Book: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Previous: Chapter 8
Next: Chapter 10

||Dénouement (den·ma). [F. dénouement, dénoûment, formerly desnouement, f. dénouer, desnouer, in OF. desnoer to untie = Pr. denozar, It. disnodare, a Romanic formation from L. dis- + nod re to knot, nodus knot.]
Unravelling; spec. the final unravelling of the complications of a plot in a drama, novel, etc.; the catastrophe; transf. the final solution or issue of a complication, difficulty, or mystery.

 

Modern literary myth maintains, even today, that the strangest puzzle surrounding William Chester Minor’s career was this: Just why did he not attend the great dictionary dinner—a dinner to which he was invited—held in Oxford on the glittering evening of Tuesday, October 12, 1897?

It was Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Year, and those who were connected with the OED project were in more than a mood for a party. The dictionary was at long last going well. The faltering progress of the early years was now accelerating—the fascicle Anta-Battening had been published in 1885, Battentlie-Bozzom in 1887, Bra-Byzen in 1888. A new spirit of efficiency had settled on the Scriptorium. And as crowning glory Queen Victoria had in 1896 “graciously agreed,” as the court liked to say, that the just-completed volume 3—embracing the entirety of the infuriating letter C (which the lexicographers found unusually filled with ambiguities and complexities, not least because of its frequent overlaps with the letters G, K, and S)—should be dedicated to her.

An aura of majestic permanence had all of a sudden invested the dictionary. There was no doubt now that it would eventually be completed—for since it had been royally approved, who could ever brook its cancellation? With that happy realization, and with the queen having done her part, so Oxford, in high mood for celebration, decided it could follow suit. James Murray deserved to be given honors and thanks—and who more appropriate than the great man’s adopted university to bestow them?

The university’s new vice-chancellor decided that a big dinner—“slap-up,” to employ a phrase that the dictionary was to quote from 1823—should be held in Murray’s honor. It would be staged in the huge hall at the Queen’s College, where by old tradition a scholar with a silver trumpet sounds a fanfare to summon guests in to dine. It would celebrate what The Times, on the day of the dinner, proclaimed to be “the greatest effort probably which any university, it may be any printing press, has taken in hand since the invention of printing…. It will not be the least of the glories of the University of Oxford to have completed this gigantic task.” The evening would be a memorable Oxford event.

As indeed it was. The long tables were splendidly decorated with flowers and with all the best silverware and crystal that Queen’s could roust from its cellars. The menu was forthright and English—clear turtle soup, turbot with lobster sauce, haunch of mutton, roast partridges, Queen Mab pudding, and strawberry ice. But like the dictionary itself, it was also flavored generously, but not too generously, with Gallicisms: “sweet-breads after the mode of Villeroi, grenadines of veal, ramequins.” The wines were plentiful and excellent: an 1858 amontillado sherry, an 1882 Adriatic maraschino liqueur, an aged Château d’Yquem, and champagne by Pfungst, 1889. The guests wore white tie, academic robes, medals. During the speeches—and after a “loyal toast” in which the graciousness of her majesty was duly noted, and her six decades on the throne proudly congratulated, they smoked cigars.

They must have smoked long and well. There were no fewer than fourteen speeches—James Murray on the entire history of dictionary making, the head of the Oxford University Press on his belief that the project was a great duty to the nation, and the egregious Henry Furnivall, as lively and amusing as ever, taking time from recruiting buxom Amazons from the local ABC teahouse to come a-rowing with him, to speak on what he saw as Oxford’s heartless attitude toward the admission of women.

Among the guests could be counted all the great and the good of the academic land. The editors of the dictionary, the Delegates of the press, the printers, members of the Philological Society and, not least, some of the most assiduous and energetic of the volunteer readers.

There was Mr. F. T. Elworthy of Wellington; Miss J. E. A. Brown of Further Barton, near Cirencester; the Rev. W. E. Smith of Putney; Lord Aldenham (better known by friends of the dictionary as Mr. H. Huck Gibbs); Mr. Russell Martineau; Monsieur F. J. Amours; and for the later parts of D, the Misses Edith and E. Perronet Thompson, both of Reigate. The list was long: but so sonorous were the names and so evidently awesome their achievements, the diners, well into their port and cognac by now, heard them out in a silence that was easy to confuse with rapture.

As it happens, the most fulsome remarks made about the volunteers that night relate to two men who had much in common: Both were Americans, both spent time in India, both were soldiers, both were mad, and though both had been invited, neither one came to the Oxford dinner.

The first was Dr. Fitzedward Hall, who came from Troy, New York. His was a bizarre story. Just as he was about to enter Harvard in 1848, his family demanded that he set off for Calcutta to track down an errant brother. His ship was wrecked in the Bay of Bengal; he survived and became fascinated by Sanskrit, studying it to the point where he was eventually offered the chair in Sanskrit at Government College in Varanasi, then called Benares, the holiest city in the Ganges Valley. He fought for the British side during the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, as a rifleman; then left India in 1860 and became Sanskrit professor at King’s College, London, and librarian at the India Office.

And then, quite precipitously, his life fell terribly apart. No one is sure why, except that he had a furious dispute with a fellow Sanskrit scholar from Austria named Theodor Goldstücker. It was a dispute of such gravity—linguists and philologists were known to be mercurial and hold eternal grudges—that it caused Hall to quit the India Office, have himself summarily suspended from the Philological Society, and leave London for a small village in Suffolk.

People said he was a drunkard, a foreign spy, hopelessly immoral, and an academic phony. He in turn accused all Britons of turning on him, ruining his life, driving away his wife, and displaying only a “fiendish hatred” of Americans. He turned the key in the lock of his cottage in Marlesford, and—except for the occasional steamer voyage back home to New York—lived the life of a near-total country recluse.

And yet he wrote every single day to James Murray at Oxford—a correspondence that continued for twenty years. The two men never met—but over the years Hall without complaint compiled slips, answered queries, offered advice, and remained the staunchest ally of the dictionary during its bleakest days. Small wonder that Doctor Murray wrote in the great preface: “[A]bove all we have to record the inestimable collaboration of Dr. Fitzedward Hall, whose voluntary labours have completed the literary and documentary history of numberless words, senses and idioms, and whose contributions are to be found on every page.”

Those at the dinner knew why he had not come: They knew that he was a hermit, that he was difficult. But no one knew—or so the story has long had it—exactly why the man next mentioned had not turned up. Murray, in writing the celebrated preface, had been almost equally generous in his praise: “also the unflagging services of Dr. W. C. Minor, which have week by week supplied additional quotations for the words actually preparing for press.” “Second only to the contributions of Dr. Fitzedward Hall,” Murray was to write a little later, “in enhancing our illustration of the literary history of individual words, phrases and constructions, have been those of Dr. W. C. Minor, received week by week.”

But where, wondered the gathered assembly, was Doctor Minor? He was living at Crowthorne, only sixty minutes away by the green-and-gold steam trains of the Great Western. He was not notorious as an ill-tempered misanthrope, like Doctor Hall. His letters had always been noted for their polite solicitousness. So why could he not have had the courtesy to come? To some who dined at Queen’s on that glorious autumn evening, Minor’s absence must have seemed a melancholy footnote to an otherwise glorious literary moment.

The received wisdom has it that Doctor Murray was perplexed, even vaguely irritated. It is said that he vowed, out of all his lexicographic knowledge, to take a leaf from Francis Bacon, who in 1624 had written in English the axiom from the collection of the Prophet’s sayings known as the hadith, to the effect that “If the mountain will not come to Mahomet, then Mahomet must go to the mountain.”

It is said that he promptly wrote to Doctor Minor, his letter supposedly reading as follows:

You and I have now known each other through correspondence for fully seventeen years, and it is a sad fact that we have never met. Perhaps it has never proved convenient for you to travel; maybe it has been too expensive; but while it is difficult indeed for me to leave the work of the Scriptorium even for one day, I have long wanted to meet you, and may I perhaps suggest that I come to visit you. If this is convenient, perhaps you might suggest a day and a train, and if convenient for me I will telegraph the time of my expected arrival.

Doctor Minor supposedly wrote back promptly, saying that he would of course be delighted to receive the editor, that he was so sorry that physical circumstances—he did not elaborate—had hitherto made it impossible for him to come up to Oxford, and suggested a number of trains from those listed in the Bradshaw. Murray duly selected a November Wednesday, and a train that, with a change in Reading, was due into the Wellington College railway station shortly after lunch.

He telegraphed the details to Crowthorne, wheeled out his faithful black Humber tricycle, and, with his white beard blowing over his shoulder in the chilly breeze, set out down the Banbury Road, past the Randolph Hotel, the Ashmolean Museum, and Worcester College, and to the Up, or London-bound, platform of Oxford Station.

The journey took just a little over an hour. He was pleasantly surprised, on arriving at Crowthorne, to find a brougham and a liveried coachman waiting for him. His long-held assumption that Minor must be a leisured man of letters was reinforced: Perhaps, he thought to himself, he was even a man of means.

The horses clip-clopped through the fog-damp lanes. The magnificent pile of Wellington School lay neatly in the distance, a respectable distance from Crowthorne village itself, which was no more than a cluster of cottages, the piles of lawn leaves smoldering behind them. It was a pretty little place, quiet, well wooded, and rather self-contained.

After a couple of miles the coachman swung the horses into a poplar-lined driveway that climbed a long, low hill. The cottages thinned out and were replaced by a number of small redbrick houses of a rather more severe look. Then the horses stopped before an imposing front gate, a pair of towers with a great black-faced clock between, and green-painted doors that were being opened by a servant. The editor was perhaps vaguely excited: This must have seemed to him a grand country house in which he was being exceedingly well received, as though expected for a sumptuous afternoon tea, or like someone arriving at Kedleston for luncheon with Lord Curzon.

James Murray removed his cap and unbuttoned the Inverness tweed cape that had protected him from the cold. The servant said nothing, but ushered him inside and up a flight of marble stairs. He was swept into a large room with a glowing coal fire and a wall covered with portraits of gaunt-looking men. There was a large oak director’s desk, and behind it, a portly man of obvious importance. The servant backed out and closed the door.

Murray advanced toward the great man, who rose. Murray bowed stiffly and extended his hand.

“I, Sir, am Dr. James Murray of the London Philological Society,” he said in his finely modulated Scottish voice, “and editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

“And you sir, must be Dr. William Minor. At long last. I am most deeply honoured to meet you.”

There was a pause. Then the other man replied:

“I regret not, sir. I cannot lay claim to that distinction. I am the Superintendent of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Dr. Minor is an American, and he is one of our longest-staying inmates. He committed a murder. He is quite insane.”

Doctor Murray, as the story then continues, was in turn astonished, amazed, and yet filled with sympathetic interest. “He begged to be taken to Doctor Minor, and the meeting between the two men of learning who had corresponded for so long and who now met in such strange circumstances was an extremely impressive one.”

 

The story of this first meeting is, however, no more than an amusing and romantic fiction. It was created by an American journalist named Hayden Church, who lived in London for most of the first half of this century. It first appeared in England in the Strand magazine in September 1915, and then again, revised and amplified, in the same journal six months later.

In fact Church had already tried it out on an American audience, writing anonymously for the Sunday Star in Washington, D.C., in July 1915. The story was splendidly sensationalized, with the kind of lurid, multilayered headline that has sadly gone almost out of fashion.

AMERICAN MURDERER HELPED WRITE OXFORD DICTIONARY, read the first, extending over all eight columns of the page. MYSTERIOUS CONTRIBUTOR TO AN ENGLISH DICTIONARY PROVED TO BE A RICH AMERICAN SURGEON CONFINED IN BROADMOOR CRIMINAL LUNATIC ASYLUM FOR A MURDER COMMITTED WHILE HE WAS IN A DERANGED CONDITION—HOW SIR JAMES MURRAY, EDITOR OF THE DICTIONARY, WHO SET OUT, AS HE THOUGHT, TO VISIT THE HOME OF A FELLOW SAVANT, FOUND HIMSELF AT THE ASYLUM AND HEARD THE EXTRAORDINARY TALE, WHICH BEGINS DURING THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR WHEN THE PRINCIPAL WAS A SURGEON IN THE NORTHERN ARMY—CONTRIBUTOR WEALTHY AND NOW LIVING IN AMERICA, SAYS HIS FRIEND.

The breathless headline told of an even more exhausting story—but one made more than faintly ludicrous by its author’s inability or unwillingness to name Minor. In every reference he is called simply Doctor Blank, as in “And you sir, must be Dr. Blank. I am most honoured to meet you.”

The story nonetheless went down well with its American audience, which had been given hints and snippets in the years before—the arrest of one of their officers for murder in London not having passed unnoticed at the time, his imprisonment receiving occasional dustings-off as new correspondents and new diplomats found their way to the English capital. But the revelation of his work for the dictionary was new, and in this regard Hayden Church had a good, old-fashioned scoop. The wires picked the story up; it appeared in papers around the world, and as far away as Tientsin, China.

But in London it did not go down so well. Henry Bradley, who by this time had taken over from Murray as editor in chief of what was now formally known as the Oxford English Dictionary, took exception to the Strand article. He wrote an angry letter to the Daily Telegraph, complaining of “several misstatements of fact,” and that “the story of Dr. Murray’s first interview with Dr. Minor is, so far as its most romantic features are concerned, a fiction.”

Hayden Church dashed off a spirited reply to Bradley, which the Telegraph, naturally liking a fight, happily published. It contains vague rebuttals, citing only “a host of correspondents, some of them of great eminence”—but none of whom are named—who had confirmed the major aspects of the story. It pleads, limply, that “I have the best of reasons for believing the account of the meeting between Minor and Murray to be accurate.”

The oddest part of Church’s reply, however, is its enigmatic postscript. “I have just been in communication with one of the most distinguished literary men in England, who…pointed out that there did not appear in my article what he personally considered the most striking feature of all in the American’s history [emphasis added].”

Strictly true or not, Hayden Church’s account of the first meeting turned out to be simply far too good to ignore. It enthralled all England, people said. It took their mind off World War I—1915, after all, was the year of Ypres, of Gallipoli, of the sinking of the Lusitania, and people were no doubt content to have such a saga as a diversion from the grim realities of the fighting. “No romance,” said the Pall Mall Gazette, “is equal to this wonderful story, of scholarship in a padded cell.”

Virtually all subsequent references to the saga of Oxford dictionary making retell Church’s story, to a greater or lesser degree. In her justly celebrated biography (1977) of her grandfather, Miss K. M. Elisabeth Murray retells Church’s version of events almost without question, as does Jonathon Green in a more general book on the history of lexicography, published in 1996. Only Elizabeth Knowles, an Oxford University Press editor who became intrigued by the story in the early 1990s, takes a cooler and more detached view: Still, she is clearly perplexed that no definitive account of the first meeting can be found. The patina applied by decades of good use has made the legend pleasingly credible.

The truth, however, turns out to be only marginally less romantic. It surfaces in a letter Murray wrote in 1902 to a distinguished friend, Dr. Francis Brown, in Boston, and which turned up in a wooden box in the attic of one of William Minor’s very few living relations, a retired businessman living in Riverside, Connecticut. The letter appears to be the full and complete original, although it was the exhausting habit of many letter writers of the time to prepare a fair copy of all their outgoing mail, and in so doing occasionally to edit and elide some passages.

 

His first contact with Minor, writes Doctor Murray, came very soon after the beginning of his work in the dictionary—probably 1880 or even 1881. “He proved to be a very good reader, who wrote to me often,” and, as has already been mentioned, Murray thought only that he must be a retired medical man with plenty of time on his hands:

By accident, my attention was called to the fact that his address, Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire, was that of a large lunatic asylum. I assumed that (perhaps) he was the medical officer of that institution.
But our correspondence was of course entirely limited to the Dictionary and its materials, and the only feeling I had towards him was that of gratitude for his immense help, with some surprise at the rare and expensive old books that he evidently had access to.
This continued for years until one day, between 1887 and 1890, the late Mr. Justin Winsor, Librarian of Harvard College, was sitting chatting in my Scriptorium and among other things remarked “you have given great pleasure to Americans by speaking as you do in your Preface of poor Dr. Minor. This is a very painful case.”
“Indeed,” I said with astonishment, “in what way?”
Mr. W. was equally astonished to find that in all these years I had corresponded with Dr. Minor I had never learned nor suspected anything about him; and he then thrilled me with his story.

The great librarian—for Justin Winsor remains one of the grandest figures in all of nineteenth-century American librarianship, and a formidable historian to boot—then told the story, which Murray then retold to his friend in Boston. Some of the facts are wrong, as facts tend to be when related over a period of years—Murray says that Minor went to Harvard (while in fact he went to Yale), and repeats the probably apocryphal story that he was driven mad by having to witness the execution of two men after a court-martial. He goes on to say that the shooting happened in the Strand—then, unlike now, one of London’s more fashionable streets—rather than in the grim purlieus of the Lambeth waterside. But essentially the story is relayed correctly, after which Murray resumes his own narrative.

I was of course deeply affected by the story; but as Dr. Minor had never in the least alluded to himself or his position, all I could do was to write to him more respectfully and kindly than before, so as to show no notice of this disclosure, which I feared might make some change in our relations.
A few years ago an American citizen who called on me told me he had been to see Dr. Minor and said he found him rather low and out of spirits, and urged me to go to see him. I said I shrank from that, because I had no reason to suppose that Dr. Minor thought I knew anything about him personally.
He said: “Yes, he does. He has no doubt that you know all about him, and it really would be a kindness if you would go and see him.”
I then wrote to Dr. Minor telling him that, and that Mr. (I forget the name) who had recently visited him had told me that a visit from me would be welcome. I also wrote to Dr. Nicholson, the then Governor, who warmly invited me—and when I went, drove me from and to the Railway Station and invited me to lunch, at which he also had Dr. Minor, who I found was a great favorite with his children.
I sat with Dr. Minor in his room or cell many hours altogether before and after lunch, and found him, as far as I could see, as sane as myself, a much cultivated and scholarly man, with many artistic tastes, and of fine Christian character, quite resigned to his sad lot, and grieved only on account of the restriction it imposed on his usefulness.
I learned (from the Governor, I think) that he has always given a large part of his income to support the widow of the man whose death he so sadly caused, and that she regularly visits him.
Dr. Nicholson had a great opinion of him, gave him many privileges and regularly took distinguished visitors up to his room or cell, to see him and his books. But his successor the present governor has not shown such special sympathy.

The meeting took place in January 1891—six years earlier than is favored by the romantics who repeat the dictionary dinner story. Murray had written to Nicholson asking for permission, and in the letter we can almost feel his childlike, knee-squeezing anticipation of the event.

It will give me great satisfaction to make the acquaintance of Dr. Minor, to whom the Dictionary owes so much, as well as yourself who have been so kind to him. I shall probably come by the train you name (the 12 from Reading) but have not had time to look up the time-table, or rather to ask my wife to do so; for in such matters I deliver myself automatically into her hands, and she tells me, “Your train starts so and so, and you will go by such a train, and I will come into the Scriptorium and fetch you to get ready five minutes before.” I thankfully comply, and do my work until the “five minutes before” arrives.

It is now abundantly clear that the two men knew each other personally, and saw each other regularly, for almost twenty years from that date. The first encounter over lunch was to begin a long and firm friendship, based both on a wary mutual respect, and, more particularly, on their passionate and keenly shared love for words.

For both men, the first sight of the other must have been peculiar indeed, for they were uncannily similar in appearance. Both were tall, thin, and bald. Both had deeply hooded blue eyes, neither using spectacles (though Minor was profoundly myopic). Doctor Minor’s nose looks a little hooked, Doctor Murray’s finer and more aquiline. Minor has an air of avuncular kindliness; Murray much the same, but with a trace of the severity that might well distinguish a lowland Scot from a Connecticut Yankee.

But what was most obviously similar about the men were their beards—in both cases white, long, and nicely swallow-tailed—with thick moustaches, sideburns, and ample buggers’ grips. Both looked like popular illustrations of Father Time; boys in Oxford would see Murray tricycling by and call out, “Father Christmas!” at him.

True, Doctor Minor’s had a more ragged and unkempt look about it, doubtless because the arrangements for cutting and washing inside Broadmoor were rather less sophisticated than in the outside world. Murray’s beard, on the other hand, was fine and well-combed and shampooed, and looked as though no particle of food had ever been allowed to rest there. Minor’s was the more homely, while Murray’s was more of a fashion statement. But both were magnificently fecund arrangements. When the beards were added to the other collections of the pair’s individual attributes, each must have imagined, for a second, that he was stepping toward himself in a looking-glass, rather than meeting a stranger.

The two men met dozens of times in the next several years. By all accounts they liked each other—a liking subject only to Doctor Minor’s moods, to which Murray became over the years fully sensitive. He often had the foresight to telegraph Nicholson, to ask how the patient was; if low and angry, he would remain at Oxford; if low and likely to be comforted, he would board the train.

When the weather was poor the men would sit together in Minor’s room—a small and practically furnished cell not too dissimilar from a typical Oxford student’s room, and just like the room Murray was to be given at Balliol, once he was made an honorary fellow. It was lined with bookshelves, all of which were open except for one glass-fronted case that held the rarest of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century works from which much of the OED work was being done. The fireplace crackled merrily. Tea and Dundee cake were brought in by a fellow inmate whom Minor had hired to work for him—one of the many privileges Nicholson, like Orange before him, accorded his distinguished inmate.

There was a whole raft of other perks besides. He was able to order books at will from various antiquarian dealers in London, New York, and Boston. He was able to write uncensored letters to whomever he chose. He was able to have visitors more or less at will—and told Murray with some pride that Eliza Merrett, the widow of the man he murdered, would come to his rooms quite frequently. She was not an unattractive woman, he said, though it was thought that she drank rather too much for comfort.

He subscribed to magazines, which he and Murray would read to each other: The Spectator was one of his favorites, and Outlook, which was mailed to him by his relations in Connecticut. He took the Athenaeum, as well as the splendidly arcane Oxford publication Notes & Queries, which even today makes puzzling inquiries of the world’s literary community, about unsolved mysteries of the bookish world. The OED used to publish its word desiderata there; until Murray began visiting Crowthorne, this was Minor’s principal means of finding out which particular words the OED staff were working on.

Although the men talked principally about words—most often about a specific word, but sometimes about more general lexical problems of dialect and the nuances of pronunciation—they did, it is certain, discuss in a general sense the nature of the doctor’s illness. Murray could not help noticing, for instance, that Minor’s cell floor had been covered with a sheet of zinc—“to prevent men coming in through the timbers at night”—and that he kept a bowl of water beside the door of whichever room he was in—“because the evil spirits will not dare to cross water to get to me.”

Murray was aware, too, of the doctor’s fears that he would be transported from his room at night and made to perform “deeds of the wildest excess” in “dens of infamy” before being returned to his cell by dawn. Once airplanes were invented—and Minor, being American, kept keenly up to date with all that happened in the years after the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk—he incorporated them into his delusions. Men would then break into his rooms, place him in a flying machine, and take him to brothels in Constantinople, where he would be forced to perform acts of terrible lewdness with cheap women and small girls. Murray winced as he heard these tales, but held his tongue. It was not his place to regard the old man with anything other than sad affection; and besides, his work for the dictionary continued apace.

When the weather was fine the two men would walk together on the Terrace—a wide gravel path inside the asylum’s south wall, shaded by tall old firs and araucaria, the monkey-puzzle tree. The lawns were green, the shrubbery filled with daffodils and tulips, and once in a while other patients would emerge from the blocks to play football, or walk, or sit staring into space from one of the wooden benches. Attendants would lurk in the shadows, making sure there were no outbreaks of trouble.

Murray and Minor, hands behind their backs, would walk in step, slowly back and forth along the three hundred yards of the Terrace, always in the shadows of either the gaunt red buildings or of the seventeen-foot wall. They always seemed animated, deep in conversation; papers were produced, sometimes books. They did not speak to others, and gave the impression of inhabiting a world of their own.

Sometimes Doctor Nicholson would invite the pair in for afternoon tea; and on one or two occasions Ada Murray came to Broadmoor too, and remained with Nicholson and his family in the superintendent’s comfortably furnished house while the men pored over the books in the cell or on the gravel walkway. There was always sadness when the time came for the editor to leave: The keys would turn, the gates would clang shut, and Minor would be left alone again, trapped in a world of his own making, redeemed only when, after a day or so of quiet mourning, he could take down another volume from his shelves, select a needed word and its most elegant context, pick up his pen, and dip it in the ink to write once more: “To Dr. Murray, Oxford.”

 

The Oxford Post Office knew the address well: It was all that was needed to communicate by letter with the greatest lexicographer in the land, and make sure the information got through to him at the Scriptorium.

Few enough letters between the two men survive. There is a lengthy letter from 1888, in which Minor writes about the quotations containing the word chaloner—an obsolete name for a man who manufactured shalloon, which was a woolen lining material for coats. He is interested, according to a later note, in the word gondola, and finds a quotation from Spenser, in 1590.

Murray talked about his new friend often, and liked to include him—and indeed, with some discreet reference to his condition—in the speeches he was often obliged to make. In 1897, for instance, his notes survive for a speech he was to give at a dictionary evening at the Philological Society: “About 15 or 16,000 add’l slips rec’d during the past year. Half of those supplied by Dr. W. C. Minor whose name and pathetic story, I have often before alluded to. Dr. M. has in reading 50 or 60 books, mostly scarce, of the 16th-17th C. His practice is to keep just ahead of the actual preparation of the Dictionary.”

Two years later Murray felt able to be more fulsome still:

The supreme position…is certainly held by Dr. W. C. Minor of Broadmoor, who during the past two years has sent in no less than 12,000 quots [sic]. These have nearly all been for the words which Mr. Bradley and I were actually occupied, for Dr. Minor likes to know each month just what words we are likely to be working on during the month and to devote his whole strength to supplying quotations for those words, and thus to feel that he is in touch with the making of the Dictionary.
So enormous have been Dr. Minor’s contributions during the past 17 or 18 years, that we could easily illustrate the last 4 centuries from his quotations alone. (Emphasis added.)

 

But the devotion of his whole strength was beginning to prove taxing, both to his body and his mind. His kindly friend Doctor Nicholson retired in 1895—still in pain from being attacked by a patient six years earlier, who hit him on the head with a brick concealed in a sock. He was replaced by Doctor Brayn, a man selected (for more than his name alone, one trusts) by a Home Office that felt a stricter regime needed to be employed at the asylum.

Brayn was indeed a martinet, a jailer of the old school who would have done well at a prison farm in Tasmania or Norfolk Island. But he did as the government required: There were no escapes during his term of office (there had been several before, causing widespread alarm), and in the first year two hundred thousand hours of solitary confinement were logged by the more fractious inmates. He was widely feared and loathed by the patients—as well as by Doctor Murray, who thought he was treating Minor heartlessly.

And Minor continues to whinge. He complains of a hole in the heel of his sock, doubtless caused by some stranger’s shoe into which, at night, he had been obliged to place his foot (November 1896). Minor is suspicious that his wines and spirits are being tampered with (December 1896).

 

One curious snippet of information came from the United States later that same year, when it was noted rather laconically that two of Minor’s family had recently killed themselves—the letter going on to warn the staff at Broadmoor that great care should be taken lest whatever madness gripped their patient turned out to have a hereditary nature. But even if the staff thought Minor a possible suicide risk, no restrictions were placed on him as a result of the American information.

Some years before he had asked for a pocket knife, with which he might trim the uncut pages of some of the first editions of the books he had ordered: There is no indication that he was asked to hand it back, even with the harsh Doctor Brayn incharge. No other patient was allowed to keep a knife, but with his twin cells, his bottles, and his books, and with his part-time servant, William Minor seemed still to belong to a different category from most others in Broadmoor at the time.

In the year following the disclosure about his relatives, the files speak of Minor’s having started to take walks out on the Terrace in all weathers, angrily denouncing those who tried to persuade him to come back in during one especially violent snowstorm, insisting in his imperious way that it was his business alone if he wished to catch cold. He had more freedom of choice and movement than most.

Not that this much improved his temper. A number of old army friends from America happened to come over to London in 1899, and all asked to come to Broadmoor. But the old officer refused to see any of them, saying he did not remember them, and besides, he did not want to be disturbed. He formally applied to be given some “freedom of the vicinage,” to be let out on parole—the word he used being rather rare, and meaning essentially the same as “the vicinity.”

The elegance of his language convinced no one, however, and his application was firmly denied. “He is still of unsound mind and I am unable to recommend that his request be granted,” the superintendent wrote to the Home Secretary. (Or typed, it should be said: This is the first document in Minor’s file that was produced on a typewriter—an indication that while the patient remained in a miserable stasis, the outside world around him was changing all too rapidly.) The Home Secretary duly then turned down the prayer; on the form is added a bleak initialed notation from the heartless Doctor Brayn: “Patient informed, 12.12.99. RB”

His diet ticket shows him to be eating fitfully—lots of porridge, sago pudding, custard every Tuesday, but bacon and other meat only occasionally. He appears to have become increasingly unhappy, troubled, listless. “He seems unsettled,” is a constant theme of the attendants’ notes. A visit from Murray in the summer of 1901 cheered him up, but soon afterward the staff at the dictionary were beginning to notice a depressing change in their keenest surviving volunteer.

“I notice that he has sent no Q quotations,” wrote Murray to a friend.

But he has been very slack altogether for many months, and I have scarcely heard anything from him. He always is less helpful in summer, because he spends so much more time in the open air, in the garden and grounds. But this year it is worse than usual, and I have been feeling for a good while that I shall have to take a day to go and see him again, and try to refresh his interest.
In his lonely & sad position he requires a great deal of nursing, encouraging and coaxing, and I have had to go from time to time to see him.

A month later and things were no better. Murray wrote about him again—by now there are stories of him “putting his back up” and “refusing” to do the work that was wanted. He wrote something about the origin of the word hump, as on a camel—but aside from that, and coincident with the death of Queen Victoria, he lapsed into a sullen silence.

Another old army friend writing from Northwich, in Cheshire, in March 1902 asks Superintendent Brayn if he might be allowed to visit Minor, telling him in some distress that Minor himself had written saying that he ought not to, since “things were much changed, and that I might find it unpleasant.” Please give me your advice, the writer adds: “I do not wish to expose my wife to anything unpleasant.”

Brayn agreed: “I do not think it would be advisable for you to visit…there are no indications of any immediate danger, but his years are beginning to tell on him…his life is precarious.”

It was at about this time that there came the first indication that it might be better if Doctor Minor now be allowed to return to the United States, to spend his declining years—as he did seem to be in decline—close to his family.

 

Minor had been in Broadmoor now for thirty years—he was by far the longest-staying patient. He was sustained only by his books. Sadness had utterly enveloped him. He missed the ever-sympathetic Doctor Nicholson; he was perplexed by the more brutish regime of Doctor Brayn. His sole intellectual colleague among the Block 2 patients, the strange artist Richard Dadd, who had been sent to an asylum for stabbing dead his own father, had long since died. His own stepmother, Judith, whom he had seen briefly in 1885 on her way back from India, had died in New Haven in 1900. Age was fast winnowing out all those who were close to the mad old man.

Even old Fitzedward Hall had died, in 1901—an event that prompted Minor to fire off a letter of deep and abiding sadness to Murray. Along with his condolences went a request that the editor might perhaps enclose some more slips for the letters K and O—the news of the passing of his fellow countryman seems to have revived Minor’s interest in work a little. But only a little. He was now quite alone, in worsening health, harmless to all but himself. He was sixty-six years old, and showing it. The facts of his circumstances were beginning to weigh heavily on him.

Dr. Francis Brown, the distinguished physician in Boston to whom Murray had written the full account of Minor and their first meeting, thought he might intervene. After hearing from Murray he had written to the Department of the Army in Washington and then to the American Embassy in London, and now in March to Doctor Brayn, suggesting that—without Minor’s knowledge—a petition be sent to the Home Office asking for his release into his family’s custody and his return to the United States. “His family would rejoice to have him spend his last days in his own land and nearer to them.”

But the pitiless Brayn did not make the recommendation to the Home Secretary; and neither the embassy nor the U.S. Army chose to become involved. The old man was to stay put, encouraged only by the occasional correspondence from Oxford, but increasingly dispirited, angry, and sad.

A crisis was clearly about to erupt—and erupt it did. The event that in Hayden Church’s orotund phrase “was the most striking feature in the American’s history” struck without any warning that was heeded, on a cold morning at the beginning of December 1902.

Previous: Chapter 8
Next: Chapter 10