Madmen of Letters

Or perhaps more precisely, Madmen of Words. If you like to read, you probably like words. I love words, all kinds of words. But I care very much that they are used correctly. When one is writing, the best way to ensure one is using any word correctly is to refer to a reference book for words, such as a dictionary or thesaurus.

In these days of computers and databases, we all take reference materials like dictionaries and thesauri for granted, assuming they are easy to compile and publish. They are, after all, just lists of words, right? However, even in these days of powerful data management technology, the compilation and maintenance of word reference materials is quite demanding and labor-intensive. How much more so was it in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when all of the work must be done by hand, much of it by candle light. And yet, for three of the major monuments of word reference in the English language, we are indebted to the tenacious efforts of three men who suffered psychological problems, one of them so severe he was actually confined in a mental institution for much of his life. But in spite of their handicaps, they all persevered to produce word references essential to anyone who writes, to this very day.

Just who were these "Madmen of Words?"

You may not be surprised to discover that the first "madman" on the list is none other than Dr. Samuel Johnson, writer, literary critic, raconteur, celebrity and lexicographer. Perhaps you are surprised by the adjective of madman applied to Dr. Johnson. But this literary giant suffered from a broad range of obsessive and compulsive behavior. To hold his severe anxieties at bay, he was known to touch every lamppost along the way as he walked down Fleet Street in London. He admitted to his biographer, James Boswell, that he always counted his steps when he approached a door because it was imperative to him that he always put the same foot over the threshold each time. And based on the other symptoms he displayed, which were noted by several of his biographers, it is postulated that he also suffered from Tourette syndrome.

Johnson was also blind in one eye and partially deaf, and yet in the face of all these psychological and physical burdens, he produced the landmark A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. It was not the first dictionary of the English language, but it was the most important, influential and used English dictionary for nearly two hundred years. It is safe to say that the dictionary did more for Johnson than it ever did for any of its readers. His constant, intense literary effort gave him a sense of control, which enabled him to escape his mental demons and retain his grip on sanity.

Dr. Peter Mark Roget is the next "madman" on the list and a denizen of Regency England. As many of you have already guessed, he is the creator of Roget’s Thesaurus. Roget christened his creation "thesaurus," as it was the Greek word for "treasury or storehouse." His manuscript was his precious treasury of words. You might say it saved his sanity, perhaps even his life.

Roget was the son of Jean Roget and Catherine Romilly, both of Huguenot descent. His father died when he was quite young, and his mother’s brother, Samuel Romilly, became his surrogate father. Heartbreakingly, on 2 November 1818, Roget was summoned to his beloved uncle’s London home to find that the deeply despondent man had slit his throat. Though Roget was a successful and prominent physician and did everything he could to aid his uncle, his efforts were fruitless. Within the hour, the man Roget had loved as a father expired in his arms. He never truly recovered from this cruel blow.

Roget’s mother, Catherine, became extremely controlling and over-protective of her children after the early death of her husband. He felt smothered by her attention, but ultimately his Uncle Samuel was able to convince her to let young Peter go to school. During his studies, Roget became increasingly enamored of words. They became a refuge from his mother’s mercurial and overbearing behaviour. Another family friend encouraged the young man’s interest in astronomy, and in 1787, eight-year-old Peter acquired a notebook into which he recorded his astronomical observations. Once he began recording his burgeoning ideas, he could hardly stop. Finally, he found something he could do for himself, not controlled by his mother. It was a place of peace, safety and control for him. He entered many types of lists in this notebook, which helped him organize the confusing world around him. He kept this notebook for the rest of his life.

Roget studied to be a doctor, and after a couple of years as a bear-leader in France, where his Huguenot heritage enabled him to elude Napoleon’s order of imprisonment after the end of the Peace of Amiens, he took a job as a doctor in the Manchester Royal Infirmary in the autumn 1804. Manchester was a boom town of the Industrial Revolution and was perhaps the filthiest city in England in the early nineteenth century. The Infirmary was a very busy place and Roget had a great many responsibilities. A bachelor, he was living alone in a town in which he knew very few people. How was he to survive the filth and the loneliness?

Once again, words came to his rescue. In the years since he left school, Roget had written a number of medical and scientific papers, some of which he delivered as lectures to learned societies. It was important to him that in such writing he use words with the precise meanings he wished to convey. He had been keeping some word lists, but they did not really meet his expanding needs. And so through the year of 1805, in his free time, in his rooms in Manchester, he lost himself in his lists of words. As he worked, he realized he needed a system by which he could organize his word lists by meaning so that he could efficiently find just the right word when he needed it. He decided to adapt the zoological classification system of his hero, Carl Linnaeus, dividing words into concepts as Linnaeus had divided the animal kingdom. By the end of this grueling year, Roget had completed the manuscript of his thesaurus. The original 1805 manuscript was acquired by the Karpeles Manuscript Library in 1992. (Please note, classical music plays at both these URLs).

For more than forty years, Roget referred to his thesaurus regularly as he continued to write medical and scientific papers. Then, in his seventieth year, his daughter Kate suggested that he publish his thesaurus. Roget had recently retired as secretary of the Royal Society of Medicine but he still had plenty of energy and he was at loose ends. It took him nearly three years, but in 1852, the Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases was published. It has never been out of print from that day to this. All because a lonely boy, and later the man, used lists to help him fight his depression.

The last of the madmen is Dr. William Chester Minor, a U.S. Army surgeon who had served during the American Civil War. In 1871, after resigning his commission, he moved to England, settling in London. Early in 1872, in a bout of paranoia, he shot George Merrett to death. The verdict at his trial was not guilty by reason of insanity. He was confined in the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Berkshire. Though he had been found guilty of murder, the doctors at Broadmoor concluded that Minor was neither suicidal nor dangerous to others. With his Army pension, he was able to have a private set of rooms in Block 2-a of the asylum. This section was called the "swell block" since it was the part of the asylum which housed the more genteel inmates.

Minor was a scholarly man and an avid reader. His family sent him the collection of books which he had left behind in his home in New Haven, Connecticut. He also ordered books by mail from some of London’s antiquarian book dealers. Once he had settled in to this quiet stable life, he was crushed by remorse for what he had done. George Merrett, the man he had murdered, left behind a pregnant wife and six children. Minor sent a letter to Mrs. Eliza Merrett, expressing his profound sorrow and asking if she would allow him to help her and her children. Surprisingly, she agreed to accept his financial assistance, and even more surprisingly, she asked if she could meet him. In consultation with the Home Office, the doctors at Broadmoor agreed to a supervised visit. Eliza Merrett seems to have been a most forgiving and sympathetic woman, as she began to visit Minor once a month. During the course of their meetings, Minor mentioned the problems he was having in getting his books delivered. She offered to collect his orders from the bookshops and bring them to him personally on her monthly visits.

Unbeknownst to her, Eliza Merrett, though barely literate, was almost certainly responsible for giving Minor new purpose in his life, and a new sense of self-worth. It is believed that at least one of the parcels of books which she delivered to the doctor also included the pamphlet which Dr. James Murray had printed and distributed to London booksellers seeking volunteers to help him with his new dictionary project. Murray was seeking readers who would comb through older books seeking quotations illustrating the history and meaning of words. Minor wrote immediately to Murray, offering his services. Since Minor’s mailing address was simply "Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire," Murray had no idea of Minor’s actual residence. He accepted Minor’s offer of assistance with alacrity, grateful for the help in his great effort. And so, Minor became a contributor to the greatest reference on the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary.

For more than twenty years Minor labored on his dictionary studies. In the first four years, he went through all his books, reading them closely and carefully, copying out each word which piqued his interest into his own word index. He then contacted the dictionary team, explaining to them what he had done, and advising them he could now provide them with information on any word for which they had a need. Now editors could write to Minor with lists of words for which they needed quotes. Minor then took a slip of paper on which he recorded the quotation in which the word was found and the full bibliographic citation for the book containing the quotation. He prepared and submitted at least 10,000 of these slips over the course of these years. It is true that other contributors sent in more slips, but because of his index system, Dr. Minor contributed more words that the editors needed, precisely when they needed them for publication. Dr. Murray considered him one of the most important contributors to the OED effort.

Eventually, Dr. Murray wished to meet his most helpful contributor, and began to inquire about him. He was shocked to learn that Dr. Minor was confined in an asylum, but he was still determined to meet him. Murray received permission to visit Broadmoor and the two men found they had a powerful connection though their mutual love of words. Murray continued to visit Minor faithfully several times a year until Minor was eventually transferred to an asylum in the United States, at the request of his family, in 1910.

Once back in America, Minor was diagnosed as suffering from dementia praecox, today known as schizophrenia. If he had been diagnosed with that condition earlier in his life, he would have been kept heavily drugged, primarily with sedatives and would have been barely able to think. Instead, Dr. Minor essentially treated himself by his dedicated work on the OED. His intense concentration in preparing all those slips for the dictionary gave him respite from the paranoia which tormented him and enabled him to put his scholarly abilities to use contributing to the most important word reference in the English language.

Three men, each suffering great psychological affliction, and yet each made an incredible contribution to the advancement of our use and knowledge of our language. All of this work was done long before the advent of electricity, carbon paper, ball point pens, typewriters or personal computers. Their tools were their knowledge, determination, paper, ink and quill pens. I, for one, feel a great deal of admiration and gratitude for these self-reliant men who used words to fight their adversity.

If you would like to learn the full story of any of these "madmen," I can heartily recommend the following:

Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.

Kendall, Joshua, The Man who Made Lists. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008.

Winchester, Simon, The Professor and the Madman. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to Madmen of Letters

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