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The Strange True Story of Dr. William Chester Minor and the Oxford English Dictionary

One of the dictionary's top contributors was an inmate at a psychiatric hospital.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the go-to reference work for any query on the English language. Such is its status as the authority on English vocabulary that it is all too easy to take it for granted and assume that it has been around for centuries. In fact, the first complete edition was published less than a century ago, in 1928, some 70 years after the idea was first mooted and only then because of the contribution made by an army of volunteers. 

These volunteers came from all walks of life, but none was more extraordinary than a US Civil War veteran named Dr William Chester Minor. Minor alone contributed to the entries of more than 10,000 words in the dictionary and his outstanding work was hailed by its editor, James Murray. Minor, though, had a secret which Murray did not discover for years. His prized contributor was an inmate in a high-security British psychiatric hospital, who had shot a man dead in London.

William Chester Minor was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in June 1834, the son of Congregationalist missionaries from Connecticut. His mother, Lucy, died when he was three years of age and his father, Eastman, later remarried another American missionary. The young Minor stayed in Ceylon until the age of 14, but then left to begin a new life in the United States. He lived with an uncle in New Haven and, after a spell at the Russell Military Academy, enrolled as a medical student at Yale. 

During his time as a Yale undergraduate, Minor worked on a project to produce a new edition of Webster’s Dictionary. He was paid for the role, which consisted of supplying definitions for scientific words relating to topics like anatomy and natural history. The 1864 Webster’s Dictionary is notable for being the first anywhere in the world to be compiled by a team of contributors rather than just one individual and so may rightly be credited with laying the foundations for later works like the OED. Minor’s own contribution, however, proved less successful. Webster’s biographer, Joshua Kendall, has uncovered correspondence which reveals Minor’s entries were criticized for being slapdash and inaccurate.

The Civil War was well underway by the time Minor graduated as a qualified surgeon in early 1863. He enlisted with the Union Army and, within a year, was posted to Virginia, where he witnessed first-hand the aftermath of the infamous Battle of the Wilderness, one of the deadliest conflicts of the entire war.

Despite this traumatic experience, Minor remained in the army when peace returned and was sufficiently well-regarded to be promoted to the rank of captain. Soon, though, he began to exhibit signs of the mental illness which would later come to upend his life. His increasingly erratic behavior gave his superiors cause for concern and following an incident in which he challenged a fellow officer to a duel, Minor was voluntarily admitted to the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C. 

The name may appear unenlightened to modern eyes, but Washington’s Hospital for the Insane was the first government-funded institution of its kind in the US and pioneered a range of groundbreaking therapies for mental health patients. At the time Minor was admitted, in September 1868, the hospital was full to capacity, possibly with many suffering veterans such as himself. He himself was diagnosed as “incapacitated by causes arising in the line of duty” and remained as an in-patient there for 18 months before he was eventually granted a pension and discharged from the army.

Compelled to start a new life as a civilian, Minor decided to travel to London in the hope that it would help him to escape his past. The move, however, had far from the desired effect. In February 1872, Minor shot dead a stranger named George Merritt, whom he mistakenly believed was trying to kill him. 

Contemporary newspaper reports of his subsequent trial reveal the extent to which Minor had been suffering from paranoid delusions. Minor had only recently moved to lodgings in Lambeth from a central London hotel because he believed that several attempts had been made to poison him there. Superintendent Williamson of Scotland Yard testified: “He stated that he believed his persecutors had followed him from America, and that someone in the hotel where he was staying was in league with them.” Minor’s stepbrother also travelled from America to give evidence at the trial to the effect that even before leaving for England, the defendant had often complained of hearing unexplained noises during the night.

After a brief trial, Minor was found “not guilty by reason of insanity” and was ordered to be detained indefinitely at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. He was categorized as a low-risk inmate and had plenty of money at his disposal because of his generous army pension, meaning that he was able to indulge his passion for watercolor painting and reading. He arranged for a consignment of books to be shipped to Broadmoor, the beginning of a collection of antiquarian and rare books which eventually became so huge that Minor was allocated an adjacent room to accommodate them all.

Minor had already been incarcerated in Broadmoor for nearly a decade when he heard of an appeal for volunteer readers to assist with the compilation of a new English dictionary. 

Back in 1857, members of the London Philological Society had agreed to compile A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. They proposed that it would be unlike any dictionary that had been published before, as definitions would be accompanied by information relating to the word’s evolution. This meant that each entry would be supported by quotations to be derived from a wide range of English language publications dating right back to the earliest days of the printing press.

Unsurprisingly, progress on this hugely ambitious project was slow and at one point almost stalled altogether. However, in 1879, a breakthrough occurred when Oxford University Press agreed to publish the new dictionary and Scottish lexicographer, James Murray, was appointed as editor. The idea of asking the general public for help in amassing the necessary quotations from literary sources was not new, but Murray revitalized the scheme by recruiting scores of volunteers through advertisements placed in many of the leading publications of the day.

With such a large collection of rare books at his disposal and plenty of time on his hands, Minor was ideally equipped to take on such a task. Unlike his work on the Webster’s Dictionary, Minor never became involved with writing definitions for the OED. Instead, over the course of the following two decades, he provided Murray with thousands of interesting quotations sourced from his extensive library at Broadmoor, sending Murray quotation slips in the post most weeks.

For quite some time, James Murray was unaware of the circumstances behind one of his most valuable contributors. The story goes that Murray only discovered the grim truth about Minor when, in 1891, he travelled to Broadmoor to thank him personally for his efforts. Following that first meeting, the two enjoyed a cordial relationship and Murray was never slow to acknowledge Minor’s invaluable contribution to the project, commenting on one occasion: “So enormous have been Dr Minor’s contributions during the past 17 or 18 years, that we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone”.

Minor’s work on the OED must have provided a welcome distraction from the stark reality of his situation, but his psychotic incidents continued. Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman delves deep into this fascinating story and details numerous occasions on which the Broadmoor medics recorded instances of Minor’s paranoia. Finally, in 1902, his hallucinations became so extreme that he cut off his own penis with a pen knife. When questioned as to his motives for such a drastic course of action, Minor replied that it was so he could no longer be taken from his cell each night and compelled to have sexual relations with strangers.

In 1910, Minor was finally allowed to return to the United States. Along with Minor’s family, James Murray lobbied for the move. Minor spent his final years at an asylum in Hartford, Connecticut, and died there, aged 85, in March 1920.

James Murray had died five years earlier, in 1915, meaning that neither he nor Minor lived long enough to see the publication of the complete Oxford English Dictionary. Surely though, both men would have derived a great deal of satisfaction from witnessing the enduring popularity of the dictionary to which they had devoted so much time and effort.