Dr William Minor – literary genius and random killer, who, in between contributing learned entries to the Oxford English Dictionary, believed he was being sexually molested by – and himself molesting – hundreds of women…

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William Chester Minor was born in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in 1834, the son of New England missionaries. He was a clever, sensitive boy who painted, played the flute, and spoke several languages but was troubled by ‘lascivious thoughts’ about the local girls. So, aged 14, he was sent back to the US to live with an uncle, and later went to Yale medical school, graduating in 1863.

After graduating, the young man joined the Union Army as a surgeon and served at the bloody Battle of the Wilderness, which saw terrible casualties on both side. Hundreds of soldiers died – burned to death, mutilated and injured.

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While serving in the Army, Minor was also ordered to brand an Irish deserter on the face, an incident that affected him deeply – paranoid delusions about the Irish would be a feature of his later illness. And many believe this – as well as his horrific experiences of the battlefield – may have tipped him into the start of madness…

Mental instability

The thoughtful and courteous Minor continued to serve in the Army for several years but showed growing signs of mental instability. After the Civil War he was transferred to a hospital in Virginia, then promoted and moved to a post in New York City.

But now Minor began to show signs of paranoia and obsessive sexual behaviour.  He carried a gun, spent most of his off-duty time with prostitutes and caught venereal disease.  On one occasion, he made a failed attempt to cure himself by injecting wine into his urethra through his penis.

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William Minor even got engaged.  None of his friends ever met his intended, so it was assumed that she was some kind of entertainer. However, her mother pressured her daughter to call off the engagement.

By 1867, his inappropriate behavior had been noted by the Army and he was transferred to a remote post in Florida. A year on, in 1868, his behavior had become so strange he was admitted to a lunatic asylum in Washington. After 18 months, he showed no improvement and deemed ‘incapacitated by causes arising in the line of duty’, he had to leave the Army.

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Now Minor’s life would be set on a path that would lead to descent into madness and murder.

Sexual excess

Minor was discharged from the hospital in 1871 and came to Lambeth, London as part of a holiday. Here he resumed his life of sexual excess and his paranoia returned with a vengeance. He became obsessed with the idea that the Irish were going to punish him for the branding he carried out during the war. He carried a loaded gun for protection.

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On 17 February 1872, haunted by his paranoia, he shot and killed a man named George Merrett, believing he’d broken into his room. Merrett had been on his way to work to support his family of six children, and his pregnant wife Eliza.

At William Minor’s trial the extent of his insanity became apparent and the details were widely published in the newspapers. The ‘Lambeth Tragedy’ became international news.

Minor was found not guilty, on grounds of insanity, and became Patient Number 742 in Broadmoor, England’s newest asylum, built specifically for the ‘criminally insane’ and opened in 1863.

In Broadmoor

Well-educated and with an Army pension, William Minor was given two rooms, not one. The US Vice-Consul-General arranged for Minor to have painting materials, some of his own clothes, and an ‘allowance’ of books – he collected so many, he converted one of his rooms into a library.

William Minor arranged to help Eliza, the wife of his victim, financially. Eliza asked to see Minor in Broadmoor and started visiting him monthly, even collecting books from various London bookshops for him. And while her regular visits petered out when Eliza took to drink, they seemed to have helped Minor’s state of mind by giving him a new occupation.

Then, in 1857, the idea of a new dictionary of English was proposed. Its editors recognised that they’d need the help of many volunteers for this huge task, to search for quotations to support each definition. Even with this help, the dictionary – which was to become the Oxford English Dictionary – took 70 years to complete.

Then Dr James Murray assumed editorship of the dictionary in 1879, and issued an appeal in newspapers and magazines for volunteers – and this found its way into Minor’s hands.

William Minor started collecting quotations around 1880, and continued doing so for 20 years, working systematically through his library.

William Minor contribution to the dictionary over the years was massive, and obviously came to the attention of Murray.

Minor always signed his letters in the same way – Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire and it seems Murray believed William Minor was a medical man associated with the asylum. Then his suspicions were aroused in the late 1880s, when a visitor from America thanked him for his kindness to the ‘poor Dr Minor’.

Troubled history

Minor’s troubled history was finally revealed to the astonished Murray. And although he didn’t actually visit Broadmoor for many years, Murray always took care to write to Minor with sensitivity, never making it known that he was aware of his situation.

Minor devoted most of the remainder of his life to working on the dictionary and became one of the project’s most effective volunteers.

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But his condition was getting steadily worse and in 1902, deluded that he was being abducted at night from his rooms and taken to places as far away as Istanbul, sexually assaulted himself and forced to sexually assault children, he cut off his own penis believing this would stop his sexually fevered thoughts.

His health continued to decline and after, Murray campaigned on his behalf, William Minor was released in 1910 on the orders of Home Secretary Winston Churchill. Now aged 76, he was sent back to America to St Elizabeth’s Hospital, diagnosed with schizophrenia a term that only came into use in 1912.

He died of pneumonia in his sleep in 1920 after being moved in 1919 to the Retreat for the Elderly Insane in Connecticut.

The Professor and the Madman, a film about James Murray and William Minor, starring Mel Gibson as Murray and Sean Penn as Minor, is set for release this year.