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The Case of the Loony Lexicographer

The work which eventually became known as the Oxford English Dictionary had a checkered early history. Proposals for it were first put forward in 1857; the following year the Philological Society of London began making arrangements for the publication of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (which was to remain its official name until 1933). But the scale of the undertaking soon proved much greater than anyone had foreseen. There were complications, setbacks, problems with publishers, and it was not until 1879, after Oxford University Press had taken over and endorsed the appointment of James Murray as editor, that the project was set on a firm footing.

From the outset, one thing was made clear. The new dictionary was to be a work compiled “on historical principles.” It was to provide not only definitions and derivations, but the life histories of words—a record of their earliest appearance in the language, and of meanings they had subsequently acquired or lost. And this was to be accomplished by means of quotations, drawn from the widest possible range of printed sources.

The amount of reading that was going to be called for was plainly enormous. Even in the heady early days it was recognized that the task could only be undertaken with outside assistance, which in practice meant unpaid volunteers; and one of the first things James Murray decided, once he had got a grip on the job, was that he had to drum up those volunteers in much greater numbers. The appeal he drafted was addressed “to the English-speaking and English-reading public.” It was sent out, partly in the form of a press release, partly as a leaflet distributed by libraries and bookstores.

Among those who replied was a Dr. W.C. Minor, who gave his address as “Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.” It isn’t known exactly when he first got in touch with Murray—probably in 1880 or 1881—but what is beyond dispute is that he was to become one of the dictionary’s most valued contributors. His replies to the editors’ queries were neat, prompt, and extensive: thousands upon thousands of them found their way into the final text. But who was he? Although Crowthorne was only an hour away by train, it proved impossible to get him to come to Oxford, and eventually Murray, who was curious to meet him, decided he would have to make the journey to Crowthorne instead.

In the preface to The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester gives an account of the two men’s first meeting. Arriving at Crowthorne station, Murray was driven in a landau to an imposing mansion, and ushered into a study. It was only then that he learned that Broadmoor was an asylum for the criminally insane, and that Minor (whom he was then taken to see) was a convicted murderer who had been incarcerated there since 1872.

But as the greatest of Murray’s predecessors, Samuel Johnson, once observed, “seldom any splendid story is wholly true”—and this particular story flies in the face of common sense. In reality, although the name hadn’t registered with him at first, Murray had long since been aware what kind of a place Broadmoor was; and although for a time he had assumed, not unnaturally, that Dr. Minor was on the medical staff, the full circumstances of the case had been explained to him several years before they met. The idea that he had arrived at Crowthorne in happy ignorance of what was awaiting him derives from a pair of articles published in 1915 by an American journalist based in London. (Minor himself was an American.) It is a complete myth—though one which has been taken at face value by a number of reputable authors—and Winchester demolishes it in detail. But he hasn’t been able to resist starting off his book by recounting it as though it were true—as a come-on, or an initial flourish. And this seems to me a pity, since the actual story he has to tell is sufficiently strange as it stands.

William Chester Minor came from a family which had lived in Connecticut for seven generations. He himself was born in what is now Sri Lanka, where his parents had gone out as missionaries: he grew up speaking Sinhalese, with some knowledge of Hindi and three or four other Eastern languages. Sent home in his teens, he studied at Yale, where he graduated in medicine, and subsequently served as an army surgeon in the Civil War. In 1871, he decided to spend a year in Europe, starting out with a stay in London. He was thirty-seven at the time, a sensitive and cultured man, with a passion for painting watercolors. Among his luggage when he arrived in England was a letter of introduction to John Ruskin—and a gun.

His first port of call in London was a hotel in the West End, but soon afterward he moved into lodgings in a slum south of the river called Lambeth Marsh—a peculiar choice for a man of means, though there is an explanation. Winchester describes the area as “lubricious,” and since words tend to slide around when he uses them, I wondered at first whether he didn’t mean “insalubrious.” But no, “lubricious” it is. Lambeth Marsh was a well-known haunt of prostitutes, and Minor later acknowledged that this had been its principal attraction. How active he had been, how far he had merely savored the atmosphere, we shall never know; but at the time of his arrest he was suffering from gonorrhea.

For anyone interested, there is a powerful evocation of the seamy side of Victorian Lambeth in a largely forgotten novel of the 1940s, Michael Sadleir’s Forlorn Sunset. Winchester’s account of the night of the crime—like his other exercises in laying on period atmosphere—is somewhat more novelettish, but effective enough in its way. It was 2 AM and bitterly cold. A workman called George Merritt was on his way to a local brewery where he was employed as a stoker, when a stranger appeared from nowhere, shouting and waving a revolver. Merritt was gunned down, and although the police were soon on the scene, by the time they had got him to a hospital it was too late. Meanwhile the gunman—Minor—made no attempt to escape. The policeman who arrested him described him as tall, well-dressed, with an erect bearing and a military appearance.

It soon emerged that he was also crazy. The Lambeth police had in fact already had dealings with him. He had complained to them more than once that he was being subjected to bizarre forms of persecution by the Fenians—Irish militants; and after he had been taken into custody his landlady confirmed that he had been “formidably afraid of the Irish” and the plots he believed they were hatching against him. It was only at his trial, however, that the full extent of his mental illness became clear. He had begun to show signs of paranoia some five years earlier, while serving in the Union army. After his condition became too acute to ignore, he had been sent to the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington (the present-day St. Elizabeth’s); and although he was released after eighteen months, he continued to be plagued by fantasies of persecution. Finally, in 1870, an army board decided that he should be retired immediately, on the grounds that he had been “incapacitated by causes arising in the line of duty.” It also ruled that he was entitled to full pay and pension, which he continued to receive for the rest of his life.

If his wartime experiences in general had helped to unhinge him, one incident in particular seems to have lain behind his phobia about the Irish. In 1864, in the aftermath of the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia, he had been compelled to take part in the barbaric ritual of branding a recaptured deserter on the face. The victim was an Irishman, a member of the Irish brigade; as a surgeon, Minor was the officer responsible for applying the branding iron. Even amid the other horrors of war, it must have been a traumatic episode.

Once the evidence from America had become available, the outcome of his trial was never seriously in doubt. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and sentenced to be detained, in the Bleak House-ish phrase, “until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known”(i.e., indefinitely). A few days later he was transferred to Broadmoor; he arrived there in shackles.

It is a tragic story, not just a curious tale. Yet it could certainly have been worse. Minor still had a lot of things going for him. He enjoyed a substantial income. He was well-educated and well-connected (the American Legation in London took a close interest in his case). For much of the time—the daytime, at least—he was thoroughly reasonable. And he was fortunate in having been sent to Broadmoor during the regime of a humane and intelligent superintendent, who understood his needs.

As a result, he soon found himself living in what (allowing for the fact that he was behind bars) might almost be called modest luxury. He was assigned to the most comfortable block, and given two cells—interconnecting rooms—rather than one. He was accorded all kinds of privileges. Above all, he was allowed to indulge his craving for books. He pored over sales-lists and catalogs; he had one of his rooms lined with shelves from floor to ceiling. And in time, his book collecting was to produce one of the oddest twists in the story.

George Merritt, the man Minor shot, was thirty-four when he died. It would have been easy for Winchester to have let him remain a half-anonymous figure—victims seldom excite as much interest as their killers—but to his credit, he doesn’t allow us to overlook the pathos of his situation. He had begun life as a farm laborer in Wiltshire. His wife, Eliza, came from a similar background. When they met, they had decided to go in search of a better life in London, but in the event they had sim-ply made the journey from rural poverty to urban poverty. For George, it all ended with a few moments of terror on a dark street. For Eliza, there was still the future to face, with six small children.

Some six or seven years into his confinement, Minor got in touch with her (via the American Legation). He had slowly been overcome by remorse, and in a belated effort to make amends, he offered her financial assistance. Not only did she accept; she also asked if it might be possible to visit him. According to Winchester, who has examined the Broadmoor files, this was an unprecedented request, but after consulting the superintendent, the Home Office gave the go-ahead.

In spite of some initial awkwardness—how could it have been otherwise?—their first meeting went well, and over the next few months they fell into a routine of regular visits. In the end Eliza drifted away (she eventually took to drink), but while the visits lasted, she also performed a useful practical service. Minor had complained to her about the drawbacks of the postal system. She agreed to collect packages for him from the big London book dealers and bring them down by hand; and it was probably in one such package that he first came across James Murray’s appeal for quotation-hunting volunteers. (Winchester says “almost certainly”; we can’t know for sure, but the dates fit.)

Murray’s method was to get his volunteers to trawl through individual works for any usages and quotations that seemed to them worth noting down; but Minor, with empty days and years stretching ahead of him, soon devised his own plan of campaign. He began working through the books in his collection, compiling a word list for each of them and indexing the results. This meant that in time, unlike the other volunteers, he was able to supply large numbers of quotations on request. For a year or two after establishing contact with the dictionary he worked alone, building up his hoard; then he wrote again, explaining what he had done. Murray and his sub-editors put him to the test by asking whether he could supply any fresh material for the word art, which was due to be included in the next “fascicle” or paper-bound installment of the dictionary. He replied with a list of twenty-seven quotations (the other volunteers who had been approached sent in one or two apiece), and as a result he made his first contribution to the finished text shortly afterward, with a citation from Sir Joshua Reynolds.

After that, the requests started flowing out and the quotations came flowing back. There were a flurry of agricultural terms (including heckling, which originally meant separating the fibers of flax—hence to scrutinize, to cross-examine, to search out weak points). Minor’s knowledge of Anglo-Indian vocabulary was drawn on for the entries for such words as bhang and catamaran. At the same time, he didn’t neglect the history of more familiar terms: drink, duty, the earliest recorded use of dirt meaning earth. He was able to come up with one of the earliest recorded uses of the word reminiscence: “There are those who teach on Plato’s grounds that inclination comes from a certain reminiscence” (from Complete Woman, a French work by Jacques du Boscq, 1639). Winchester gives further examples, and you wish he’d given still more. Yet perhaps in the end the intellectual interest of Minor’s contributions to the dictionary is somewhat limited. He couldn’t have accomplished what he did without good judgment and exceptionally wide knowledge, but his most important qualifications for the task were diligence and remarkable powers of organization. Even something as mechanical as the positioning of the quotations he transcribed was turned into an art: he learned to calculate how much blank space he needed to leave on the page if he was going to be able to fit in subsequent quotations in alphabetical order.

As for the significance of his contributions, we have James Murray’s own word for it. Murray singled them out as surpassed in importance by those of only one other outside collaborator, Fitzedward Hall.* After his first visit to Broadmoor (which took place in 1891) he also maintained cordial relations with Minor; and reading about the two men’s friendship, and about Minor’s patient lexicographical labors, it is easy to forget, for the moment, quite how far deranged Minor remained.

The medical notes for his first ten years in Broadmoor reveal what Winchester calls “the sad and relentless progress of his downward spiral.” His obsession with the Irish seems to have receded—at any rate, Winchester doesn’t make any further reference to it; but in other respects his delusions multiplied. He became convinced that small boys were hiding in the rafters of his room; that they came down at night, chloroformed him, and forced him to perform indecent acts. He barricaded his door with furniture to keep at bay nameless intruders who nonetheless succeeded in getting in from under the floor and pouring poison into his mouth through a funnel. Like many other madmen, he was quick to incorporate the latest technology into his fantasies. In the 1870s he believed that electric currents were being used to transport him to Constantinople, where his enemies tried “to make a pimp” of him. Within a short while of the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk, he believed that he had been kidnapped and carried off in a flying machine—to Constantinople once again, where this time he was made to perform unspeakable acts with cheap women and small girls. His sexual fantasies were often colored, as he himself recognized, by memories of his childhood in the East. His sense of guilt about them was plainly enormous.

In a nightmare-ridden world, his work on the dictionary was a godsend. It gave him a purpose in life, restored his self-esteem, redirected his energies into constructive channels, enabled him to plan ahead. There were times when he must have felt that it was the only thing to hold on to. “Words alone are certain good.”

But there was no permanent defense against his demons. His condition deteriorated; his judgments on himself grew harder to bear. Finally, one demented December morning in 1902, using a penknife which had also served him as a paper knife, he cut off his penis and threw it into the fire—though he retained enough sense of self-preservation (and enough medical knowledge) to apply a ligature which stopped the bleeding almost at once.

He recovered, but he was growing infirm. He also had to cope with a new superintendent, Dr. Brayn, who was far less sympathetic than his predecessor; and to make matters worse, he developed a new obsession. Over the years he had continued to paint. Now he was seized with the urge to present one of his pictures to the Princess of Wales (the future Queen Mary, wife of George V). Brayn denied his request, reminding him that inmates weren’t allowed to communicate with members of the royal family (a rule which had been introduced, Winchester explains, because so many of them had persuaded themselves that they were members of the royal family). Minor appealed to the Home Office, which backed Brayn. In a fury, he then wrote to the American ambassador and the US Army chief of staff in Washington. Attachés, heads of protocol, and staff officers were sent scurrying around, but there was never any real chance of Minor getting his way. In the end he was curtly informed that the painting had been lost.

For Brayn, the affair had been a nuisance, and in 1910 he took his revenge. All Minor’s privileges were revoked; he was ordered to quit his rooms at a day’s notice, leaving his books and other treasures behind him. It was a singularly spiteful act (Minor was now seventy-six) and one which drew protests from those of Minor’s friends who got to hear of it, Murray among them. It also prompted his brother to set in motion a campaign to have him repatriated to America. The Home Secretary of the day, Winston Churchill, came down in favor, and in April 1910 Minor set out on his journey home. Just before he left, Murray paid him one final visit; he also arranged for a portrait of him to be taken by a fashionable photographer—sitting in the garden at Broadmoor, looking serene and benign. And then he left for Tilbury Docks, where the assistant guarding him was due to hand him over to his brother. His luggage included the six volumes of the Oxford dictionary which had so far been published.

The rest of his story is soon told. On his arrival in America, he was readmitted to St. Elizabeth’s. His condition continued to decline; there was a period when he took to hitting people, though by now he was too frail to do them much harm. In 1919 a nephew was granted permission to transfer him to a hospital in Hartford, Connecticut. He died the following year.

Meanwhile, Winchester hasn’t neglected Murray, who died in 1915. In the course of the book we are given a lively sketch of the great lexicographer’s achievements, his idiosyncrasies, his early struggles. (He came from a much humbler background than Minor: he had been born in a small Scottish village, the son of a tailor, and left school when he was fourteen.) But Winchester can’t hope to match the classic account by Murray’s granddaughter, Elisabeth Murray, in her 1977 biography Caught in the Web of Words; and although in principle the relationship between Murray and Minor lies at the heart of his story, in practice the focus is far more on Minor. It is pleasant, and mildly piquant, to think of the two men together—near-contemporaries, sharing the same interests, curiously similar in appearance. (They were both tall and thin; they both had fine white rabbinical beards.) But all said and done, Minor played only a marginal role in Murray’s career, and the gulf between their worlds remained vast.

The Professor and the Madman isn’t without its blemishes. Winchester doesn’t always mean quite what he says—he talks about two people being on “a collision course,” for instance, when all he means is that they were destined to meet—and he is sometimes a little too keen to let you know that he has got hold of a good story. But it is a good story, and on the whole he tells it extremely well. He has the journalistic virtues, including a talent for following things up and delving into unexpected corners. Minor’s stepmother, for example, arranged for payments of cash to be made to Merritt’s children. Winchester has discovered that one of the boys eventually went to Monaco, where he staked the money she had given him on the tables, won a large amount, and took to styling himself “the King of Monte Carlo.” After that his luck deserted him. He spent the rest of his life hanging around in the south of France, and died in poverty.

Like a good reporter, Winchester has also put in a lot of legwork. On the spot where the records say that George Merritt was buried, he found nothing but a patch of discolored grass. But Broadmoor still stands, and the quarters where Minor was confined for so long are still in use. The room which served as his library is now a single cell again, and if it contains any trace of his spirit or any echo of his labors, Winchester couldn’t detect them. Instead, he found bodybuilding magazines scattered around, posters depicting “Rambo-like figures” and large American motorcycles, and—pasted on the door—a headline torn from a comic book. It read simply “Mad Killer.”

  1. *

    Hall and Minor had a number of things in common. They were both Americans and both resident in England; they had both served as soldiers, and both spent time in India. Winchester adds that they were both mad, which in Hall’s case is going too far; but he was certainly prone to persecution mania. After a furious dispute with academic colleagues in London he retired to a country cottage, quarreled with his neighbors, and became a virtual recluse. He thought that Englishmen displayed “a fiendish hatred” toward Americans, but nonetheless chose to remain in England until his death.

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