1834-1920. Contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary while an inmate of a British asylum for the criminally insane.

Born in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to American missionary parents, he lived with them until his early teens and then went to family members in New Haven, Connecticut. He attended Yale, studied medicine and became a doctor in the Union army during the American Civil War. The horrors he saw, especially during the Battle of the Wilderness, and when he was forced to brand a "D" on the cheek of an Irish deserter, are quite likely the trigger of his insanity.

He stayed in the army for a while after the war, but first spent time in a military hospital and then was retired as mentally unfit (from "causes arising in the line of duty") after exhibiting eccentric and paranoid behavior. He then went home, but after accusing people of sneaking into his room at night, poisoning him and forcing him to commit carnal acts he disapproved of, he chose to go to England in an attempt to escape these people.

In England, though, he was fearful of the Irish because of what he had done to one of them, and still claimed to be visited and tortured during the night. He slept with a gun under his pillow, and one night, thinking someone had been there, he jumped up, ran out into the street, and shot a man who he thought had been in the room.

The man was just a worker at a local brewery; even Minor admitted he didn't know him and that it wasn't anyone who'd been in his room. But witnesses testified to Minor's paranoid behavior, even in prison awaiting trial, and he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and put in the Broadmoor Asylum in Crowthorne, Berkshire. As an educated, well-off man who was not considered a danger to himself, he was allowed to build a library of books in his room, and through either a flyer included in a book ordered from London, or a notice in some magazine to which he subscribed, he found out that the project to make a complete dictionary of every word in the English language was looking for volunteer readers. (James Murray, longtime editor of the project, had tried to put the word out in as many forums as possible.)

Minor wrote to Murray sometimes in the early 1880s and got detailed instructions on what they wanted, and then Minor figured out a way to make himself extremely useful. Basically, he read through every book he owned one at a time, and made an index of the words (not all of them, but any that were used in an interesting, historical, or well-illustrating manner). Then he could get updates from Murray as to what words or area of the alphabet the project was currently working on, and Minor could look through his indexes and quickly find the word or words being sought.

This method worked extremely well, and Murray once said that Minor was second only to Dr. Fitzedward Hall (a noted eccentric and hermit) in his volunteer contributions. It was some years before Murray found out where Minor was and why, but they became friends and Murray visited Minor at the asylum often.

Unfortunately, it didn't last. At the best of times, Minor had still been complaining to asylum staff that someone was coming in and molesting him (and writing in his books) during the night; by the turn of the century he had largely lost interest in submitting quotations, despite some visits from Murray. In December 1902, Minor amputated his own penis, possibly because of guilt feelings about his army-era promiscuity or because of what he believed was happening to him every night. (He was only able to do so because he had been given permission to keep a pocketknife to cut open uncut books.) He became physically more frail but his mental condition stayed the same; eventually he was removed from the British asylum and sent to an American one nearer his family.

Murray died in 1915 and Minor wrote to his widow that Minor's books which had been in Murray's possession need not be returned and that he hoped they would end up in the Bodleian Library. (They did.) The dictionary project was finished with another editor. Minor died in 1920, and is largely remembered because of publicity associated with the first release of the OED and his part in it.

(Information much condensed from the book "The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary" by Simon Winchester.)

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