The Strange, Dark Tale Of The Oxford English Dictionary's Creation

The Strange, Dark Tale Of The Oxford English Dictionary's Creation

Throughout history, many incarcerated folks have published some of the writings they penned while doing time in the clink. St. Paul wrote four of the New Testament’s Epistles, Don Quixote was written behind bars, and writers like Oscar Wilde and e.e. cummings spent their imprisoned years doing what they do best (besides offending someone, probably).

And so it came to be that a significant contributor of the Oxford English Dictionary did so while incarcerated at the famous Broadmoor Criminal Asylum because of the unhinged murder he committed.

Wikimedia Commons

No, the victim was not of the middle of his beard.

American doctor and army surgeon William Chester Minor had a bad case of paranoid schizophrenia. His mental health issues seemed to have stemmed from post-war PTSD and the traumatic incident in which he was forced to brand an Irish deserter in the American Civil War. Since then, he gradually started losing grip on reality, convincing himself that he was being stalked, poisoned, and sexually abused every single night by a band of Irishmen seeking revenge. Oh, and he struggled with a severe case of sex addiction, too, because some people just can’t catch a break.

Minor went on vacation to London after his discharge from the army to enjoy a bit of a break … but schizophrenia doesn’t take breaks, and his made-up band of Irish avengers followed him to the shores of England. Soon, Minor was sleeping with a gun under his pillow.

In the early hours of February 17, 1872, the ill surgeon was chasing a hallucination through the slums of London when he mistakenly shot George Merrett, who was on his way to clock in for his coal-stoking night shift at a brewery. When the police arrived to find Merrett deceased, Minor admitted to killing him immediately, and the entire conspiracy saga came pouring out. Seven weeks later, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to Broadmoor Asylum, where he spent the rest of his days.

That’s pretty much where Minor’s medical career officially ended, and his contribution to the Oxford English Dictionary began. Minor had acquired some unique and rare books with his army pension money because he was still a scholarly individual. When he read about the OED’s call for contributors, Minor already had his own library to dig into. By day, the formerly respected surgeon would comb through sentences and curate quotations for the OED. By night, he would “Home Alone” his room with booby traps to thwart his stalkers who never left his poor mind, not even in Broadmoor. 

Minor’s body of work ended up being most impressive, and he was thanked in the OED’s first published volume, A New English Dictionary. Unfortunately, by the turn of the 19th century, Minor had become fanatically spiritual and a devout Christian. He was utterly convinced that he needed to cleanse himself from all his “sexual sins” and desires. So he cut off his penis. 

You don’t have to look up “twist” in the dictionary to get that one.

Top Image: Wikimedia Commons

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