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Winchester missed some significant information.
on 26 May 1999
The subject of Winchester's book is Sir James A. H. Murray, editor of the "Oxford English Dictionary," and Dr. William C. Minor, the American volunteer who worked on the "O.E.D." for 20 years while an inmate in the Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for the criminally insane. I am a New York playwright who, in 1995, completed a full-length drama focusing James Murray and William Minor, called "The Dictionary," and whose help Mr. Winchester sought when he was first considering writing his book. (Winchester mentions me in his Acknowledgments.) There is a serious problem with Winchester's book. Mark Rozzo characterizes it perfectly in his "Washington Post" review of "The Professor and the Madman": ". . . we're never sure when Winchester is cleaving to facts and when he is fictionalizing." Winchester also missed some significant information in his book. Moreover, there are a number of inaccuracies in "The Professor and the Madman." About Minor's death Winchester writes, incorrectly, "There were no obituaries." An obituary was published in 1921 in "Yale University Obituary Record of Graduates Deceased During the Year Ending July 1, 1920." From this obituary one learns that Minor was born in the East Indies; that he entered the Yale School of Medicine in 1861 and was graduated in 1863; that he was incarcerated at Broadmoor, transferred to St. Elizabeth's in the U.S., and later transferred from St. Elizabeth's to The Retreat, in Hartford, where he died on March 26, 1920. The Yale obituary also mentions his brother Alfred. Winchester refers to the lawyer who defended Minor in his murder trial, but does not mention the lawyer's name. My research suggests that the person who defended Minor is the same one who defended Oscar Wilde. The man's name is Edward Clarke. I am surprised that Winchester did not seize upon this possibility. Winchester theorizes that Minor's clinically paranoid dread of the Irish, and of the Fenians in particular, was the result of his experience as a Union Army Surgeon with Irish troops during the Civil War. Winchester neglects the fact that during the years that Minor was stationed in New York (on Governors Island) the Fenians were, in fact, his real enemy. Minor lived in New York during 1867 and 1868, when the local papers frequently covered events pertaining to the revolutionary movement in Ireland and to activities of the Irish in New York. In March of 1867 the Irish cause held the front page of just about every newspaper every day. It was during the week of March 18 that the expectation of a Fenian attack on Canada, still part of the British Empire at that time, appeared in at least three separate articles in three different papers. News of U.S. troops being moved from New York to the border to thwart the offensive also made headlines. That Minor would have been selected to assist in the battlefield action against the Fenians is not unlikely. This attack never took place; however, less than a year before, the Fenians had staged an assault on Canada from New York State. Eight hundred Irishmen crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort Erie. They were subsequently defeated by U.S. troops, and about 700 Fenians were arrested. Minor would have known of this. Winchester mentions the American vice-consul-general and quotes a letter of his to the Medical Superintendent of Broadmoor, but neglects to cite his name, which is Joshua Nunn. Winchester also failed to locate a series of twenty-two letters by Joshua Nunn, an important source of information regarding Minor. The letters to Minor's family and friends in America contain particulars that conflict with some of Winchester's assumptions regarding Minor's life at Broadmoor and his relations with his family. Joshua Nunn clearly went beyond the call of duty in his assistance to, and profound concern for, Minor. Nunn was the man who handled all the details of Minor's legal situation as well as Minor's living conditions at Broadmoor. He was also very involved in the press accounts. Nunn not only corresponded and met with Minor and his family but also visited Minor at Broadmoor. According to the Nunn letters, the family did not want Minor returned to an asylum in the U.S. They were satisfied to let him remain at Broadmoor. This information contradicts Winchester's indication that the family would have rejoiced at Minor's return. Nunn was surprised at the family's neglect of Minor and at their refusal, at one point, to send Minor any more money at Broadmoor. Nunn makes very clear that Minor's mail was heavily censored. This conflicts with Winchester's implication. Winchester makes a mystifying observation at the end of his book. He states that it was only at the completion of the "Oxford English Dictionary," in 1927, that Americans could say that the Dictionary "was now, at least partly, of their own making." From the very beginning Americans had the right to claim that the Dictionary was, to a significant extent, a creation of their own making. In Murray's first years of editing the "O.E.D.," fully one half of the 800 volunteer readers with whom he worked were American. James Murray felt that his most avid support came from the United States. He said, "...it is Americans upon whom I depend above all." He called Americans "the most reliable and trustworthy volunteers." In 1883 Murray wrote, "I truly believe that the future of English scholarship lies in the United States, where the language is studied with an enthusiasm unknown here and which will soon leave us far behind." "The Professor and the Madman" focuses on some of the same fascinating aspects of the collaboration of Murray and Minor that first inspired me to dramatize the story. It is important, however, to look beyond the surface of material Winchester presents as truth.