No one at the Oxford English Dictionary suspected that their most industrious contributor was a madman, a murderer, and an American. Presumably, in that order.
In an early version of crowd sourcing, Oxford English Dictionary editor James Murray appealed in newspapers for readers who would report “as many quotations as you can for ordinary words”. He preferred words that were “rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, peculiar or used in a peculiar way”.
These unknown volunteers were charged with the painstaking work of finding literary passages that could be slotted into the definitions.
Murray edited the Oxford English Dictionary from a corrugated iron outbuilding called the “Scriptorium” which was lined with wooden planks, book shelves, and 1,029 pigeon-holes for the quotation slips.
As definitions were collected, Murray discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand – sometimes at a rate of over 100 a week.
Minor always signed his address in the same way: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire. He was detained “in safe custody until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known.”
This rather lovely phrase has a waft of tea and cucumber crumpets. In fact, it meant that Minor was locked up in Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane. With no fixed release date.
He was to remain there for 38 years.
The Irish Problem
Minor was beset by twisted, terrifying dreams involving Irish people trying to kill him. And sometimes force him to go to brothels.
According to Simon Winchester, in “The Professor and The Madman”:
“Men would then break into his rooms, place him in a flying machine, and take him to brothels in Constantinople, where he would be forced to perform acts of terrible lewdness with cheap women and small girls.”
Minor’s break down is often traced to a Civil War incident where, as a surgeon, he was forced to brand an Irish deserter on the cheek with a 1.5 inch letter “D”.
The movie “The Professor and The Madman” based on the relationship between Minor and Murray also broke down on an Irish sticking point. Mel Gibson was unhappy that the Oxford scenes were actually shot in Trinity College, Dublin.
The Sean Penn and Mel Gibson’s beard-off movie is probably now best known for Gibson and director Farhad Safinia basically disavowing it. The movie is credited to “P.B. Shemran”, an W.C. Minor-like alias if there’s ever been one.
In any case, Minor’s behaviour became increasingly bizarre. While stationed on Governor’s Island in New York Harbour, he began carousing nightly with prostitutes.
He was transferred to Florida, where he became increasingly paranoid—he would accuse his superior officers of plotting against him—and violent.
By 1868, even Army doctors had to diagnose him as “delusional,” “suicidal” and “homicidal”. Sinking deeper into paranoia, Minor shot and killed George Merritt, a stoker, believing he had broken into his room.
A Private Library
Minor discovered the dictionary about 1881. He may have seen a mention of the project in the Athenaeum. A more poetic version is that the widow of the man he murdered, a regular visitor, delivered all unknowing a copy of Murray’s famous Appeal for Readers.
Finding the slip of paper between 2 volumes, Minor may have read it and discovered the work that would, to some extent, redeem him.
He rented a SECOND cell in the asylum, basically turning his two cells into an substantial private library. Another inmate built him beautiful, teak bookshelves. His army pension and family money allowed him to buy expensive antique books from bookstores not only in England, but from America as well.
Minor certainly made an enormous contribution to the dictionary over the years. Murray said Minor’s contributions were so great they
“could easily have illustrated the last four centuries [of words] from his quotations alone”.
After 30 years in Broadmoor, Minor had been there longer than any other patient. A powerful sense of guilt about his youthful sexual escapades – and nightly torments, during which he claimed to have uncontrollable sexual relations with thousands of women – never abated.
Without fail, he barricaded his door every night, pushing his writing desk across it. Of course this didn’t stop his imaginary abusers.
One evening in his quarters in Block 2, he tied a thread around the base of his penis, then with one swift motion of his pen-knife, amputated his penis. He flung it into the fireplace and watched the “evil flesh” burn.
Minor apparently recovered uneventfully, physically at least.
Scholarship in a padded cell
In 1915, a fictionalised account of a meeting between Minor and Murray appeared in Strand magazine, and took on a life of its own.
It described how, following Minor’s failure to attend the Great Dictionary Dinner in 1897, Murray decided to visit Minor himself, to find out who this mysterious man was.
When shown into the study of Broadmoor’s director he naturally assumed this man was the mysterious Minor. Only then did he find out that Minor was actually an inmate of the asylum.
The Pall Mall Gazette swooned: “No romance is equal to this wonderful story, of scholarship in a padded cell”.
A very cinematic treatment of the story -one wonders if that’s the version in ““The Professor and The Madman”.
In truth, Murray’s suspicions were aroused in the late 1880s, when a visitor from America thanked him for his kindness to the “poor Dr Minor”.
Minor’s troubled history was finally revealed, and Murray was nonplussed. While it was still till many years before he visited Broadmoor, (in 1891 not 1897), in the intervening years Murray wrote to Minor with sensitivity, never letting on that he knew about his mental illness.
In a case of truth being better than fiction, the real meeting was the start of a lasting friendship. Murray visited Minor at Broadmoor many times over 20 years and pulled strings to have him released to America in his final years – with the first half-dozen completed volumes of the dictionary.
The New York Times – “The Strange Case of the Madman with a Quote for every word”
The Nation – “A Minor Exception: On W.C. Minor and Noah Webster”
The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary By Simon Winchester
BBC – Broadmoor’s Word Finder