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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Monday, March 29, 2010

Pvt. William Whitlow’s Frenzy

Last week Don Hagist’s British Soldiers, American Revolution blog featured the story of William Whitlow, a private and musician in His Majesty’s 44th Regiment of Foot who suffered episodes of insanity. Specifically, “When out of his sense he would express delusions that his wife was cheating on him with other soldiers.”

Don wrote of Whitlow:

As a child he had fallen from a wall in Kinsale, Ireland, and hit his head. This caused him pain sometimes, and worse than that it subjected him to occasional bouts of irrational behavior. The problem was compounded by drinking.
I’m not convinced the fall had much to do with Whitlow’s behavior, though it’s the sort of detail his contemporaries could see as significant. We humans like to find explanations for things we can’t understand, and a blow on the head provides a ready explanation.

As for alcohol, “Soldiers who had known Whitlow all his life discerned that these events could occur when he was completely sober” as well as when he’d been drinking. Liquor could have been Whitlow’s attempt to escape his mental problems—though it could easily have made his behavior worse.

Today I suspect psychiatrists would view Whitlow as exhibiting paranoid delusions, and seek the source in brain chemistry and genetics rather than childhood injuries. It appears that his symptoms began in early adulthood, which might be another diagnostic clue. The army put up with his behavior for years during the first half of the Revolutionary War.

In September 1779 the Whitlows and the 44th were on a transport ship, and William had one of his breakdowns:
He was seen running around the deck like a madman. On one occasion he left his wife and child in their berth, went to a group of sailors in steerage and accused them of having his wife with them. For nearly an hour he ranted and no one could convince him that his family was right where he’d left them. When he did return to his wife he claimed that he knew where she’d been and told her that he had been “talking to three little Devils upon Deck.”

Soon after a non-commissioned officer found him beating his wife; when asked why, he replied “Why should not I beat her, when I this Moment saw her in the Steerage with a Sailor on top of her.” One night when he was standing sentry at a hatchway on the ship, he approached the serjeant-major and insisted that he had been with his wife and had her hidden behind him in his watchcoat.
This story doesn’t end well, alas. Whitlow killed his wife (with help from the failings of eighteenth-century medicine), and tried to kill himself. His contemporaries judged him to be legally insane.

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