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DR. WILLIAM MINOR (1834 -1920) Insane Doctor Who Contributed to the Oxford English Dictionary

In American History, Biography, Doctors, Mental health, U.S. Army, Writers on November 8, 2010 at 8:48 PM

William Minor

William Minor had a split personality.  He was a doctor whose hobbies included playing flute and painting.  His contribution to the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary was immeasurable.  But internally he suffered from paranoia, which determined the course of his adult life.

Minor’s parents were Americans descended from early settlers in New England, but in 1834 they went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as missionaries, representing a Scottish Presbyterian group called Covenanters.  His mother died when he was three, and his father remarried another young missionary woman.  The mission school gave Minor and his siblings an excellent education, and he had the opportunity to learn several languages.

When Minor was 13, he started having “lascivious thoughts” toward the exotic native girls.  He never acted on his impulses, but it was so difficult for him to reconcile these urges with his religious upbringing that he was plagued with guilt.  His parents sent him back to the United States and the responsibility of his uncle, Alfred, in New Haven, Connecticut.

SERVING HIS COUNTRY                          Minor graduated from Yale Medical School in 1863.  With the Civil War going strong, he joined the Union Army as a surgeon and served at the Knight Hospital in New Haven.  He didn’t like the isolation of the hospital and requested to be sent to battle.  Eventually he got his wish and was sent to Northern Virginia where he first encountered the filth of a field hospital and excruciating pain of soldiers suffering from gangrene.  His friends described him as a sensitive man who loved to paint, play the flute and read books, and the battlefield was not an easy place for a man with such artistic sensibilities.

Through a supposed change in orders, in May 1864 Minor ended up in Orange County, Virginia, the site of the Battle of the Wilderness.  In addition to the extreme casualties of battle, desertion was a huge problem.  More than 5,000 soldiers were deserting each month, depleting the ranks of the army.  The punishment for deserters was painful humiliation through branding the letter D on his hip or cheek.  It fell to Dr. Minor to inflict the punishment on one young soldier who ran away during battle.  Minor took the hot iron out of the coals and reluctantly seared the face of the errant young man.  Minor was so affected by that experience that he believed the soldier would somehow seek him out to exact revenge.

Minor was transferred to the L’Overture Hospital in Alexandria where he distinguished himself and received a promotion to assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army.  He moved to Governor’s Island, New York where he treated cholera patients.  It was here that Minor began to exhibit signs of paranoia and promiscuous behavior.  He started carrying a Colt .38 and spent every night with prostitutes which resulted in his contracting venereal disease.  On one occasion he made a failed attempt to cure himself injecting white Rhine wine into his urethra.

Minor became engaged to a young woman from New York.  Since none of his friends ever met her, it was assumed that she was some kind of entertainer.  Ironically, it was her mother who pressured her daughter to call off the engagement, which she did, leaving Minor bitter.  His resentment intensified when the Army relocated him away from the temptations of the city to Fort Barrancas, Florida, an obvious demotion.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT                      In 1868 Minor was diagnosed as “delusional” and was considered a suicide and homicide risk.  He was willingly admitted to the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C. (known as St. Elizabeth’s Hospital) and officially retired from the U.S. Army.

In 1871, Minor was released, and he visited friends and family before boarding a ship to London, hoping that a change of scenery would cure him.  He settled in Lambeth, an area in south London that afforded him “easy access to easy women.”  Minor’s paranoia followed him across the pond.  He believed people were breaking into his room while he slept.  One freezing cold winter night before dawn, Minor shot and killed George Merrett who was on his way to work.  Minor thought Merrett was an intruder, but later admitted he shot the wrong man.  During the trial, the full scope of Minor’s mental illness came out, and he was committed to the Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Broadmoor.

Minor’s life at Broadmoor was very comfortable.  His status as a surgeon was respected, and he was given two adjacent rooms, one for sleeping and one for him to paint, play the flute and read.  Because of his pension from the U.S. Army, Minor was allowed to buy steak, wine, brandy, newspapers and antiquarian books for his collection.  He hired other inmates to perform chores for him.  By day he enjoyed the freedom to stroll around the grounds and do what he wanted to, but at night, his delusions persisted.  Even though he blocked the door with furniture, he believed that intruders poisoned or abused him and defaced his books.

Minor felt truly sorry for his crime, and after almost ten years of institutionalization he asked permission to pay some restitution to Merrett’s widow, Eliza.  She agreed to accept some money from her husband’s killer, and she visited Minor at Broadmoor.  In fact, the two got on well enough that for a while she made monthly visits, delivering to the inmate books she bought on his behalf.

A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY                       In one of these bundles of books, Minor saw a notice from the editor, James Murray, asking for volunteers to help create the first Oxford English Dictionary (OED).  Volunteers collected words from their reading to be included in the dictionary and submitted them with quotes from the books illustrating their meaning.  This was the perfect occupation for an intelligent, educated bibliophile with lots of time on his hands, and it provided for him a connection to the outside world.

The doctor set about this task with voracious energy, meticulously copying words and quotations from volumes of books.  He started working in tandem with the editor in Oxford, writing him to find out which letter he was working on and then searching through his papers to send him words starting with that letter. Minor and Murray corresponded regularly, and the first time Murray visited Minor at Broadmoor, he was shocked to discover that Minor was an inmate and not a staff doctor.  The editor and the volunteer met together many times over the years and developed a friendship based on a mutual love of reading and words.  Occasionally Minor would offer a story about his nighttime tribulations, bringing Murray into understanding of his mental state. 

Over the course of 20 years, Minor made an incomparable contribution to the writing of the OED.  Murray called his efforts “enormous,” acknowledging that within a two year period, Minor supplied at least 12,000 quotations.

After 30 years in Broadmoor, Minor had been there longer than any other patient.  His nightly torments, during which claimed to have uncontrollable sexual relations with thousands of women, never abated.  He saw himself as a vile sinner in the eyes of God.

On December 3, 1902, when Minor was 68 years old, he wrote a note asking for the Medical Officer.  One of the perks Minor enjoyed was to have a pen knife, and he had used it in an act of penance to cut off his penis.

Two years after his self mutilation, Minor became increasingly sicker.  He was 76 years old when he was given permission to return to America to live out his last days.  His brother, Alfred, went to England to escort him on the journey.  Murray and his wife went to Broadmoor to say goodbye in person, and to give Minor six unpublished volumes of the OED to take with him. 

Dr. Minor returned to the Government Hospital for the insane in Washington, D.C.  During the nine years he lived there he was diagnosed as having schizophrenia, a term that only came into usage in 1912.  In 1919, Minor’s nephew successfully petitioned to have his uncle moved to a hospital for the elderly insane in Hartford, Connecticut called The Retreat.  Less than a year later, Minor died of pneumonia in his sleep.

QUESTION:  What is your favorite word?  Why?

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

Winchester, Simon, The Professor and the Madman, A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

http://www.berkshirerecordoffice.org.uk/documents/William_Chester_Minor.pdf

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VIOLET GIBSON (1876 – 1956) Shot Mussolini

In Assassinations, Biography, Dictators, History, Italian History, Mental health, Mussolini, People, People from England, Trivia, Uncategorized, Victorian Women, women on May 17, 2010 at 9:26 PM

Violet Gibson

When Violet Gibson shot Benito Mussolini, everyone except her thought it was a crazy thing to do.  The ensuing debate was to determine whether she was certifiably crazy or not.  Death and illness were themes of her life and perhaps fertilized the psychological soil where a religious seed had been planted.   

Born the seventh of eight children as the Victorian era was starting to wind down, Gibson had an enviable life.  Her father was Lord Ashbourne, the lord chancellor of Ireland, a protestant. Her father’s title bestowed on her the title of Honorable. The Gibsons split their time between London and Dublin, participating fully in the parties, concerts and galas of the elite.  At age 18 the Honorable Violet Gibson was a debutante in the court of Queen Victoria.   

Being sick consumed a lot of her youth and as a result she was quite frail.  She had scarlet fever when she was five, peritonitis at 14, pleurisy at 16 and rubella at 20.  She displayed a violent temper early on.    

Lady Ashbourne, Gibson’s mother, became a Christian Scientist with the expectation that Mary Baker Eddy’s religion would bring her into stronger health.  Gibson tried it out, but in her early 20s, switched to Theosophy founded by Helena Blavatsky.  She was attracted to its mission to build a universal brotherhood without discrimination of any kind. Then at 26 years old, Gibson followed her brother Willie’s lead and converted to Catholicism.  Their father expressed great disappointment at this decision, and it became a wedge in their relationship.    

Gibson started receiving a private income from her father at age 21, which allowed her to be independent.  In 1905 there were several deaths in the family, and her father’s term as the lord chancellor was up.  Gibson dealt with so much loss by moving to Chelsea, an artsy section of London.  She explored a bawdier side of life and became engaged to an artist at age 32.  One year later he died suddenly and Gibson had another death to grieve.   

Six times within the next year Gibson became ill with the “fever.”  The only diagnosis the doctors could offer was influenza or a nervous disorder called “hysteria.”    

In 1913, Gibson’s father died, and she tried to cope by fleeing to Paris where she worked for pacifist organizations.  Later that year she contracted Paget’s disease, a type of cancer, and had a left mastectomy which left a nine-inch scar across her chest.  She worked hard as a peace activist until she fell sick again and went back to England.  At age 40 she had surgery for appendicitis and peritonitis.  Unfortunately, the surgery was not successful and she suffered from chronic abdominal pain for the rest of her life.   

While she was recovering, Gibson became a disciple of Jesuit scholar John O’Fallon Pope. This is when she started grappling with the notion of killing and martyrdom, perhaps inspired by experiencing so much death.  In her notebook she had a quote from Pope:  “The degree of holiness depends on the degree of mortification.  Mortification means putting to death.”   

In 1922, Gibson had to deal yet again with a death in the family: her brother Victor who was her favorite sibling.  This was more than she could bear.  One month later, at age 46, Gibson had a nervous breakdown.  She was pronounced insane and committed to a mental institution.   

Two years later, Gibson was released and went to Rome accompanied by a nurse, Mary McGrath.  They took up residence in a convent in a working class neighborhood with a high crime rate.  Her crisis of conscience was growing as she became more and more convinced that killing was the sacrifice that God was asking of her.  Somehow she got possession of a gun.   

On February 27, 1925 Gibson went to her room, read the Bible and then shot herself in the chest.  The bullet missed her heart, went through her ribcage and lodged in her shoulder. She told McGrath that she wanted to die for God.  Had she been successful, she wouldn’t have had to endure the grief of the death of her mother in March 1926, one month before the Mussolini assassination attempt.      

On Wednesday, April 7, 1926 Gibson left the convent after breakfast. In her right pocket she had a Lebel revolver wrapped in a black veil, and in her left pocket she carried a rock in case she had to break a windshield to get to Mussolini.  She also clutched the address of the Fascist Party headquarters written on a scrap of envelope.  She had read in the newspaper that Mussolini would be there in the afternoon.    

Mussolini appeared as if on cue, walking through the Palazzo del Littorio, soaking in the praise of the crowd as they shouted, “Viva Il Duce!”  He stopped about a foot from where Gibson was standing.  Just before the gun went off, Mussolini leaned his head back to acknowledge the crowd’s adoration, and the bullet grazed his nose.  Gibson shot again, but the gun misfired.  There was blood pouring down Mussolini’s face, and he staggered backwards but managed to stay standing.    

Mussolini maintained his composure and consoled the crowd saying, “Don’t be afraid. This is a mere trifle.”   Gibson was immediately captured and beaten by the crowd, and the police got control of the situation and took her off just before she succumbed to vigilante justice.    

In prison, when Gibson was undergoing interrogation, she admitted that she shot Mussolini to glorify God.  She said God’s message to her was clear, and that he had sent an angel to keep her arm steady as she took aim.    

Gibson’s family, wary of the impact that her actions could have on their reputation and afraid for her future, sent letters of apology to the Italian government and congratulated Mussolini on his escape from death.    

The fate of Violet Gibson was not clear.  Her punishment hinged on whether she would stand trial as a political criminal or be declared insane.  A violent reaction to a note given to her by another inmate that read “Viva Mussolini” did not help convince the authorities of her stability. In contrast, her conversations were rational and her correspondence was lucid and thoughtful.   

Gibson had to endure a grueling regime of tests.  In addition to a full medical exam, she was subjected to 20 days of psychiatric exams. She hoped to gain her release by convincing the doctors that she was mad.  Four months after the assassination attempt, a 61 page report declared Gibson as a “chronic paranoia” and recommended she be committed to a lunatic asylum.   

To complete Gibson’s profile, the investigating magistrate wanted to create a psychosexual portrait.  She was considered abnormal because she never expressed an inclination to start a family. It was a common belief that a woman’s mental state could be affected by repressed sexuality. A complete gynecological examination was ordered.  No abnormalities were found, but her independence, violent anger and self mutilation were enough evidence to declare her insane and not to try Gibson as a political criminal.   

Gibson was released to the custody of her sister to return to England.  She was committed to St. Andrews Hospital, a renowned mental institution.  Her behavior was generally manageable, but each year when April rolled around she exhibited her violent tendencies.  On April 2, 1930, she was found with a noose around her neck made of scrapes of cloth she had been collecting.  A nurse found her and loosened the rope.  Gibson was unconscious but still alive.   

In January 1951, Gibson suffered from a high fever.  She was down to 84 pounds.  She managed to hang on for a few more years, and finally, on May 2, 1956, Violet Gibson died.  No one attended her burial.   

QUESTION:  Do you know anyone who has been killed by another person?  How did that affect your life?   

                                  ©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved   

 Sources:   

 Saunders, Frances Stonor, The Woman Who Shot Mussolini. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010.