Almon L. Wheeler

Sharon

Born in Sharon, Connecticut, Almon L. Wheeler served a private in the 29th Connecticut Infantry, enlisting on November 21, 1863. The 29th Connecticut was one of two African American regiments raised in that state. Unfortunately, Wheeler couldn’t complete his term enlistment as he was wounded in the left hand at the Battle of Kell House on October 27, 1864. He was first reported missing, likely as he was brought from field hospital to field hospital near the battlefield. Soon, however, he was at the larger Union hospital at Fortress Monroe, at the tip of the Virginia peninsula. Wheeler remained in the hospital until August 1865, evidence of the seriousness of his wound. Still, Wheeler returned to military service, joining the 29th Connecticut in Brownsville, Texas. There the entire regiment was mustered out of service in November 1865.

 

Wheeler moved back to Connecticut, settling in the town of Salisbury. Wheeler married Adaline A. Berry on November 29th, 1867, two years after his discharge. While detailed records for this time period are scarce, based on how they filed their documentation, Wheeler was roughly 21 and Berry was roughly 18 at the time of their marriage. While Wheeler fought to preserve the Union, his personal union with his wife did not last. At some point prior to 1889 (no records of the exact date exist) Wheeler left Adaline Berry, foregoing a divorce, and moved to Chicago, Illinois. There, Wheeler found employment as a janitor at a local post office, was active in the Grand Army of the Republic, and on September 17th, 1889, he married his second wife, Mary Duncan, while concealing his other marriage.  Mary Duncan Wheeler was devoted to community service, especially through the Ladies’ Corps. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chicago in 1890

 

This particular marriage was also short-lived as fraught with evident marital problems, the couple came to a dramatic breaking point. An article in The Chicago Conservator newspaper from July 18th, 1891 described the events led up to this moment,

      “Mrs. Wheeler’s sister came in the house. Mrs. Wheeler noticed that her husband’s regard for her sister was          suspiciously strong, and was shocked on Monday night to hear with her own ears an intrigue planned by her        husband under her own roof. That night she broke up the plan, and with womanly dignity and just                        resentment exposed the outrage, and called both parties to account”.

Both this article and a later account from Mary confirm that the two had marital issues for the duration of their union, but Almon’s affair with Mary’s sister, Agnes Bushon, was the final straw. After being caught in the affair, Agnes attempted suicide by poison. This failed but resulted in subsequent hospitalization. Almon Wheeler, however, became committed to a more dramatic plan: to murder his wife and then killed himself. Allegedly, Wheeler put his affairs into order the next day and wrote to his lawyer asking him to see that Wheeler’s mother, Mrs. M. S. Davis, become the beneficiary of his pension. 

Mary claimed that the next day, July 16th, Almon told her “I am going to surprise you and the world today.” He then quietly went about writing letters (including the one to his lawyer mentioned above), then called Mary into his room, as he “had something to show her.” Almon Wheeler pulled out a revolver and fired at Mary’s face; she threw up her arm and was hit in the fleshy part of it. Almon’s second shot missed, and she escaped their house and alerted the local authorities. Wheeler then turned the gun on himself and ended his life. While his age was uncertain, Mary claimed that he died at the age of 45, corroborating the records of his marriage that suggest that Wheeler was born in 1846.

The Chicago Conservator, July 18, 1891. The headline in the upper left reads, "Dearborn Street Tragedy."

In an interesting turn of events, following his death, both of Almon Wheeler’s wives attempted to apply for his pension. Adaline Berry had a legitimate claim to Wheeler’s pension as he had never formally divorced her. Mary Duncan, on the other hand, faced significant obstacles in court in proving the legitimacy of their marriage and her ignorance of his previous marriage. Under oath, Mary claimed that since she was unaware of her late husband’s other wife, she was, in fact,  his legal widow and entitled to his pension. However, some in the courtroom believed that Mary attempted to gain sympathy from the court by faking a case of diphtheria. This strange case could not end without another twist, however. Ultimately, Mary Duncan was denied even a share of Wheeler’s pension, “on the grounds of adulterous cohabitation” when she confessed to living with two men, Barney, and Jeremiah Moore, following Almon’s death. 

 

Almon Wheeler’s story sheds light on what historian Eric T. Dean has called the “severe persistent psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, and flashbacks” suffered by Civil War soldiers. WhilePost-Traumatic Stress Disorder is most closely identified with veterans of the Vietnam War, Civil War soldiers returning also demonstrated behaviors such as suicide, alcoholism, and domestic violence. Dean, in his book, Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War, writes “Although concerned with the welfare of family and, at times, yearning to be with loved ones at home, the attitude of the Civil War soldier was also marked by a curious transformation in which he began to look at life at home as irrelevant or boring, and longed to be or remain at the front with his unit.” And there was no telling who would be affected by wartime experiences, how, or when. As The Conservator wrote in reporting the terrible events of July 1891, “The news, when first given, could scarcely be believed, as it was so unlike the parties.” For many veterans, including possibly Almon L. Wheeler, war-time experiences could not simply be left behind. They continued to haunt not only those who had lived through them, but often their family and friends as well.