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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Berkshire

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Myths and Legends
Broadmoor’s word-finder

This romanticised story captured the public's imagination, and, despite rebuttals in the press by Murray's successor at the OED, it continued to be repeated as fact throughout the 20th Century. It was finally laid to rest, however, by the research of Simon Winchester, and the discovery of a letter written by Dr Murray.

Dr James Murray
Murray and Minor's friendship spanned over 20 years
© Reprinted by permission of the Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press
It appears Murray originally thought Minor was a medical man associated with the asylum, but that his suspicions were aroused in the late 1880s, when a visitor from America thanked him for his kindness to the "poor Dr Minor". Minor's troubled history was finally revealed, and Murray was astonished. It was still many years before he visited Broadmoor, (in 1891 not 1897), but in the intervening years Murray took care to write to Minor with sensitivity, never making it known that he was aware of his mental illness.

Lasting friendship

The meeting, when it finally happened, proved the start of a lasting friendship: Murray visited Minor at Broadmoor on many occasions over 20 years. The romanticised meeting may have been disproved but perhaps the facts are more uplifting than the fiction.

In 1910, 28 years after arriving at Broadmoor, Minor passed through its gates once again, returning to custody in America, where he died in 1920. Minor lived half his life shut away from the world in an era when his condition was seen as untreatable. Today, treatments for mental illness have advanced, but, Winchester argues, modern drugs may have made Minor less inclined to start working on the OED – his own form of "therapy" – from which, ironically, we have all benefited.

In Minor's story, fact has become entwined with fiction, but perhaps what makes it so enduring is that it fits into the popular narrative mould of the individual who achieves amazing intellectual feats despite mental instability; of the eccentric scholar. Minor's story elicits our sympathy, despite his criminal acts.

Further Reading: 'The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words', by Simon Winchester.

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Your comments

1 Caroline from Crowthorne - 16 January 2004
"Another famous patient, known for reasons other than their illness, was Victorian painter Richard Dadd. "

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