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Buck Whaley: The Irish adventurer's feverish Christmas

In December 1788, Whaley was struck by a malignant fever.

David Ryan Author

This is an extract from Buck Whaley: Ireland’s Greatest Adventurer by David Ryan, which is published by Merrion Press. Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley was an Irish adventurer who squandered the modern-day equivalent of €100 million over the course of a few years in the late 1700s. 

WE ALL KNOW what it’s like to go down with the flu or a fever over Christmas. Somehow the body often seems vulnerable during the festive season.

In December 1788, an Irish adventurer called Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley was laid low in Constantinople (Istanbul) by a malignant fever that very nearly put paid to him.

Had it done so, it would have stopped him winning one of the most famous wagers in history.

Earlier that year Whaley had laid a bet that he would travel to Jerusalem and back within a year.

At the time such a trip was an extremely hazardous proposition and there was £15,000 – equivalent to several million euro today – riding on the outcome.

Whaley set out in September 1788 and by the time he reached Constantinople three months later, he had faced many dangers.

During his voyage across the Mediterranean his ship was chased by a hostile fleet and almost wrecked by a hurricane.

Following this he endured a rain-soaked and difficult journey across northern Turkey.

However, the warm welcome Whaley and his fellow traveller Hugh Moore received from the expatriate community in Constantinople “made us soon forget all our sufferings from fatigue and hunger during our journey”.

After Whaley had taken in the sights of the city, his thoughts turned to festive entertainment.

On St Stephen’s Day he and Moore decided to join some British officers to go hunting in Belgrat Ormanlý, a forest located around twelve miles north of the city. 

The party set out expecting a good day’s sport, “as the country, we were informed abounded with game of every kind”.

But there had been a heavy snowfall and the hunters found that “almost all the game had retired as we supposed, to some more hospitable spot, and we saw little else than some straggling chevreuil [roe deer] which were very wild”.

Frustrated, they called off the expedition and returned to Constantinople. Yet the festive hunting trip would have worse consequences than simple disappointment.

Late that night, Whaley became feverish and delirious.

The arduous conditions in Belgrat Ormanlý – “the intense cold of the morning and the heat of the meridian sun, together with the fatigue of walking” – seem to have brought on the illness.

Whaley had eaten snow to quench his thirst but this had only made him more parched, as his body expended water and energy to melt the frozen liquid.

Whatever his exertions in the forest, they were nothing compared to the dangerous treatment he received on his sickbed.

On discovering that his friend was ill, Moore sent for a British physician who decided to administer James’s Powder, a fever medicine that was popular among the upper classes.

According to an advertisement, it would cure “fevers of all kinds, rheumatisms, the small pox, measles, pleurisies, St. Anthony’s Fire, violent colds, sore throats, bilious and gouty complaints… At the first stage of a fever, whether inflammatory or putrid, the Powder is the best medicine that can be exhibited; and, if continued every six hours, will generally cure in a short time”. 

However, James’s Powder was actually a quack remedy containing mercury, lime and other toxic substances.

The writer Oliver Goldsmith had died in 1774 after consuming large quantities of the stuff. Unsurprisingly, after several doses Whaley’s condition worsened.

On New Year’s Day he rallied briefly and although still weak he managed to rise from his bed.

Always fond of a party, Whaley decided to attend a ball at the French ambassador’s palace, decked out in the Arab clothes he planned to wear in the Holy Land.

The getup attracted plenty of attention and he found that “my Jerusalem expedition was the general topic of conversation”.

Charmed by the attentions of the ladies, he danced “in spite of my Arabian dress… [and] my figure and movements were truly awkward and ridiculous”.

But the exertion took its toll and by the morning Whaley’s fever had returned, accompanied by “the most alarming symptoms of a putrid nature”.

Over the next few days his condition deteriorated rapidly and by 5 January Moore was ready “to perform the most distressing and truly painful office of friendship, which was to assist in the final arrangement of his worldly affairs”.

And yet, in this dark hour Whaley had a hidden reservoir of strength to call upon: his extraordinary will to succeed.

Obsessed with winning his bet, he somehow pulled through. This illness would be the worst of the perils he faced on his expedition and he would not recover properly for months.

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But towards the end of January he was able to resume his journey and over a month later he finally reached Jerusalem. In July Whaley returned in triumph to Dublin, having won his great wager.

His success made him a celebrity and he rubbed shoulders with everyone from the Prince of Wales to the Duchess of Devonshire. But this was as good as it got for the man dubbed “the Jerusalem Pilgrim”.

In the years that followed he suffered catastrophic gambling losses and fled to the continent, where he tried to climb Mont Blanc and concocted a half-baked scheme to rescue the French king from the guillotine.

By 1797, he had squandered an astronomical £400,000 (tens of millions in today’s money) “without ever purchasing or acquiring contentment or one hour’s true happiness”.

Ultimately, Whaley’s brush with death in Constantinople turned out to be a harbinger of his demise.

In November 1800, while undertaking another journey, he found himself failing and was brought to an inn at Knutsford, Cheshire, where he died aged just thirty-four. The cause of death was fever.

David Ryan was born in Galway and holds an MA degree in history from NUI Galway. He currently works as a television producer and scriptwriter, specialising in history and archaeology documentaries.


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David Ryan  / Author

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