18th June 2000

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Murder madness and love of words

By Noel Crusz In Sydney

At St. Peter's College in the thirties my brilliant English teacher Foster Stave had a favourite question: "Did you consult the Oxford dictionary?" "No, Sir," I replied. "I guessed the meaning by reading."

The answer satisfied Stave who told his pupils that a word seen in context was always an asset. With a working vocabulary of about 30,000 words, I felt that I have hardly referred to a dictionary and the 'Oxford' to boot, to find the meaning of less than a thousand.

The Oxford dictionary was a bible for all of us. My father who was a schoolmaster, and my brothers Hilary, Vernon and Rienzi carried the small abridged 'Oxford' to school.

Now in Sydney I had reason to think of the Oxford dictionary. On August 31, last year I went into a Sydney private hospital for a simple angiogram and came out of the operating theatre with renal failure. This explains my being hooked to a dialysis machine, three times a week for a duration of five hours in each session. I am now told that I will be on dialysis for the term of my natural life, and that perhaps is not very long either.

The specialist physician, Dr. Roger Wyndham of the Concord Hospital, who attended on me after I was brought from another hospital, advised me to read Simon Winchester's book The Surgeon of Crowthorne. I did not know what Dr. Wyndham knew, that surgeon William Chester Minor, who played an important part in compiling the Oxford dictionary was born in Ceylon and spent his teenage years on the island.

It took 30 years for thousands of volunteers to help in the making of the Oxford English dictionary. It was Minor who played a significant role in compiling it.

The surname 'Minor' struck a note. It was a 'Minor' who wrote the words of the Peterite school anthem, which George de Niese set to music. We sang our hearts out with "Lend a heart and lend a hand". Was Eric Minor a descendant of William Chester Minor? No one knows.

W. C. Minor was an American millionaire Civil War surgeon, who had turned into a lunatic, and was imprisoned in Britain's Broadmoor asylum, for murder. It was there that he spent all his cell - bound days working on the Oxford dictionary.

Author Winchester reminds us that Minor was born in Ceylon. He describes "the lushy overgrown tropical island which seems to hang from India's tip like a tear-drop, or a pear or a pearl. It is a Garden of Eden for sinners, an island limbo for those who yield to temptation."

For Winchester, "Ceylon is really a kind of post lapsarian treasure island, where every sensual gift of the tropics is available, both to reward temptation and to beguile and charm".

He speaks of "a rich hot sweetly moist breeze, scented by the sea by spices and blossoms". He refers to the 18th century Horace Walpole's tale of Ceylon where three princes who reigned there had the enchanting habit of stumbling across wonderful things quite by chance.

Soon the English language was to be enriched by the word serendipity. "These days it is called Sri Lanka, whilst once the Arab sea traders called it Serendib. The inventor of the word, who never travelled to the east never really knew why."

Of course, we are told of the cinnamon, coffee and tea, sapphires and rubies, mangoes and cashews, elephants and leopards. Did he forget the curvaceous, fair cashew girls of Pasyala?

We are next given a portrait of Sri Lankan girls who according to Winchester are "young, chocolate-skinned, giggling naked girls with sleek wet bodies and rose bud nipples and long hair and coltish legs, and with scarlet and purple petals folded behind their ears, whilst playing in the white Indian Ocean surf, and who run, quite without shame along the cool wet sands on their way back home". Maybe Winchester was thinking of Sydney's Lady Jane or Bondi beach?

The amusing, if not inaccurate, picture leaves nothing to the imagination, which gripped the young Minor. He accuses "the young girls of Ceylon for having set him on a spiral path to his essentially insatiable lust, to his madness and perdition".

Winchester takes pains to explain that "Minor had noticed the erotic thrill when he was 13 years old that this was to inflame a burning obsession with sexuality that inspired the senses and sapped his energies".

However, we know that Minor was born in June 1834 and that his parents were American missionaries, who arrived on a cargo ship carrying ice from Salem to Ceylon. They settled in the northeast coast in Manipay. Both the Minors and the Murrays, compilers of the dictionary, were members of the Congregationist Church with Scotland's 17th century conservatism. The parents descended from the Pilgrim Fathers.

Minor's mother had died of consumption when he was three years old. His father Eastman left his sister with Sinhalese missionaries in Uduvil, and took him on a journey to find a wife. At Singapore his father met Judith Taylor. He persuaded her to come with him "on the next Jaffna bound steamer". They were married by the American Consul in Colombo before Christmas 1839.

Young Minor made great use of the mission library and read profusely. He soon mastered Hindi, Tamil and various Chinese dialects.

At 13, Minor confessed to his doctors that "he started to enjoy lascivious thoughts about the young native girls on the sands around him, a rare constant in a shifting inconstant life".

So at 14, his parents decided to send him to America, far from the temptation of the tropics. He got on a P&O Liner that touched in Colombo on a journey round the Cape of Good Hope. Even on the ship, Minor was infatuated by an English girl.

He was warned that "the tropical days and nights added to the slow rocking motion of the swell and the sight of women wearing shorts and light cotton dresses and exotic drinks at the bar could expedite romance".

He told his doctors that "in spite of his fantasies over the small Indian girls, he never let his sexual feelings get the better of him or even gratify himself in an unwanted way". Some commented that the guilt of the peculiarly pious had troubled him. Minor had studied medicine at Yale University and specialised in comparative anatomy.

At 29, he nearly died from septicaemia, which he got when he cut his hand during a post-mortem.

Minor joined the United States Army as a surgeon in the Civil War. He saw the bloodshed and the horrors and the gangrene, pus and amputations from pain and disease. He was appalled by the loss of life: 360,000 Union troops and 258,000 Confederates. He thought of Ceylon and in 1864 he read widely and resorted to painting in water colours.

Soon Minor saw 5000 soldiers deserting every month, whilst others fled in the face of gunfire. Minor was taken aback when one young Irish deserter was branded on his face.

Minor was soon declared to be incapacitated "by causes arising in the line of duty and should be retired with immediate effect".

On February 17, 1872 three gunshots were heard at Lambeth in London, where roads and railways meet. It was not the Lambeth Walk or the Palais Glide. The victim was George Merrit, a stoker at the local brewery. He was an innocent working class man, with a pregnant wife and six children, all living in dire poverty.

A few minutes after the shooting, Constable Henry Tarrant arrested the man who fired the shots. He was the 37-year-old William Chester Minor, the qualified American surgeon, who had been in London for less than a year. He was taken to the Horsemonger Lane gaol on a murder charge.

Minor had a commission as a Captain in the US. Army. Minor's amorous adventures had led to "a prodigious sexual appetite" along with the disease of gonorrhoea which he said he contracted from a prostitute in London.

His London landlady said that her tenant "was odd and feared the Irish". Evidence was to show that Minor was insane. At Broadmoor he was patient No 742 held as a certified criminal lunatic.

At 38, Surgeon William Charles Minor, of no known religion, was charged with the murder of George Merrit of Lambeth. He was found "not guilty on the grounds of insanity".

lt took 70 years to create the Oxford English Dictionary and Walter Chester Minor played a significant part in compiling the book. The dictionary depended on quotations from published works. Minor in his cell did not give up his interest in 'words'.. as a rich millionaire he was allowed to purchase books.

Minor eventually decided to meet the widow of the man he murdered and offered to help her financially. Eliza Merrit was happy to accept the money he gave her, and even visited the surgeon in the asylum.

James Murray was the famous Editor of the Oxford dictionary. From his cell William Chester Minor did his part in the compilation of the dictionary. The 70-year project saw 12 volumes, 414,825 words were defined, there were 1,827,306 illustrative quotations. Minor contributed thousands. The dictionary has 227,779,589 letters and numbers. There were supplements in 1933,1972 and 1988.

For 20 years Dr. James Murray and Walter Chester Minor had corresponded on the finer points of 'words', but they had never met. Minor did not explain why he did not come to Oxford. Murray was shocked when he heard that Minor was the longest resident in a lunatic asylum, a mad surgeon and murderer. In 1910, Minor was discharged from Broadmoor asylum. He donated all his books to Murray.

On March 28, 1920 at 85, Walter Chester Minor died. There was no "obituary" only a two-line death notice. He was buried in America's Evergreen cemetery. An angel stands on a plinth nearby gazing at the sky. The inscription says: "My faith looks up to Thee."

And so one of the greatest contributors to the finest English dictionary in all the English language, died forgotten in obscurity and is buried near a slum. The Oxford English Dictionary was completed on New Year's Eve in 1921. It is "one of the greatest romances in English literature".

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