For the great reference works of the English language, the beginnings were often surprisingly modest. Encyclopedia Britannica was first published on this day in 1768 in Edinburgh, Scotland: part of the Scottish enlightenment. Webster’s dictionary got its beginnings with a single infantrymen of the American Revolution, who went on to codify what would become the standardized system of spelling for “American English“. In Noah Webster’s dictionary, ‘colour’ became ‘color’, and programme’ became ‘program’, a novel concept at a time when the thought of a “correct“ way of spelling, was a new and unfamiliar idea.
Among the entire catalog of works there is no tale so queer as the Oxford English dictionary, and the convicted murderer who helped bring it into being. From an insane asylum, no less.
Dissatisfied with what were at that time a spare four reference works including Webster’s dictionary, the Philological society of London first discussed what was to become the standard reference work of the English language, in 1857. The work was expected to take 10 years in compilation and cover some 64,000 pages. The editors were off by sixty years. Five years into the project, the team had made it all the way to “ant“.
William Chester Minor was a physician around this time, serving the Union army during the American Civil War.
The role of this experience in the man’s later psychosis, is impossible to know. Minor was in all likelihood a paranoid schizophrenic, a condition poorly understood in his day.
As a combat surgeon, Minor saw things that no man was ever meant to see. Terrible mutilation was inflicted on both sides at the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness. Hundreds were wounded and unable to get out of the way of the brush fire, burning alive those sufferers too broken to move, before the horrified eyes of comrades and enemies, alike. One soldier would later write: It was as though “hell itself had usurped the place of earth“.
Dr. Minor was ordered to brand the forehead of an Irish deserter, with the letter “D”. The episode scarred the soldier, and left the doctor with paranoid delusions that the Irish were coming to ‘get him’.
As a child born to New England missionaries working in Ceylon, Minor was well adjusted to the idea of foreign travel, as a means of dealing with travail. He took a military pension and moved to London in 1871, to escape the demons who were by that time, closing in.
One day, Minor shot and killed one George Merritt, a stoker who was walking to work. He believed the man had broken into his room. The trial was published widely, the “Lambeth Tragedy” revealing the full extent of Minor’s delusional state, to the public.
Minor was judged not guilty on grounds of insanity, and remanded “until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known”, to the Broadmoor institution for the criminally insane. Victorian England was by no means ‘enlightened’ by modern standards, and inmates were always referred to as ‘criminals’ and ‘lunatics’. Never as ‘patients’. Yet Broadmoor, located on 290 acres in the village of Crowthorne in Berkshire was England’s newest such asylum, and a long way from previous such institutions.
Minor was housed in block 2, the “Swell Block”, where his military pension and family wealth afforded him two rooms, instead of the usual one. In time, Minor acquired so many books that one room was converted to a library. Surprisingly, it was Merritt’s widow Eliza, who delivered many of the books. The pair became friends, and Minor used a portion of his wealth to “pay” for his crime, and to help the widow raise her six kids.
Dr. James Murray assumed editorship of the “Big Dictionary” of English in 1879, and issued an appeal in magazines and newspapers, for outside contributions. Whether this seemed a shot at redemption to William Minor or merely something to do with his time is anyone’s guess, but Minor had nothing but time. And books.
William Minor collected his first quotation in 1880 and continued to do so for twenty years, always signing his submissions: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.
The scope of the man’s work was prodigious, he himself an enigma, assumed to be some country gentlemen. Perhaps one of the overseers, at the asylum.
In 1897, “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” failed to attend the Great Dictionary dinner. Dr. Murray decided to meet his mysterious contributor in person and finally did so, four years later. In his cell. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall, when this Oxford don was ushered into the office of Broadmoor’s director, only to learn that the man he looked for, was an inmate.
Dr. Minor would carefully index and document each entry, which editors compared with the earliest such word use submitted by other lexicographers. In this manner, over 10,000 of his submissions made it into the finished work, including the words ‘colander’, ‘countenance’ and ‘ulcerated’.
By 1902, Minor’s paranoid delusions had crowded out his mind. His submissions came to an end. What monsters lurked inside the man’s head is anyone’s guess. Home Secretary Winston Churchill ordered Minor to be removed back home to the United States, following a 1910 episode in which Minor emasculated himself, with a knife.
The madman lived out the last ten years of his life, in various institutions for the criminally insane. William Chester Minor died in 1920 and went to his rest in a small inauspicious grave, in Connecticut.
Over seventy years in compilation, only one single individual is credited with more entries to the greatest reference work in the history of the English language, than this one murderer, working from a home for lunatics.
Feature image, top of page: Dr. Murray and his Oxford University editorial team, 1915. H/T allthatsinteresting.com