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Dr. William Chester MINOR





Classification: Homicide
Characteristics: Haunted by his paranoia - One of the largest contributors of quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: February 17, 1872
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: June 1834
Victim profile: George Merritt, 34
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: London, England, United Kingdom
Status: Found not guilty on grounds of insanity on April 6, 1872. Detained "until Her Majesty's Pleasure be known" as a "certified criminal lunatic". Died on March 16, 1920

William Chester Minor, also known as W. C. Minors (June 1834 March 26, 1920) was an American army surgeon who, later, was one of the largest contributors of quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary. He was held in a lunatic asylum at the time.

Early life

Minor was born on the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the son of Congregationalist Church missionaries from New England. He had numerous half-siblings, among them Thomas T. Minor, mayor of Seattle, Washington in the late 1880s.

At 14 he was sent to the United States, finishing his medical education in 1863 at Yale.

Military career

He was accepted by the Union Army as a surgeon and served at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, which was notable for the terrible casualties suffered. Minor was also given the task of punishing a Northern soldier by branding him on the face with a D for "deserter". This man was an Irish immigrant, and his nationality later played a role in Minor's dementia delusions.

Move to England

In 1871 he went to the UK settling in the slum of Lambeth, in London where once again he took up a dissolute life. Haunted by his paranoia, he fatally shot a man named George Merrett, who Minor believed had broken into his room, on February 17, 1872. Merrett had been on his way to work to support his family of six children, himself, and his pregnant wife, Eliza.

 After a pre-trial period spent in London's Horsemonger Lane Gaol, Minor was found not guilty by reason of insanity and incarcerated in the asylum at Broadmoor in the village of Crowthorne, Berkshire. As he had his army pension and was not judged dangerous, he was given rather comfortable quarters and was able to buy and read books.

Contributor to OED

It was probably through his correspondence with the London booksellers that he heard of the call for volunteers from what was to become the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). He devoted most of the remainder of his life to that work.

He became one of the most effective volunteers, reading through his personal library and compiling quotations that illustrated the way particular words were used. He was visited quite often by the widow of the man he had killed, and she provided him with further books. The compilers of the dictionary published lists of words for which they wanted examples of usage. Chester provided these, with increasing ease as his lists grew. It was many years before the OED's editor, Dr. James Murray, learned Minor's background history, and visited him.

Minor's condition deteriorated and in 1902 he cut off his own penis. His health failed and he was permitted to return to the United States and St. Elizabeths Hospital; he was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia. He died in 1920 in New Haven, Connecticut

In popular culture

The book The Surgeon of Crowthorne (published in America as The Professor and the Madman) by Simon Winchester, was published in 1998 and chronicles both Minor's later life and his contributions to the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.


Dr William Chester Minor & The O.E.D.

William Chester Minor was born in Ceylon, in June 1834 to New England Congregationalist missionaries. Minor was a clever sensitive lad who painted, played the flute, and spoke several languages but kept having "lascivious thoughts" about the local girls so he was sent 'back' to America when he was 14 to live with an Uncle. He went on to study medicine at Yale and became a surgeon in the Union Army in 1863.

In May 1864 he was at the Battle of the Wilderness (notable for the horrible casualties suffered) and it is thought that the exposure to the full horrors of war including the burning alive of hundreds of soldiers, horrific casualties and mutilations triggered his mental illness. As part of his duties he was forced to brand the letter D on the face of an Irish deserter, a member of the Fenian Brotherhood, and this incident caused him a great deal of mental torment. It is thought to be the basis of his paranoid delusions about the Irish that were a major feature of his later madness.

At the end of the American Civil War Minor saw duty in New York City but he was strongly drawn to the red light area of the city and spent increasing amounts of time and money on prostitutes. By 1867, his behavior had come bizarre and the Army transferred him to a remote post. By 1868 Minor showed growing signs of mental instability, and placed in St. Elizabeth's Hospital, the U.S. Government Hospital for the Insane. After 18 months he was allowed to resign his commission on the grounds of "incapacitated by causes arising in the line of duty" and started to receive an Army pension.

He was discharged from the hospital in 1871 and came to London as part of a vacation. Here he resumed going with prostitutes and at the same time 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 took to carrying a loaded gun for his own protection.

Early on the 17th February 1872 after returning home late at night he woke up believing that someone was trying to get into his room. He chased after the intruder and shot at a man in the street. George Merritt, a 34 year old stoker at the Lion Brewery, was working an early shift starting at 2am and was walking down Belvedere Road when Minor fired four shots two of which entered his neck. Merritt was declared dead on arrival at St Thomas' hospital.

On the afternoon of April 6, 1872 Dr. William Chester Minor was judged not guilty on grounds of insanity, and was detained "until Her Majesty's Pleasure be known" as a "certified criminal lunatic" at the Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire. Minor was allocated two rooms in the 'swells block' at Broadmoor and was allowed books and painting materials.

Merritt's wife Eliza was left with seven children ranging from 18 years to 12 months to bring up with another on the way. Times were very hard for her and her children but wealthy Minor helped out financially and Eliza even asked to visit Minor in Broadmoor. This highly unusual request was granted and following an experimental visit she started visiting him monthly and even undertook to collect books from various London bookshops for him.

These visits did not last very long as Eliza took to drink but seemed to have greatly helped Minor as it gave him a new occupation. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) editor Dr James Murray had an eight page flyer (a letter) inserted into several new books appealing for new readers to find words and quotations for the dictionary. One of these flyers found its way to Dr Minor in Broadmoor, perhaps in one of the books that Eliza brought him. He began reading and collecting books and turned one of his rooms into his library. This he put to good use, as he became a principal contributor of sixteenth and seventeenth century quotations to the first edition of the OED for over thirty years. Minor always signed his letters in the same way: Dr W.C. Minor, Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire and initially the OED editor, Dr James Murray, was unaware that Minor was insane but after many years he started regular visits to Minor in Broadmoor.

By 1902 Minor's mental health had deteriorated and he cut off his penis in an act of self-mutilation, which he thought would stop his lascivious thoughts. In 1910 following strong representations from Dr Murray, the US Consulate and others, the then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, signed the necessary papers to allow Minor to return to the mental hospital in the USA.

He died of complications arising from pneumonia on the 26th March 1920 in an old peoples home in New Haven, Connecticut, having been discharged from hospital shortly and is buried at Evergreen Cemetery New Haven. The last psychiatric diagnosis on Minor was that he suffering from dementia praecox or schizophrenia.


Frightful Murder in Lambeth

South London Chronicle

Saturday 24th February 1872

A dreadful tragedy was enacted in Belvedere-road, near Hungerford-bridge on Saturday morning last, whereby a respectable man was shot dead in mistake for another man.

The murderer is William Chester Minor, aged 37, described as an American physician, residing at 41, Tenison-street, York-road, Lambeth. He was charged at Southwark Police-court in the afternoon, when the main evidence was given by Police-constable 236L, who said, that a little after two o'clock on Saturday morning he was on duty in Belvedere-road, when he heard a report of fire-arms. He proceeded in that direction and saw the prisoner coming on the opposite side of the road. He went over to him and asked him who it was that had fired. He said he had, and, asking him who he fired at, he said, "A man. I should not be such a coward as to shoot a woman." Witness seized him and took the revolver produced from his right hand; it was quite warm. He then took him to the station-house, and on the way met another constable, whom he directed to Tenison street, where he found the deceased lying near the wall of the Lion Brewery Stores, bleeding from wounds in the throat. Another constable came up, and they took the body to St. Thomas's Hospital, when he was found to be dead.

The examination at the police-court was continued on Monday when Mr. De Tracey Goued, of the American Bar, and Mr. John Nunn, Vice-consul of the United States, were present; but upon being asked, the prisoner said he had no wish for their services at present. The landlady of the house in which he lodged was called, and spoke as to his general conduct since he took the apartments on the Wednesday after Christmas. She heard him come home about one o'clock on Saturday morning and go to his room, and about a quarter to two heard him go out; she had not heard him go out of a night before. His room was generally unlocked, except when he was at home; never saw any weapon about the room. Ellen Henderson, living at 19, Tenison-street, stated that about two o'clock on Saturday morning she heard four shots fired in rapid succession; one, two-one, two. Saw a constable running down the street, and directed him to the spot whence the sound of the shots came. The most touching point was when Eliza Merritt, the wife of the deceased man, was giving her evidence. On being sworn she said - I live at No.24, Cornwall-cottages, Cornwall-road. My husband had worked for thr Lion Brewery about eight years. He was 34 years of age. On Saturday morning a little before two o'clock he was roused up as usual to go to his work, and he immediately got up and dressed himself. He was in his usual health. He struck a light when he went out and said "good bye," as usual. For the last three weeks he had gone out at two in the morning. I heard nothing more of him until half-past seven, when I was told he was shot. Between two and three in the afternoon I went to see him at the hospital. I have seven children. The eldest is 18 and the youngest 12 months old, and I expect to be confined with another very shortly. My husband had 24s. a week. Our large family kept us very poor so I am now in deep distress.

Sergeant Steggles, Acting-Inspector at Tower-street Police-station, recalled, and said that after his examination on Saturday he went to the prisoner's lodgings and found two large portmanteaus. In them he found seven or eight American coins, five bank notes of 20 livres each, a box containing bulleted cartridges (Ely's make), and five others were handed to him by Mrs. Fisher, who took them from a coat pocket in the room. He found a United States surgeon's diploma, appointing him assistant-surgeon to the army, dated 1866, and a captain's commission, dated 1867. He also found a letter of introduction, signed by J.W. Johnson, addressed to Professor Rood, Sheffield Scientific School, Yale College, Newhaven, Connecticut. He found in the room several water-colours in various stages of completion. After the prisoner was removed from the dock, Mr. Nunn, the Vice-consul, returned into court, and said he had had some conversations with the prisoner, who told him the gold watch and chain were heirlooms in his family, and wished them to be given up to him. Mr Partridge desired the inspector to deliver them up to Mr. Nunn.

The inquest on the body was held on Tuesday, when, after hearing the evidence substantially the same as that given before the police magistrate, with the addition of that by Mr. Williams, one of the hospital house surgeons, who said that either of the two wounds to the neck, produced by bullets, was sufficient to account for death, the jury returned a verdict of Wilful Murder against the prisoner, and the coroner made out his warrant accordingly.

Subscriptions have been set on foot on behalf of the family of the murdered man, and while the Rev. H.W. Bateman, vicar of St. John's, Waterloo-road, states that general subscriptions will be received by him at 158, Stamford-street, or by the secretary to the Lion Brewery Company, Belvedere-road. Mr. Nunn makes as appeal to Americans in London on behalf of the family.

At the inquest the 24s. allowed to the jury were at once handed over to the family.


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