The tale of a killer wordsmith

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 August, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 August, 1998, 12:00am

About 120 years ago, in a Victorian England flush with confidence as leader of a great Empire, a call went out to English speakers throughout the world to contribute to one of the greatest intellectual projects ever conceived: the making of the first comprehensive English dictionary.

Every book sold in the late 1870s contained an appeal for volunteers to read texts written since 1250 and to catalogue the first quotation that defined every word.

One of these slips reached an intelligent but lonely man ensconced in an isolated part of Berkshire near London. Surrounded by books and with time on his hands, he resolved to join this huge endeavour.

Within 10 years, he was to become the greatest contributor to what would, after 70 years work, become the then 12-volume (now 20) Oxford English Dictionary. But little did the grateful dictionary staff realise that the man they knew as Dr William Chester Minor was both a wealthy American scholar, and a mad murderer incarcerated in Britain's first lunatic asylum of Broadmoor.

The remarkable and largely unknown story of army surgeon W C Minor, thought to have become unhinged while at the front during the American Civil War, is now told in Simon Winchester's latest bestselling book, The Surgeon of Crowthorne (Viking, $170), shortly to be made into a film by French cinematographer Luc Besson.

'It was the most wonderfully interesting book to write,' says Winchester.

Having stumbled on the story in a work on lexicography, Winchester persuaded the Broadmoor authorities to open formerly-secret files on their remarkable patient who had pored over literature by day, yet by night had shrieked of evil people who came through the floor and roof of his cell to cart him away for unspeakable sexual acts.

His paranoid belief that people were out to get him led to him shooting dead a young night-shift stoker in London in 1872, and his subsequent incarceration.

'He was a classic paranoid schizophrenic, though they didn't call him that then,' says Winchester.

'Yet there's no doubt that W C Minor's contribution to mankind was enormous.' Yet Minor in a way was lucky: though he suffered terrible torment, he was classified insane just as treatment of madness was moving from medieval torture practices towards sympathy.

'Broadmoor was set up with compassion and security as its watchwords,' says Winchester.

As long as inmates were safe, they could indulge their hobbies.

Minor was eager in some way to make recompense for his wrong. Winchester says the story shows how the mad are not irredeemable, and today's treatments may be depriving them of contributions they could make to society: 'The irony is that if W C Minor was there today, [he'd] be given anti-psychotic drugs . . . [He] would be all right but it would have dulled [his] creative energies.' Minor was able to line his Broadmoor 'rooms' - two cells linked together - with his extensive book collection, and buy more.

He could receive visitors - one of whom, oddly, was the murdered man's wife. He could paint and play his flute, and even employed another inmate as his servant. A second irony, says Winchester, is that he only found out parts of the story by rummaging through letters and diaries in the attic of one of Minor's descendants in Connecticut.

'How many people keep diaries any more?' asks Winchester.

The tale of how Minor and the dictionary's famous editor, James Murray, met and became friends puts paid to the journalistic story that has held sway since its publication early this century - that Murray had decided to visit Minor assuming he was a doctor or the director of the asylum, and was astonished on arrival to discover the truth.

In fact, says Winchester, the true tale, which we publish here as an edited extract from the book, is only slightly less romantic.