J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

“His looks were as mad as could be”

Yesterday I pointed to Don Hagist’s report on British Army private William Whitwell, who went insane on a military transport ship. Here’s a parallel case of a British Marines officer which Lee Bienkowski, author of Admirals in the Age of Nelson, unearthed in the National Archives of Britain and shared with the Revlist back in 2002.

On 21 Sept 1776, the navy tried Lt. Neil Wanchope to determine if he was lunatic. A lieutenant on the Thetis named (like the American general) William Heath testified:

His conduct has been insulting and improper. . . . This was after a very severe fit of madness when we were obliged to have four people hold him in his bed. I was frequently obliged to go to quiet him. He was knocking against the 1st Lieutenant’s cabin desiring him to leave off electrifying and murdering him. He regarded me more than anybody. He never insulted me till lately.

He grew better in about three weeks and returned to our mess. We used to send him his victuals when he was mad, and made the servant taste it first, for fear we should poison him. He did not eat at first for some time for that suspicion. At St. Helena he got better and conversed; he talked sensibly.

About the 21st of June at St. Helena at breakfast we sent to let him know breakfast was ready. He came with a bottle of porter in one hand and a tumbler in the other. Somebody just put his cup over to him. He said, “Gentlemen, I’ll have none of your tea.” His looks were as mad as could be. He said we had electrified him under cover and hurt his constitution, and he would take a turn with us all round one by one. He loaded his pistol that night.
Wanchope eventually challenged another lieutenant to a duel and then stabbed him superficially in the belly. He was found insane and discharged.

Wanchope’s rank suggests that he was a young man, and his paranoia indicates he might have been suffering from schizophrenia, which often becomes apparent in youth. I was particularly struck by how his anxieties focused on being “electrified,” the latest technology of the day, the way some people today worry about computer chips implanted inside them.

At last spring’s Organization of American Historians meeting, Dr. Nassir Ghaemi observed that schizophrenia (along with bipolar/manic-depressive disorder) is found at a fairly steady rate across all societies. In other words, Wanchope and Whitwell might or might not have suffered from schizophrenia, but we should assume that about one in a hundred men of their time did.


JT in Dedham said...

Classic symptoms of lead poisoning. These guys were polluted by their own dinnerware. Go do forensics on the remains - the lead is still there.

J. L. Bell said...

But why would these men’s behavior have stood out from that of all the other men who were using the same dinnerware? Why wasn’t the whole population showing the same symptoms, getting worse as people aged?

The same questions arise when people posit environmental exposure to arsenic as a cause of some historic figures’ illnesses or deaths. Arsenic was found in many products, but that means many people who didn’t exhibit the same problems were equally exposed.

Chaucerian said...

And I don't think symptoms of lead poisoning wax and wane, while those of schizophrenia do. The situation you describe sounds very trying for everyone.