Wednesday, March 24, 2010

William Whitlow, Musician, 44th Regiment of Foot

Among the soldiers serving in the 44th Regiment of Foot in late 1779 was a private named William Whitlow. He was in many ways typical of career soldiers in the British army: he had been in the regiment for at least 14 years (and may in fact have been born in the regiment); he was married, his wife was with him in the regiment, and they had a child; he played a musical instrument, and performed in the regimental band in addition to his usual duties as a private soldier. Unfortunately we do not know his age, but evidence suggests that he was younger than 25. He may have started his career both in the army and in music by playing the fife at a young age.

Whitlow was described as 'a Mild, discreet and Well behaved Man'; as for his marriage, 'there was not a happier Couple in the Regiment.' Usually. But William Whitlow had a problem. 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. It was well known in the regiment that excessive drinking deprived Whitlow of his senses. The commander of his company had more than once confined him when he was drunk 'to prevent him doing his Wife & Child an Injury.'

During the time the 44th Regiment was in America, beginning in 1775, these bouts of insanity had gotten worse. The serjeant who was master of the 44th's band related that 'when they went to practice, he has frequently known the Prisoner get up, flourish his Instrument about, and indeed would not obey any Order that was given him; and in fact he has always been obliged in those Cases to let him have his Frenzy out.' When out of his sense he would express delusions that his wife was cheating on him with other soldiers, and wish her away from him. Soldiers who had known Whitlow all his life discerned that these events could occur when he was completely sober, although others might attribute the behavior to intoxication. No one had any reason to suspect anything of his wife.

In September 1779 Whitlow, his wife and other of the 44th Regiment were on a transport ship that was being tossed by heavy seas. Perhaps it was the erratic motion of the ship, or perhaps it was just the progression of his malady, but William Whitlow was exhibiting strange behavior. 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.

The next morning other soldiers observed Whitlow and his wife sitting on a berth at breakfast. They could not hear their conversation, but observed Whitlow repeatedly hold his fist to her face between draughts from a quart mug. Whitlow got up and asked another soldier 'if it was true what they said of him?' The soldier responded that he did not know what was said of him. Whitlow considered this for a few seconds then returned muttering to his wife. Moments later, Whitlow picked up a rusty bayonet from the deck and thrust it towards his wife. She cried out and a soldier ran up and grabbed the bayonet, but not before it had penetrated about an inch and a half into her upper chest. Soldiers wrenched the bayonet from him, wrestled him to the deck and tied him up. Whitlow seemed crazy like madman and ranted that he meant to kill his wife, his child and then himself. He continued to rave as he was carried up to the main deck and was confined.

Soldiers attended to Mrs. Whitlow, and the master of the transport advised putting lint on the wound. As she recovered she frequently said that she forgave her husband, telling one of the band members that she believed he wounded her because he had too much love for her. The wound became putrid; two days after the stabbing the master of the transport examined it and found it full of vermin. He washed it with rum and applied some medication. After two more dressings and two more days it appeared to have healed, but she still complained of pain.

The storm continued to rage, and so did William Whitlow. He managed to escape confinement and jumped overboard; in spite of the weather, sailors managed to recover him. He said that the rest of the regiment had gone to another ship and he was determined to go there too, which was the reason for his leap into the sea. The masts of the ship were carried away by the storm. The heaving of the ship left Mrs. Whitlow in a weak state, and although her would appeared healed she suddenly developed a yellow pale. Within a week after receiving the wound, she died.

The following month William Whitlow was put on trial in New York for the murder of his wife. Witnesses related the various vignettes described here, from events of his childhood to the details and aftermath of the stabbing. Whitlow remembered none of it. Soldiers who'd known him their entire lives testified to his bouts of insanity, while others less intimate described his insensibility when intoxicated. He had no recollection of the stabbing, of having jumped overboard, or of having been tied down for several days afterward. He made a final declaration to the court that he never had the least reason to be jealous of his wife, and was convinced that she was always faithful to him.

The court found him guilty of causing his wife's death, but acquitted him of murder because 'he was in a State of Lunacy at the time.' He was not punished.

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