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

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Acknowledgment ; also acknowledgement (a spelling more in accordance with Eng. values of letters). [f. ACKNOWLEDGE v. + -MENT. An early instance of -ment added to an orig. Eng. vb.]
1. The act of acknowledging, confessing, admitting, or owning; confession, avowal.
5. The owning of a gift or benefit received, or of a message; grateful, courteous, or due recognition.
6. Hence, The sensible sign, whereby anything received is acknowledged; something given or done in return for a favour or message, or a formal communication that we have received it.
1739 T. SHERIDAN Persius Ded. 3, I dedicate to you this Edition and Translation of Persius, as an Acknowledgment for the great Pleasure you gave me. 1802 MAR. EDGEWORTH Moral T. (1816) I. xvi. 133 To offer him some acknowledgment for his obliging conduct. 1881 Daily Tel. Dec. 27 The painter had to appear and bow his acknowledgments. Mod. Take this as a small acknowledgement of my gratitude.


When I first came upon this story, which was mentioned all too briefly, and just as an aside, in a rather sober book about the dictionary-making craft, it struck me immediately as a tale well worth investigating and perhaps telling in full. But for several months I was alone in thinking so. I had in the works a truly massive project about an altogether different subject, and the advice from virtually all sides was that I should press on with that and leave this amusing little saga well alone.

But four people did find it just as fascinating as I did—and saw also the possibilities that by telling the poignant and human tale of William Minor, I could perhaps create some kind of prism through which to view the greater and even more fascinating story of the history of English lexicography. These four people were Bill Hamilton, my longtime friend and London agent; Anya Waddington, my editor at Viking, also in London; Larry Ashmead, Executive Editor of HarperCollins in New York; and Marisa Milanese, then an editorial assistant in the offices of Condé Nast Traveler magazine, also in New York. Their faith in this otherwise unregarded project was total and unremitting, and I thank them for it unreservedly.

Marisa, whom I think a paragon of ceaseless enthusiasm, dogged initiative, and untiring zeal, then went on to help me with the American end of the research: Together with my close friend of a quarter century, Juliet Walker in London, she helped me spin my basic ideas into a complex web of facts and figures, which I have since attempted to settle into some kind of coherent order. The extent to which I have succeeded or failed in this I cannot yet judge, but I should say here that these two women presented me with a bottomless well of information, and if I have misinterpreted, misread, misheard, or miswritten any of it, then those mistakes are my responsibility, and mine alone. My thanks also to Sue Llewellyn, who, as well as copyediting this book so assiduously and with such good humor, also—she reminded me—had worked on my book on Korea ten years before.

Access to Broadmoor Special Hospital, and to the voluminous files that have long been kept on all patients, was clearly going to be the key to cracking this story; and it took some weeks before Juliet Walker and I were allowed in. That we were was a triumph for two Broadmoor employees, Paul Robertson and Alison Webster, who made a persuasive case on our behalf to a perhaps understandably reluctant hospital administration. Without the help of these two remarkable and kind individuals, this book would never have managed to be much more than a collection of conjectures: The Broadmoor files were needed to provide the facts, and Paul and Alison provided the files.

On the other side of the Atlantic, matters proceeded rather differently—despite the best efforts of the splendid Marisa. St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., is no longer a federal institution but is run by the government of the District of Columbia—a government that has experienced some well-publicized troubles in recent years. And at first, perhaps because of this, the hospital refused point-blank to release any of its files, and went so far as to suggest, quite seriously, that I engage a lawyer and sue in order to obtain them.

However, some while later, a cursory search I made one day of the National Archives pages on the World Wide Web suggested to me that the papers relating to Doctor Minor—who had been a patient at St. Elizabeth’s between 1910 and 1919, when the institution was undeniably under federal jurisdiction—might well actually be in federal custody, and not within the Kafkaesque embrace of the District. And indeed, as it turned out, they were. A couple of requests through the Internet, a happy conversation with the extremely helpful archivist Bill Breach, and suddenly more than seven hundred pages of case notes and other fascinating miscellanea arrived in a FedEx package. It was more than gratifying to be able to telephone St. Elizabeth’s the next day and tell the unhelpful officials there which file I then had sitting before me on my desk. They were not best pleased.

The Oxford University Press was, by contrast, wonderfully helpful; and while I am naturally happy to thank the officials at the press who so kindly sanctioned my visits to Walton Street, I wish to acknowledge the very considerable debt that I owe first to Elizabeth Knowles, now of Oxford’s Reference Books Department, who had made a study of Minor some years before and was happy to share her knowledge and access with me. I am delighted also to be able to thank the irrepressibly enthusiastic Jenny McMorris of the press archives, who knows Minor and his remarkable legacy more intimately than anyone else anywhere. Jenny, together with her former colleague Peter Foden, proved a tower of strength during my visits and long after: I only hope that she manages to find an outlet for her own fascination with the great Dr. Henry Fowler, whom she rightly regards, along with Murray, as one of the true heroes of the English language.


Several friends, as well as a number of specialists who had a professional interest in parts of the story, were kind enough to read the manuscript’s early drafts, and they made many suggestions for improving it. In almost all cases I have accepted their proposals with gratitude, but if on occasion I did, through carelessness or pigheadedness, disregard their warnings or demands, then the same caveat—about the responsibility for all errors of fact, judgment, or taste remaining firmly with me—applies as well: They did their best.

Among those personal friends I wish to thank are Graham Boynton, Pepper Evans, Rob Howard, Jesse Sheidlower, Nancy Stump, Paula Szuchman, and Gully Wells. And to the otherwise anonymous Anthony S——, who grumbled to me that his fiancée had denied him romantic favors one summer morning because she was bent on finishing chapter 9, my apologies, embarrassed thanks for your forbearance, and best wishes for future marital bliss.

James W. Campbell of the New Haven Historical Society gave great assistance in finding the Minor family in their old hometown; the librarians and staff at the Yale Divinity Library told me much about William Minor’s early life in Ceylon. Pat Higgins, an Englishwoman living in Washington State, and with whom I corresponded only by e-mail, became fascinated also by the Ceylon and Seattle ends of the Minor family story and gave me several fascinating tips.

Michael Musick of the U.S. National Archives then found most of Minor’s military files, and Michael Rhode of the Walter Reed Army Hospital tracked down his handwritten autopsy reports. The National Park Service was helpful in giving me access to military bases in New York and Florida where he had been stationed; the Index Project in Arlington, Va., assisted me in finding additional records relating to his wartime career.

Susan Pakies of Virginia’s Orange County Tourist Office, along with the immensely knowledgeable Frank Walker, then took me around all of the important sites where the Battle of the Wilderness had been fought, and later, to cheer us all up, to several of the delightful old inns that are hidden away in this spectacularly lovely corner of the United States. Jonathan O’Neal patiently explained Civil War medical practice at the old Exchange Hotel-cum-hospital that is now a museum in Gordonville, Va.

Nancy Whitmore of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland, was an enthusiastic supporter of the project and painstakingly dug up a huge amount of highly relevant arcana. Dr. Lawrence Kohl at the University of Alabama was kind enough to take time both to discuss the mechanics of Civil War branding and to speculate (in an impressively informed way) on the effects such punishment might have had on Irishmen who fought in the Union Army—the latter his particular specialty as a historian of the period. Mitchell Redman of New York City filled in some details of Minor’s later personal life, about which he had once written a short but so far unproduced play.

Gordon Claridge of Magdalen College, Oxford, had much that was helpful to say about the origins of mental illness; Jonathan Andrews, a historian of Broadmoor, helped also; and Isa Samad, a distinguished psychiatrist of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., told me a great deal about the history of the treatment of paranoid schizophrenia.

Dale Fiore, superintendent of the Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, then added fascinating footnotes about the end of William Minor’s life—the length of the coffin, the depth at which it is buried, and the names of those who surround him in his plot.

Life became a great deal easier once I had tracked down one of the few known living relatives of William Minor, Mr. John Minor, of Riverside, Conn. He was kindness itself, giving me an enormous amount of useful information about the great-great-uncle he never knew, and offering me access to the treasure trove of pictures and papers that had sat for years, undisturbed, in a wooden box in his attic. He and his Danish wife, Birgit, became as fascinated by the story as I was, and I thank them for pleasant waterside dinners and time spent talking about the nature of their most curious relative.

David Merritt of the Merritt International Family History Society [sic] in London gave me valuable help in ferreting out details of where George Merrett’s descendants might be: I eventually found one, a Mr. Dean Blanchard in Sussex, who was equally interested in the fortunes of his distant family, and shared much that was valuable with me.

I am indebted also to my American agent, Peter Matson; his colleague Jennifer Hengen; and to Agnes Krup, who, once enthused by the strange nature of this story, became among its keenest supporters and kept me going, writing hard, during a long hot American summer. My wife, Catherine, saw to it that I remained undisturbed, and offered generously the kind of serenity and sanctuary that the writing of a yarn like this more than amply deserves.

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