who knew?
Believe it or not, the first line of the Wikipedia article told me everything I needed to know. Ephraim Williams was born on March 7, 1715 and died on September 8, 1755. However, the March date had a caveat. It was a New Style date, meaning it had been adjusted to the Gregorian calendar, in which the start of the calendar year was Jan. 1. Old Style, which is what the Feb. 24, 1714 date conforms to, corresponds to the Julian calendar, which had a different start date.
In Catholic countries, the Gregorian calendar, what we use today, replaced the Julian calendar in 1582. However, Britain and its colonies did not switch until 1752, after Ephraim’s birth but before his death. When they finally did switch, they had to add 11 days. Wednesday, Sept. 2, 1752 at midnight became Thursday, Sept. 14, 1752.
An astute observer might wonder why the year changed from 1714 to 1715. That is actually a difficult question to answer, and with a lot of digging through the Internet, even I couldn’t find an answer. I reached out to the College Archives and received in response a photocopy of an email from 2000 that quoted former college archivist Wyllis Wright as saying, “Because of the fact that England continued to use the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian until 1752, and also until then officially began the new year on March 25 rather than January 1, the birth date of Ephraim Williams was February 24, 1714, old style, or March 7, 1715, new style.” In other words, when England switched to the new calendar, they had to adjust the years on the dates that happened before March 25, adding a year to each one to bring everything into sync.
In conclusion, do not be alarmed that Ephraim Williams’ tomb says he is 301 years and a couple of weeks old, rather than a precise 300. The error is due to the switch of calendars. However, this does beg the question as to why his tomb was engraved with the Old Style date after the New Style Gregorian calendar had already been put into place. Stay tuned for answers.