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

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Masturbate (), v. [f. L. masturbt-, ppl. stem of masturbr, of obscure origin: according to Brugmann for *mastiturbr f. *mazdo- (cf. Gr. pl.) virile member + turba disturbance. An old conjecture regarded the word as f. manu-s hand + stuprre to defile; hence the etymologizing forms MANUSTUPRATION, MASTUPRATE, -ATION, used by some Eng. writers.] intr. and refl. To practise self-abuse.

“At 10.55 am Dr. Minor came to the bottom gate, which was locked, and he called out: ‘You had better send for the Medical Officer at once! I have injured myself!’”

The words are the first lines of a brief penciled note that lurks anonymously among the scores of other papers that measure out the trivial details of the life of Broadmoor’s patient number 742. Reports of the more mundane features of William Minor’s now almost solitary life—his diet, his steadily diminishing number of visitors, his growing frailty, his curmudgeonly lapses, his insane ruminations—are usually made in ink, the writing steady and confident. But this single page, which is dated December 3, 1902, is very different. The fact that it was written in thick pencil sets it apart—but so does the handwriting, which makes it look as though it was scrawled urgently, in a hurry, by a man who was breathless, panicky, in a state of shock.

Its author was the Block 2 principal attendant, a Mr. Coleman. He had good reason to be appalled:

I sent Attendant Harfield for the Medical Officer and went to see if I could assist Dr. Minor. Then he told me—he had cut his penis off. He said he had tied it with string, which had stopped the bleeding. I saw what he had done.
Dr. Baker and Dr. Noott then saw him and he was removed to the B-3 Infirmary at 11.30am.
He had taken his walk before breakfast as usual. Also he took his breakfast. I was talking to him at 9.50 in Ward 3, when he appeared to be just as usual.

But he was not in fact “just as usual”—whatever such a phrase might mean in the context of his well-developed paranoia. Unless his act of self-mutilation was an extraordinary reaction to some equally extraordinary event—which could be the case, though there is no proof of it—it looks very much as though William Minor had been planning it for several days, if not for months. Cutting off his penis was, by his lights, a necessary and redemptive act: It had probably come about as the consequence of a profound religious awakening, which his doctors believed had begun two years before—or at the end of the century, thirty years after he had been committed.

Minor was the son of missionaries, and he had been brought up, at least notionally, as a staunch Congregationalist Christian. But while at Yale he had largely forsaken his religion, and by the time he was established in the Union army—whether he had become disillusioned by his experiences on the battlefield or simply uninterested in organized religion—he apparently abandoned his beliefs totally and was content to have himself described, without shame, as an atheist.

He was for a while a devoted reader of T. H. Huxley—the great Victorian biologist and philosopher who coined the term agnostic. His own feelings were more negative still: Since the laws of nature could quite satisfactorily explain all natural phenomena, he would write, he could not find any logical need for the existence of a God.

However, over the years in the asylum these feelings of hostility began slowly to ameliorate. By 1898 or so, his absolute certainty about the nonexistence of a God started to waver—perhaps in part because of the strong Christian beliefs of his frequent visitor James Murray, who was the object of Minor’s intense and most lasting admiration. Murray may well have discussed the possible solace that Minor might gain from the recognition and acceptance of a superior divinity: Unintentionally he may have triggered what turned out to be Minor’s steadily intensifying religious fervor.

By the turn of the century Minor had changed: He was telling visitors, and formally informing the Broadmoor superintendent, that he now regarded himself as a deist—as someone who accepts the existence of a God but does not subscribe to any particular religion. It was an important step—and yet, in its own way, it was a tragic one.

For in tandem with his new beliefs, Minor began to judge himself by the harsh standards of what he believed to be an all-purpose, all-seeing, and eternally vindictive deity. He suddenly stopped thinking of his insanity as a treatable sadness and instead took to thinking of it—or of some of its aspects—as an intolerable affliction, a state of sin that needed constant purging and punishment. He began to regard himself not as a sorry creature, but as someone inexpressibly vile, endowed with dreadful habits and leanings. He was a compulsive and obsessive masturbator. God would be certain to punish him dreadfully should he fail to halt his wholesale dependence on self-abuse.

His prodigious sexual appetites in particular started to become particularly abhorrent to him: He began to be haunted by the memory—or the fantastic supposed memory—of his past sexual conquests. He began to loathe the way his body responded, and with the way that God had so inappropriately and unjustly equipped him. As his medical file reported:

He believed there had been a complete saturation of his entire being with the lasciviousness of over 20 years, during which time he had relations with thousands of nude women, night after night. The nightly dissipations had had no perceptible influence on his physical strength, but his organ had increased in size as the result of such constant use, his constant priapism had allowed it to develop enormously. He remembers a Frenchwoman remarking “bien fait!” on first seeing it; another woman had called him “an apostle of pleasure”; sexual adventure and fantasy gave him as much pleasure as anything else in the world.
But when he became Christianized he saw that he must sever himself from the lascivious life that he had been leading—and decided that the amputation of his penis would solve the problem.

The surgical removal of the penis is at the best of times a dangerous practice, rarely performed even by doctors: An attack by the renowned Brazilian fishlet known as candiru, which likes to swim up a man’s urine stream and lodge in the urethra with a ring of retrorse spines preventing its removal, is one of the very rare circumstances in which doctor will perform the operation, known as a peotomy. It is a brave, foolhardy, and desperate man who will perform an autopeotomy, in which one removes one’s own organ—the more so when the operation is done in an unsterile environment and with a pen knife.

Among his many perks, as we have seen, Doctor Minor had enjoyed—unlike all the other Broadmoor patients—the superintendent’s permission to carry a pen knife. It had long ceased to be of much use: Few were the occasions when he had to cut the unfinished pages of first editions, which is why he had asked for the knife in the first place. Now it just sat in his pocket, as it might in that of an ordinary man on the outside world. Except that Minor was in no sense ordinary—and he now had, it turned out, an unusual and pressing need for the knife.

He was desperately certain that it was his penis that had led him to commit all the unsavory deeds that had so dominated his life. His continuing sexual desires, if not born in his penis, were at least carried out by it. In his delusional world he felt he had no alternative but to remove it. He was a doctor, of course, and so knew roughly what he was doing.

So on that Wednesday morning he sharpened his knife on a whetstone. He tied a thin cord tightly around the base of his member to act as a ligature and to pressure-cauterize the blood vessels, he waited for ten minutes or so until the vein and artery walls had become properly compressed—and then, in one swift movement that most would prefer not to imagine, he sliced off his organ about one inch from its base.

He threw the offending object into the fire. He relaxed the string and found that, as he had expected, there was almost no blood. He lay down for a while to ensure there was no hemorrhage and then walked almost casually to the lower gate on the ground floor of Block 2 and called for the attendant. His training taught him he would probably now go into shock, and he supposed that he needed to be put into the asylum infirmary—as indeed the astonished Broadmoor doctors ordered.

He remained there for the best part of a month—and within days was displaying his old cantankerous self, complaining at the noise the workmen were making, even though the day he chose to complain was a Sunday, when the workmen were all at home.

The penis steadily healed, leaving a small stump through which Minor could urinate, but that—to his presumed satisfaction—proved to be useless sexually. The problem had been solved: The Deity would be satisfied that no further sexual rompings could take place. The doctor remarked in his ward notes that he was amazed that anyone had had the nerve to perform such an extraordinary mutilation on himself.

 

There remains one further possible reason for his having carried out so bizarre an act—a reason that some might think rather stretches credulity. He may have amputated his penis out of guilt and self-loathing for having enjoyed either some kind of relationship with, or lascivious thoughts about, the widow of the man he had murdered.

Eliza Merrett, it will be remembered, had visited Minor at the asylum at regular intervals in the early 1880s. She used to bring books and occasional gifts; he and his stepmother had given her money as recompense for her loss; she had said, quite publicly, that she had forgiven him for the murder; she had accepted, and sympathetically, that he had committed the crime while not knowing right from wrong. Might it not have been possible that in a moment of mutual consolation something passed between these two people—who were almost the same age, and who in many senses were similarly reduced in circumstances? And might it not be that one day, eventually, the memory of the event plunged the sensitive and thoughtful Doctor Minor into a deep and guilt-ridden depression?

No suggestion exists that the meetings between Minor and Eliza Merrett were anything other than proper, formal, and chaste—and perhaps they always were so, and any residual guilt that Minor may have felt stemmed from the kind of fantasies to which his medical records show him to have been prey. But it has to be admitted that it remains a possibility—not a probability, to be sure—that it was guilt for a specific act, rather than some slow-burning religious fervor, that prompted this horrible tragedy.

 

It was exactly a year afterward that the question of removing Doctor Minor to the United States was raised once again. This time his brother Alfred, who was still running the china emporium back in New Haven, suggested it in a private letter to the superintendent, which Minor never saw. This time, and for the first time, the usually rebarbative Doctor Brayn offered some grounds for hope: “[I]f arrangements could be made for his proper care and treatment, and if the American government would agree to his removal, I think it is quite possible that the proposal might be favourably considered.”

A year later still and James Murray visited, on his way back home from seeing his daughter at college in London. He told Brayn that Minor was “my friend,” and said later he was distressed at how frail he seemed, at how the light and energy that had marked him in his dictionary-busy days of the previous decade seemed now to have deserted him. Murray was further convinced that the old gentleman must be allowed to go home to die. In England he had no one and no work, no reason for existence. His life was merely a slow-moving tragedy, an act of steady dying conducted before everyone’s eyes.

William Minor repaid the pleasure of the visit in an unusually intimate way: He gave him a small amount of money. James Murray was going off to the Cape Colony—part of what is now South Africa—to attend a conference, and somehow Minor discovered that it was a journey that would stretch Murray’s finances to the limit (though the normally parsimonious Oxford University Press Delegates gave him a hundred pounds). So Minor decided to pitch in as well, and sent out for a postal order for a few pounds, which he sent along with a curiously affectionate note, as one elder might write to another:

Pray pardon the liberty I take, to enclose you a postal payable to your order—that I thought might add in a small way against unexpected demands upon your means.
Even a millionaire may feel satisfaction to find he has a sovereign more than he thought for, though himself a republican, and we less gifted people have a right to a like satisfaction when the chance permits.
Building a house and going on a journey are much the same, in costing more than one expects; and in any case I am sure you can make this useful.
Now I will say goodbye to you both, with best wishes for your welfare, and in its uncontracted form also,
God be with you,
W. C. Minor

And over the succeeding weeks and months, the insane man became steadily the infirm man. He fell in his bath; he hurt his leg; he tripped and twisted leathery sinews and weary muscles; he suffered from the cold, and he caught a chill. All the casual inconveniences of old age were being piled onto his madness, each a Pelion upon Ossa, until William Minor was no more than a thin and elderly wretch, feared by no one, pitied by all.

Then there came a pathetic example of a smaller madness. Though no longer much of a lexicographer or a flutist, Doctor Minor remained something of a painter, and filled many hours working at the easel set up in his room. One day, on a whim, he decided he would send one of his better works to the Princess of Wales, the young woman—May of Teck, Queen Mary to be—who was wife of the man who would soon become King George V.

But Doctor Brayn said no. Bleakly and predictably enforcing the rule that no inmate at Broadmoor may communicate with any member of the royal family—a rule made because so many deranged inmates supposed themselves to be members of the royal family—he told Minor that he could not send it. The doctor, angry and querulous, then formally appealed, forcing Brayn to send the painting and a petition to the Home Office, whose minister had the ultimate say. The office not unnaturally backed Brayn, and Brayn wrote again to Minor, denying his petition.

But this caused Minor to get his dander up, and he wrote furiously and barely legibly to the American ambassador, asking that he use his good diplomatic offices to transmit the package to Buckingham Palace. The package was never sent: Brayn insisted that he would not allow it. So Minor sent a further letter to the U.S. Army Chief of Staff in Washington, complaining that he, an officer in the U.S. Army himself, was being forcibly prevented from communicating with his embassy.

The whole saga became then the focus of a long summer month’s work by a host of attachés and vice-consuls and heads of protocol and assistants to senior staff officers, all bickering and wondering whether this harmless old man’s doubtless charming watercolor could ever find its way into the hands of the Princess of Wales.

But it never did. Permission was denied up and down the line—and the whole episode ended in a melancholy way. For when Doctor Minor sadly retreated to his cell block and asked plaintively for his painting back, he was informed with cold hauteur that it had in fact been lost. The letter asking for the painting back is in a spidery, shaky hand—the hand of an elderly, half sane, half senile man—and it was to no avail. The painting has never been recovered.

And there were further dispiriting developments. In early March 1910, Doctor Brayn—whom history will probably not judge kindly in the specific case of William Minor—ordered that all the old man’s privileges be taken away. Minor was given just a day’s notice to quite the suite of two rooms that he had occupied for the previous thirty-seven years, to leave behind his volumes of books, to give up his access to his writing table, his sketchpads and his flutes, and move into the asylum infirmary. It was a cruel outrage committed by a vengeful man, quite likely jealous of the burgeoning reputation of his charge, and angry letters poured in from the few remaining friends who heard the news.

Even Ada Murray—now Lady Murray, since James had been knighted in 1908, recommended by a grateful Prime Minister Herbert Asquith—complained bitterly on her husband’s behalf about the cruel and cavalier treatment that was apparently being meted out to the seventy-six-year-old Minor. Brayn replied limply: “I should not have curtailed any of his privileges had I not been convinced that to leave things as they were was running the risk of a serious accident.”

But neither Sir James nor Lady Murray was mollified: It was imperative, they said, that their scholar-genius friend now be allowed to go home to America, out of the clutches of this monstrous Doctor Brayn, and away from a hospital that no longer seemed the benign home of harmless scholarship but more closely resembled the Bedlam it had once been constructed to replace.

Minor’s brother Alfred sailed to London in late March with a view to resolving the situation once and for all. He had spoken to the U.S. Army in Washington; the generals there said it was possible, providing only that the British Home Office agreed, to have Doctor Minor transferred to the place in which he had been incarcerated very many years before—St. Elizabeth’s Federal Hospital in the American capital. If Alfred agreed to keep his brother in safe custody for the transfer across the Atlantic, then it might well be possible to persuade the home secretary to issue the requisite permission.

Fate was to intervene in a merciful way. By great good fortune the home secretary of the day was Winston Churchill—a man who, though less well known then than he would soon become, had a naturally sympathetic inclination toward Americans, since his mother was one. He ordered his civil servants to send a summary of the case up to his office—a summary that still exists, and offers a concise and intriguing indication of how governments manage their business.

The various arguments for and against the parole of Doctor Minor are offered; the decision is deemed ultimately to rest only on whether, if Minor is still judged to be a danger to others, his brother Alfred can really be trusted to keep him away from firearms during any transfer. The bureaucrats working on the case then slowly but inexorably come to parallel understandings—that on the one hand Minor is not dangerous, and that on the other his brother could be well trusted, if need be. So the recommendation made to Churchill on the basis of this turgid process of exposition and analysis was that the man should indeed be released on parole and allowed to go off to his native land.

And so, on Wednesday, April 6, 1910, Winston S. Churchill duly signed, in blue ink, a Warrant of Conditional Discharge, subject only to the condition that Minor “shall on his discharge leave the United Kingdom and not return thereto.”

The next day Sir James Murray wrote, asking if he might be allowed to say good-bye to his old friend and if he might bring Lady Murray as well. “There is not the least objection,” said Doctor Brayn, smoothly, “and he is in much better health, and will be pleased to see you.” One can almost hear the lifting of the old man’s spirits with the thought that after thirty-eight long years, he was finally going home.

Since the occasion was a momentous one—both for Minor and for England, in more ways than could be immediately understood—Murray had invited an artist from Messrs. Russell & Co., Photographers to His Majesty the King, to take a formal farewell portrait of Doctor Minor, in the Broadmoor asylum garden. Doctor Brayn said he had no objection; the picture that resulted remains a most sympathetic portrait of a kindly, scholarly, and from his facial expression, not uncontent figure, seemingly seated after tea under a peaceful English hedgerow, unconstrained, untroubled, careless of everything.

At dawn on Saturday April 16, 1910, Principal Attendant Spanholtz—a lot of Broadmoor attendants were, like him, Boer former prisoners of war—was ordered to proceed on escort duty, “in plain clothes,” to escort William Minor to London. Sir James and Lady Murray were there in the weak spring sun to say farewell: There were formal handshakes and, it is said, the glistening of tears.

But these were more dignified times than our own; and the two men who had meant so very much to each other for so long, and the creation of whose combined scholarship was now almost half complete—the six so-far-published volumes of the OED were packed securely in Minor’s valise—said good-bye to each other in an air of stiff formality. Doctor Brayn offered his own curt valedictory, and the landau rattled its way down the lanes, soon becoming lost to view in an early spring mist. Two hours later it was at Bracknell Station, on the South East Main Line to London.

An hour later Spanholtz and Minor were at the mighty, vaulting cathedral of Waterloo Station—much larger than it had been when, no more than a few hundred yards away, the murder that began this story was committed on that Saturday night in 1872. The pair did not linger, for obvious reasons, but took a hansom cab to St. Pancras Station and there caught the boat train to Tilbury Docks. They walked to the quayside where the Atlantic Transport Line’s twin-screw passenger liner S.S. Minnetonka lay, coaling and victualing, bound that afternoon for New York.

It was only at dockside that the Broadmoor attendant finally relinquished custody of his charge, handing him over to Alfred Minor, who was waiting beside the ship’s gangway. A receipt was duly offered and signed, just before noon, as though the patient were just a large box or a haunch of meat. “This is to certify that William Chester Minor has this day been received from the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum into my care,” it read, and it was signed, “Alfred W. Minor, Conservator.”

Spanholtz then waved his own cheery good-bye, and raced off to catch his return train. At two o’clock the vessel blasted a farewell on its steam horn and, with tugs yelping, edged out into the estuary of the Thames. By midafternoon it was off the landmark lighthouse on the Kentish coast’s North Foreland and had turned hard to starboard; by nightfall it was in the Channel; by dawn on the next fresh morning, south of the Scilly Isles, and by lunchtime all England and the nightmare that it enfolded had finally receded, lost, over the damp taffrail. The sea was gray and huge and empty, and ahead lay the United States—and home.

Two weeks later Doctor Brayn received a note from New Haven.

I am glad to say that my brother safely made the trip, and is now pleasantly fixed in the St. Elizabeth’s Asylum in Washington DC. He enjoyed the voyage very much and had no trouble from sea-sickness. I thought he walked about too much for the latter part of the voyage. He did not trouble me at night—though I felt much relief on arriving at the dock in New York…. I hope I have the pleasure of meeting you at some future date. My regards to yourself and your family, and best wishes to all the Broadmoor staff and attendants.
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