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

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Lunatic (li ntik), a. [ad. late L. lntic-us, f. L. lna moon: see -ATIC. Cf. F. lunatique, Sp., It. lunatico.] A. adj.
1. Originally, affected with the kind of insanity that was supposed to have recurring periods dependent on the changes of the moon. In mod. use, synonymous with INSANE; current in popular and legal language, but not now employed technically by physicians.

 

Ceylon, the lushly overgrown tropical island that seems to hang from India’s southern tip like a teardrop—or a pear or a pearl or even (some say) a Virginia ham—is regarded by priests of the world’s stricter religions as the place to which Adam and Eve were exiled after their fall from grace. It is a Garden of Eden for sinners, an island limbo for those who yielded to temptation.

These days it is called Sri Lanka; once the Arab sea traders called it Serendib, and in the eighteenth century Horace Walpole created a fanciful story about three princes who reigned there, and who had the enchanting habit of stumbling across wonderful things quite by chance. Thus was the English language enriched by the word serendipity, without its inventor, who never traveled to the East, ever really knowing why.

But as it happens Walpole was more accurate than he could ever have known. Ceylon is in reality a kind of postlapsarian treasure island, where every sensual gift of the tropics is available, both to reward temptation and to beguile and charm. So there are cinnamon and coconut, coffee and tea; there are sapphires and rubies, mangoes and cashews, elephants and leopards; and everywhere a rich, hot, sweetly moist breeze, scented by the sea, spices, and blossoms.

And there are the girls—young, chocolate-skinned, ever-giggling naked girls with sleek wet bodies, rosebud nipples, long hair, coltish legs, and scarlet and purple petals folded behind their ears—who play in the white Indian Ocean surf and who run, quite without shame, along the cool wet sands on their way back home.

It was these nameless village girls—the likes of whom had frolicked naked in the Singhalese surf for scores of years past, just as they still do—that young William Chester Minor remembered most. It was these young girls of Ceylon, he later said he was sure, who had unknowingly set him on the spiral path to his eventually insatiable lust, to his incurable madness, and to his final perdition. He had first noticed the erotic thrill of their charms when he was just thirteen years old: It was to inflame a shaming obsession with sexuality that inspired his senses and sapped his energies from that moment on.

 

William Minor was born on the island in June 1834—a little more than three years before, and fully five thousand miles to the east of, James Murray, the man with whom he would soon become so inextricably linked. And in one respect—and one only—the lives of the two so widely separated families were similar: Both the Murrays and the Minors were exceedingly pious.

Thomas and Mary Murray were members of the Congregationalist Church, clinging to the conservative ways of seventeenth-century Scotland with a group known as the Covenanters. Eastman and Lucy Minor were Congregationalists too, but of the more muscularly evangelical kind that dominated the American colonies, and whose views and beliefs were descended from those of the Pilgrim Fathers. And although Eastman Strong Minor had learned the skills of printing, and had prospered as the owner of a press, his life eventually became devoted to taking the light of homespun American Protestantism into the dark interiors of the East Indies. The Minors were in Ceylon as missionaries, and when William was born it was at the mission clinic, into a devout mission family.

Unlike the Murrays, the Minors were first-line American aristocracy. The original settler in the New World was Thomas Minor, who came originally from the village of Chew Magna in Gloucestershire. He had sailed across the Atlantic less than a decade after the Pilgrims, aboard a ship called the Lion’s Whelp, which landed at Stonington, the port beside Mystic, at the mouth of Long Island Sound. Of the nine children born to Thomas and his wife, Grace, six were boys, all of whom went on to spread the family name throughout New England, and be counted among the devout and high-principled founding fathers of the state of Connecticut in the late seventeenth century.

Eastman Strong Minor, who was born in Milford in 1809, was the head of the seventh generation of American Minors; the family members were by now generally prosperous, settled, respected. Few thought it other than a badge of honor when Eastman and his young Bostonian wife, Lucy, whom he married in her city in 1833, closed down the family printshop and took off by steamer carrying a cargo of ice from Salem for Ceylon. Their piety was well known, and the Minor family seemed delighted that, in spite of the couple’s wealth and social standing, they felt strongly enough in their calling to contemplate spending what would probably be many years away from the United States, preaching the gospel to those regarded as less fortunate far away.

They arrived in Ceylon in March 1834, and were settled in the mission station in a village called Manepay, on the island’s northeast coast, close to the great British naval station at Trincomalee. It was only three months later, in June, that William was born—his mother having suffered badly through the addition of seasickness to morning sickness during the middle of her pregnancy. A second child, named Lucy, like her mother, was born two years later.

Although William’s medical file suggests a typically rugged Indian childhood—breaking a collarbone in a fall from a horse, being knocked unconscious after falling from a tree, the usual slight doses of malaria and blackwater fever—his was far from a normal childhood.

His mother died of consumption when he was three. Two years later, instead of returning home to the United States with his two young children, Eastman Minor set off on a journey through the Malay Peninsula, bent on finding a second wife among the mission communities there. He left his little girl in charge of a pair of missionaries in a Singhalese village called Oodooville and took off on an eastbound tramp steamer with young William in tow.

The pair arrived in Singapore, where Minor had a mutual friend who introduced him to a party of American missionaries bound upcountry to preach the gospels in Bangkok. One of them was a handsome (and conveniently orphaned) divine named Judith Manchester Taylor, who came from Madison, New York. They courted quickly, and tactfully out of sight of the curious child who had accompanied them. Minor persuaded Miss Taylor to come back with them on the next Jaffna-bound steamer, and they were married by the American consul in Colombo shortly before Christmas 1839.

Judith Minor was as energetic as her printer husband. She ran the local school, learned Singhalese, and taught it to her clearly very intelligent elder stepchild as well as, in due course, to her own six children.

Two of the sons that resulted from this marriage died, the first aged one, the second five. One of William’s stepsisters died when she was eight. His own sister, Lucy, died of consumption when she was twenty-one. (A third half-brother, Thomas T. Minor, died in peculiar circumstances many years later. He moved to the American West, first as doctor to the Winnebago tribe in Nebraska, then to the newly acquired Alaskan Territory to collect specimens of Arctic habitations, and finally on to Port Townsend and Seattle, where he was elected mayor. In 1889, still holding the post, he took off on a canoe expedition to Whidbey Island with a friend, G. Morris Haller. Neither man ever returned. Neither boats nor bodies were ever found. A Minor Street and a Thomas T. Minor School remain, as well as a reputation in Seattle that equates the name of Minor with some degree of glamour, pioneering, and mystery.)

 

The mission library at Manepay was well stocked, and though the accommodation for the family was “very poor,” according to Judith’s diaries, the mission school itself was excellent—allowing young William to win a markedly better education than he might have received back in New England. His father’s printing tasks gave him access to literature and newspapers; and his parents traveled by horse and buggy often, taking him along and encouraging him to learn as many of the local languages as possible. By the time he was twelve he spoke good Singhalese and is supposed to have had a fair grounding in Burmese, as well as some Hindi and Tamil, and a smattering of various Chinese dialects. He also knew his way around Singapore, Bangkok, and Rangoon, as well as the island of Penang, off the coast of what was then British Malaya.

William was just thirteen, he later told his doctors, when he first started to enjoy “lascivious thoughts” about the young Ceylonese girls on the sands around him: they must have seemed a rare constant in a shifting, inconstant life. But by the time he was fourteen, his parents (who were perhaps aware of his pubescent longings) decided to send him back to the United States, well away from the temptations of the tropics. He was to live with his uncle Alfred, who then ran a large crockery shop in the center of New Haven. So William was seen off from the port of Colombo on one of the regular P & O liners that made the unendurably lengthy passage between Bombay and London—via (this being in 1848, long before the completion of the Suez Canal) the long seas around the Cape of Good Hope.

He later admitted to vividly erotic recollections from the voyage. In particular he remembered being “fiercely attracted” to a young English girl he met aboard ship. He seems not to have been warned that long tropical days and nights at sea—combined with the slow, rocking motion of the swell and the tendency for women to wear short, light cotton dresses and for bartenders to offer exotic drinks—could very well, in those days as well as these, lead to romance, particularly when one or even both sets of parents were absent.

Much appears to have happened during the four weeks at sea—though not, perhaps, the ultimate. The friendship appears to have gone unconsummated, no matter how much time the pair spent alone. Many years later Minor was to point out to his doctors that, as with his fantasies over the young Indian girls, he never “gratified himself in an unnatural way” or ever let his sexual feelings for his fellow passenger get the better of him. Matters might have turned out very differently if they had.

Guilt—perhaps a frequent handmaiden among the peculiarly pious—seems to have intervened, even more than a teenager’s shyness or natural caution. From this moment on in William Minor’s long and tormented life, sex and guilt come to appear firmly and fatally riveted together. He keeps apologizing to his questioners of later years: His thoughts were “lascivious,” he was “ashamed” of them, he did his best not to “yield” to them. He seems to have been looking over his shoulder all the time, making sure that his parents—perhaps the mother whom he lost when he was barely out of infancy, or perhaps the stepmother, so often the cause of problems for male children—never came to know the “vile machinations,” as he saw them, of his increasingly troubled mind.

 

But these feelings were still nascent in William Minor’s teenage years, and at the time he was unworried by them. He had his academic life to pursue, and eagerly. From London he took another ship to Boston, and thence home to New Haven, where he began the arduous task of studying medicine at Yale University. His parents and their much-diminished family were not to return for six more years, by which time he was twenty. He appears to have spent these—and indeed the following nine years of his medical apprenticeship—in quietly assiduous study, setting to one side what would soon become his deeper concerns.

He passed all his examinations without any apparent undue problems and was graduated by the Yale Medical School with a degree and a specialization in comparative anatomy in February 1863, when he was twenty-nine. The only recorded drama of those years came when he caught a serious infection after cutting his hand while conducting a postmortem on a man who had died of septicemia: He reacted quickly, painting his hand with iodine—but not quickly enough. He had been gravely ill, his doctors later said, and had nearly died.

By now he was a grown man, tempered by his years in the East and honed by his studies at what was already one of the finest American schools. Although he had no inkling that his mind was in so perilously fragile a state, he was about to embark on what was almost certainly the most traumatic period of his young life. He applied to join the army as a surgeon—an army that at the time was keenly short of medical personnel. For it was not just the army—it was then calling itself the Union army: The United States, still young also, was just then suffering the most traumatic period of its national life. The Civil War was well under way.

 

When Minor signed his first contract with the army—which first trained him conveniently close to home at the Knight Hospital in New Haven—the war was almost precisely halfway over, though naturally none knew this at the time. Eight hundred days of it had been fought so far: Men had seen the Battles of Forts Sumter, Clark, Hatteras, and Henry; the First and Second Battles of Bull Run; and the fights over patches of land at Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, Antietam, and scores of otherwise unsung and unremembered trophies, like Mississippi’s Big Black River Bridge, or Island Number Ten, Missouri, or Greasy Creek, Kentucky. The South had so far had an abundance of victories: The Union Army, sorely pressed by eight hundred days of bitter fighting and far too many reverses, would take all the men it could: It was eager to accept someone as apparently competent and well-Yankee-born as William Chester Minor of Yale.

Four days after he joined up, on June 29, 1863, came the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest of the entire war, the turning point, beyond which the Confederacy’s military ambitions began to fail. The newspapers that Minor read each evening in New Haven were full of accounts of the progress of the fighting; there were twenty thousand casualties on the Union side, and to those numbers even a tiny state like Connecticut contributed a monstrous share—it lost more than a quarter of the men it sent to fight in Pennsylvania over those three July days. The world, President Lincoln was to say six months later when he consecrated the land as a memorial to the fallen, could never forget what they had done there.

No doubt the tales of the battle stirred the young surgeon: There were casualties aplenty out there, abundant work for an energetic and ambitious young doctor to do, and besides, he was on what now looked very much like the winning side. By August he was fully sworn in to do the army’s bidding; by November he was under formal contract to serve as an acting assistant surgeon, to do whatever the Surgeon General’s Department demanded. He was itching, his brother was to testify later, to be sent to the seat of battle.

But it was six more months before the army finally agreed and transferred him down south, close to the sounds of war. In New Haven he had spent a relatively easy time, taking care of men who had been brought far away from the trauma of fighting, men who were now healing, both in body and mind. But down in northern Virginia where he was first sent, all was very different.

There the full horror of this cruel and fearsomely bloody struggle came home to him, suddenly, without warning. Here was an inescapable irony of the Civil War, not known in any conflict between men before or since: the fact that this was a war fought with new and highly effective weapons, machines for the mowing down of men—and yet at a time when an era of poor and primitive medicine was just coming to an end. It was fought with the mortar and the musket and the minié ball, but not yet quite with anesthesia or with sulphonamides and penicillin. The common soldier was thus in a poorer position than at any time before: He could be monstrously ill treated by all the new weaponry, and yet only moderately well treated with all the old medicine.

So in the field hospitals there was gangrene, amputation, filth, pain, and disease—the appearance of pus in a wound was said by doctors to be “laudable,” the sign of healing. The sounds in the first-aid tents were unforgettable: the screams and whim perings of men whose lives had been ruined by cruel new guns and in ferocious and ceaseless battles. Some 360,000 Federal troops died in the war, and so did 258,000 Confederates—and for every one who died of wounds caused by the new weapons, so two died from incidental infection, illness, and poor hygiene.

To Minor this was all still terribly alien. He was, his friends at home would later say, a sensitive man—courteous to a fault, somewhat academic, rather too gentle for the business of soldiering. He read, painted watercolors, played the flute. But Virginia in 1864 was no place for the genteel and mild mannered. And although it is never quite possible to pinpoint what causes the eruption of madness in a man, there is a least some circumstantial suggestion in this case that it was an event, or a coincidence of events, that finally did unhinge Doctor Minor and pitch him over the edge into what in those unforgiving times was regarded as total lunacy.

Given what we now know about the setting and the circumstance of his first encounter with war, it does seem at least reasonable and credible to suppose that his madness—latent, hovering in the background—was triggered at that time. Something specific seems to have happened in Orange County, Virginia, early in May 1864, during the two days of the astonishingly bloody encounter that has since come to be called the Battle of the Wilderness. It was a fight to test the sanest of men: Some of the occurrences of those two days were utterly beyond human imagination.

 

It is not clear exactly why Minor went to the Wilderness—his written orders in fact called for him to proceed from New Haven to Washington and to the medical director’s office, where he would replace a Doctor Abbott, then working at an army divisional hospital in Alexandria. He eventually did as he was bidden—but first, and possibly on the specific orders of the medical director—he went eighty miles to the southwest of the Federal capital into the field, where he would see—for the first and only time in his career—real fighting.

The Battle of the Wilderness was the first genuine working test of the assumption that, with the Gettysburg victory in July 1863, the tide of events in the Civil War truly had changed. The following March, President Lincoln had placed all Union forces under the command of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who swiftly devised a master plan that called for nothing less than the total destruction of the Confederate armies. The scattershot and illorganized campaigns of the weeks and months before—skirmishes here and there, towns and forts captured and recaptured—meant nothing in terms of coherent strategy: So long as the Confederate army remained intact and ready to fight, so Jefferson Davis’s Confederacy remained. Kill the secessionist army, Grant reasoned, and you kill the secessionist cause.

This grand strategy got formally under way in May 1864, when the great military machine that Grant had assembled for finishing off the Confederate army began to roll southward from the Potomac. The campaign triggered by this first sweep would eventually cut through Dixie like a scythe; Sherman would rage from Tennessee through Georgia, Savannah would be captured, the main Confederate forces would surrender at Appomattox a mere eleven months later, and the final fight of the five-year war would take place in Louisiana, at Shreveport, almost a year to the day after Grant began to move.

But the beginnings of the strategy were the most difficult to execute, with the enemy at its least broken and most determined—and rarely in those early weeks was the battle more fiercely joined than on the campaign’s first day. General Grant’s men marched along the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and, on the afternoon of May 4, crossed the Rapidan River into Orange County. There they met Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia: The subsequent fight, which began with the river crossing and ended only when Grant’s men made a flanking pass out toward Spotsylvania, cost some twenty-seven thousand lives in just fifty hours of savagery and fire.

Three distinct aspects of this enormous battle appear to make it particularly important in the story of Dr. William Minor.

The first was the sheer and savage ferocity of the engagement and the pitiless conditions on the field where it was fought. The thousands of men who faced each other did so in a landscape that was utterly unsuited for infantry tactics. It was—and still is—a gently sloping kind of countryside, thickly covered with second-growth timber and impenetrably dense underbrush. There are tracts of swamp country, muddy and fetid, heavy with mosquitoes. In May it is dreadfully hot, and the foliage away from the swamps and seeping brooks is always tinder dry.

The fighting therefore was conducted not with artillery—which couldn’t see—nor with cavalry—which couldn’t ride. It had to be conducted by infantrymen with muskets—their guns charged with the dreadful flesh-tearing minié ball, a newfangled kind of bullet that was expanded by a powder charge in its base and inflicted huge, unsightly wounds—or hand-to-hand, with bayonets and sabers. And with the heat and smoke of battle came yet another terror—fire.

The brush caught ablaze, and flames tore through the wilderness ahead of a stiff, hot wind. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of men, the wounded as well as the fit, were burned to death, suffering the most terrible agonies.

One doctor wrote how soldiers appeared to have been wounded “in every conceivable way, men with mutilated bodies, with shattered limbs and broken heads, men enduring their injuries with stoic patience, and men giving way to violent grief, men stoically indifferent, and men bravely rejoicing that—it is only a leg!” Such tracks as existed were jammed with crude wagons pulling blood-soaked casualties to the dressing stations, where overworked, sweating doctors tried their best to deal with injuries of the most gruesome kind.

A soldier from Maine wrote with appalled wonder of the fire. “The blaze ran sparkling and crackling up the trunks of the pines, till they stood a pillar of fire from base to topmost spray. Then they wavered and fell, throwing up showers of gleaming sparks, while over all hung the thick clouds of dark smoke, reddened beneath by the glare of flames.”

“Forest fires raged,” wrote another soldier who was at the Wilderness,

ammunition trains exploded; the dead were roasted in the conflagration; the wounded, roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair, to escape the ravages of the flames; and every bush seemed hung with shreds of bloodstained clothing. It seemed as though Christian men had turned to fiends, and hell itself had usurped the place of earth.

The second aspect of the battle that may be important in understanding Minor’s bewildering pathology relates to one particular group who played a part in the fighting: the Irish. The same Irish of whom Minor’s London landlady would later testify that he appeared to be strangely frightened.

There were around 150,000 Irish soldiers on the Union side in the struggle, many of them subsumed anonymously into the Yankee units that happened to recruit where they lived. But there was also a proud assemblage of Irishmen who fought together, as a block: These were the soldiers of the Second Brigade—the Irish Brigade—and they were braver and rougher than almost any other unit in the entire Federal army. “When anything absurd, forlorn, or desperate was to be attempted,” as one English war correspondent wrote, “the Irish Brigade was called upon.”

The brigade fought at the Wilderness: Men of the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania were there, alongside Irishmen from New York’s legendary regiments, the 63rd, the 88th, and the 69th—which still, to this day, leads the Saint Patrick’s Day parade up the green-lined expanse of Fifth Avenue in March.

But compared with those who had fought one or two years before, there was a subtle difference in the mood of the Irishmen who fought with the Federal troops in 1864. At the beginning of the war, before Emancipation had been proclaimed, the Irish were staunch in their support of the North, and equally antipathetic to a South that seemed, at least in those early days, to be backed by the England they so loathed. Their motives in fighting were complex—but once again it is a complexity that is important to this story. They were new immigrants from a famine-racked Ireland, and they were fighting in America not just out of gratitude to a country that had given them succor but in order to be trained to fight back home one day, and to rid their island of the hated English once and for all. An Irish-American poem of the time made the point:

When concord and peace to this land are restored,
And the union’s established for ever,
Brave sons of Hibernia, oh, sheathe not the sword;—
You will then have a union to sever.

The Irish were not to remain long in sympathy with all of the Federal aims. They were fierce rivals with American blacks, competing at the base of the social ladder for such opportunities—work, especially—as were on offer. And once the slaves were formally emancipated by Lincoln in 1863, the natural advantage that the Irish believed they had in the color of their skins quite vanished—and with it much of their sympathy for the Union cause in the war they had chosen to fight. Besides, they had been doing their sums: “We did not cause this war,” one of their leaders said, “but vast numbers of our people have perished for it.”

The consequence was that—especially in battles where it seemed as though the Irish troops were being used as cannon fodder—they began to leave the fields of battle. They began to run away, to desert. And large numbers of them certainly deserted from the terrible flames and bloodshed of the Battle of the Wilderness. It was desertion, and one of the particular punishments often inflicted on those convicted of it, that stands as the third and possibly the principal reason for William Minor’s subsequent fall.

Desertion, like indiscipline and drunkenness, was a chronic problem during the Civil War—seriously so because it deprived the commanders of the manpower they so badly needed. It was a problem that grew as the war itself endured—the enthusiasm of the two causes abating as the months and years went on and the numbers of casualties grew. The total strength of the Union army was probably 2,900,000, and that of the Confederacy 1,300,000—and as we have seen, they suffered staggering casualty totals of 360,000 and 258,000 respectively. The number of men who simply dropped their guns and fled into the forest is almost equally spectacular—287,000 from the Union side, 103,000 from the Southern states. Of course these figures are somewhat distorted: They represent men who fled, were captured, and set to fighting again, only to desert once more and maybe many times subsequently. But they are still gigantic numbers—one in ten in the Union army, one in twelve from the rebels.

By the middle of the war more than five thousand soldiers were deserting every month—some merely dropping behind during the interminable route marches, others fleeing in the face of gunfire. In May 1864—the month when General Grant began his southern progress, and the month of the Wilderness—no fewer than 5,371 Federal soldiers cut and ran. More than 170 left the field every day—they were both draftees and volunteers, and either heartsick or homesick, depressed, bored, disillusioned, unpaid, or just plain scared. William Minor had not merely stumbled from the calm of Connecticut into a scene of carnage and horror: He had also come across a demonstration of man at his least impressive—fearful, depleted in spirit, and cowardly.

Army regulations of the time may have been rather flexible when it came to prescribing penalties for drinking—a common punishment was to make the man stand on a box for several days, with a billet of wood on his shoulder—but they were unambiguous when it came to desertion. Anyone caught and convicted of “the one sin which may not be pardoned in this world or the next” would be shot. That, at least, was what was said on paper: “Desertion is a crime punishable by death.”

But to shoot one of your own soldiers, whatever his crime, had a practical disbenefit—it diminished your own numbers, weakened your own forces. This piece of grimly realistic arithmetic persuaded most Civil War commanders, on both sides, to devise alternative punishments for those who ran away. Only a couple of hundred men were shot—though their deaths were widely publicized in a vain effort to set an example. Many were thrown into prison, locked in solitary confinement, flogged, or heavily fined.

The rest—and most first-time offenders—were usually subjected to public humiliations of varying kinds. Some had their heads shaved or half shaved, and were forced to wear boards with the inscription “Coward.” Some were sentenced by drumhead courts-martial to a painful ordeal called “bucking,” in which the wrists were tied tightly, the arms forced over the knees, and a stick secured beneath knees and arms—leaving the convict in an excruciating contortion, often for days at a time. (It was a punishment so harsh as to prove often decidedly counterproductive: One general who ordered a man to be bucked for straggling found that half his company deserted in protest.)

A man could also be gagged with a bayonet, which was tied across his open mouth with twine. He could be suspended from his thumbs, made to carry a yard of rail across his shoulders, be drummed out of town, forced to ride a wooden horse, made to walk around in a barrel shirt and no other clothes—he could even, as in one gruesome case in Tennessee, be nailed to a tree, crucified.

Or else—and here it seemed was the perfect combination of pain and humiliation—he could be branded. The letter D would be seared onto his buttock, his hip, or his cheek. It would be a letter one and a half inches high—the regulations became quite specific on this point—and it would either be burned on with a hot iron or cut with a razor and the wound filled with black powder, both to cause irritation and indelibility.

For some unknown reason the regimental drummer boy would often be employed to administer the powder; or in the case of the use of a branding iron, the doctor. And this, it was said at the London trial, was what William Minor had been forced to do.

An Irish deserter, who had been convicted at drumhead of running away during the terrors of the Wilderness, was sentenced to be branded. The officers of the court—there would have been a colonel, four captains, and three lieutenants—demanded in this case that the new young acting assistant surgeon who had been assigned to them, this fresh-faced and genteel-looking aristocrat, this Yalie, fresh down from the hills of New England, be instructed to carry out the punishment. It would be as good a way as any, the old war-weary officers implied, to induct Doctor Minor into the rigors of war. And so the Irishman was brought to him, his arms shackled behind his back.

He was a dirty and unkempt man in his early twenties, his dark uniform torn to rags by his frantic, desperate run through the brambles. He was exhausted and frightened. He was like an animal—a far cry from the young lad who had arrived, cocksure and full of Dublin mischief, on the West Side of Manhattan three years earlier. He had seen so much fighting, so much dying—and yet now the cause for which he had fought was no longer truly his cause, not since Emancipation, certainly. His side was winning, anyway—they wouldn’t be needing him anymore, they wouldn’t miss him if he ran away.

He wanted to be rid of his duties for the alien Americans. He wanted to go back home to Ireland. He wanted to see his family again and be finished with this strange foreign conflict to which, in truth, he had never been more than a mercenary party. He wanted to use the soldiering skills he had learned in all those fights in Pennsylvania and Maryland and now in the fields of Virginia, to fight against the despised British, occupiers of his homeland.

But now he had made the mistake of trying to run, and five soldiers from the provost marshal’s unit, on the lookout for him, had grabbed him from where he had been hiding behind the barn on a farm up in the foothills. The court-martial had been assembled all too quickly and, as with all drumhead justice, the sentence was handed down in a brutally short time: He was to be flogged, thirty lashes with the cat—but only after being seared with a branding iron, the mark of desertion forever to scar his face.

He pleaded with the court; he pleaded with his guards. He cried, he screamed, he struggled. But the soldiers held him down, and Doctor Minor took the hot iron from a basket of glowing coals that had been hastily borrowed from the brigade farrier. He hesitated for a moment—a hesitation that betrayed his own reluctance—for was this, he wondered briefly, truly permitted under the terms of his Hippocratic oath? The officers grunted for him to continue—and he pressed the glowing metal onto the Irishman’s cheek. The flesh sizzled, the blood bubbled and steamed; the prisoner screamed and screamed.

And then it was over. The wretch was led away, holding to his injured cheek the alcohol-soaked rag that Minor had given him. Perhaps the wound would become infected, would fill with the “laudable pus” that other doctors said hinted at cure. Perhaps it would fester and crust with sores. Perhaps it would blister and burst and bleed for weeks. He didn’t know.

All that he was sure of was that the brand would be with him for the rest of his life. While in the United States it would mark him as a coward, as shaming a punishment as the court had decreed, back home in Ireland it would mark him as something else altogether: It would mark him as a man who had gone to America to train with the army, and who was now back in Ireland, bent on fighting against the British authorities. He could clearly be identified, from now on, as a member of one of the Irish nationalist rebel groups. Every soldier and policeman in England and Ireland would recognize that, and would either lock him up to keep him off the streets, or would harass and harry him for every moment of his waking life.

His future as an Irish revolutionary was, in other words, over. He cared little for his ruined social standing in the United States; but for his future and now very vulnerable position in Ireland, he had been marked and blighted forever by the fact of one battlefield punishment, and he was bitterly angry. He realized that as an Irish patriot and revolutionary he was useless, unemployable, worthless in all regards.

And in his anger he most probably felt, justly or not, that his ever-more-intense wrath should be directed against the man who had so betrayed his calling as a medical man and had instead, and without objection, marked his face so savagely and incurably. He would have decided that he was and should be bitterly and eternally angry at William Chester Minor.

So he would go home, he vowed, just as soon as this war was over; and once home he would, the moment he stepped off the boat on the docks at Cobh or Dun Laoghaire (or Queenstown or Kingstown, the ports for Cork and Dublin), tell all Irish patriots the following: William Chester Minor, American, was an enemy of all good Fenian fighting men, and revenge should be exacted from him, in good time and in due course.

 

This, at least, is what Doctor Minor almost certainly thought was in the mind of the man he had branded. Yes, it was later said, he had been terrified by his exposure to the battlefield, and “exposure in the field” was suggested by some doctors as the cause of his ills; one story also had it that he had been present at the execution of a man—a Yale classmate, according to some reports, though none included a time or a place—and that he had been severely affected by what he had seen; but most frequently it was said he was fearful that Irishmen would abuse him shamefully, as he put it, and this was because he had been ordered to inflict so cruel a punishment on one of their number in the United States.

 

It was a story that was put about in court—Mrs. Fisher, his landlady in Tennison Street, Lambeth, had, according to the official court reports in The Times, suggested as much. The story was raised many times over the following decades—when people remembered that he was still locked up in an asylum—to account for his illness; and until 1915, when as an elderly man he gave an interview to a journalist in Washington, D.C., and told quite another story, it remained one of the leading probable causes for his insanity. “He branded an Irishman during the American Civil War,” they used to say. “It drove him mad.”

 

A week or so later Minor—suffering no apparent short-term effects from his experience—was moved from under the red flag of the advanced field hospital (the red cross symbol was not to be adopted by the United States until the ratification of the Geneva Convention in the late 1860s) and sent to where he had been originally bound, the city of Alexandria.

He arrived there on May 17, and went first to work at L’Overture Hospital, then reserved largely for black and so-called “contraband” patients—escaped Southern slaves. There are records showing that he moved around the Federal hospital system: He worked at Alexandria General Hospital and at the Slough Hospital; there is also a letter from his old military hospital in New Haven, asking that he come back, since his work had been so good.

Demand like this was unusual, since Minor was laboring still at the lowliest rank of the war’s medical personnel, as an acting assistant surgeon. In the course of the conflict 5,500 men were Federally contracted at this rank, and they included some devastating incompetents—specialists in botany and homeopathy, drunks who had failed in private practice, fraudsters who preyed on their patients, men who had never been to medical school at all. Most would vanish from the army once the fighting was over: Few would even dare hope for promotion or a regular commission.

But William Minor did. He seems to have flung himself into his work. Some of his old autopsy reports survive—they display neat handwriting, a confident use of the language, decisive declarations as to the cause of death. Most of the reports are forlorn—a sergeant from the First Michigan Cavalry dying of lung cancer, a common soldier dying of typhoid, another with pneumonia—all too common ailments during the Civil War period, and all treated with the ignorance of the day, with little more than the dual weapons of opium and calomel, painkiller and purgative.

One report is more interesting: It was written in September 1866—two years after the Wilderness battle—and it concerns a recruit, “a stout muscular man” named Martin Kuster, who was struck by lightning while he was on sentry duty, imprudently standing under a poplar tree during a thunderstorm. He was in bad shape. “The left side of his cap open…facing of the metal button torn off…hair of his left temple singed and burned…stocking and right boot torn open…a faint yellow and amber colored line extended down his body…burns down to his pubis and scrotum.”

This report did not come from Virginia, however, nor was it written by an acting assistant surgeon. It came instead from Governor’s Island, New York, and it was signed by Minor in his new capacity as an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army. By the autumn of 1866 he was no longer a contract man, but instead enjoyed the full rank of a commissioned captain. He had done what most of his colleagues had failed to do: By dint of hard work and scholarship, and by using his Connecticut connections to the full, he had made the transition into the upper ranks of regular army officers.

His supporters, in Connecticut and elsewhere, were unaware of any incipient madness: Prof. James Dana—a Yale geologist and mineralogist whose classic textbooks are still in use today, worldwide—said that Minor was “one of the half dozen best…in the country,” and that his appointment as an army surgeon “would be for the good of the Army and the honor of the country.” Another professor wrote of him as “a skillful physician, an excellent operator, an efficient scholar”—although, adding what might later be interpreted as a tocsin note, remarked that his moral character was “unexceptional.”

Just before his formal examination Minor had signed a form declaring that he did not labor under any “mental or physical infirmity of any kind, which can in any way interfere with the most efficient duties in any climate.” His examiners agreed: In February 1866 they granted him his commission, and by mid-summer he was on Governor’s Island, dealing with one of the major emergencies of the postwar period: the fourth and last of the East’s great cholera epidemics.

It was said that the illness was brought by Irish immigrants who were then pouring in through Ellis Island: Some twelve hundred people died during the summertime scourge, and the hospitals and clinics on Governor’s Island were filled with the sick and the isolated. Minor worked tirelessly throughout the months of the plague, and his work was recognized: By the end of the year, though still nominally a lieutenant, he was breveted with the rank of captain as reward for his services.

But at the same time there came disturbing signs in Minor’s behavior, of what with hindsight appears to have been an incipient paranoia. He began to carry a gun when he was out of uniform. Quite illegally, he took along his Colt .38 service revolver, with a six-shot spinning magazine that, according to custom, had one of the chambers blocked off with a permanent blank. He carried the weapon, he explained, because one of his fellow officers had been killed by muggers when returning from a bar in Lower Manhattan. He too might be followed by ruffians, he said, who might try to attack him.

He started to become a habitué of the wilder bars and brothels of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. He embarked on a career of startling promiscuity, sleeping night after night with whores and returning to the Fort Jay’s hospital on Governor’s Island by rowboat in the early hours of the morning. His colleagues became alarmed: This was totally out of character, it seemed, for so gentle and studious an officer—and particularly so when it became clear that he frequently needed treatment, or such as was available, for a variety of venereal infections.

In 1867—the year his father, Eastman, died, in New Haven—he surprised his colleagues by suddenly announcing his engagement to a young woman who lived in Manhattan. Neither she nor her job has been identified, but the suspicion is that she was a dancer or an entertainer, met on one of his Tenderloin expeditions. The girl’s mother, however, was not so impressed with Minor as his Connecticut friends had been. She detected something unsavory about the young captain and insisted that her daughter break the engagement, which she eventually did. In later years Minor refused adamantly to discuss either the affair or his feelings about its forced conclusion. His doctors said, however, that he appeared embittered about the episode.

The army, meanwhile, was dismayed by what seemed the sudden change in its protégé. Within weeks of learning of his extraordinary behavior the Surgeon General’s Department decided to remove him from the temptations of New York and send him out of harm’s way, into the countryside. He was effectively demoted, in fact, by being ordered to the relative isolation of obscure Fort Barrancas, Florida. The fort, which guards Pensacola Bay, on the Gulf of Mexico, was already becoming obsolete. An elderly masonry structure built to protect the bay and its port from foreign raiders, it now housed only a small detachment of troops, to whom Minor became regimental doctor. For a man so well born, so educated, so full of promise, this was a truly humiliating situation.

He became furiously angry with the army. He clearly missed his debauches; his messmates noticed that he became moody and occasionally very aggressive. In his quieter moments he took up his paintbrushes: Watercolors of the Florida sunsets soothed him, he said. He still was a dab hand, his brother officers said. He was an artistic man, said one in particular. He seemed like someone with a soul.

But he then began to harbor suspicions about his fellow soldiers. He said he thought they were muttering about him, glancing suspiciously at him all the time. One officer in particular troubled Minor, began teasing him, goading him, persecuting him in ways that Minor would never discuss. He challenged the man to a duel and had to be reprimanded by the fort commander. The officer was one of Minor’s best friends, said the commander—and both he and the friend later said they were incredulous that they had fallen out so badly, for no obvious reason. Nothing anyone could do to explain—your best friend is not plotting against you, is not scheming, is not wanting to have you hurt—nothing seemed to get through. Minor appeared to have taken a leave of his senses. It was all very puzzling, and to his friends and family, deeply distressing.

It reached a climax during the summer of 1868, when, after reportedly staying too long in the Florida sun, the captain began to complain of severe headaches and terrible vertigo. He was sent with escorting nurses to New York, to report to his old unit and to his old doctor. He was interviewed, examined, prodded, pried into. By September it was perfectly plain to see that he was seriously unwell. For the first time suspicion turns to certainty, with a formal indication that his mind was starting to falter.

A paper signed by a Surgeon Hammond on September 3, 1868, states that Minor appeared to be suffering from monomania—a form of insanity that involves a fierce obsession with a single topic. What that topic was Surgeon Hammond does not report, but he does say that in his view, Minor’s condition was so serious that he was to be classified as “delusional.” Minor was just thirty-four years old: His mind and his life had begun to spiral out of control.

The sick notes then begin to pile up, week after week—“He is in my opinion, unfit for duty and not able to travel,” they each declared. By November the doctors were recommending a more drastic step: Minor should in the army’s opinion be immediately institutionalized. He should, moreover, be put in the charge of the celebrated Dr. Charles Nichols, the superintendent of the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C.

“The monomania,” said the examining doctor, in a letter written in suitably magnificent copperplate, “is now decidedly suicidal and homicidal. Doctor Minor has expressed willingness to go to the Asylum, and has said he hoped he would be permitted to go without a guard, which I think he is now fully capable of doing.”

Capable, but ashamed. A letter, begging permission on Minor’s behalf for him to go to the asylum without people knowing, survives. “He shrinks from what he regards as the stigma of medical treatment in a lunatic asylum. He does not know that I write this. He would be grateful to anyone whose influence would place him under medical treatment in the Asylum without its being generally known.”

The letter worked, the influence of the old family, the old school, proved effective. A day later, without a guard and in secret, Doctor Minor took the express train down through Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore to Union Station, Washington. He took a hansom cab to southeast Washington, and to the well-tended grounds of the hospital. He passed through the stone gates, to begin what would become a lifelong acquaintance with the insides of lunatic asylums.

The Washington institution, eventually renamed St. Elizabeth’s, would become infamous—Ezra Pound would be detained there, as would John Hinckley, the attempted assassin of President Reagan. For the balance of the nineteenth century, however, the institution would be known more anonymously, as the only government-run site in the country in which soldiers and sailors who had gone certifiably mad could be detained, rehabilitated, locked away. William Minor was to remain there for the next eighteen months. He was a trusted inmate, however: The superintendent allowed him free run of the grounds, then let him go unescorted into the nearby countryside—a century and a half ago Washington was a very different place—fields where now there are slums. He walked into town; he passed by the White House; he visited the pay office each month and drew his salary in cash.

But he remained beset by delusional fears. A team of army doctors visited him the following September. “Our observations lead us to form a very unfavorable opinion as to Dr. Minor’s condition,” they told the surgeon general. “A very long time may elapse before he can possibly be restored to health.” Another doctor concurred: “The disturbance of the cerebral functions is ever more marked.”

The following April his commanders reached an unoptimistic decision: Minor was never likely to be cured, they said, and should be formally placed on the Army Retired List. A hearing was held in the Army Building at the corner of Houston and Greene Streets, in what is now New York’s fashionable, upscale SoHo area, to formalize the soldier’s retirement and to make sure it was justified by circumstance.

It was a protracted, sad affair. A brigadier, two colonels, a major, and a surgeon captain sat on the board, and they listened silently as doctor after doctor gave evidence about this once-so-promising young man’s decline. Perhaps the mental condition from which he was suffering had been caused by exposure to the sun in Florida, said one; perhaps it had merely been aggravated by it, said another; perhaps it was all due to the man’s exposure to war, a consequence of the horrors that he had witnessed.

No matter precisely how the madness was precipitated, the board eventually reached what was the only proper conclusion on how to deal with it, administratively. In the official view of the army, Brevet Capt. Asst. William C. Minor was now wholly “incapacitated by causes arising in the line of duty”—the crucial phrase of the ruling—and he should be retired with immediate effect.

He was, in other words, one of the walking wounded. He had served his country, he had been ruined by doing so, and his country owed him a debt. If the beguiling eroticisms of Ceylon, his tragic family circumstances, his obsessive cravings for whores, his nostalgie de la boue—if any or all of these factors had ever played a part in his steady mental decline, then so be it. The line of duty had done for him. The U.S. Army would now look after him. He was a ward of Uncle Sam. He could be designated by the honorific phrase after his name, “US Army, Ret’d.” His pay and pension would remain—and in fact they did so for the rest of his life.

 

In February 1871 a friend in New York wrote to report that Minor had been released from the asylum, and was on his way to Manhattan, to stay with a medical friend on West Twentieth Street. A few weeks later he was said to have gone home to New Haven, to spend the summer with his brother Alfred, to see his old friends at Yale, and to busy himself in his late father’s emporium—Minor & Co., Dealers in China, Glass and Crockery—which Alfred and his older brother George ran at 261 Chapel Street. The summer and autumn days of 1871 were among the last free and tranquil American days that Doctor Minor was ever to enjoy.

In October, with the red-and-gold leaves of the New England trees already beginning to fall, William Minor boarded a steamer in Boston, with a single ticket to the Port of London. He planned to spend a year or so in Europe, he told his friends. He would rest, read, paint. Perhaps he would visit a spa or two, he would see Paris, Rome, and Venice, he would refresh and reinvigorate what he well knew was a troubled mind. One of his friends at Yale had written a letter of introduction to Mr. Ruskin; he would doubtless be able to charm the artistic demimonde of the British capital. He was, after all—and how many times had he heard the phrase at the army hearings—“a gentleman of Christian refinement, taste and learning.” He would take London by storm. He would recover. He would return to the United States a new man.

He stepped off the boat on a foggy morning in early November. He offered his identification as an officer in the U.S. Army to the officials in the customs shed, and took a landau to Radley’s Hotel, near Victoria Station. He had money with him. He had his books, his easel, his watercolors, his brushes.

And he also had, secure in its japanned box, his gun.

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