The opening paragraph of fellow Cannonballer Halb’s review of The Madman and the Professor sealed the deal that this would be the choice for my “Cannonballer Says” Bingo square, “Fans of Comedy Central’s tv show “Drunk History” may be familiar with the story of Dr. William Minor: The Civil War doctor showed signs of struggling with mental health during and after the war (how could one not), and moved to London for a fresh start. Unfortunately, Dr. Minor suffered from the beliefs that all kinds of people were out to get him, and those beliefs led him to shoot an innocent stranger in cold blood. The American was institutionalized.”
Why, I am a fan of Comedy Central’s Drunk History (I believe my fandom is well documented on CBR actually) and yes I am familiar with the episode in which Bob Odenkirk plays the doctor turner murderer turned indispensable asset to the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.
“In the sixteenth century in England, dictionaries such as we would recognize today simply did not exist. If the language that so inspired Shakespeare had limits, if its words had definable origins, spellings, pronunciations, meanings—then no single book existed that established them, defined them, and set them down.”
Simon Winchester’s biography of Minor and the man responsible for the OED project, Professor James Murrary, is much drier than an episode of Drunk History but it is nonetheless an interesting read. Winchester obviously focuses a lot on the process of putting the OED together, amazingly before the 1880s dictionaries simply didn’t exist, but he also delves into the mental health system in place at the time. It was interesting to compare Minor’s wealthy American in a British asylum experience with Nellie Bly’s experiences posing as a poor, possibly homeless insane woman in Ten Days in a Madhouse as their timelines overlap. It should be clear though, Dr. Minor was not crazy in the charmingly eccentric way he was crazy in the ‘men are coming after me, killing a random man on the streets and later cutting of his penis’ way which is very sad.
Victorian-Age insanity and the English language are clearly niche topics to read about but there are definitely some interesting nuggets if you decide to pick this one up.