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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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INA COOLBRITH (1841 – 1928) 1st Poet Laureate of California & Librarian

In Bohemian Club, California History, Mormons, People, Poetry, Trivia, Victorian Women, women, Writers on September 1, 2010 at 2:28 PM

Ina Coolbrith

Ina Coolbrith loved words, and she wasn’t afraid to use them.  When she got angry with her friend John Muir for setting her up on a disastrous blind date, she “rhymed him” as punishment, with 75 lines of humorous verse.  There was, however, one aspect of her life she was obligated never to reveal in any form: who her family was.

Josephine Donna Smith was born in Nauvoo, Illinois, the youngest of three girls. Her father, Don Carlos Smith, was the brother of Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Don Carlos died when Coolbrith was five months old, and when she was two, a sister died.  That left her mother, Agnes, with two mouths to feed and very few options. 

William Pickett was a lawyer and owner of a printing press in St. Louis. When Joseph Smith was murdered, he ventured north to get the story of violent anti-Mormon sentiment first hand.   He married Agnes and moved his new family to St. Louis where they welcomed twin boys.  For their safety, Pickett had one requirement of his new wife. He extracted a promise that Agnes and the children forget their past and keep it a secret for as long as they lived. 

THE PROMISED LAND             Gold rush fever tempted Pickett to move to California, so in 1851 he loaded the wagon train and headed toward sunshine and promises.  They set up their first home in Marysville, north of Sacramento, to be near the gold mines.  When they got exasperated with their lack of luck, they moved to the burgeoning city of San Francisco.  In 1855 their house was robbed and then burned, so they uprooted themselves again and moved to Los Angeles.

In the pueblo of Los Angeles, Coolbrith, 14 years old, did something she’d never done before: go to school.  She enrolled in the girls’ department of the first public school when it opened in 1855, and attended classes for three years.  The rest of her education was home study or from reading the classics in her step-father’s extensive library.  She showed an aptitude for writing poetry when she wrote her first English composition in verse.  She explained to the teacher that she thought it was easier than writing in a narrative style. When she was 15, she had her first poem titled “My Childhood’s Home” published in the Los Angeles Star.

When Coolbrith was 17, she married Robert Carsley.  He turned out to be a jealous, abusive man, and Coolbrith filed for divorce three years later.  The young woman received a lot of support during her marital problems, but there was one burden she carried alone.  She had a baby that died in infancy.  The existence of this child was never discovered until after Coolbrith died.  Like every young girl, she dreamed of being a wife and mother, but those dreams were dashed by the time she was 20 years old.

STARTING OVER                         In order to make another fresh start, Coolbrith and her family moved back to San Francisco. Perhaps as a way to reinvent herself or to create a nom de plume, she started using the name Ina Donna Coolbrith (her mother’s maiden name).  She got a job as an elementary English teacher, wrote and published poems and became friends with some important people of letters including Bret Hart, Joaquin Miller, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and Ambrose Bierce. 

Coolbrith had many poems published in the prestigious Overland Monthly, and she was asked to write the commencement ode for the 1871 graduating class of the University of California at Berkeley, the first woman to be accorded this honor.  The verse entitled “California” was a love letter to her adopted state.

In 1872, the all-male Bohemian Club was founded as a place for authors, artists, musicians and patrons of the arts to congregate.  Since they were women, Coolbrith and Mrs. Margaret Bowman made the curtains for their first location.   A few months later, acknowledging that although qualified the only reason the poet was not admitted into the club was because of her gender, the group elected Coolbrith and Bowman as their first honorary members.

GETTING A JOB                           Within two years Coolbrith’s life was affected by two major events: her mom died and she was hired as the librarian of the Oakland Free Library with a salary of $80 a month.  Her young nephew and niece were hired as first and second assistants respectively.  Despite having a limited education, she was responsible for acquisitions and created the first catalog.  But she got the most pleasure out of advising young people in what to read.  Two students who never forgot her caring, supportive advice were Jack London and Isadora Duncan. 

In 1881 the first anthology of Coolbrith’s poems, A Perfect Day, was published.  She found the time to continue to write until there was conflict at the library.  Over a period of ten years, the new Board of Directors made changes that seemed to be motivated by removing the head librarian from her post.  During that time, Coolbrith’s professional life was not all difficult.  In 1886 she helped to establish the first Arbor Day in California, and a branch library in Oakland was named after her.  But behind her back, her nephew was gaining more responsibility directly from the library Board. 

Ultimately, Coolbrith made have inadvertently caused the ax to fall on herself.  She gave an interview to a reporter of the Oakland Times illuminating some of the problems with the library.  Three weeks later the headline announced that Coolbrith was fired without cause with only three day’s notice.  Support for Coolbrith was widespread, and newspapers from Seattle to San Diego wrote editorials denouncing the decision.

After 18 years of service to the community and countless hours of inspiration to students, Coolbrith was forced to turn over her duties to her nephew, Henry Peterson.  Coolbrith’s ouster became a political issue and was a contributing factor in librarians and teachers becoming civil servants in California.1

The public’s affection for Coolbrith never diminished, and her lectures on early California writers were well attended.  When she was 57 years old she was hired as the head librarian at the Mercantile Library of San Francisco and held that post for one year until the Bohemian Club offered her a part-time position as librarian.  Even though it only paid $50 a month, she accepted to have more time to write a book based on her lectures. 

In 1906 Coolbrith was confined to bed with rheumatism.  When the earthquake hit at 5:00 am on April 18, she and her live-in housekeeper had just enough time to gather up the two cats and evacuate.  Later that morning, the fire that ultimate destroyed most of San Francisco engulfed Coolbrith’s house and burned all her manuscripts, correspondence with famous authors and books. 

HONORS AND ACCOLADES     Coolbrith bounced back and served as president of the Congress of Authors and Journalists at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915.  During the event she was named the Poet Laureate of California and was presented with a symbolic crown of laurel leaves.  It was an honorary title, with no stipend attached to it.  It wasn’t until four years later that a resolution was filed with the California Secretary of State making the commendation official and giving Coolbrith the distinction of being the first female poet laureate in the United States.

The poet received other honors both personal and professional.  Luther Burbank named a hybrid poppy “crimson eschscholtzia Ina Coolbrith” after her, and in 1923 Mills College awarded her an honorary Masters of Arts degree.

In February 1928, Coolbrith fell into a coma and died a few days before her 84th birthday.  The woman who was born to a Mormon family and married by a Methodist minister was laid to rest by an Episcopal priest.  A young man named Jesse Winter Smith attended her funeral.  Coolbrith had told him years earlier that she was not embarrassed by her Mormon background and he could reveal it after she died if he wanted to.  He did, and a story appeared in the New York Sun and all the Bay area papers making the connection, bringing Ina Coolbrith’s life full circle.

QUESTION:  If you only had a few minutes to evacuate from a fire, what would you take with you?

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

Sources:

Digitized copy of her book of poems A Perfect Day  http://www.archive.org/stream/aperfectdaypoem00coolrich#page/n7/mode/2up

 Rhodehamel, Josephine DeWitt, Ina Coolbrith, Librarian and Laureate of California. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1973.

1Conmy, Peter Thomas, “The Dismissal of Ina Coolbrith as Head Librarian of Oakland Free Public Library and a Discussion of the Tenure Status of Head Librarians.” Oakland, California, Oakland Public Library, 1969.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ina_Coolbrith