In the first edition of his Dictionary of the English Language (1755) the term lexicographer is defined by Samuel Johnson as a ‘harmless drudge that busies himself in … detailing the signification of words’. A dunce, in other words. Really?
Born in New York, George Washington Matsell was the son of an immigrant family from Helhoughton (near Fakenham), Norfolk. His father ran a bookshop on Broadway. Following in his footsteps, George opened up his own premises on Chatham Street, Manhattan (renamed Park Row in 1886). A man of words (in 1866 he acquired ownership of the National Police Gazette), he also took an interest in matters of law and order. He became a magistrate in 1840 and was appointed the first Commissioner of the New York City Police Department after its formation in 1844.
In the line of duty, he compiled a guide and ‘dictionary’ of New York’s subculture to help colleagues cope with the jargon of mid-nineteenth century criminal speech. Language was a tool in the fight against crime, he explained in his introduction. Members of the “rogue fraternity” have a tongue of their own, he said, which is “understood and spoken by them no matter what their dialect, or the nation they were reared.” The understanding of that “secret” speech was of value to the linguist as well, since a number of words and phrases started to appear in more general and journalistic usage (court reports became a crucial part of a newspaper’s make-up).
Matsell’s glossary was first published in 1859 as Vocabulum, or the Rogue’s Lexicon. That same year, London lexicographer and bookseller John Camden Hotten published A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words. During the 1830s and 1840s London and New York saw the appearance of uniformed police in the streets. By the mid-nineteenth century it was deemed necessary to record criminal cant in order to combat urbanites who threatened social harmony. The lexicographer turned villain.
A Troubled Man
In 1857, members of the Philological Society of London called for the compiling of a new English dictionary as existing wordbooks were incomplete and deficient. They demanded a complete re-examination of language from Anglo-Saxon times onward and offer a dictionary that would be the “last word on words.” It took more than two decades for the project to start. In 1879, the Society agreed with Oxford University Press to go ahead. Scottish linguist James Murray was appointed to edit the material for publication in parts. In the process, he would encounter an extraordinary contributor, a man with a serious criminal past.
William Chester Minor was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in June 1834 into a family of missionaries from New England. His formative years are said to have been troubled by an excessive interest in local girls which prompted his pious parents to send the fourteen-year old youngster to relatives in New Haven, Connecticut, to attend Russell Military Academy with the expectation that a disciplinary regime would force him to change his wayward behavior. Minor then entered nearby Yale University’s medical school and in due course graduated as a surgeon.
In 1863 Minor joined the medical corps of the Union Army, holding the rank of Lieutenant. He spent six months looking after combat casualties at hospitals in New England, before being sent to the front line in May 1864. The trauma of battlefield slaughter may have triggered his mental deterioration and subsequent illness. At the end of the Civil War he was posted in New York City where he spent his spare time in the company of prostitutes. Alarmed by his behavior, his superiors transferred him to a remote post in Florida before he was admitted to a lunatic asylum in Washington D.C. Eighteen months of treatment did not improve his condition. By 1871 he was compelled to leave the army. His family sent him away to convalesce in London.
Broadmoor English Dictionary
Having settled in Lambeth, south London, Minro worked to rehabilitate himself, but mental illness overwhelmed him once more. In February 1872, haunted by paranoia, he shot and killed George Merrett, a harmless man on his way to work to support his wife and six children. Minor gave himself up to the police and during the pre-trial phase of his prosecution he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sentenced to be incarcerated in the newly opened Broadmoor Asylum in Berkshire. An American citizen with an army pension, he was designated relatively comfortable quarters and allowed to acquire and read books.
At Broadmoor he came across an “Appeal for volunteer readers” sent out by James Murray on behalf of the Oxford English Dictionary, in which members of the reading public were requested to scour published literature for quotations to illustrate the use of words. By the mid-1880s Minor was sending thousands of references to the Oxford unit in their famous scriptorium at 79 Banbury Road. His stream of “notes from underground,” made him the team’s most productive contributor of sixteenth and seventeenth-century quotations to the first edition of the Dictionary. For many years Murray had not the faintest idea that his correspondent was a murderer and an inmate of Broadmoor.
When Murray learned of the curious circumstances of Minor’s life, he went for a visit. The men became friends, united by their passion for the English language. Minor became more unwell with age however. In 1902, in a fit of delusional guilt, he amputated his penis in the belief it might curb his sexual appetite. The autopeotomy severely debilitated him. It prompted Home Secretary Winston Churchill, at Murray’s request, to release and deport him. After an emotional farewell from the Murray family, Minor sailed back to New York in 1910. He carried the first six completed volumes of the O.E.D. with him. He died ten years later. A sad life, but a worthy legacy.
Photos, from above: William Chester Minor c 1900; James Murray in his scriptorium courtesy Oxford University Press Archive; and a quotation slip from Henry IV in 1550 submitted by Minor to the OED team.