A best seller when it was first published just over two decades ago, Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Harper Perennial, 1999) remains a captivating read for the contemporary reader.
Although today physical copies have been made largely obsolete by internet equivalents, dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) were once a sought-after publication for any respectable library. However, as Winchester relates, as much as their presence is taken for granted today, just a few centuries ago there was no possible way to discover the spelling, origin, or even the meaning of any particular word. Although valiant efforts had been made prior to the nineteenth century by eminent lexicographers, including Samuel Johnson, the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary was not embarked upon until 1857 and took decades to complete.
In The Professor and the Madman Winchester not only traces the lengthy process which culminated in the Oxford English dictionary, but also the story of its creators; Sir James Murray, the primary editor of the dictionary for over thirty years, and the less well-known figure of Dr. William C. Minor who submitted over ten thousand entries to the dictionary. It is Minor’s story which will capture the attention of true crime enthusiasts. An American Civil War veteran who spent most of his life as an inmate of an English lunatic asylum after committing a murder in London, Minor’s story remained veiled from Murray. Threaded throughout the text is the primary story exploring the history of the OED’s creation, but also the stories of these two men, in addition to that of Minor’s victim, George Merrett. Although not at the heart of this work, murder and the story of a true crimes runs deep in Winchester’s elucidating account of how the OED came into being.
One aspect of Winchester’s book is which would be of interest to true crime readers is his sympathetic treatment of Dr. Minor and the man he murdered, George Merrett. Given that in the Victorian period the victim is often quickly forgotten and remains voiceless and of little interest to contemporary audiences, with all attention on the perpetrator of a crime, Winchester avoids vilifying Minor, given that he was mentally unsound and clearly never truly received the care that he required, but Winchester also sought to tell the story of Merrett. This not only draws attention to the oft ignored life of the murder victim, but also highlights the fact that if Minor had not committed this crime and had been subsequently institutionalized, he never would have been able to have the impact that he did on the creation of the OED. His life prior would never have allowed him to focus his energy and mental capacity in such a way to make the volume of contributions that he ultimately did.
What is evident from Winchester’s work is his extreme attention to detail and his meticulous search of the historical record to uncover every facet of this long-neglected tale. Although written for general readers rather than academics, Winchester’s account is peppered with references to historic documents and sources, adding a further layer of interest to the narrative. Equally captivating is Winchester’s ability to recreate scenes and locations missing from the modern world. Indeed, his descriptions of the Lambeth slums where the murder of George Merrett occurred are particularly fascinating, especially given that he juxtaposes his descriptions of what once was with what exists today. Winchester details the socio-economic changes which have taken place in the area over the last century and a half.
Gleaned from secret government files, the previously hidden story of the murder case involving Dr. William C. Minor is revealed in the pages of Winchester’s book, making this work a unique read. Although the true crime aspect of Minor’s life and the treatment he received as an inmate in a Victorian era asylum for the criminally insane would be worthy of study alone, Winchester’s subject is even more notable given his monumental contribution to the task of compiling the Oxford English Dictionary. After reading Winchester’s work, the OED can no longer be looked at as an inanimate tome, but a publication with tantalizing and rich history all its own.
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Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021, he began a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspects of Britain and its global empire, including the Caribbean, with his PhD research focusing on poor white communities in St. Vincent and Barbados. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, collecting vintage photos, rug-hooking, and thrifting.