A Wry and Touching Sidelight to a Historical Achievement


Among other products of Victorian expansiveness, such as bridges, railroads and colonial administrations set up under fiercely adverse conditions--not to mention 30-mile walks in fiercely uncomfortable shoes, and 10-course banquets--there was the painstaking, infinitely elaborate and supremely confident creation of the 12-volume Oxford English Dictionary.

A notable step in the process was an appeal to amateur scholars and enthusiasts to search their libraries for historical examples of word usage; contextual quotations being a main feature of the dictionary to this day. Quotation slips poured in by the hundreds of thousands, to be sorted into cubbyholes in a great iron shed in the garden of the editor, the avidly polymathic James Murray.

The story of the dictionary and its creator has been lavishly told, notably in “Caught in the Web of Words” by Murray’s granddaughter, K.M. Elizabeth Murray. A minor piquancy in this and other accounts was the fact that the most useful amateur contributor, and one of the most prolific, was an unbalanced American doctor who, after killing a passing stranger, was confined for most of the rest of his life in England’s Criminal Lunatic Asylum at Broadmoor.

The British journalist Simon Winchester has inflated the piquancy, balloon-like, with heated speculation, psychologizing and sheer writing. By the end of the book an odd and wistful small story has been pumped into high-concept melodrama.


William Chester Minor served in the Union Army as a medic, notably in the hellish battle of the Wilderness. Growing instability led to his being confined in the military hospital for the insane--later, St. Elizabeth’s--outside Washington, D.C. Released, Minor, who had family money, attempted a tour of Europe but got no farther than London, where, early one morning, he stepped out and shot dead a brewery stoker on his way to work.

Minor was a man of scholarly interests between bouts of what seems to have been paranoid schizophrenia. (Sexually obsessed, he complained that demons hidden in his Broadmoor ceiling came down at night and forced him to commit “unspeakable acts”; at times flying him for that purpose to a brothel in Constantinople.)

Impressing a liberally minded Broadmoor governor with an otherwise courteous and civilized demeanor, he was allowed a two-room apartment, one of the rooms serving as a library. He hired another inmate as a servant and placed regular orders with London and Oxford booksellers.

Responding to Murray’s dictionary appeal, circulated in bookstores, Minor began to send in regular batches of quotation slips. He kept it up for the next 20 years or so until his condition deteriorated and acute depression set in, possibly due in part to the stricter regime of a new Broadmoor governor. Strictness increased when, using his surgical skills, he amputated his penis. Toward the end of his life he was paroled to his brother, who took him back to the hospital in the United States.

During their correspondence, Dr. Murray had conceived a high regard for Dr. Minor, assuming that the address meant that he was a member of the Broadmoor staff. A visiting American familiar with the case set him right. Hesitantly, his admiration no doubt heightened by a Victorian penchant for exotic pathos, Murray went to visit. The visits continued periodically. Editor and inmate strolled the grounds discussing words, mainly, with an occasional Minor complaint about the sex demons in his ceiling.

It is a story both wry and touching. For the former, there is Murray’s observation that Minor’s seclusion in a book-lined suite with servant and a modest wine cellar was not so very different from that of the more cobwebby Oxford dons. For the latter, there is Minor’s insistence upon working only on words that the Oxford editors were simultaneously dealing with. It gave him a sense of being out in the world and part of the world’s work.

Winchester scores wry-and-touching for brass band. For one thing, he organizes his account in such a way--alternating Minor and Murray chapters--as to suggest two figures of near-equivalent stature and provides a distended dramatic context to their meetings. Clearly, Minor’s 10,000 citations were very useful but although Murray, moved by the situation, called the contribution “supreme,” it was only a small part of his vast enterprise.

Having lofted Minor, Winchester’s prose sensationalizes him. Speculating that the sex obsession came from a Ceylon missionary childhood, he describes an adolescent surrounded by “lush, chocolate-skinned, giggling girls.” No suggestion that any encounters were consummated but “better for him if they had been.” Dramatic juxtapositions stretch to spraining: It was foggy and cold when Minor arrived in England; it was foggy and cold when the first dictionary discussion was held two decades earlier.

There are other stretches: The widow of Minor’s victim visits him at Broadmoor and suddenly we get a link between self-surgery and sexual guilt. “Might it not have been possible that in a moment of mutual consolation . . . something passed between them?” Having titillated in the conditional, Winchester de-titillates in the indicative: “No suggestion exists that the meetings between Minor and Eliza Merritt were anything other than proper, formal and chaste. . . .” He’d only mentioned it, anyway, “for the sake of completeness.”