The sad life of William Chester Minor – one of the largest contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary who was held in a lunatic asylum for murder at the time

Tijana Radeska
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William Chester Minor

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 story which had brought him to this nadir spanned many years, his spiraling descent into mental instability was both protracted and painful.

William Chester Minor. Wikipedia/Fair Use

William Chester Minor. Wikipedia/Fair Use

Minor was born on the island of Sri Lanka, the son of Congregationalist Church missionaries from New England. He had numerous half-siblings, among them Thomas T. Minor, mayor of Seattle, Washington. At 14 he was sent to the United States. He subsequently attended Yale Medical School, graduating with a degree and a specialization in comparative anatomy in 1863.

Seven of the twenty volumes of the printed version of the second edition of the OED. By Dan (mrpolyonymous on Flickr) - https://www.flickr.com/photos/mrpolyonymous/6953043608, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40571506

Seven of the twenty volumes of the printed version of the second edition of the OED. Source by Dan (mrpolyonymous on Flickr), CC BY 2.0

He was accepted by the Union Army as a surgeon and served at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, which was notable for the terrible casualties suffered by both sides. Minor was also given the task of punishing an Irish soldier in the Union Army by branding him on the face with a D for “deserter” and his nationality later played a role in Minor’s dementia delusions.

After the end of the American Civil War, Minor saw duty in New York City. He was strongly attracted to the red-light district of the city and devoted much of his off-duty time to going with prostitutes. By 1867, his behavior had come to the attention of the Army and he was transferred to a remote post in the Florida Panhandle.

St. Elizabeths Hospital opened in 1855 as the first Federally operated psychiatric hospital in the U.S. Housing over 8,000 patients at its peak in the 1950s, the hospital at one point had a fully functioning medical-surgical unit, a school of nursing, and accredited internships and psychiatric residencies. By User:Tomf688 - User:Tomf688, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1084099

St. Elizabeths Hospital opened in 1855 as the first Federally operated psychiatric hospital in the U.S. Housing over 8,000 patients at its peak in the 1950s, the hospital at one point had a fully functioning medical-surgical unit, a school of nursing, and accredited internships and psychiatric residencies. Source by User:Tomf688, CC BY-SA 2.5,

In 1868 Minor was diagnosed as “delusional” and was considered a suicide and homicide risk.  He was willingly admitted to the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C. (known as St. Elizabeth’s Hospital) and officially retired from the U.S. Army.

In 1871, Minor was released, and he visited friends and family before boarding a ship to London, hoping that a change of scenery would cure him.  He settled in Lambeth, an area in south London that afforded him “easy access to easy women.”  Minor’s paranoia followed him across the pond.  He believed people were breaking into his room while he slept.

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