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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Berkshire

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Myths and Legends
William Chester Minor
© Reprinted by permission of the Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press
Broadmoor’s word-finder

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 events which had brought him to this nadir spanned many years, his spiralling descent into mental instability was both long and painful.

Spiralling descent

Born in Ceylon, in 1834, Minor was the son of New England missionaries. His conscience was plagued by "lascivious thoughts" about the local girls – thoughts which he later identified as having set him on the path to insanity – he was sent back to America at 14, where he studied medicine at Yale, before joining the Union Army as a surgeon in 1863.

An extract from the call for help with the Oxford English Dictionary
The appeal for contributors attracted Minor's notice
© Reprinted by permission of the Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press
It is Minor's experience of war that has most commonly been blamed for triggering his mental illness; for tipping him "over the edge". A sensitive and courteous man, who painted and played the flute, Minor was exposed to the full ferocity and horror of war at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864 - a battle noted for the horrific casualties it incurred.

As well as the terrible mutilations and other injuries sustained by both sides during the fighting, hundreds of soldiers were burned to death, as the foliage on the battlefield caught alight. It was as though "hell itself had usurped the place of earth", one soldier wrote later. As army surgeon, Minor was ordered to brand an Irish deserter on the cheek with the letter "D", and, not surprisingly, this incident seems to have affected him deeply. Paranoid delusions about the Irish were a feature of his later madness.

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