Thursday, 25 September 2008

Learning from the Criminally Insane

History seems full of amazingly eccentric guys who achieved an awful lot in their lives, whilst also having really fucked up personal lives. I’m not sure if that's because looking back through the last two thousand years there are simply a lot more interesting characters to choose from than the limited amount in the present day, or if it’s due to us locking up people as soon as they seem a little crazy and ignoring anything they have to say... Being completely insane didn't really seem such a barrier in those days. Take William Chester Minor for example. He seems like a great guy, and not particularly dangerous. He deserted the US Army, had sex with a few prostitutes and it seems that was enough for him to be classed as insane. Thankfully he spent all his newfound spare time reading any book he could come across and contributing entries to the OED, citing earliest uses of words and things like that. A lot more worthwhile than sitting in an office pumping out garbage all day.

This article on him is pretty interesting:

Totally ripped from the BBC:

"Dr William Chester Minor arrived in Crowthorne, Berkshire on 17th April 1872, passing through the forbidding gates of Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum to begin an incarceration that lasted 38 troubled years. The events which had brought him to this nadir spanned many years, his spiralling descent into mental instability was both long and painful.

Spiralling descent

Born in Ceylon, in 1834, Minor was the son of New England missionaries. His conscience was plagued by "lascivious thoughts" about the local girls – thoughts which he later identified as having set him on the path to insanity – he was sent back to America at 14, where he studied medicine at Yale, before joining the Union Army as a surgeon in 1863.
It is Minor's experience of war that has most commonly been blamed for triggering his mental illness; for tipping him "over the edge". A sensitive and courteous man, who painted and played the flute, Minor was exposed to the full ferocity and horror of war at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864 - a battle noted for the horrific casualties it incurred.

As well as the terrible mutilations and other injuries sustained by both sides during the fighting, hundreds of soldiers were burned to death, as the foliage on the battlefield caught alight. It was as though "hell itself had usurped the place of earth", one soldier wrote later. As army surgeon, Minor was ordered to brand an Irish deserter on the cheek with the letter "D", and, not surprisingly, this incident seems to have affected him deeply. Paranoid delusions about the Irish were a feature of his later madness.

Minor continued to serve in the army for several years, however, he showed growing signs of mental instability, and in 1868 was admitted into a lunatic asylum in Washington. Judged "incapacitated by causes arising in the line of duty", he was resigned from his commission, and in 1871 went to London, where he settled in Lambeth. Here, sinking deeper into paranoia, Minor shot and killed George Merritt, a stoker, believing he had broken into his room.

The subsequent trial revealed the full extent of Minor's insanity for the first time, and the details were widely published in the press; the "Lambeth Tragedy" was international news.

Minor was judged not guilty, on grounds of insanity, and was detained in safe custody "until Her Majesty's Pleasure be known", and so he became Patient Number 742; inmate of England's newest asylum.

England's newest asylum

In the early-19th Century, the most dangerous "criminal lunatics" were housed in Bethlehem Hospital in London. However, it became severely overcrowded, and so, following an Act for the Better Provision for the Custody and Care of the Criminal Lunatics (1860), Broadmoor was opened in 1863 - the first institution in England built specifically for the "criminally insane".

Situated in the village of Crowthorne in Berkshire, the Broadmoor site originally covered 290 acres. The impressive building, set behind forbidding high walls and imposing front gates, was designed by Sir Joshua Jebb, a military engineer who had previously designed two prisons. And Broadmoor was still essentially prison-like; whilst its construction showed recognition of the differing needs of the "criminally insane", the Victorians were by no means overly enlightened in their treatment of such detainees – Broadmoor’s inmates were always referred to as "lunatics" and "criminals", never as "patients".

In these less centralised and institutionalised times, however, life inside could be fairly comfortable for those of means, like Minor. (Later on, under a new director, things were less "flexible".) Well-educated and still receiving his army pension, Minor was housed in Block 2, the "swell block", and was given two rooms, not one. After pressure from the American Vice-Consul-General his painting materials were returned, as were some of his clothes, but his most extravagant “allowance” was books – Minor acquired so many that he even converted one of his rooms into a library.

It was his passion for books that brought Minor to wide public attention for the second time, in the romanticised story of his meeting with Dr James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The idea of a new, all-encompassing "Big Dictionary" of English was first touted in 1857. It was a huge undertaking, and from the start its editors recognised that they would need the help of many volunteers, to search their shelves for quotations to support each definition. Even with this help the dictionary took 70 years to complete!

Murray assumed editorship of the dictionary in 1879, and issued an appeal for volunteers to magazines and newspapers. A copy of the appeal found its way into Minor's hands, and he seized upon the opportunity to help; whether he saw it merely as something to occupy his time, or whether it gave him the feeling he was working towards his redemption, we will never know.

Minor started collecting quotations around 1880-1, and continued doing so for 20 years, working systematically through his library. Simon Winchester in 'The Surgeon of Crowthorne', says this work became the "defining feature" of Minor's life.
Minor certainly made an enormous contribution to the dictionary over the years, and this did not – could not – go unnoticed. Murray said Minor's contributions were so great they "could easily have illustrated the last four centuries [of words] from his quotations alone".

An enigma

Minor always signed his letters in the same way: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire. His identity remained an enigma to those working on the dictionary, and Murray and Minor did not meet for many years. In 1915, a sensationalised account of their meeting appeared in Strand magazine, and was quickly reprinted across the world, even in China.

It described how, following Minor's failure to attend the Great Dictionary Dinner in 1897, Murray decided to visit Minor himself, to find out who this mysterious man was. Arriving at the large Victorian mansion, it continued, Murray expected to find Minor a typical country gentleman. When shown into the study of Broadmoor's director he naturally assumed this man was the evasive Minor, only then did he find out that Minor was actually an inmate of the asylum.

This romanticised story captured the public's imagination, and, despite rebuttals in the press by Murray's successor at the OED, it continued to be repeated as fact throughout the 20th Century. It was finally laid to rest, however, by the research of Simon Winchester, and the discovery of a letter written by Dr Murray.
It appears Murray originally thought Minor was a medical man associated with the asylum, but that his suspicions were aroused in the late 1880s, when a visitor from America thanked him for his kindness to the "poor Dr Minor". Minor's troubled history was finally revealed, and Murray was astonished. It was still many years before he visited Broadmoor, (in 1891 not 1897), but in the intervening years Murray took care to write to Minor with sensitivity, never making it known that he was aware of his mental illness.

Lasting friendship

The meeting, when it finally happened, proved the start of a lasting friendship: Murray visited Minor at Broadmoor on many occasions over 20 years. The romanticised meeting may have been disproved but perhaps the facts are more uplifting than the fiction.

In 1910, 28 years after arriving at Broadmoor, Minor passed through its gates once again, returning to custody in America, where he died in 1920. Minor lived half his life shut away from the world in an era when his condition was seen as untreatable. Today, treatments for mental illness have advanced, but, Winchester argues, modern drugs may have made Minor less inclined to start working on the OED – his own form of "therapy" – from which, ironically, we have all benefited.

In Minor's story, fact has become entwined with fiction, but perhaps what makes it so enduring is that it fits into the popular narrative mould of the individual who achieves amazing intellectual feats despite mental instability; of the eccentric scholar. Minor's story elicits our sympathy, despite his criminal acts."

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