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The Murderer Who Helped Make the Oxford English Dictionary

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William Chester Minor opened his eyes and gazed sleepily at the figure of a man looming over the foot of his bed. The intruder, who had been hiding in Minor’s attic during daylight, had slithered from the rafters, crept into the bedroom, and now, under the dark of night, was watching Minor as he dreamed. In his hands, the faceless man held metal biscuits slathered in poison.

The next morning, Minor woke up unscathed and found no trace of the intruder’s shenanigans. He checked his closet and crawled on his knees to look under his bed. Nobody was there. But that night, the trespasser returned. And the next night. And the next. Each night, Minor laid in his bed frozen with fright.

By 1871, Minor needed a vacation. He left his lodgings in Connecticut and sailed for London in search of peace of mind and a good night’s sleep.

His harassers followed.

In fact, moving to England only placed Minor closer to his tormentors. Most, if not all, of the trespassers had been Irishmen, members of an Irish nationalist group called the Fenian Brotherhood that was not only hell-bent on ending British rule, but was equally hell-bent on exacting revenge on Minor. Minor envisioned these Irish rebels huddling under the cover of gaslit streets, whispering plans of torture and poisoning.

On multiple occasions, Minor visited Scotland Yard to report the break-ins to the police. The detectives would politely nod and scribble something down, but when nothing changed, Minor decided to handle the problem himself: He tucked a loaded pistol, a Colt .38, under his pillow.

On February 17, 1872, Minor woke to see the shadow of a man standing in his bedroom. This time, he did not lay still. He reached for his gun and watched the man bolt for the door. Minor threw off his blankets and sprinted outside with his weapon.

It was about two in the morning. It was cold. The streets were slick with dew. Minor looked down the road and saw a man walking.

Three or four gunshots broke the night’s silence. Blood pooled across the Lambeth cobblestones.

The man whose neck gushed with blood was not Minor’s intruder. His name was George Merrett; he was a father and a husband, and he had been walking to work at the Red Lion Brewery, where he stoked coal every night. Moments after police arrived at the scene, Merrett was a corpse and William Minor a murderer.

Minor explained to the cops that he had done nothing illegal: Somebody had broken into his room and he merely defended himself from an attack. Was that so wrong?

He did not know that, despite his sincerely-held beliefs, there had never been any intruders. Nobody had ever broken into his rooms or hidden in his ceilings or under his bed. The Irishmen, the plots, the poison—all of it had been imagined; none of it was real. George Merrett, however, was very much real. And now very much dead.

Seven weeks later, a court found William C. Minor, 37, not guilty on the grounds of insanity. Once a respected army surgeon who saved lives, he had suddenly been rejected as a deluded lunatic who took lives. He was sentenced to the Asylum for the Criminally Insane, Broadmoor.

An 1867 illustration of the "Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor."
An 1867 illustration of the "Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor."
Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

One of England’s newest asylums, Broadmoor had already held a crew of tragically deluded criminal figures: There was Edward Oxford, who had attempted to shoot a pregnant Queen Victoria; Richard Dadd, a talented painter who had committed parricide, wanted to murder Pope Gregory XVI, and only consumed eggs and beer; and Christiana Edmunds—a.k.a. the “Chocolate Cream Killer”—a 19th century sweet-toothed spinoff of the Unabomber who, instead of packing up explosives, mailed her victims poisoned fruits and baked goods.

For many patients, getting institutionalized at an asylum such as Broadmoor marked the end of their useful lives. But not Minor. From the solitude of his cell in Broadmoor’s Cell Block Two, he’d become the most productive and successful outside contributor to the most comprehensive reference book in the English language: The Oxford English Dictionary.

 
 

There was a time when William C. Minor did not see phantoms lurking in his bedroom, a time when he did not soothe his paranoia with the reassurance of a loaded pistol. He had been a promising Yale-trained surgeon who loved to read, paint watercolors, and play the flute. That began to change, however, in 1864, when he visited the front lines of the American Civil War.

The Battle of the Wilderness may not have been the most famous or decisive battle of the war, but it was one of the most haunting to witness. Soldiers did more than bleed there—they burned.

The battle, as the name suggests, was not fought on scenic horizon-hugging farmland but in the dense, tangled undergrowth of a Virginia forest. On May 4, 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union army crossed the Rapidan River near Fredericksburg and encountered Confederate troops commanded by General Robert E. Lee. The belligerents exchanged fire. Smoke rose over the tree branches as dead leaves and thick underbrush smoldered and blazed.

A painting of the Battle of Wilderness.
By Kurz & Allison (Library of Congress), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Soldiers who survived the battle would describe the forest fire in vivid detail. “The blaze ran sparkling and crackling up the trunks of the pines, till they stood a pillar of fire from base to topmost spray,” wrote one soldier from Maine [PDF]. “Then they wavered and fell, throwing up showers of gleaming sparks, while over all hung the thick clouds of dark smoke, reddened beneath by the glare of flames.”

“Ammunition trains exploded; the dead were roasted in the conflagration,” wrote then-Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter. “[T]he wounded roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair, to escape the ravages of the flames; and every bush seemed hung with shreds of blood-stained clothing.”

More than 3500 people died. Minor had experience treating soldiers, but the Battle of the Wilderness was the first time he had seen patients fresh from combat. There were 28,000 total casualties; many of them were Irish immigrants. The famous Irish Brigade, widely considered among the army’s most fearless soldiers, was a primary combatant, and it’s likely that Dr. Minor treated some of its members.

But, as his family later insisted, it was Minor’s experience with one Irish deserter that would break his brain.

During the Civil War, the punishment for desertion was, technically, death. But the army usually treated deserters with a lighter punishment that was both temporarily painful and permanently shameful. During the Battle of the Wilderness, that punishment was branding: The letter D was to be burned into every coward’s cheek.

For some reason—perhaps a weird twist of wartime logic that suggested such a punishment was akin to a medical procedure—it fell to the doctor to carry out the branding. So, Minor was forced to thrust an orange-glowing branding iron into the cheek of an Irish soldier. According to court testimony, the horrific event shook Minor deeply.

If branding a man did make Minor snap, his mental illness fomented under the guise of normalcy. For two years, the doctor continued helping patients with great success—enough, in fact, to be promoted to captain. Then, around 1866, he began showing the first signs of paranoia while working on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor. After a group of crooks mugged and killed one of his fellow officers in Manhattan, Dr. Minor began carrying his military-provided handgun into the city. He also began acting on an uncontrollable urge for sex, slinking into brothels every night.

Minor had long been plagued by “lascivious thoughts.” The son of conservative missionaries and members of the Congregationalist Church, he had long felt guilty and anxious about what was, most likely, a sex addiction. The more people he slept with in New York—and the more venereal infections he developed—the more he began to look over his shoulder.

The army noticed. Around 1867, Dr. Minor was deliberately sent from the bordellos of New York to a remote fort in Florida. But it did not help his paranoia. It grew worse. He grew suspicious of other soldiers, and at one point, he challenged his best friend to a duel. Sunstroke made his mental state deteriorate further. In September, 1868, a doctor diagnosed him with monomania. One year later, another physician wrote, “The disturbance of the cerebral functions is ever more marked.” In 1870, the army discharged him and handed him a handsome pension.

With that money, Minor would buy a ticket to London, pay for rent and prostitutes, and ultimately buy rare and antiquarian books that would be shipped to his cell at Broadmoor, where he would eventually take a special interest in the development of what would become the world’s leading dictionary.

 
 

The Oxford English Dictionary is not your everyday dictionary. Unlike the official dictionary of the French language, the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française, it’s not prone to finger-wagging, stuffily dictating what is and is not acceptable language. The OED simply describes words as they exist, from street slang to labcoat jargon. If a word has made a dent somewhere in an English-speaking culture, it is included.

Unlike your stereotypical glossary, which presents the current usage and meaning of a word, the OED tracks the word’s evolution: when it entered the language, how its spellings and pronunciations changed over time, when new shades of meaning emerged.

Take a word as mundane as apple. The OED lists 12 main definitions, and a total of 22 different “senses” (that is, shades of meaning). It traces the meaning we all recognize—apple as in fruit—to an Early Old English book called Bald’s Leechbk, where it’s spelled æppla. But the OED also tracks definitions for apple that other dictionaries might neglect: the tree itself (first appearing in 1500), or the wood of that tree (in 1815), or a gall on the stem of an unrelated plant (in 1668), a lump in somebody’s throat (in 1895), or a baseball (in 1902), or a shade of green (in 1923), or “all right” in New Zealand (in 1943), or the pupil of your eye (in the 9th century), or as a synonym for “guy” (in 1928), or a derogatory term for a Native American who has adopted white culture (in 1970). The dictionary even shows defunct meanings (from 1577 to the early 1800s, the word apple could be applied to any "fleshy Vessel" full of seeds). It’s also been used as a verb.

Each definition is supported with quotations, sentences from books and newspapers and magazines that show the word being used in that manner. Each definition has lists of quotations, listed in chronological order so that readers can see how that particular meaning of the word evolved.

Simon Winchester, in his brilliant best-selling book about William Minor’s contributions to the OED, The Professor and the Madman, explains the innovation beautifully: “The OED’s guiding principle, the one that has set it apart from most other dictionaries, is its rigorous dependence on gathering quotations from published or otherwise recorded uses of English and using them to illustrate the use of the sense of every single word in the language. The reason behind this unusual and tremendously labor-intensive style of editing and compiling was both bold and simple: By gathering and publishing selected quotations, the dictionary could demonstrate the full range of characteristics of each and every word with a very great degree of precision.”

Scouring obscure books for quotations of every word in the English language is no easy feat. It requires the help of hundreds of volunteers. In 1858, when the project was launched, the dictionary’s editors published a general request asking for volunteers to read books and mail in sentences that illuminated the meaning of a word, any word. Subeditors would sift through these slips and do the tedious job of reviewing these quotations and, if accepted, organizing them under the appropriate definition.

Quotation for "Ahoy"
A quotation slip for the word "Ahoy"

The first attempt was a mess. Readers mailed more than two tons of suggestions, but the slips were poorly organized. (As one tale goes, all the words under the entire letter F or H were accidentally lost in Florence, Italy.) After 20 years, volunteer enthusiasm had dwindled and the project had lost momentum under the weight of its own ambitions. It wasn’t until Dr. James Murray, a philologist, took over that the modern OED began taking shape.

Murray was in all respects a linguistic genius. He knew in varying degrees Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin, Dutch, German, Flemish and Danish; he had a grasp of Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal, Celtic, Slavonic, Russian, Persian, Achaemenid Cuneiform, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Syriac; he also knew his way around Aramaic Arabic, Coptic, and Phoenician. (Among these talents, Murray was also expert on the sheep-counting methods of Yorkshire farmers and the Wawenock Indians of Maine.)

In 1879, Murray published a new appeal to magazines and newspapers asking the “English-Speaking and English-Reading Public” for volunteers. He laid out exactly what they needed.

“In the Early English period up to the invention of Printing so much has been done and is doing that little outside help is needed. But few of the earliest printed books–those of Caxton and his successors–have yet been read, and any one who has the opportunity and time to read one or more of these, either in originals, or accurate reprints, will confer valuable assistance by so doing. The later sixteenth-century literature is very fairly done; yet here several books remain to be read. The seventeenth century, with so many more writers, naturally shows still more unexplored territory. The nineteenth century books, being within the reach of every one, have been read widely: but a large number remain unrepresented, not only of those published during the last ten years, while the Dictionary has been in abeyance, but also of earlier date. But it is in the eighteenth century above all that help is urgently needed.”

In late 1879, William C. Minor, who had now been institutionalized at Broadmoor for over seven years, likely picked up his subscription of The Athenaeum Journal and read one of Murray’s requests. Minor looked around his cell. Towering to the ceiling were piles upon piles of books, obscure travel treatises published during the early 1600s such as A Relation of a Journey begun 1610 and Geographical Historie of Africa.

He cracked open a book and began his life’s work.

 
 

With sunlight came stability. Minor, with his long, tousled white beard, spent daylight hours reading and painting watercolors. He resembled a haggard Claude Monet impersonator. He spoke coherently and intelligently and, by all outward appearances, seemed to be in control of his thoughts and actions. He gave inmates flute lessons. He even grew remorseful for the murder he committed and apologized to George Merrett’s widow. He was at times obstinate—he once refused to step indoors during a snowstorm, barking at his attendants, “I am allowed to go out and can choose my own weather!”—but was otherwise the ideal inmate.

But at night, he was a disaster. He felt the gaze of young boys watching him, heard their footsteps as they prepared to smother his face with chloroform. He watched helplessly as interlopers barged into his room, shoved funnels into his mouth, and poured chemicals down his throat. He complained that invaders entered with knives and unspecified instruments of torture and operated on his heart. Others forced him into sordid acts of depravity. At one point, his harassers kidnapped him and carted him all the way to Constantinople, where they publicly tried to, in Minor’s words, “make a pimp of me!”

Minor tried to stop them. He barricaded his door with chairs and desks. He fashioned traps, tying a string to the doorknob and connecting it to a piece furniture (the logic being that if somebody cracked opened the door, the furniture would screech across the floor and act like a booby-trapped burglar alarm). He subscribed to engineering journals, possibly in hopes for better construction advice. But none of this helped his condition. One of Broadmoor’s doctors described him as “abundantly insane.”

The one and only object that likely occupied more space in Minor’s mind than his nighttime harassers was the Oxford English Dictionary. Not only did the job of curating quotations provide him a semblance of peace, it also offered him a chance at a different kind of redemption.

This was not, it turns out, the first time Minor had contributed to a major reference book. Back in 1861, when he was a first-year medical student at Yale, Minor had helped contribute to the Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language. Guided by Yale scholars, the book was the first major English dictionary edited by a team of trained lexicographers, and the 114,000-word edition published in 1864 would become the world’s largest mass-produced book at the time. Minor had assisted a professor of natural history, but when that professor became ill, the green medical student effectively took over. He was in way over his head. He made sloppy mistakes, prompting one critic to call Minor’s contributions “the weakest part of the book.”

The Oxford English Dictionary was a chance to make amends, and Minor took to the task with the zeal of a man who had nothing but time.

The editors of the dictionary had advised volunteers like Minor to focus on rare or colorful terms, eye-grabbing words like baboon or blubber or hubbub, and to ignore grammatical filler like and, of, or the. But many volunteers, eager to impress the philologists at Oxford, took the directions too far: They supplied more quotations for abstruse words such as, well, abstruse and few quotations for simple words such as, say, simple. The omissions frustrated Murray, who complained, “My editors have to search for precious hours for quotations for examples of ordinary words, which readers disregarded, thinking them not worthy of including.”

It didn’t help that the editors could never predict what would come through the door. Each day, they had to sift through and organize hundreds, sometimes thousands, of unexpected quotations. But Minor did not mail in quotations at random. What made him so good, so prolific, was his method: Instead of copying quotations willy-nilly, he’d flip through his library and make a word list for each individual book, indexing the location of nearly every word he saw. These catalogues effectively transformed Minor into a living, breathing search engine. He simply had to reach out to the Oxford editors and ask: So, what words do you need help with?

If the editors, for example, needed help finding quotations for the term sesquipedalia—a long word that means “very long words”—Minor could review his indexes and discover that sesquipedalia was located on page 339 of Elocution, on page 98 of Familiar Dialogues and Popular Discussions, on page 144 of Burlesque Plays and Poems, and so on. He could flip to these pages and then jot down the appropriate quotations.

Minor's index for 1687 book The Travels of Monsieur de Thevenot into the Levant, which includes keywords such as acacia and dance.
Minor's index for 1687 book The Travels of Monsieur de Thevenot into the Levant, which includes keywords such as acacia and dance.
Image courtesy of Oxford University Press and Simon Winchester. Reproduced by permission of the Minor family.

Oxford’s first request, however, was less exotic: It was art. The editors had discovered 16 meanings but were convinced more existed. When Minor searched his indexes, he found 27. The Oxford staff was overjoyed. As Winchester writes, “They knew now that down at this mysteriously anonymous address in Crowthorne, in all probability they had on tap, as it were, a supply of fully indexed words together with their association, citations, and quotations.” They made Minor the team’s go-to resource for troublesome words.

For the rest of the 1890s, Minor would send as many as 20 quotations a day to the subeditors in Oxford. His submissions had a ridiculously high acceptance rate; so high, in fact, that in the OED’s first volume—then called A New English Dictionary, published in 1888—James Murray added a line of thanks to “Dr. W. C. Minor, Crowthorne.”

Murray, however, had no idea about his contributor’s identity. “I never gave a thought to who Minor might be,” he said. “I thought he was either a practicing medical man of literary tastes with a good deal of leisure, or perhaps a retired medical man or surgeon who had no other work.”

In 1891, the two exchanged personal letters and agreed to meet at Broadmoor. When Murray arrived, any surprise upon seeing his top contributor confined inside an insane asylum appears to have quickly worn off: The two sat and talked in Minor’s cell for hours.

Murray would write, “[I] found him, as far as I could see, as sane as myself.”

 
 

It was a cool December morning when William C. Minor cut off his penis.

Unlike other patients at Broadmoor, Minor had been permitted to carry a pen knife in his pocket, which he had once used to cut the bound pages of his old first edition books. But it had been years since he had last put it to use, and, on a breezy day in 1902, Minor sharpened the blade, tightened a tourniquet around the base of his penis, and performed what the medical community might delicately describe as an autopeotomy.

It took one swift motion of the wrist. With his member dismembered, Minor calmly ambled downstairs to the gate of Block 2 and hollered for an attendant. “You had better send for the Medical Officer at once!” he yelled. “I have injured myself!”

The attendants were afraid something terrible like this could happen. Over the previous years, Minor had grown increasingly religious—a harmless development on its own—but his reawakened spirituality manifested itself in the most unfruitful ways: His insatiable sexual appetite, his shamefully libidinous past, and the sexually abusive specters that bedeviled him at nightfall had filled him with relentless guilt. “He believed there had been a complete saturation of his entire being with the lasciviousness of over 20 years, during which time he had relations with thousands of nude women, night after night…” reads Minor’s medical file. “But when he became Christianized he saw that he must sever himself from the lascivious life that he had been leading.”

Sever indeed.

Minor’s self-surgery did not make the nightly phantasms any less common, nor did it make his sexual urges any less intense. Before the incident, he had claimed that his visitors were forcing him to have sex with hundreds of women “from Reading to Land’s End,” and afterwards, he continued complaining of unwanted harassers. It was around this time, as Minor recuperated in the infirmary, that he stopped contributing to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Over the following years, Minor and Murray continued corresponding and remained warm acquaintances. In 1905, while Murray was on a trip to the Cape of Good Hope, Minor sent his devoted editor money to cover expenses. Five years later, Murray returned the favor by joining an effort to return the deteriorating man back to the United States. It worked. In 1910, after more than three decades at Broadmoor, Minor was transported back to an asylum in America. When he died 10 years later, in 1920, no obituary would mention his achievements. But you didn’t have to look very far to find them: All you had to do was crack open the pages of an Oxford dictionary.

In the preface of the fifth volume of the OED, James Murray published this word of thanks: “Second only to the contributions of Dr. Fitzedward Hall [one of the OED’s earliest major contributors], in enhancing our illustration of the literary history of individual words, phrases, and constructions, have been those of Dr. W. C. Minor, received week by week for words at which we are actually working.”

Elsewhere, Murray wrote: “The supreme position is … certainly held by Dr. W. C. Minor of Broadmoor, who during the past two years has sent in no less than 12,000 quots [sic] …. So enormous have been Dr. Minor’s contributions during the past 17 or 18 years, that we could easily illustrate the last 4 centuries from his quotations alone.”

Indeed, it’s hard to fathom the magnitude of Minor’s contributions. He provided material for entries as obscure as dhobi and as common as dirt. Today, the OED calls itself the “definitive record of the English language,” and it defines more than 300,000 words (more than half a million if you count word combinations and derivatives). It remains the authoritative reference for courtrooms, policy-makers, and etymology-nerds alike; linguists respect it as the barometer of where the language has been and where it may be going. Much of that credit goes to Minor.

Today, the stacks of books that he so preciously consulted are tucked away in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. At least 42 of his famed word indexes are protected inside the vaunted archives of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The words contained within are much like the man himself.

Minor was a surgeon, a veteran, and a murderer. He was a Yalie, a painter, and a danger to others. He was a sex addict, a reformed deist, and (most likely) a paranoid schizophrenic. The defining features of Minor’s character—what his life meant—shifted with time and could never be reduced to one single identification.

But it’d be nice to think that one definition would be crowned at the top of the page: “Greatest outside contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary.”

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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literature
25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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Lucy Quintanilla/iStock
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travel
5 Cemetery Road Trips for the Ultimate Taphophile
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Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

Autumn is the best time of year for a road trip. The weather is cooling down, the leaves are turning, and fewer people are on the roads. With Halloween on the horizon, cemeteries are natural destinations. These five journeys are a great way to explore America’s rich and varied history as recorded on its tombstones—and truly dedicated taphophiles (from the Greek for tomb) can combine them into one itinerary covering 22 states and more than 10,000 miles. Tombstone tourists, rejoice.

1. NORTHEAST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Northeast cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. Hope Cemetery
201 Maple Avenue, Barre, Vermont
44.2107° N, 72.4994° W

Barre’s Hope Cemetery is a jaw-dropping open-air sculpture garden, featuring locally quarried granite carved into everything from angels to sports cars to life-sized portraits. The cemetery is especially gorgeous when the leaves turn in autumn.

B. Mount Auburn Cemetery
580 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts
42.3752° N, 71.1450° W

Designed by Dr. Jacob Bigelow, the foremost botanist of his day, this breathtaking place may be the most important cemetery in America. Its opening in 1831 signaled a shift from austere churchyards to park-like cemeteries full of trees and flowers. One of the most striking grave monuments remembers Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science.

C. Touro Jewish Cemetery
Touro Street, Newport, Rhode Island
41.48793° N, 71.30936° W

Open only one day a year, the Touro Cemetery is the second-oldest Jewish cemetery in the U.S. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a beautiful poem about the place. Nearby Touro Synagogue offers a brochure to explain the significance of the cemetery to visitors who come to gaze through its gates.

D. Green-Wood Cemetery
500 25th Street, Brooklyn, New York
40.6590° N, 73.9956° W

Lovely Green-Wood Cemetery is the forefather of city parks in America. Full of famous names and one-of-a-kind monuments, the cemetery rewards repeat visits. Among those buried here are Jean-Michel Basquiat, FAO Schwarz, and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

E. Soldiers’ National Cemetery
Gettysburg National Military Park
1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
39.82177° N, 77.23256° W

A Gettysburg postcard from pre-1930
Author's collection

President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address announced the system of national cemeteries for casualties of federal battles. In Soldiers’ National Cemetery, granite stones marked with the tally of unknown soldiers provide a sobering reminder of the costs of war.

F. Congressional Cemetery
1801 E. Street SE, Washington, D.C.
38.8811° N, 76.9780° W

Originally designed as a graveyard for congressmen who died in office, the Congressional Cemetery became the final resting place for a wide assortment of public servants. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, and march king John Philip Sousa—as well as pioneers in the fights for Native American rights, women’s rights, and gay rights—are all buried here.

2. SOUTH

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Southern cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change
449 Auburn Avenue NE, Atlanta, Georgia
33.7563° N, 84.3734° W

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rests on the grounds of the Center for Nonviolent Social Change, founded in his name by his widow Coretta Scott King in 1968. After her death in 2006, Mrs. King joined him in a matching sarcophagus. The King Center is undergoing renovation in advance of the 50th anniversary of his assassination, so call before you visit.

B. Bonaventure Cemetery
330 Bonaventure Road, Savannah, Georgia
32.0444° N, 81.0467° W

Oaks draped with Spanish moss surround museum-worthy statuary in Bonaventure Cemetery. When John Muir camped there in September 1867, he wrote that the cemetery was "so beautiful that almost any sensible person would choose to dwell here with the dead” [PDF]. More than a century later, the cemetery still makes all the lists of most beautiful graveyards.

C. Tolomato Cemetery
14 Cordova Street, Saint Augustine, Florida
29.8970° N, 81.3151° W

American citizens of Saint Augustine started using this acre of land as a cemetery in 1777, although the Spanish used it as a graveyard even earlier. As such, it may be the oldest European-founded cemetery in the U.S. Although Hurricane Irma did significant damage in September, Tolomato Cemetery remains open to visitors one day a month as its Preservation Society repairs it.

D. St. Louis Cemetery #1
425 Basin Street, New Orleans, Louisiana
29.9608° N, 90.0754° W

A vintage postcard of St. Louis No. 1
Author's collection

New Orleans’s tropical heat and humidity gave rise to the so-called oven tomb, which can reduce a corpse to bones in less than a year. In the back of each of these tombs stands a receptacle called a caveau, which contains the bones of all its occupants mixed together through the generations.

The most famous tomb in the oldest surviving cemetery in New Orleans may belong to Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen. The death date on the tomb is closer to her daughter Marie’s, but since the bones of all the tomb’s occupants lie jumbled together in its central caveau, it’s believed the original Marie rests there as well. After vandalism of the tomb spiraled out of control, the cemetery now opens only to tour groups. Luckily, there are many tours from which to choose.

3. WEST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Western cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. Texas State Cemetery
909 Navasota Street, Austin, Texas
30.15994° N, 97.43553° W

Conceived as a pantheon to the famous sons of Texas, the Texas State Cemetery is the final home of Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, as well as Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who helped impeach Richard Nixon. Also buried here are Governor Ann Richards, Chris Kyle (author of American Sniper), and Stephen Austin himself, all of whom lie beneath remarkable statuary.

B. Apache Prisoners-of-War Cemetery
The East Ridge at Fort Sill, Lawton, Oklahoma
34.6960° N, 98.3710° W

After his capture by the U.S. Cavalry, Apache chief Geronimo remained a prisoner of war at Fort Sill until his death in 1909. His grave remained unmarked for many years, but early in World War II, the 501st Airborne took his name as their motto. With the permission of Geronimo’s descendants, paratroopers built the pyramid of stones that now marks Geronimo’s grave. Around him lie men proud to be remembered as his warriors.

C. Riverside Cemetery
5201 Brighton Boulevard, Denver, Colorado
39.4739° N, 104.5733° W

Dating to 1876, the year Colorado attained statehood, Riverside Cemetery embraced African-American pioneers, the first native New Mexican elected to Congress, and the first doctor to theorize that cholera was contagious. The cemetery has struggled since it was closed to new burials, but the Friends of Historic Riverside Cemetery are working to rescue it.

D. Fort Yellowstone Army Cemetery
Grand Loop Road, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
44.9646° N, 110.7002° W

Before the formation of the National Park Service, the U.S. Army guarded Yellowstone from poachers and souvenir hunters. Their sober little cemetery underlines the dangers lurking in one of the most stunning places in America. As reported in Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone, causes of death in this cemetery included drowning, avalanche, being struck by lightning, runaway horses, and grizzly bear attack.

E. Custer National Cemetery
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, Montana
45.5714° N, 107.4332° W

When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the federal government demanded access across land it had set aside for the Lakota Sioux. As many as 10,000 Native Americans refused to renegotiate the treaty. In June 1876, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry to attack, only to be wiped out by the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. It took more than a century for the Native warriors to be commemorated here.

4. WEST COAST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a West Coast cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. Lake View Cemetery
1554 15th Avenue E, Seattle, Washington
47.6341° N, 122.3153° W

High on a hill overlooking the city, Lake View's most famous residents are Bruce Lee and his son Brandon. Also buried here are Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Sealth (who gave his name to Seattle), as well as madams, lumber barons, and politicians—a who’s who of Seattle’s historical figures.

B. Lone Fir Cemetery
SE 26th Avenue, Portland, Oregon
45.5173° N, 122.6446° W

Portland’s pioneer cemetery is glorious in springtime, when its rhododendrons bloom. Full of pioneers, prostitutes, shanghai captains, mayors, and governors, the cemetery also features some unusual modern grave monuments. Vandalism and the weather have been hard on Lone Fir, but its Friends group offers tours to raise money for repair.

C. Fort Ross State Historic Park
19005 Coast Highway 1, Jenner, California
38.5143° N, 123.2485° W

A vintage postcard from Fort Ross cemetery
Author's collection

In 1812, Russia invaded Northern California. Russian pioneers built a fort, married local women, and hunted sea otters along the coast. By 1839, they no longer needed to provision Russian settlements in Alaska, so the fort was abandoned, leaving behind a little graveyard. The California Historical Landmarks Committee took control of it in 1906.

D. Hollywood Forever
6000 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, California
34.0904° N, 118.3206° W

Once the swankest cemetery in Old Hollywood, Hollywood Forever is now the final resting place of Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, Mel Blanc, Darren McGavin, Rozz Williams, John Huston, Cecil B. DeMille, and many more. Judy Garland joined them earlier this year.

E. Manzanar Cemetery
Manzanar National Historic Site, Inyo County, California
36.7255° N, 118.1626° W

The Manzanar War Relocation Center was the first American concentration camp to open during World War II. At its height, Manzanar imprisoned 10,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent, most of whom were American citizens. Although the bulk of the camp was demolished, the cemetery’s Soul Consoling Tower continues to mark the graves of people who died while interned there.

F. Silver Terrace Cemeteries
381 Cemetery Road, Virginia City, Nevada
39.3165° N, 119.6451° W

A vintage postcard from the Silver Terrace cemetery in Virginia City
Author's collection

After the 1859 discovery of one of the richest lodes of gold in history, Virginia City became the largest town between Denver and San Francisco. Of course, this necessitated the largest cemetery district as well. The 22 adjacent graveyards making up Virginia City’s Silver Terrace Cemeteries are now part of one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the country.

5. MIDWEST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Midwest cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. Lakewood Cemetery
3600 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota
44.5659° N, 93.1734° W

Modeled on Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, Lakewood’s Mortuary Chapel is a spectacular example of Byzantine Revival architecture. Mosaic tiles, some as small as a fingernail, adorn its interior. At Lakewood, politicians with modernist monuments are buried beside names familiar from the grocery store: Charles Pillsbury and Franklin Mars, who founded the candy company that bears his name.

B. Oakland Cemetery
1000 Brown Street, Iowa City, Iowa
41.6697° N, 91.5222° W

Urban legends surround the Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery: if you kiss the statue, you’ll be struck dead; if a pregnant woman crosses its shadow, she will miscarry; if ever a virgin is kissed in front of the statue, it will resume its normal bronze color and the curse will be broken. Strangely enough, this is not the only black angel in Iowa—and the other has legends swirling around it as well. Daniel Chester French’s monument to spiritualist Ruth Ann Dodge stands in the Fairview Cemetery in Council Bluffs.

C. Graceland Cemetery
4001 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois
41.9548° N, 87.6619° W

Known as the Cemetery of the Architects, Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery holds the Carrie Eliza Getty mausoleum, considered one of the first examples of modern architecture. Graceland Cemetery also contains a wealth of magnificent statuary, including Lorado Taft’s Eternal Silence and Daniel Chester French’s Memory.

D. Elmwood Cemetery
1200 Elmwood Avenue, Detroit, Michigan
42.3466° N, 83.0179° W

A vintage postcard from Elmwood cemetery
Author's collection

Practically in the shadow of Detroit’s Renaissance Center, this dramatic garden cemetery stands on ground fought over during the French and Indian War. Elmwood Cemetery is the final resting place of Canadian Club whiskey founder Hiram Walker, guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5, and Detroit’s legendary mayor Coleman Young, who was a Tuskegee Airman.

Cemeteries are lenses, revealing what their local communities choose to celebrate alongside things that must not be forgotten. This list merely skims the surface—go see what you can discover.

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