William Chester Minor
[ Issue 14 ]

William Chester Minor holds a lot of interest for Emily Bronto

Bikwil is proud to feature William Chester Minor

William Chester Minor

In this essay, Harlish Goop reviews Simon Winchester's The Surgeon of Crowthorne (aka The Professor and the Madman).

He was found to be mad and sentenced to imprisonment in Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


No doubt you’ll recall from my first article on the Oxford English Dictionary (Bikwil Nos. 8 and 9, 1998 July and September) that an indispensable feature of the Dictionary’s genesis was the carefully crafted invitation by James Murray to readers worldwide to submit annotated citations of word usage.

As we know, the response was gratifyingly unstinting. The most prolific contributor to the First Edition was one Thomas Austin who transmitted no fewer than 165,000 quotations. The record so far for the most quotations submitted to the OED by one person, however, is held by Marghanita Laski, a.k.a. Sarah Russell, (1915-88), the well known British broadcaster, journalist and author, who managed to extract a quarter of a million quotations for the Reading Programmes of the Supplement and the Second Edition.

Tucked away in Murray’s alphabetical acknowledgment list of the volunteers in the preface to the first completed volume is the entry “Dr. W.C. Minor of Crowthorne”, and the enthralling tale that lies behind that innocuous single line of print is the centre of my column today. I do not intend retelling that story in all its beguiling detail for you, however. Let me instead just mention enough particulars to whet your appetite for reading it in full in the recent biography of Dr. Minor by Simon Winchester. (Note: Most of the quotes herein come from the biography itself, some from Winchester’s summary in the July 1998 issue of Oxford English Dictionary News, and others from various press reviews or interviews with Winchester.)

To start with, I have to put you in the picture regarding a long-standing myth that Winchester refutes. This fabrication was about how, some years after Dr. Minor began contributing to the Dictionary, James Murray became aware of his strange situation.

As temptingly depicted by American journalist Hayden Church in the Strand Magazine in 1915, the original story went that Murray had become increasingly impressed with the work of his industrious contributor W.C. Minor, and invited him, together with other associates and contributors, to a celebratory Dictionary Dinner at Oxford in October 1897.

Minor declined the invitation pleading illness, but invited Murray to visit him at Crowthorne, in rural Berkshire.

Puzzled and maybe even a little exasperated, Murray is supposed eventually to have accepted the invitation. He is met at the railway station by coachman, carriage and horses. Upon arrival at their destination, a large country mansion, he is ushered into a book-lined study, where he makes a short speech of self-introduction to the important looking man he finds there.

Let’s see how Winchester depicts the mythical dialogue:

“It is indeed an honour and a pleasure to at long last to make your acquaintance — for you must be, kind sir, my most assiduous helpmeet, Dr. W.C. Minor?” . . .

“I regret, kind sir, that I am not. It is not at all as you suppose. My name is Nicholson. I am in fact the Governor of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, and the Dr. Minor whom you seek is here because he is a murderer, and a madman. He is an American, and the longest-staying of all the asylum patients.”

Church’s article was quickly and strongly condemned by Henry Bradley (who’d recently been appointed Murray’s successor as OED chief editor), in a letter to the Daily Telegraph in which he rebuked Church for “several misstatements of fact”:

The story of Dr. Murray’s first interview with Dr. Minor is, so far as its most romantic features are concerned, a fiction.

Despite this, the version was perpetuated for over eighty years. After all, it was too good to ignore: “scholarship in a padded cell”, as the oh-so-sophisticated journalism of the Pall Mall Gazette put it. Indeed, the myth was even accepted in both K.M. Elisabeth Murray’s 1977 biography of her grandfather, Caught in the Web of Words, and Jonathon Green’s 1996 history of lexicography, Chasing the Sun.

Only one person in England, Elizabeth Knowles, an OUP editor, seems ever seriously to have looked into the story. During the 1990s she took pains to seek out a definitive account of the Murray-Minor first meeting. Her findings were published in the academic quarterly journal Dictionaries.

So what was the truth? First, some background.

William Chester Minor (1834-1920), was born in Sri Lanka of American parents and after graduation from Yale Medical School in 1863 joined the Union Army at the height of the Civil War as a surgeon, a commission that would unnerve him badly. By 1868 there were signs that his mind was going, and having had some treatment in a Washington asylum he was retired from the Army “incapacitated by causes arising in the line of duty”. In 1872, while on a trip to London (partly to visit John Ruskin) he shot and killed an innocent man, George Merrett, in the delusional belief that his victim was there to persecute him.

He was arrested, tried, found to be mad and sentenced to imprisonment (as “Patient 742”) in Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane at Crowthorne, Berkshire, never to be released.

Now, homicide among liberal arts practitioners isn’t confined to lexicography, you know. Take painting, for instance, and the case of artist Richard Dadd (1819-87). Once a promising young painter with formal training, in 1843 Dadd suffered a mental breakdown and killed his father by cutting his throat with a razor. Thereafter he was condemned to spend his life in English mental asylums, first for 20 years in Bedlam, then in Broadmoor. His imprisonment in Broadmoor overlapped part of that of Dr. Minor, for whom Dadd represented the one and only intellectual peer he would know in his 38 years there. (Minor painted too — he was a water-colourist). Richard Dadd is best remembered for the many meticulous fairy paintings he created while incarcerated.

Being an educated and wealthy man, Minor was allowed a pair of private rooms in Broadmoor, to keep and add to his library of books and to paint his pictures. Soon he had amassed hundreds of volumes, chiefly from the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1880 he came across Murray’s leaflet of the preceding year, An Appeal to the English-speaking and English-reading Public, perhaps inside a periodical or a book he had ordered. Almost certainly as a means of personal redemption, Minor resolved to start working as a reader for the Dictionary. In all, he contributed over 12,000 quotations — sometimes at the rate of over a hundred a week.

In time to come (1899) Murray would say, “so enormous have been Dr. Minor’s contributions . . . that we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone”.

And Murray’s first meeting with Minor?

Ever since his first batch of quotations (probably sent in 1880), Minor had come to be regarded by Murray and his colleagues as unflagging, thorough and possessing great lexicographical skills. Yet with so much apparent leisure, why had he never travelled the mere forty miles from Crowthorne to Oxford (an hour by steam train) to meet those who were obviously relishing his thousands of quotations? Winchester writes:

The answer to the deepening mystery . . . was delivered to Doctor Murray by a passing scholar-librarian [Dr. Justin Winsor, librarian of Harvard College], who stopped by at the Scriptorium in 1889 to talk about more serious matters. In the course of a talk that ranged across the entire spectrum of lexicography, he made a chance reference to the Crowthorne doctor. How kind the good James Murray had evidently been to him, remarked the scholar . . .

"You have given great pleasure to Americans . . . by speaking as you do in your Preface of poor Dr. Minor" . . . .

"Poor Dr. Minor? . . . What can you possibly mean?"

Once he had learned the facts about Minor’s circumstances, it was only a matter of time before James Murray would decide to visit the word-infatuated convict. By then they had been corresponding on Dictionary matters for over a decade, and while during that period Murray had been aware of Minor’s address (“Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire”), he had always assumed that he was a medical officer at that institution. Murray’s considerate response to the news of Minor’s unique status was typical of this God-loving Calvinist:

I was of course deeply affected by the story, but as Dr. Minor had never in the least alluded to himself or his position, all I could do was to write to him more respectfully and kindly than before, so as to show no notice of this disclosure, which I feared might make some change in our relations.

After writing to Dr. Nicholson, the Broadmoor Governor, Murray arranged to meet Minor in January 1891. From then on, for twenty years, as well as corresponding regularly, they saw each other dozens of times — always at Broadmoor, of course, either walking in the grounds or else in Minor’s cell. As avid as his interest in dictionary making is, Winchester’s central concern remains the life of William Chester Minor, which he narrates with much compassion. Some of the saga will be distasteful to some, but in my opinion nowhere is it sensationalised by Winchester. Not Minor’s prodigious sexual appetite, which began at the age of 13, nor the horrors he underwent as a surgeon during the American Civil War (including the nasty part he was required to play in the punishment of a deserter in 1864). Not the paranoiac murder he committed in London and was convicted for. Not his ongoing delusions in Broadmoor, nor the grisly self-mutilation he perpetrated after 30 years of confinement . . . All are essential to our understanding of this irreparably disturbed man. In fact the mental illness aspects are covered so fully that, along with the two personal and six lexicographical subject entries it has for the book, the Library of Congress catalogue even provides the following entry: “Psychiatric hospital patients — Great Britain — Biography”.

Nevertheless, it goes without saying that the affectionate attention paid by Winchester to Minor’s work for the OED is what has captured my own appreciation. Winchester is undeniably enthusiastic about the history of dictionaries and the paramount place the Oxford holds in that history, especially in the light of the inadequate dictionaries that had gone before.

An awe-inspiring work . . . the most important reference book ever made, and, given the unending importance of the English language, probably the most important that is ever likely to be.

Winchester pays special attention to Minor’s working methods, describing his neat, microscopic handwriting on quires of four unlined sheets folded to make a quire (an eight-page-thick booklet):

His work would win the admiration and awe of all who would later see it; even today the quires preserved in the dictionary archives are such as to make people gasp.

A great irony of Minor’s case that Winchester has pointed out in interviews is this. Were he living today, being treated with modern drugs for schizophrenia, the lexicographical outcome night have been quite different. The medicines would have dulled his madness but could well have dulled his genius also, and deprived the world of his wonderful contribution to the Oxford English Dictionary.

There is much more in Winchester’s book, too, including such details as Winston Churchill’s role in Minor’s eventual relocation in 1910 to an American asylum. To say nothing of the efforts Murray and his wife Ada made to help secure that transfer. Murray’s relationship with Minor was such that he and Ada actually came to farewell the frail 76-year-old Minor the day he left, and even arranged for a formal photograph to be taken in the Broadmoor garden.

For the story of William Chester Minor is far from just that of an insane murderer. Sure, we can describe people by their mental state (paranoid schizophrenic). We can choose to pigeon-hole them by profession, too (doctor), or by hobbies (lexicography, painting) . . . But the hardest thing in biography is to get the balance right: one page of misleading emphasis and our subject is a caricature. Which question of emphasis brings me at last to the actual name of Winchester’s book.

It’s intriguing, isn’t it, how sometimes a work is published with different titles in the British Commonwealth and the United States? I won’t attempt to account for the respective national marketing psychologies of this practice (though I can guess), but several in the last couple of decades readily come to mind. One of Australian importance was Schindler’s Ark/List by Thomas Keneally (1982). And now we have Winchester’s 1998 biography of Dr. Minor. Here are the U.K. and U.S. details:

Simon Winchester, The Surgeon of Crowthorne; a Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words. ISBN 0 670 87862 6. (U.K.)

Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman; a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. ISBN 0 060 17596 6. (U.S.)

Whatever the marketing people want to call it, for me the sad yet uplifting story of William Chester Minor and his 20-year colleagueship with James Murray remains one of the compelling highlights of my reading over the past twelve months. I cannot but wholeheartedly recommend it, both to dedicated word lovers and also to readers genuinely empathic to la condition humaine.

Overwhelmingly, response to Winchester’s biography has been positive. In America and Australia particularly it has been remarkable best-seller. So much so, that there is even talk of a movie, perhaps to star Mel Gibson and Robin Williams. I wonder which part each will get.

To conclude, here are two quotes from the scores of glowing reviews the book has received.

Simon Winchester’s “Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words” is as much about the creation of the greatest of dictionaries as of Minor’s part in creating it. Today’s lexicographers could do a better job in one 20th the time, manipulating the immense computerised corpuses of language now available. That story, however, wouldn’t be even one hundredth as fascinating. (Gordon Bilney, Sydney Morning Herald, 6/2/99)

I found The Professor and the Madman both enthralling and moving, in its brilliant reconstruction of a most improbable event: the major contributions made to the great Oxford English Dictionary by a deeply delusional, incarcerated “madman”, and the development of a true friendship between him and the editor of the OED. One sees here the redemptive potential of work and love in even the most deeply, “hopelessly”, “psychotic”. (Dr. Oliver Sacks, whose neurological cases have formed the basis of such well-known movies as Awakenings and At First Sight)

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