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Dr. William Chester Minor, American army surgeon, had worked as a surgeon during the American Civil War and his experiences on the battlefield led to paranoid delusions and an unstable mind.

Dr. William Chester Minor, American army surgeon, had worked as a surgeon during the American Civil War and his experiences on the battlefield led to paranoid delusions and an unstable mind.

WILLIAM MINOR (1834 -1920)

Insane Doctor Who Contributed to the Oxford English Dictionary

Compiling the dictionary is no easy task—especially when it’s the Oxford English Dictionary. It wasn’t just definitions that were needed, but sentences as well. A massive project ultimately passed down to editor James Murray, the project was ultimately assembled by an impressive display of 19th-century crowd sourcing. One of the most prolific contributors with tens of thousands of submissions was a man named Dr. William C. Minor. Murray struck up a friendship with the man, and eventually found he was less of a professional, practicing doctor and more of a patient at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, where he’d been living for decades.

The Oxford English Dictionary (called the OED) is a wonderful, many-volume account of the English language. Most dictionaries simply define words, but the OED is a dictionary of usage. It traces words historically through a sequence of quotations. That way we see how each word came to be used the way it is.

Murray began putting the OED together in 1879. Murray’s biggest problem was collecting hundreds of thousands of quotations. He needed many for each word. So he advertised for volunteers to submit quotations. That worked. Soon bundles of them were coming in.

One of Murray’s most dedicated suppliers was a Dr. William C. Minor. Over the years, Minor supplied tens of thousands of quotations. Murray would invite Minor to come up to Oxford and visit him. Minor always found some excuse not to come. Finally, Murray went to visit Minor. Whether he’d learned Minor’s circumstances ahead of time is unclear. It is clear that he was met at the train station and taken to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

Dr William Chester Minor arrived in Crowthorne, Berkshire on 17th April 1872, passing through the forbidding gates of Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum to begin an incarceration that lasted 28 troubled years. The events which had brought him to this nadir spanned many years; his spiralling descent into mental instability was both long and painful.

Born in Ceylon, in 1834, Minor was the son of New England missionaries. His conscience was plagued by “lascivious thoughts” about the local girls – thoughts which he later identified as having set him on the path to insanity – he was sent back to America at 14, where he studied medicine at Yale, before joining the Union Army as a surgeon in 1863.

It is Minor’s experience of war that has most commonly been blamed for triggering his mental illness; for tipping him “over the edge.” A sensitive and courteous man, who painted and played the flute, Minor was exposed to the full ferocity and horror of war at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864 – a battle noted for the horrific casualties it incurred.

As well as the terrible mutilations and other injuries sustained by both sides during the fighting, hundreds of soldiers were burned to death, as the foliage on the battlefield caught alight. It was as though “hell itself had usurped the place of earth,” one soldier wrote later. As army surgeon, Minor was ordered to brand an Irish deserter on the cheek with the letter “D,” and, not surprisingly, this incident seems to have affected him deeply. Paranoid delusions about the Irish were a feature of his later madness. The horrors he saw, especially during the Battle of the Wilderness, are quite likely the trigger of his insanity.

He stayed in the army for a while after the war, but first spent time in a military hospital and then was retired as mentally unfit (from “causes arising in the line of duty”) after exhibiting eccentric and paranoid behaviour. He then went home, but after accusing people of sneaking into his room at night, poisoning him and forcing him to commit carnal acts he disapproved of, he chose to go to England in an attempt to escape these people.

In England, though, he was fearful of the Irish because of what he had done to one of them, and still claimed to be visited and tortured during the night. He slept with a gun under his pillow, and one night, thinking someone had been there, he jumped up, ran out into the street, and shot a man who he thought had been in the room.

George Merritt, a 34 year old stoker at the Lion Brewery, was working an early shift starting at 2am and was walking down Belvedere Road when Minor fired four shots two of which entered his neck. Merritt was declared dead on arrival at St Thomas’ hospital.

The man was just a worker at a local brewery; even Minor admitted he didn’t know him and that it wasn’t anyone who’d been in his room. But witnesses testified to Minor’s paranoid behaviour, even in prison awaiting trial, and he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and put in the Broadmoor Asylum in Crowthorne, Berkshire.
The subsequent trial revealed the full extent of Minor’s insanity for the first time, and the details were widely published in the press; the “Lambeth Tragedy” was international news. Minor was judged not guilty, on grounds of insanity, and was detained in safe custody “until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known”, and so he became Patient Number 742; inmate of England’s newest asylum.

In the early-19th Century, the most dangerous “criminal lunatics” were housed in Bethlehem Hospital in London. However, it became severely overcrowded, and so, following an Act for the Better Provision for the Custody and Care of the Criminal Lunatics (1860), Broadmoor was opened in 1863 – the first institution in England built specifically for the “criminally insane.”
Situated in the village of Crowthorne in Berkshire, the Broadmoor site originally covered 290 acres. The impressive building, set behind forbidding high walls and imposing front gates, was designed by Sir Joshua Jebb, a military engineer who had previously designed two prisons. And Broadmoor was still essentially prison-like; whilst its construction showed recognition of the differing needs of the “criminally insane”, the Victorians were by no means overly enlightened in their treatment of such detainees – Broadmoor’s inmates were always referred to as “lunatics” and “criminals”, never as “patients”.

Merritt’s wife Eliza was left with seven children ranging from 18 years to 12 months to bring up with another on the way. Times were very hard for her and her children but wealthy Minor helped out financially and Eliza even asked to visit Minor in Broadmoor. This highly unusual request was granted and following an experimental visit she started visiting him monthly and even undertook to collect books from various London bookshops for him. These visits did not last very long as Eliza took to drink but seemed to have greatly helped Minor as it gave him a new occupation.
In these less centralised and institutionalised times, however, life inside could be fairly comfortable for those of means, like Minor. (Later on, under a new director, things were less “flexible.”) Well-educated and still receiving his army pension, Minor was housed in Block 2, the “swell block,” and was given two rooms, not one. After pressure from the American Vice-Consul-General his painting materials were returned, as were some of his clothes, but his most extravagant “allowance” was books – Minor acquired so many that he even converted one of his rooms into a library.

It was his passion for books that brought Minor to wide public attention for the second time, in the romanticised story of his meeting with Dr James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.
The idea of a new, all-encompassing “Big Dictionary” of English was first touted in 1857. It was a huge undertaking, and from the start its editors recognised that they would need the help of many volunteers, to search their shelves for quotations to support each definition. Even with this help the dictionary took 70 years to complete!
Murray assumed editorship of the dictionary in 1879, and issued an appeal for volunteers to magazines and newspapers. A copy of the appeal found its way into Minor’s hands, and he seized upon the opportunity to help; whether he saw it merely as something to occupy his time, or whether it gave him the feeling he was working towards his redemption, we will never know.

From his cell, Minor began to send in contributions to the OED. He was a well-educated man and an avid reader, with a collection of rare antiquarian books which Broadmoor allowed him to keep in a second cell. It’s possible he saw one of Murray’s appeals in a consignment of books sent to him by one of his booksellers, and the relationship began. Scouring this literature for useful quotations came naturally to him, and he worked in a very methodical manner. Upon reading a book, he would prepare a small pamphlet headed with the title of the book in question. He would then note interesting words or usages of words in an alphabetical list, followed by their relevant page number. He soon built up a collection of these word indexes, which allowed him to supply the dictionary editors with quotations that were very relevant to the words they were working on.

Minor started collecting quotations around 1880-1, and continued doing so for 20 years, working systematically through his library. Simon Winchester in ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne’, says this work became the “defining feature” of Minor’s life.

Minor certainly made an enormous contribution to the dictionary over the years, and this did not – could not – go unnoticed. Murray said Minor’s contributions were so great they “could easily have illustrated the last four centuries [of words] from his quotations alone.”

Minor always signed his letters in the same way: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire. His identity remained an enigma to those working on the dictionary, and Murray and Minor did not meet for many years. In 1915, a sensationalised account of their meeting appeared in Strand magazine, and was quickly reprinted across the world, even in China.
It described how, following Minor’s failure to attend the Great Dictionary Dinner in 1897, Murray decided to visit Minor himself, to find out who this mysterious man was. Arriving at the large Victorian mansion, it continued, Murray expected to find Minor a typical country gentleman. When shown into the study of Broadmoor’s director he naturally assumed this man was the evasive Minor, only then did he find out that Minor was actually an inmate of the asylum.

This romanticised story captured the public’s imagination, and, despite rebuttals in the press by Murray’s successor at the OED, it continued to be repeated as fact throughout the 20th Century. It was finally laid to rest, however, by the research of Simon Winchester, and the discovery of a letter written by Dr Murray.

It appears Murray originally thought Minor was a medical man associated with the asylum, but that his suspicions were aroused in the late 1880s, when a visitor from America thanked him for his kindness to the “poor Dr Minor”. Minor’s troubled history was finally revealed, and Murray was astonished. It was still many years before he visited Broadmoor, (in 1891 not 1897), but in the intervening years Murray took care to write to Minor with sensitivity, never making it known that he was aware of his mental illness.

The meeting, when it finally happened, proved the start of a lasting friendship: Murray visited Minor at Broadmoor on many occasions over 20 years. The romanticised meeting may have been disproved but perhaps the facts are more uplifting than the fiction.

At the best of times, Minor had still been complaining to asylum staff that someone was coming in and molesting him (and writing in his books) during the night; by the turn of the century he had largely lost interest in submitting quotations, despite some visits from Murray. In December 1902, Minor amputated his own penis, possibly because of guilt feelings about his army-era promiscuity or because of what he believed was happening to him every night. (He was only able to do so because he had been given permission to keep a pocketknife to cut open uncut books.) He became physically more frail but his mental condition stayed the same; eventually he was removed from the British asylum and sent to an American one nearer his family.

Murray died in 1915 and Minor wrote to his widow that Minor’s books which had been in Murray’s possession need not be returned and that he hoped they would end up in the Bodleian Library. (They did.) The dictionary project was finished with another editor. Minor died in 1920, and is largely remembered because of publicity associated with the first release of the OED and his part in it.
Minor lived half his life shut away from the world in an era when his condition was seen as untreatable. Today, treatments for mental illness have advanced, but, Winchester argues, modern drugs may have made Minor less inclined to start working on the OED – his own form of “therapy” – from which, ironically, we have all benefited.
In Minor’s story, fact has become entwined with fiction, but perhaps what makes it so enduring is that it fits into the popular narrative mould of the individual who achieves amazing intellectual feats despite mental instability; of the eccentric scholar.

The OED archive now contains 42 of Minor’s word indexes, covering titles from philosophy, economics, art, to medicine. But what is interesting is that almost half of them relate to aspects of travel or foreign countries. Minor was no stranger to travel – he was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) before moving to America and then on to England. But perhaps incarceration gave him a keener interest in discovering about distant lands.

A number of the books refer to Persia and the East Indies, understandable given Minor’s link to Ceylon. One such book was John Fryer’s snappily titled A New Account of East India and Persia in Eight Letters being Nine Years Travels begun 1672 and finished 1681. A slip written out by Minor– it concerns the word guz, an Indian measure of length. The book has gone on to provide quotations for almost 1000 entries in the OED.

Fryer’s book was the story of one man’s travels. Several books cited in Minor’s indexes recount similar adventures, such as The Travels of Monsieur de Thevenot into the Levant (1687), Purchas his Pilgrimage (1613), and A Relation of a Journey begun 1610 by George Sandys (1615). Others take a more historical view – Relations of the Most Famous Kingdoms and Commonwealths thorough the World (1611) and Geographical Historie of Africa (1600). Clearly Minor enjoyed reading about the journeys and discoveries of others, perhaps reliving distant memories or travelling vicariously through them. Voyage Around the World (George Anson, 1748) was something of which he could only dream.

DR. WILLIAM MINOR (1834 -1920) Insane Doctor Who Contributed to …

A Minor case: OED contributions from a prison cell | OxfordWords blog

No. 1358: William Minor and the OED

Dr. William Minor – Everything2.com

William Chester Minor, insane murderer and amateur lexicographer


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