Posts Tagged With: murder

Insane American Killer Plays Integral Role in Publication of British Dictionary

professorandthemadmanYou can file this story under the truth is stranger than fiction.

In The Professor and The Madman, Simon Winchester tells the story behind the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary which was first published (in part) in 1884 and has long been hailed as the standard upon which all dictionaries are measured.

Winchester’s book is two stories in one. It is about vastness of the dictionary project undertaken by Oxford Professor James Murray – when he and others set out to catalogue all the known English words of the era. But it is also the story of Yale-educated and former surgeon, William Minor.

A story about a dictionary, in and of itself, is not necessarily interesting reading unless you’re a wordsmith, but when it is coupled with Minor’s story it is quite intriguing.

The Murder

The book opens at the crime scene, shortly after 2 a.m. when the father of seven with an 8th child on the way – is pursued, shot and killed by Civil War Union veteran Minor in the community of Lambeth (near London, England). The deceased, who had agreed to pick up a shift for a co-worker, was murdered on his way to work. An editorial in Lambeth’s weekly newspaper commented somewhat smugly on the 1872 crime by noting,

Happily, we in this country have no experience of the crime of ‘shooting down,’ so common in the United States.


The crime part of the story moves fairly quickly into Minor’s trial, where he is found not guilty by reason of insanity. Minor, who receives a military pension, is then given a two-room suite at an asylum and in his own disillusioned world, he comes to believe the staff are his servants.

He seems resolved to make the best of his situation.

Then the author fills us in on the problems leading to Minor’s mental breakdown. We uncover his illness mental mainly through observations written by his attendants. We come to realize that Minor is paranoid, especially at night, when he is convinced people are attacking and molesting him.

He was also terribly frightened of Irishmen, we learn, because of a War incident. As surgeon, Minor was given the gruesome task of branding a Irishman deserter during the U.S. Civil War. Minor applied a hot iron to brand the letter D in the young man’s face.

The brutality of the act plants the seeds of Minor’s mental illness.

Oxford English Dictionary

So, what does all of this have to do with the dictionary?

To construct the Oxford English Dictionary, Professor Murray sent out a request for volunteers to read books dating back to around Shakespeare’s time. These volunteers would meticulously write down words for inclusion in the dictionary as well as when the word first appeared in the English language. The volunteers would also locate quotes from original materials to provide a ‘real world’ definition of the term. The sheer volume of this labor-intensive project caused many of the volunteers quit. And, it also delayed the final product by decades — the final version was not finished until 1928.

But one man, Minor, kept submitting high quality work and pushing the project forward. In fact, the original books include dedications to Minor because of his efforts. What Murray did not know, when mentioning Minor in the dedications, was the American veteran was living in an asylum and he had killed an innocent man.

This all changes when Minor is not present at a book publishing party. Many in attendance wanted to meet him, so Murray took it upon himself to find Minor. And it is in the asylum where Murray first learns Minor is not in an esteemed position, but is instead a patient. What unfolds over time is something akin to a friendship. When Minor is eventually (after more than 40 years) returned to the United States to the custody of his brother (with the condition he be placed in an asylum), it is Murray and his wife that see him off.

Rated 4 out of 5:
Writing a book about publishing a dictionary is tough to keep entertaining. At times the book moves a little too slowly for my tastes, but the author does deliver an intriguing look at Minor’s mental issues. The author does this while also weaving in Murray’s ambitious project. The book is worth reading just to get a glimpse at how mental illness was treated in Britain at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

Categories: American History, Books I have read | Tags: , , , , ,

Family history filled with loss, murder

Ida's sister Mollie stands next to Ida's grave.

Ida’s sister Mollie stands next to Ida’s grave.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,… it was the season of Darkness...” – Charles Dickens

As I unravel my daughter’s family history — it doesn’t take long to realize that many of her forefathers suffered a great deal. Families lost land and money, parents buried their children and husbands their wives. Here are a couple stories of loss from each side of her family tree.

Joe Lee Claywell

Joe Lee Claywell

Joe Lee Claywell

Joe’s wife Sallie Guinn died from complications of labor during the birth of their fourth child, Sallie. At the time of her death, his oldest child, Charlie (Molly’s great-grandfather) was only six. Joe’s other two children, Ruby and Jim were four and two respectively. The fourth child Sallie only survived about three weeks past her mother’s death.

Joe would remarry and have five more children and one of them would die at a young age. Less than three months after he turned 15, Glendon C. Claywell died, presumably due to injuries caused when he was thrown from a mule. When I spoke with his sister Minnie Conner, she said a winter storm prevented the family from getting Glendon the help he needed. He died on Feb. 28, 1934.

Christopher Hughes

Christopher Hughes, on Molly’s maternal side, definitely lived through hard times.

Just two years before he died, he was hit by a train causing him to lose a leg. When he was younger, his brother-in-law Oscar, was lynched by a mob. Oscar had the misfortune of being held in a county jail at the same time as a horse thief. A mob broke into the jail, and since the mob did not which person was the horse thief, both men were hanged.

But the greatest tragedy Chris faced was the murder of his daughter Ida May when she was 27.

Ida is my mother-in-law’s grandmother. Ida’s oldest son James, who was seven when he witnessed his mother’s murder, is my daughter’s great-grandfather (my mother-in-law’s dad).

The shooting took place in the middle of the afternoon on Sunday, Oct. 5 1913 in Wilmore, Kentucky when Ida and her three children, James, Warren and Mary (an infant) were at High Bridge Park — an area which was still in the prime of its tourism appeal. The park was site of the first cantilever bridge built on American soil and besides the attraction of the bridge, the park had “picnic grounds, a restaurant, a dancing pavilion and riding stables.”

It was in this public venue where Ida was killed. Ida Hughes Smith articleAccording to a news article describing the shooting,

“The strangest part about the tragedy was that not a word was spoken when the shooting took place.”

The article further states that Ida was holding her baby when she was shot.

The woman accused of killing Ida was her neighbor, Lillie Gibson, who would have also been about 27 at the time — and that’s where the story’s trail starts to go cold. Gibson was determined to be a ‘lunatic’ by a jury and of ‘unsound’ mind so the court committed her to the insane asylum in Lexington, Ky. I have been unsuccessful in determining if she lived out here life there — or if she was ever tried for the crime.

Her husband, Silas, died about six years after the murder on July 4, 1919 — a Lillie Gibson is buried next to him. This Lillie died in 1977 at the age of 95. I am currently tracking down death certificates for both of these Gibsons.

As far as the Smith family, James Franklin would marry Mollie Pitcher a few years after the crime and they would have five children. He died in 1944 and is buried in Kenton County, Kentucky.

After Ida’s death, the three children were initially raised by their paternal grandparents. James Luther, the oldest, would eventually leave home when he was around 12 years old.

Categories: Family History, Genealogy | Tags: , , , , ,