The Killer Lunatic Who Helped Write Your Dictionary

“[William Minor’s] contributions were so great they could easily have illustrated the last four centuries [of words] from his quotations alone.” —Dr. James Murray, editor of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary

In A Nutshell

Compiling the dictionary is no easy task—especially when it’s the Oxford English Dictionary. It wasn’t just definitions that were needed, but sentences as well. A massive project ultimately passed down to editor James Murray, the project was ultimately assembled by an impressive display of 19th-century crowdsourcing. One of the most prolific contributors with tens of thousands of submissions was a man named Dr. William C. Minor. Murray struck up a friendship with the man, and eventually found he was less of a professional, practicing doctor and more of a patient at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, where he’d been living for decades.

The Whole Bushel

The Oxford English Dictionary is notable in that it’s not just a handy book that’ll tell you the meanings of words, it’ll also tell you how to use them. Compiling it meant that its editor, James Murray, didn’t need to just define words, but he needed sentences that showed their proper use. (Murray actually inherited the project from others, and it took an awesome 70 years to complete.)

Proving that you don’t need the Internet to launch a successful crowdsourcing campaign, Murray took out some newspaper ads and asked for contributions to his dictionary. They started coming in by the truckload, with one name popping up continuously throughout 20 years of Murray’s involvement with the project: Dr. William C. Minor, Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire. Over the course of two decades, Minor contributed tens of thousands of quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Murray struck up a friendship with this regular contributor, originally assuming that the man was, as his title suggested, a doctor at the manor house he’d given an address for. A chance meeting with a visitor in the late 1880s made him a little suspicious that it wasn’t the case at all, when he was thanked for his kindness toward “poor Dr. Minor.” It was only then that he did some research and found that he had been conversing with a patient, not a doctor.

Or, more accurately described, a lunatic.

To those who knew him as a young man, William Minor was quiet and sensitive—not one you’d expect to see on the battlefield. Yet Minor joined the Union Army as a surgeon after leaving Yale’s medical school, and was a firsthand witness to the horrors of 1864’s Battle of the Wilderness. Dealing with battlefield casualties is bad enough, but there was also a massive fire that swept through the field. Afterward, the doctor with the delicate disposition was ordered to brand a “D” on the face of an Irish deserter. It’s that event that was long thought to have been the one that pushed him over the edge, and certainly led to not only his irrational, paranoid fear of the Irish, but also caused his delusions that eventually led to murder.

He moved to England after the war. Walking home one night, he heard someone behind him. Convinced that it was the Irishman stalking him for revenge, he shot and killed George Merritt, whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was ultimately found not guilty for reason of insanity and committed to Broadmoor until he was deemed safe for release back into the populace.

(Oddly, one of his constant contacts outside the asylum was Merritt’s widow, who not only accepted his apology but frequently visited him with gifts—usually books, a passion of his even while he was confined at Broadmoor.)

It was ultimately James Murray who championed Minor’s cause, and the doctor was released in 1910—on order from Winston Churchill. He spent 28 years locked away at Broadmoor, and still made significant, staggering contributions to one of the English language’s premier reference books. After his release, he moved back to the United States and died in 1921, at his home in Connecticut.

Show Me The Proof

William Minor and the OED
BBC: Broadmoor’s word-finder