William Whitlow’s Wife: Did he Love Her Too Much?

A military band provides martial music in a 1798 satirical scene. (Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection)

William Whitlow loved his wife, and she loved him. Others knew it too; fellow soldiers in the 44th Regiment of Foot, in which Whitlow was a private soldier, said that “there was not a happier Couple in the Regiment.” By September of 1779 they had a child together, and all must have seemed right in their world even though they were far from their English home, engaged in a war against rebelling North American colonies.

Whitlow was well known in the regiment, having been a part of it for at least fourteen years. Some veterans in the 44th had known him since he was a child, over twenty years, suggesting that he was the son of another soldier. In addition to his duties as a musket-carrying private soldier, Whitlow played an instrument in the regiment’s band of music. Many British regiments had bands during this era, in addition to the drummers and fifers that were part of every regiment. Because bands were not part of the official regimental establishment authorized by the government, the musicians usually were also common soldiers. In some cases they were professional musicians who found a home in the army, in other cases they were professional soldiers who had found time to master a musical instrument. Whitlow was probably the latter; having been brought up in the army he’d spent his life surrounded by martial music and the frolicsome tunes that entertained soldiers during idle hours. He may have learned the fife and other instruments at a young age.

The 44th Regiment had been ordered to America in early 1775 before open warfare broke out in the colonies. When they embarked in Cork, Ireland in early May, news of war’s onset had still not reached them. Only when their transports arrived off the American coast in June did they learn of the deteriorating situation. A British warship diverted them from their original destination, New York, and sent them instead to Boston. They landed just days after the battle of Bunker Hill to join an army besieged by rebels and beleaguered by wounded men. The regiment weathered the siege until Boston was evacuated in March 1776, endured a cramped voyage to Halifax where they spent two months as the army reorganized and prepared for a new campaign, sailed again to Staten Island, then participated in the fast-paced campaign that seized New York City and pushed the American army across New Jersey. The 44th was on the Philadelphia campaign in the fall of 1777, including the night action at Paoli that surprised and routed a Continental brigade. After wintering in Philadelphia, they marched across New Jersey and into British-held New York once again. Life for William Whitlow and his wife was transient, shifting between barracks, encampments, transport ships, and other temporary lodgings. Mrs. Whitlow probably worked for the army as a laundress or hospital nurse. Her husband served in the ranks, and probably performed with the band when called to entertain at social events while the regiment was in garrison.

Although the couple was unscathed by the dangers of campaign life and warfare, William Whitlow struggled with another problem. Normally “a Mild, discreet and Well behaved Man,” he was subject to occasional fits characterized by aggressive, irrational behavior. As a child he had fallen from a wall in Kinsale, Ireland, and hit his head. The old injury caused him pain sometimes, and was assumed to be the cause of his periods of derangement. Soldiers who had known Whitlow all his life discerned that these events could occur when he was completely sober, but others might attribute the behavior to intoxication.  Alcohol certainly did compound the problem; it was well known in the regiment that excessive drinking deprived Whitlow of his senses. Since the 44th Regiment’s arrival in America his bouts of insanity had gotten worse, perhaps inflamed by the difficult and irregular schedule of wartime life. The band master, a sergeant in the regiment, related that “when they went to practice, he has frequently known the Prisoner to 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 senses he would express delusions that his wife was cheating on him with other soldiers, and wish her away from him. The commander of his company had more than once confined him when he was drunk “to prevent him doing his Wife & Child an Injury.”

The 44th Regiment was sent from New York to Quebec in 1779, and the men and their families boarded transports at the beginning of September. The Springfield, carrying a portion of the regiment including the Whitlow family, was tossed by heavy seas. Perhaps it was the erratic motion of the ship that caused a flareup of Whitlow’s malady. Sometimes he “appeared staring and wild,” other times he was seen running around the deck like a madman. One night when he was standing sentry at a hatchway, he saw the band master nearby wearing a watchcoat over his uniform. Whitlow approached and insisted that the sergeant had been with his wife, going so far as to accuse him of having her hidden behind him inside his watchcoat. On another occasion Whitlow appeared in steerage, accusing a group of sailors of having his wife with them. For nearly an hour he ranted and no one could convince him that his family was secure in their berth, 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,” even though everyone knew that she had been in her berth the entire time.

The next morning other soldiers observed the Whitlows sitting on a berth at breakfast. No one heard their conversation, but they observed Whitlow repeatedly hold his fist to her face between draughts from a quart mug. He 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, he picked up a rusty bayonet from the deck and thrust it into her upper chest. She cried out; a soldier ran up and grabbed the bayonet, but not before it had penetrated about an inch and a half into her. Soldiers wrenched the bayonet from Whitlow, wrestled him to the deck and tied him up. He “seemed Crazy and like a 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 confined.

Soldiers attended to Mrs. Whitlow, and the transport’s master advised putting lint on the wound. As she recovered she frequently said that she forgave her husband. She told one of the band members that she believed he wounded her because he had too much love for her. The wound putrefied; two days after the stabbing it was found to be full of vermin. The transport’s master washed it with rum and applied medication, which seemed to help. 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 found a way to escape confinement and jumped overboard; in spite of the weather, sailors managed to retrieve him. He claimed he’d leapt into the sea because the rest of the regiment had gone to another ship and he was determined to go there too. The ship’s masts were carried away by the storm. The heaving of the ship left Mrs. Whitlow in a weak state, and although her wound appeared healed she suddenly developed a yellow pale. Within a week after receiving the wound, she died.

The dismasted transport ended up back in New York by the end of September. The following month William Whitlow was put on trial there for the murder of his wife. Witnesses related the various vignettes described here, from events of his childhood to details of the stabbing. Whitlow remembered none of it. Soldiers who knew him well testified to his bouts of insanity, while others assumed he’d been drunk. 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, and continued to serve in the 44th Regiment for the rest of the war.

Information for this article is from the court martial of William Whitlow, WO 71/90, 397-405, British National Archives

 

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3 Comments

  • After having caused so much trouble, why wouldn’t they have discharged him like in the case of Wilburham Middleton from the LAR who suffered from “frequent Intervals of Lunacys” [HQ NY 7 April 1779] Unless he was a great musician…

    • I wish I knew answers to questions like that.

      We have records of many British general court martial trials that give us all of the witness testimony, and the sentence, but not the deliberations of the members of the courts. From these we see cases that seem very similar in terms of evidence, but with very different verdicts. We don’t know what unwritten factors the court members considered, from knowledge of the accused’s overall character to personal biases among the court members.

      We know from muster rolls exactly when soldiers were discharged, but those records don’t tell us why. Was the soldier injured, inept, old, incorrigible? We can only guess.

      Some of those discharged soldiers applied for pensions. We have the ledger of the pension board that tells which men appeared before the board, how long they’d served, what infirmities they had, and whether or not they were awarded a pension. But we don’t know the reasons why some men were turned down, nor do we know why some men didn’t even choose to apply.

      In so many cases, the data tells us what happened, but not why it happened. We’re always at risk when we try to infer the “why” from the “what.” Just look at the death of John Wilkins the day after the battle of Germantown; it’s so sensible to assume that he died of wounds, but the real story is totally unexpected: https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/01/it-wasnt-billy-the-ram/
      And we still don’t know why he behaved the way he did.

      • Sir, very well said. It is the burden of an historian to want to know why but to never assume why. Educated guesses, while often in the right direction of the answer, can be dangerous. Historians must be careful with opinions! But i still maintain that if he was “flourish[ing] his Instrument about, and…not obey[ing] any Order that was given him” he was the first rebel rock star.

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