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