The Surgeon of Crowthorne
This has been the story of an American soldier and also a qualified surgeon whose involvement in the making of the world’s greatest dictionary was singular, astonishing, memorable and laudable – and yet at the same time wretchedly sad. And in
This has been the story of an American soldier and also a qualified surgeon whose involvement in the making of the world’s greatest dictionary was singular, astonishing, memorable and laudable – and yet at the same time wretchedly sad. And in the telling, it is tempting to forget that the circumstances that placed William Chester Minor in the position from where he was able to contribute all his time and energy to the making of the OED began with his horrible and unforgivable commission of a murder.
George Merrett, who was his victim, was an ordinary, innocent working-class farmer’s son from Wiltshire, who came up to London to make his living, but who was shot dead, leaving a pregnant wife, Eliza, and six young children. The family were already living in the direst poverty, trying to maintain some semblance of their farm-country dignity among the squalor of one of the roughest and most unforgiving parts of the Victorian city. Matters now took a terrible turn for the worse.
All London was shocked and horrified by the killing, and funds were raised and money collected to help the widow and her brood.
Minor was born on the island in June 1834 – little more than three years before, and fully 5,000 miles to the east of James Murray, the man with whom he would soon become so inextricably linked. And in one respect – and one respect only – the lives of the two so widely separated families were similar: both the Murrays and the Minors were exceedingly pious.
At first blush Minor might seem to have been a man more marked by his differences from Murray than by such similarities as these. He was rich where Murray was poor. He was of high estate where Murray’s condition was irredeemably, if respectably, low. And though he was of almost the same age – just three years separated them – he had been born both of a different citizenship and, as it happens, in a place that was almost as many thousands of miles away from Murray’s British Isles as it was then thought prudent and practicable for ordinary people to reach.
Whatever called, it was a link that would last the two men until death finally separated them thirty years later.
The lives of the two men were over the years to become inextricably and most curiously entwined.
These men were the best, the makers of indelible monuments to learning: of the books that were to be the foundation of the great libraries all around the globe.
It was to be seven years before they met, however. During that time Minor began to send out his quotations at a prodigious rate.
He would always write to Murray rather formally, straying only rarely into matters that were not within his self-appointed purview.
Minor wants desperately to know that he is being helpful. He wants to feel involved.
He wants respectability, and he wants those in the asylum to know that he is special, different from the others in their cells.
Though he has no idea at all of his correspondent’s character or circumstances – thinking him still a practicing medical man of literary tastes with a good deal of leisure’ – Murray seems to recognize something of his pleading tone.
Minor wrote, every single day, to Murray at Oxford – a correspondence that continued for twenty years.
Murray, as the story then continues, was in turn astonished, amazed and yet filled with sympathetic interest. ‘He begged to be taken to Dr Minor, and the meeting between the two men of learning who had corresponded for so long and who now met in such strange circumstances was an extremely impressive one.’
Murray was equally astonished to find that in all these years he had corresponded with Dr Minor and he had never learned nor suspected anything about him; and he then thrilled him with his story.
But their correspondence was of course entirely limited to the Dictionary and its materials, and the only feeling Murray had towards Minor was that of gratitude for his immense help, with some surprise at the rare and expensive old books that he evidently had access to.
Murray repeated the probably apocryphal story that he was driven mad by having to witness the execution of two men after a court martial.
"I sat with Dr Minor in his room or cell many hours altogether before and after lunch, and found him, as far as I could see, as sane as myself, a much cultivated and scholarly man, with many artistic tastes, and of fine Christian character, quite resigned to his sad lot, and grieved only on account of the restriction it imposed on his usefulness. "
It is abundantly clear that the two men knew each other personally, and saw each other regularly, for almost twenty years from the date of their first meeting.
But Murray could not help noticing, for instance, that Minor’s cell floor had been covered with a sheet of zinc – ‘to prevent men coming in through the timbers at night’ – and that he kept a bowl of water beside the door of whichever room he was in – ‘because the evil spirits will not dare to cross water to get to me’.
Murray only noticed that Minor’s small and practically furnished cell was not too dissimilar from a typical Oxford student’s room.
Murray was aware too of the doctor’s fears that he would be transported from his room at night and made to perform ‘deeds of the wildest excess’ in ‘dens of infamy’ before being returned to his cell by dawn.
It was not his place to regard the old man with anything other than sad affection: and besides, his work for the Dictionary continued apace.
They always seemed animated, deep in conversation; papers were produced, sometimes books. They did not speak to others, and gave only the impression of inhabiting a world of their own.
Their project was a great duty to the nation
There was always sadness when the time came for the editor to leave: the keys would turn, the gates would clang, and Minor would be left alone again, trapped in a world of his own making, redeemed only when, after a day or so of quiet mourning, he could take down another volume from his shelves, select a needed word and its most elegant context, pick up his pen and dip it in the ink and write once more: To Dr Murray, Oxford. The Oxford Post Office knew the address well: it was all that was needed to communicate by letter with the greatest lexicographer in the land, and make sure the information got through to him at the Scriptorium.