Lance Geiger’s idea of a good time is doing research on something that happened 50 or 100 years ago and sharing what he’s learned with thousands of complete strangers.
The crazy part is, he’s making a living at it.
Geiger, 54, of O’Fallon, has a YouTube channel called “The History Guy.” Several days a week, he posts 10- to 15-minute videos of himself telling stories about people, places or events that have been largely forgotten in modern society but that he finds fascinating.
Take, for example, Douglas Corrigan. The Texas aviator wasn’t as famous as Charles Lindbergh or Amelia Earhart, but he was one of a handful of people who made non-stop, solo flights across the Atlantic Ocean in the 1920s and ‘30s. He traveled from Brooklyn, New York, to Dublin, Ireland, in 1938.
“He had a unique claim to fame because he was supposed to land in California,” Geiger says with a grin in his April 5 video. “‘Wrong Way’ Corrigan deserves to be remembered.”
Other recent videos include “Pearl Divers and the Salvage of the Mary Rose,” “Napolean’s Invasion of Malta,” “The Manhattan Well Murder Trial,” “P.T. Barnum’s White Elephant, Toung Taloung,” “Theodore Roosevelt’s Animals,” and “In his Brother’s Shadow: Theo Van Gogh.”
Geiger’s philosophy in a nutshell is that history doesn’t have to be boring. Apparently, plenty of folks agree with him.
“The History Guy” has accumulated 36 million views on about 350 videos in the past two years. More than 350,000 people from all over the world subscribe to the YouTube channel, meaning they’ve signed up to receive notifications when something new gets posted.
Subscriptions are free, but video producers earn money from YouTube every time someone watches one of the advertisements that precede each episode. Channels also can get “sponsors,” who pay to pitch their businesses or products.
“Sponsorships are the Holy Grail for YouTubers because then you’re not beholden to YouTube for ad money,” said Heidi Wiechert, Lance’s wife, who helps with the business.
“Patrons” are even better. They contribute money just to support what they consider worthwhile pursuits, expecting nothing in return. “The History Guy” has more than 1,300 of them.
Yes, he wears pants
On a recent weekday, Geiger was sitting on the couch in a two-story home he shares with Wiechert, 37, a former BND reporter and one-time reference librarian at O’Fallon Public Library. Their 12-year-old daughter, Willow, was busy doing homework at the dining-room table.
Geiger wore his trademark bow tie, suit coat and black glasses, which give him a professorial look. But he tries not to take himself too seriously.
“The most common question I get is, ‘Do you wear pants?’ And the answer is, ‘yes,’” he said. “I will never do an episode in my underwear.”
Geiger tapes “The History Guy” in a small basement office, which is crowded with his collection of about 100 vintage hats, mostly military, as well as model ships and other artifacts. He invested in a high-quality camera, light stand and two umbrella reflectors to make videos look as professional as possible.
Geiger worked alone until September, when he invited his wife to take a risk, quit her job and join the business. She helps him do research and write scripts and occasionally plays guest host under the name “Mrs. History Guy.”
“People never know when I’m going to be on or what my hair color will be,” she said, referring to her hobby of experimenting with fun, sometimes bold and unconventional shades.
The family’s cats, Pookie, Lucky and Demi, sometimes sneak into the office for a little videobombing, or they can be heard meowing in the background. But Willow, a sixth grader at Carriel Junior High School, steers clear of the camera.
“I don’t help with the business. I just spend the money,” she’s fond of saying.
The success of the YouTube channel is a source of great pride for Geiger’s mother, Betty Jo Gigot, 80, of Phoenix, who owns a magazine for people in the cattle industry.
“It is the perfect example of entrepreneurship in this country,” she said. “They built a business out of absolutely nothing, and it’s truly loved by the people who watch him.”
‘Eric Larson of YouTube’
“The History Guy” gets an average of 1,000 new subscribers a day, causing Geiger and Wiechert to shake their heads in disbelief. They remember the channel’s early days, when they popped open a bottle of champagne each time the total went up by 100.
One of their biggest fans is John Lehman, 59, of rural Breese, a history buff who works at a Prairie Farms ice-cream plant. He subscribed about a year ago, before hearing Geiger speak at McKendree University in Lebanon and discovering that both live in the metro-east.
“I cannot believe he’s not on a national network,” Lehman said last week. “I can’t believe that somebody has not picked him up. ... He covers it all, and he covers it well. He is the Eric Larson of YouTube.”
Larson is an American journalist and author of nonfiction books, including “The Devil in the White City” about the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.
Another fan of “The History Guy” is David Sefton, 60, an accountant in Austin, Texas. About a year ago, he was doing internet research on North American animal extinctions when he stumbled onto Geiger’s video about “The Mystery of Washington’s Eagle.”
The bird was identified by legendary ornithologist and illustrator John J. Audubon in the 1800s, but it later disappeared, leading some to wonder if Audubon made a mistake. Sefton describes the video as “scholarly but entertaining and understandable, not dry like history can be.”
Sefton subscribed to the YouTube channel and binge-watched about 50 more videos before becoming a patron. He also flew Geiger to Austin to speak at a banquet for a local hunting club.
The topic was “The Great Royal Buffalo Hunt of 1872,” which Geiger holds up as an early example of Russian-American diplomacy.
“He’s able to find these small, almost-forgotten events and show how many of them affected the entire world’s development,” Sefton said.
Growing up on Westerns
Geiger grew up in South Dakota and learned to love history as a child, watching old Westerns, war movies and documentaries with his father, George Geiger. His mother’s side of the family also had a strong tradition of storytelling.
Young Lance became a walking encyclopedia on the U.S.S. South Dakota, a 1940s battleship. He seemed to have a knack for research.
“Once he gets it in his mind that he wants to know about something, he traces it until he knows every gnat’s detail,” Gigot said. “He wants to know everything there is to know about it.”
Geiger earned a college degree in history while working summers at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota and Fort Necessity National Battlefield in Pennsylvania. Then he attended graduate school for speech communication and began teaching at Northern Arizona University.
Geiger later switched to corporate training and worked at AutoNation, Merrill Lynch and Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield.
Geiger and Wiechert, an O’Fallon native, have been married 13 years. They met in 2001 through EverQuest, a fantasy-themed online role-playing game. Geiger also has two sons, Joshua, 27, and Jacob, 25, in Wyoming from a previous marriage, and Joshua helps with “The History Guy.”
Geiger had moved to Anthem’s sales division by the time he was laid off in 2015. He expected to be called back before his severance money ran out, but that didn’t happen, so he started looking for other jobs. In January of 2017, he announced to his wife that he was going to create a YouTube channel.
“I didn’t say anything out loud, but I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Wiechert said. “I decided I was going to support him on whatever he did.”
Geiger posted his first video the following March. The topic came from one of his military hats, a World War II officer’s hat from Clearfield Utah Naval Suppy Depot. He wondered how a naval base ended up on the Western plains, nearly 800 miles from an ocean.
“The reason it was built so far inland is because, that way, the Japanese couldn’t bomb it,” he said. “It was a really interesting story.”
Five minutes wasn’t enough
Geiger originally named the YouTube channel “The History Guy: Five Minutes of History” with plans to limit videos to about five minutes each. But he found most topics needed more time, so he changed it to “The History Guy: History Deserves to be Remembered.”
Geiger and Wiechert consult books, newspapers, periodicals, scholarly articles and a variety of online data bases as part of their research. Most videos include photos, maps and other documents.
“I consider myself a hobby historian and a storyteller,” Geiger said. “I don’t suggest people cite me as a resource for research papers. We’re not providing footnotes. We’re mostly trying to be entertaining.”
Geiger’s most-watched video to date was posted in April of 2017 and recently surpassed 650,000 views. It covers “The Battle of Saragarhi,” fought in 1897 by the British Indian Empire and Afghan tribesmen in what now is Pakistan.
“The reason it’s so popular is that somebody in India made a movie about it recently, and all of a sudden, this 2-year-old video gets a spike in number of views,” Geiger said.
Another blockbuster on “The History Guy” channel tells the story of the “Los Angeles Chinese Massacre of 1871.” It has accumulated more than 340,000 views since being posted in September, giving Wiechert her first big success as a scriptwriter.
It’s hard for the couple to pick a favorite video but, when pressed, they go with “Through the Eyes of Timothy: The Last Survivor of the Crimean War,” posted in April of 2017.
Timothy was a a female tortoise originally believed to be male. She was born about 1844, making her 160 years old at the time of her 2004 death in the United Kingdom. She even got kidnapped by pirates along the way.
“His channel initially focused on stories about military history and wars and airplanes and other things that men like,” Wiechert said. “But as a woman, I loved (the ‘Timothy’) episode because I thought it had more heart to it.”
“The History Guy” has a comment section on its YouTube site, as well as a Facebook page with nearly 5,000 followers. Geiger and Wiechert try to interact with viewers as much as possible. Most are nice and friendly. A few are brutally honest or just plain mean.
It’s taken time for the couple to adjust to the public spotlight, but they’re grateful for the opportunity to work at jobs that are so interesting and fun.
“What I’ve learned being on this extraordinary ride with Lance is, if you have something that interests you, and you have more knowledge about it than most other people, YouTube is a platform where you can share it with the world,” Wiechert said. “You don’t have to have a fancy studio or a fancy camera or fancy clothes. ... Anyone can do this.”