The Murderer Who Swallowed the Dictionary

Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com

When I was a rebellious two-year-old, I once defied my mother by blurting out a precocious, “Definitely no!”  Thereafter, she never stopped teasing me.  “You must have swallowed the dictionary,” she said.  I didn’t yet know what a dictionary was or how essential it would be in my future line of work.

The process of compiling a dictionary is no easy task.  It requires an enormous amount of research reading.  Lexicographers pore through countless newspapers, magazines, blogs, and books to scout out newly coined words and identify old words that have taken on new or changed meanings.  They gather quotations to illustrate the context in which a word is found and when enough citations show the word used in a particular way, they construct a definition, arranging the different senses in which the word has been used from earliest to most current.

The first installment of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was published in 1884.  It had taken twenty-three years to assemble and covered only A through Ant.  By 1888, it had progressed through B.  The acknowledged “mother of all dictionaries” wasn’t completed until 1928.  It had involved the work of numerous editors and thousands of volunteers who combed through their personal reading materials for words and their historical usage and contributed citations.  The OED not only gives the definition and derivation, but the entire life history of each word and it owes much of its content to a murderer named William Chester Minor.

Minor was born in Sri Lanka, the son of American missionaries.  As a young man, he moved to the United States, attended Yale Medical School, and graduated with a degree in anatomy.  He became a surgeon in the Union Army in 1863 and remained in the military after the war ended.  Whether it was post-traumatic stress that unhinged him or his fondness for strong drink and loose women, he began to have paranoid delusions.  His mental condition steadily deteriorated and when his superiors could no longer trust him to carry out his duties, they committed him to a lunatic asylum.  After two years of “moral therapy,” hydrotherapy, and rest, he showed no signs of improvement.

In 1871, he left America for England and in 1872, he killed a man he imagined had broken into his room.  At trial, Minor was judged not guilty by reason of insanity and incarcerated in Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane.  He still had a nice pension from the U.S. Army and his money and status as a former surgeon gained him more privileges than the average inmate.  The institution ensconced him in two large, comfortable cells and allowed him to stroll around the grounds.  He corresponded freely with booksellers and over the years acquired an extensive library of mostly antiquarian books.  Haunted by guilt, he paid restitution to the widow of the man he killed and she visited him monthly, bringing more bundles of books.

In one of these bundles he spotted a notice from the editors of a new dictionary calling for help in collecting examples of certain specified words and quotations that demonstrated their meaning.  Intelligent, educated, with a trove of books and nothing but time on his hands, Minor was the perfect man for the job.  He channeled his madness into an obsession with reading and producing citations.  During the day, he scavenged for obscure words and meticulously copied quotations.  At night, he shoved furniture against the door of his room to prevent imaginary enemies from breaking in to poison him and destroy his precious books.

Over the course of two decades, he submitted more than 12,000 entries to the OED.  The quote he chose to illustrate the word “murder” comes from the 18th Century poet and travel writer, Lady Mary Wortly Montagu.

             For tho’ in law to murder be to kill

            In equity the murder’s in the will.

I’m not sure what that means exactly, but it seems to hint at something like the legal concept of mens rea.  It’s what is in the mind of the killer at the moment that constitutes the wrong.  Perhaps that idea alleviated Minor’s guilt and gave him a bit of solace.  He received attribution and plentiful thanks from the OED editors for his work, but eventually his dementia worsened.  After thirty years at Broadmoor, he returned to America and died in Connecticut in a hospital for the elderly insane.

Lexicographers might tell you that a slight degree of insanity goes with the practice of lexicography.  The work is complex, demanding, tedious, and seriously addictive.  Definition 3a of the verb “to swallow” in the OED reads as follows: “to cause to become engrossed; occupy completely; absorb eagerly (as with the mind).”  The quotation that is cited comes from Francis Biddle:  “could not swallow books like oysters.”  But in a metaphorical sense, William Chester Minor could.  I think it’s fair to say he swallowed the dictionary.

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