By John E. Carey
The diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder did not exist during the Civil War, though family members certainly were aware of the toll inflicted on the minds and bodies of many veterans.
William C. Minor, a trained physician, suffered paranoia, uncontrolled fits of rage and severe headaches and nightmares after the Civil War. Ultimately, his illness resulted in irrational behavior that culminated in the murder of a stranger. Admitted to an asylum in 1872 and confined in Britain and the United States for the rest of his life, he died in 1920 after making a major contribution to one of the most important books in the English language.
William Chester Minor, son of Eastman Strong Minor, was raised in privilege. He enjoyed the advantages of a fine family name, wealth and education. His father headed the seventh generation of Minors in the United States. Most of the family had established themselves as key members of the community, dating back to Pilgrim times.Eastman Minor closed his New England printing business in 1834 and traveled with his wife, Lucy, to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to spread the gospel among the “brown peoples.”
William was born seven months after their arrival. His mother died when he was 3, and when he was 5 years old, his father again was married, to another missionary.William Minor’s father and other clergymen preached against the temptations of the flesh. Yet young William witnessed the local tropical girls bathing naked, apparently without shame or fear of sin – a vision and a dichotomy that would haunt him into adulthood, and constitute evidence of a fragile mental disposition. Minor complained of “lascivious thoughts” about the local girls – thoughts which he later identified as having set him on the path to insanity.
A gentle soul, he took to producing watercolors and other artistic pursuits, but his deepest love was for literature. By the age of 12, he knew several languages – and also could navigate ably the seamy back streets of Rangoon, Burma; Singapore; and Bangkok.
After his return to the United States, Minor completed a classical education and then was graduated from the School of Medicine at Yale. He spent nine years in medical apprenticeship before volunteering for service in the Union Army four days before the Battle of Gettysburg.After months of service far from the front, Minor was with the Army of the Potomac at the Wilderness and heard wounded soldiers of both armies crying in terror and despair as fire swept through the kindling in the underbrush on the battlefield. He amputated limbs and treated the terrible wounds inflicted by rifle and cannon fire. He saw death in every form amid filthy conditions in which infections thrived. It was as though “hell itself had usurped the place of earth,” one soldier wrote of the Wilderness.
After the Wilderness, he was assigned by a court-martial board to a difficult duty. A Union Army deserter, Irish by birth, had been caught and, rather than hanging him as prescribed, the court had ordered him branded on the face with a “D” – marking him forever as a deserter. For many Irishmen then, this was particularly heinous, for it barred a man from returning to participate in the covert war against the English. The scarred face would alert law officers.Using a red-hot branding iron, the hesitant doctor carried out the duty, but the sight and sound of burning flesh would scar him for life no less than the deserter.
At war’s end, a captain, he was performing autopsies at a military hospital when he began to exhibit erratic behavior. Irishmen, he believed, entered his quarters while he slept to molest him. He also began to frequent the most unseemly establishments in the slums of New York.He complained of headaches and vertigo. As his behavior deteriorated, Minor spent time in the government insane asylum, now St. Elizabeth’s in Washington, and finally was retired on disability by the Army. Then, at the urging of his family, he went to Europe, where it was hoped he could rid his mind of torment. He expected to read, rest and paint.
There was no escaping the postwar demons, however. Waking one night while living in a down-at-the-heels section of London, Minor went into the street and shot to death a man on his way to work. Arrested with pistol in hand, he told police he believed he had chased tormentors out of his apartment.Found to be insane at his trial, Minor was committed in 1872 to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. He became Patient Number 742 at Broadmoor, and would remain there for 38 years before he was transferred to an asylum in the United States.
© Reprinted by permission of the Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press
His story didn’t end upon his arrival at Broadmoor, however. A man of education and intellectual discipline, Minor used his Union Army pension to start his own library at Broadmoor. He collected the best titles and authors of the English language.
In London, philologists had fixated upon the idea of an all-encompassing “Big Dictionary” of English. The project had languished since 1857. Then, around the time of Minor’s incarceration, Dr. James Murray and others realized that they would need the help of many volunteers, to search bookshelves for quotations to support each definition. Even with the help of this army of volunteers, the dictionary took 70 years to complete.Ultimately, Minor contributed 20 years of erudite submissions to the editors then compiling what would become known as the Oxford English Dictionary, a monumental accomplishment of philology.
It would be two decades before Dr. James Murray, the renowned editor of the dictionary, would meet his prized contributor – and discover that he was an inmate in an insane asylum.
Simon Winchester author of “The Professor and the Madman,” published last year, recounts Minor’s grimly fascinating tale – doctor, artist, Civil War veteran, murderer and lexicographer.
By John E. Carey