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The Man Behind The Oxford English Dictionary Wrote It While In An Asylum Because He Committed Murder

Dr. William Chester Minor's life is stranger than fiction. That an American surgeon came to be one of the largest contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is surprising. That he wrote his entries while confined in a psychiatric facility is mind-boggling. The account of this bizarre tale is well-documented by Simon Winchester in his book, The Professor and the Madman.

The dictionary has been hailed as one of the greatest literary works in the history of the English language. Although the roots of the OED go back to 1857, it wasn't until 1878 that former schoolmaster Professor James Murray took over the dictionary project that the Oxford University Press eventually published. Contributors to the multi-volume work of 414,825 definitions included historians, philologists, businessmen, clergymen, and one murderer.

While most OED contributors had mundane occupations like banking, teaching, or writing, Minor played the flute and read voraciously. He did this while inside his comfortable two-room cell at the Broadmoor Asylum, five miles from Oxford.

Upon learning that Murray needed wordsmiths, Minor began corresponding with the man. Ironically, Murray had no idea that one of his most prolific volunteers had been judged criminally insane.

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  • Minor Shot A Man In A Fit Of Paranoia
    Photo: Gustav Doré / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    Minor Shot A Man In A Fit Of Paranoia

    Rather than settle in a posh area when he left America, William Minor sought shelter in Lambeth, a section in south London. As Simon Winchester put it, the squalid locale afforded Minor “easy access to easy women.” That overcrowded, filthy, and crime-ridden part of the city was hardly a healthy venue for someone attempting to overcome a delusional mentality. As violent as Lambeth was, however, guns were not common there. Minor changed that posthaste.

    It was barely two in the morning on February 17, 1872, when the sleeping denizens of Lambeth were awakened by unfamiliar sounds - gunshots breaking through the night. Minor had killed brewery worker George Merrett, who was on his way to work. The former surgeon thought Merrett was a home-intruder, although the man had never even set foot in the premises. During his trial, Minor's landlady testified that no strangers had broken the lodging's locks.

    Minor’s stepbrother George also testified about William’s erratic behavior, so the judge ruled against him. He found the once esteemed man to be criminally insane. Minor was then transported the Broadmoor Asylum.

  • Minor Castrated Himself As Punishment
    Photo: Simon Winchester / Amazon

    Minor Castrated Himself As Punishment

    William Minor stayed at Broadmoor Asylum longer than any other patient. During his 30 years there, the nightly torments continued. He claimed to have uncontrollable sexual relations with thousands of women, and he saw himself as a vile sinner in the eyes of God. While patients were not normally allowed to keep knives in the cells, Minor was permitted one to cut open the pages of his first editions. This proved to be a grave mistake, though. In December 1902, 68-year-old Minor used the knife on himself, cutting off his genitalia.

    There is a long history of castration, but Minor's self-inflicted mutilation might have resulted from a warped understanding of Christianity. He was the son of Christian missionaries although he turned to atheism after the Civil War. Author Simon Winchester recounted

    “Minor began to judge himself by the harsh standards of what he believed to be an all-purpose, all-seeing, and eternally vindictive deity.”

  • Minor Eagerly Researched For The 'OED'

    James Murray asked volunteers to collect literary words and phrases from their reading to be included in the Oxford English Dictionary. He hoped they would submit the words with quotes from the books to illustrate meaning. Obviously, this was the perfect occupation for an intelligent, educated bibliophile like William Minor. And it was particularly suited for someone with lots of time. Minor began compiling lists of words and quotes as early as 1883, but it would still be over a year before he became actively involved with the OED project.

    Minor was so eager to take part in the work that he asked Murray and his staff for words that he could research. And the team was enthusiastic. The OED editors had no idea that Minor was institutionalized, though.

  • Minor Frequently Released His Frustrations In Brothels
    Photo: Frans van Mieris the Elder / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Minor Frequently Released His Frustrations In Brothels

    When the Civil War ended, William Minor moved to Governor’s Island in New York, where he was appointed as acting assistant army surgeon. His early work in the army hospital was well-received, but author Simon Winchester pointed out that Minor began to exhibit signs of paranoia and promiscuous behavior in New York. The young man made nightly visits to brothels and even started carrying a Colt .38 service revolver for protection.

    Minor contracted a venereal disease during his excursion, but was still considered to be “one of a half dozen of the best [minds] in the country.” In spite of his extensive education, though, Minor attempted to cure his STD by injecting white Rhine wine into his urethra.

    Before long, army officers noticed the change in Minor's personality, and his lascivious tastes became too excessive. They transferred him to an obscure fort in the Gulf of Mexico. Minor was not happy.

  • Minor's Lascivious Thoughts Got Him Sent Away
    Photo: Yale University / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Minor's Lascivious Thoughts Got Him Sent Away

    William Minor’s parents descended from early Scottish Presbyterian settlers in New England. In 1834, however, they left their home in Connecticut and traveled to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to work as missionaries. Minor’s mother died when he was only three, and his father soon remarried another young missionary woman. When Minor was 13, he started having lascivious thoughts about native girls. Although he never acted on his impulses, his religious upbringing plagued him with guilt. That crisis of conscience reemerged quite horrifically later in life.

    Whether or not Minor's parents recognized his dilemma, they sent him back to the United States to stay with his uncle Alfred in New Haven, CT. The time abroad really cultivated the boy's lust for knowledge. Minor spent his years in Ceylon consuming books and earning credentials for Yale's School of Medicine.

    After graduating from the prestigious institution in 1863, Minor joined the army to fight in the American Civil War.

  • Minor Was Forced To Brand A Man During The Civil War
    Photo: James F Gibson, Library of Congress / Britanica / Public Domain

    Minor Was Forced To Brand A Man During The Civil War

    William Minor likely encountered very gruesome and visceral scenes while serving as a Union Army surgeon. In fact, Simon Winchester notes in book The Professor and the Madman that Minor was in commission during the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864; it was one of the bloodiest occurrences of the whole war.

    Minor was incredibly sensitive, so the war was surely traumatic for him. The surgeon was even forced to brand a deserter's cheek with a searing iron. Winchester asserted that this gruesome act played a role in Minor’s dementia and delusions.