This week’s subject is William Chester Minor, the man who made the greatest contribution of quotations for the Oxford English Dictionary from his cell in Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum where he was serving a life sentence for murder.
Minor was born in Ceylon in 1834, the son of missionaries from New England. At the age of fourteen, he returned to America and later studied at Yale Medical School, graduating in 1863.
He served as a surgeon with the Union Army during the American Civil War and survived the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, although it seems that the terrible casualties suffered by both sides badly affected Minor’s state of mind.
Minor suffered from paranoid delusions and in 1868 he was admitted to an asylum in Washington without any improvement in his condition and in 1871 he travelled to London where he settled in Lambeth, an area of disrepute at that time.
It was there that in 1872 he shot and killed a man named Merrett who Minor believed to have broken into his room. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and incarcerated at Broadmoor.
But it was in the asylum that Minor found his vocation. In 1879, Professor James Murray set about the daunting task of editing the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and a call went out for volunteers to supply quotations to illustrate definitions.
Minor became the most prolific correspondent, reading through his large personal library of antiquarian books and compiling quotations that illustrated the way particular words were used and supplying quotations for more than 10,000 entries. Murray had no idea that this material was being supplied by a madman, assuming that Minor was a ‘practising medical man of literary tastes with a good deal of leisure.’
Minor’s condition deteriorated and in his deluded state, he believed that he was being abducted every night and taken to places as far away as Istanbul where he was forced to commit sexual assaults on children.
As his health worsened, Murray campaigned for Minor’s release which came in 1910 on the orders of Winston Churchill who was then the Home Secretary. He was deported to America and the same asylum in Washington.
In 1919, Minor was moved to the Retreat for the Elderly Insane in Hartford, Connecticut where he died in 1920.