If you have a blog or a website you will know what hours of fun can be had from looking at the ‘search statistics’. These are the terms that people enter into a search engine that then bring them to your site. I like the serendipitous nature of it all. Some search terms are quite bizarre but I do like the strange but small degrees of separation that link sites around the interweb. But little did I know that when I looked at the statistics a few months ago where they would lead me or what would be revealed. It shocked me I can tell you, which is one of the reasons it’s taken me a little while to write about it.
One of my blog posts that gets quite a lot of hits is about a visit I made to Chatham Dockyard. Most of the hits seem to be generated by the bit about a Stanley Spencer exhibition. But I also wrote about the rope-making factory that they have there. In the piece I happen to mention the Haverhill Rope Works, a business that my great-grandfather William Whiting had a part share in. It was a search for ‘Haverhill rope works’ that lead me to discover quite a shocking fact. There can’t be that many people that knew about or would want to search for the Haverhill rope works. My curiosity was such that I had to find out what else came up apart from blog when I searched. I was not surprised to find the Museum of East Anglian Life came near the top for they actually have a rope making machine from the Haverhill factory. My blog was listed at that all important Nº7 spot. Just above was an entry entitled ‘William Whiting 1864-1941 - Haverhill Whitings’. I was intrigued. I had to visit this site. The site in question turns out to be a lovingly researched reference by Simon Hutchison who is like me descended from Haverhill Whitings. There on the page in question was mention of my great-grandfather, along with his wife and children, one of whom was my grandmother and several other great aunts and uncles that I had known.
It was then that I noticed Simon's mention of Moses Whiting “William was the eldest child of Moses and Emma Whiting. He was born in 1864 in Burton End, Haverhill, where he appears on the 1871 census. By this time he has two sisters, Emma and Alice, and a brother, John. Another brother, James, was born in 1874 but two years later tragedy befell him when he was murdered by his father.” In a sad and cruel irony great-great-grandfather had broken one of the commandments allegedly revealed by his namesake. That commandment was ‘thou shalt not kill’. It would seem that my great-great-grandfather had committed murder by taking the life of his own son, and by the newspaper account that Simon Hutchison references, it is a sad, sorry and macabre tale.
The newspaper report about the incident and in particular the coroner’s hearing suggests that there was a history of madness within the family: “The prisoner’s awful affliction is certainly hereditary, for a long list of attempted suicides, and, in fact, suicides which have been committed by various members of the prisoner’s family are mentioned.” The report makes reference to Moses in the court saying that he did not take the slightest interest in the proceedings and spent most of the time shuffling back and forth on his seat. Later on in the hearing there is reference made to Moses possibly suffering from Delirium Tremens although it was stated he had not taken drink for three or four weeks. There is also reference to the brother of Moses being in an asylum. Despite the jury’s verdict of “Wilful Murder” it is clear that this poor soul, my great-great-grandfather was not in charge of his mental faculties when he took the life of his two year old son.
Thankfully Moses did not face that most abhorrent of punishments, the death penalty, but instead the poor soul spent the rest of his days in Broadmoor. I have no doubt that Broadmoor was no picnic and that he suffered under a regime that probably neither recognised what his condition was nor was able to treat it particularly effectively.
As I pointed out in a previous post my father has HD. Huntington’s Disease is a particularly cruel disease that attacks parts of the brain, it affects different people in different ways, generating a number of symptoms including aggressive behaviour, involuntary movements and a whole host of others that are equally unpleasant. My grandmother Elsie, the granddaughter of Moses also had HD. HD is hereditary. Unfortunately I don’t know if my great-grandfather William had it, and it is possible that grandma received her faulty gene from her mother, but William selling his share of the Haverhill Rope Works at an early-ish age and moving to a different town suggests that he may we have had the disease even if it was never identified as such. My mother has told me that when my grandmother apparently first showed signs of HD relatives had said it as ‘nerves’ and suggested there was a history of ‘nerves’ in the family. Whilst I can prove nothing, I suspect it was grandma’s father William that had HD, and that it had been passed down from his father Moses. Every mention of Moses in the newspaper report points to behaviour consistent with Huntington’s disease. He was probably never diagnosed at the time with it because the first thorough description of the disease, by George Huntington, was only published four years before in 1872, and in the USA. There is no cure for HD. The only treatment is a range of drugs and dietary aids to help subdue the effects of its onset. Treatments that poor Moses would never had a chance to receive.
It doesn’t bear thinking about how tormented, ridiculed and abused a number of my ancestors must have been. They must have suffered terribly at the hands of people who I’m sure were quick to look at superstition for answers to why they displayed the symptoms that they did. No wonder it is alleged that a number attempted and some committed suicide. It could be that I have this awful condition, and whilst there still is no cure I am thankful that the treatment I will receive if I do will be so much more humane than the punishment presumably metered out on many a poor Whiting in years gone by.
I will never know if my grandmother knew about the murder in the family but I’m pretty sure my father doesn’t. Unfortunately in his present condition I don’t feel able to discuss it with him. My mother certainly didn’t know about it and she is confident that if father did know about he would have shared it with her whilst they were married. I am thankful to Simon Hutchison’s painstaking and comprehensive research into the Whiting family history for bringing this to light.