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

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Memorial (), a. and sb. [a. OF. memorial (mod.F. mémorial) = Sp., Pg. memorial, It. memoriale, ad. L. memorilis adj. (neut. memorile, used in late Latin as sb.), f. memoria MEMORY.] A. adj.
1. Preserving the memory of a person or thing;
3. Something by which the memory of a person, thing, or event is preserved, as a monumental erection

 

This has been the story of an American soldier whose involvement in the making of the world’s greatest dictionary was singular, astonishing, memorable, and laudable—and yet at the same time wretchedly sad. And in the telling, it is tempting to forget that the circumstances that placed William Chester Minor in the position in which he was able to contribute all his time and energy to the making of the OED began with his horrible and unforgivable commission of a murder.

George Merrett, who was his victim, was an ordinary, innocent working-class farmer’s son from Wiltshire, who came up to London to make his living but who was shot dead, leaving a pregnant wife, Eliza, and seven young children. The family was already living in the direst poverty, trying to maintain some semblance of their farm-country dignity amid the squalor of one of the roughest and most unforgiving parts of the Victorian city. With Merrett’s murder matters took a terrible turn for the worse.

All London was shocked and horrified by the killing, and funds were raised and money collected to help the widow and her brood. Americans in particular, stunned by the outrage committed by one of their own, were asked by their consul-general to contribute to a diplomatic fund; the vicars in Lambeth banded together to make collections, ecumenically; a series of amateur entertainments—including one “of an unusually high-class character” with readings of Longfellow and of a selection from Othello, and held at the Hercules Club—were staged across town to raise money; and the funeral itself was a splendid affair, as impressive as that of any grandee.

George Merrett had been a member of the Ancient Order of Foresters—one of the many so-called friendly societies that were once popular across Britain—as a means, in the absence of any government or privately funded schemes, of providing cooperative pensions and other financial help for the working classes. On the night he died Merrett had been relieving a shift worker who was a brother Forester: This small act of benevolence doubly obliged the order to offer its late member a handsome farewell.

The cortége was half a mile long: the Foresters’ band playing the Dead March from Saul came first, then scores of emblem-wearing members, then the horse-drawn hearse and four black mourning coaches to carry the bereaved. Eliza Merrett rode in the lead carriage, holding her youngest baby in her arms and sobbing. Hundreds of brewery workers followed, and then thousands of ordinary members of the public, all wearing black crepe bands around their arms or hats.

For the entire afternoon the procession wound from Lambeth, past the spot on Belvedere Road where the tragedy had occurred, past the Bedlam Hospital, and up to the vast cemetery at Tooting, where George Merrett was finally buried.

His grave may once have been marked, but it lacks a marker now, and where the records say George Merrett lies there is no more than a patch of discolored grass, a tiny patch of settled earth among a sea of more nobler and newer monuments.

As we have seen, in his lucid moments William Minor was contrite, appalled by the consequences of his moment of mad delusion. From his cells at Broadmoor he saw to it that money was sent to the family to help them in their distress. His stepmother, Judith, had already arranged gifts for the children. Some seven years after the tragedy, when Minor wrote to express his remorse, Eliza Merrett said that she forgave him, and she made what now seems the extraordinary decision to visit him in Broadmoor—and indeed for some months came down to Crowthorne frequently and brought him packages of his beloved books. But she never really recovered from the shock of what had happened: Before long she had taken to drink, and when she died it was of liver failure.

Two of her sons’ lives then unraveled most curiously: George, the second oldest boy, took Judith’s gift of money to Monaco, won a considerable sum, and remained there, styling himself the king of Monte Carlo, before dying in impoverished obscurity in the south of France. His younger brother Frederick shot himself dead in London, for reasons that have never been fully explained. The fact that two of Minor’s brothers also died by their own hand invests the entire story with almost more sadness than is bearable.

But the principal tragic figure in this strange tale is the man who is the least well remembered—the one who was gunned down on the damp and cold cobblestones of Lambeth on that Saturday night in February 1872.

The only public memorials ever raised to the two most tragically linked of this saga’s protagonists are miserable, niggardly affairs. William Minor has just a simple little gravestone in a New Haven cemetery, hemmed in between litter and slums. George Merrett has for years had nothing at all, except for a patch of grayish grass in a sprawling graveyard in South London. Minor does, however, have the advantage of the great dictionary, which some might say acts as his most lasting remembrance. But nothing else remains to suggest that the man he killed was ever worthy of any memory at all. George Merrett has become an absolutely unsung man.

Which is why it now seems fitting, more than a century and a quarter on, that this modest account begins with the dedication that it does. And why this book is offered as a small testament to the late George Merrett of Wiltshire and Lambeth, without whose untimely death these events would never have unfolded, and this tale could never have been told.

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