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The Story Behind John Cage's 4'33"

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In a world plagued by Muzak, John Cage needed to find a quiet way to make a powerful statement.

On August 29, 1952, at a rustic outdoor chamber music hall tucked on a wooded dirt road in Woodstock, New York, the piano virtuoso David Tudor prepared to perform the most jarring piece of music ever written. Or not written, depending how you look at it.

Tudor sat at the piano, propped up six pages of blank sheet music, and closed the keyboard lid. He then clicked a stopwatch and rested his hands on his lap. The audience waited for something to happen as a breeze stirred the nearby trees. After 30 seconds of stillness, Tudor opened the lid, paused, closed it again, and went back to doing nothing. He turned one of the blank pages. Raindrops began to patter. After two minutes and 23 seconds, Tudor again opened and closed the lid. At this point, exasperated people in the crowd walked out. Their footsteps echoed down the aisles. After another minute and 40 seconds, Tudor opened the piano lid one last time, stood up, and bowed. What was left of the audience politely applauded.

It was nearly two decades before the infamous summer of ’69, but what had transpired was arguably the wildest, most controversial musical event ever to rock Woodstock. The piece was called 4'33"—for the three silent movements totaling four minutes and 33 seconds—and it was composed by John Cage. It seemed like a joke. In fact, it would redefine music.

TALL AND SOFT-SPOKEN, John Cage had once been described as “pleasantly reminiscent of Frankenstein.” The resemblance wasn’t just physical. His compositions were of a similar mold: experimental, a bit ugly, and misunderstood. Cage was an irreverent experimenter. In his 60-year career, he composed nearly 300 pieces for everything imaginable, from conventional piano and orchestra to bathtubs and amplified cacti.

Born in Los Angeles to a journalist and an inventor, Cage learned early how powerful new ideas could be. After dropping out of college, he jetted to Europe, where he fell in love with abstract art. At 19, he returned home and started giving lectures on modern art to housewives in his living room. One week, when Cage wanted to teach the ladies about the music of Arnold Schoenberg—the father of a dissonant music called serialism—he audaciously rang one of the country’s best pianists, Richard Buhlig, and asked him to play for them. Buhlig declined, but he did agree to give Cage composing lessons. It was the start of a storied career.

Cage cut his teeth making music for UCLA’s synchronized swimming squad and established himself writing percussion music for dance companies. In 1940, when he was tasked with writing primitive African music for a dance concert in Seattle, Cage tinkered with the piano, wedging screws, coins, bolts, and rubber erasers between the piano strings, turning the keyboard into a one-person percussion orchestra. The sounds were otherworldly, and the innovation, called the prepared piano, catapulted Cage to the forefront of the avant-garde.

Discovering uncharted sounds became Cage’s trademark. Where other composers heard noise, he heard potential. Pots. Drum brakes. Rubber duckies. It wasn’t provocation: It was necessity. The world was brimming with sounds musicians had never used before—it was as if all the world’s painters had agreed to restrict themselves to only a few colors. Cage heard every squeak and honk as a possible ingredient for music.

In 1942, the renowned curator Peggy Guggenheim invited Cage to New York City to put on a concert at her new gallery. Cage agreed but naively arranged a second concert at the Museum of Modern Art behind her back. When Guggenheim found out, she canceled her event. Cage took the news with tears: A career-making opportunity had slipped away. But at that moment, a stranger puffing a cigar walked up and asked whether he was all right. The stranger was Marcel Duchamp.

The encounter was life-altering. Duchamp was America’s most unapologetically cerebral artist. The undisputed king of Dada, he derided traditional paintings as superficial eye candy and opted to make art that pleased—and befuddled—the mind. His 1917 sculpture “Fountain,” an overturned porcelain urinal, was scandalous, but it made a point: Art is subjective. The two became friends, and Duchamp’s philosophy would plant the first seeds of 4'33".

A few years later, Cage made another life-changing friend: Gita Sarabhai, an Indian heiress who was worried about Western music’s effect on her homeland. She had come to New York to study it, and Cage gave her informal lessons in music theory. Sarabhai repaid him by teaching him Indian music and philosophy. The lessons would turn Cage into a lifelong follower of Zen Buddhism.

Cage had found Dada and Zen at the right time—he was in the midst of a spiritual crisis. In 1945, he divorced his wife of 10 years. Their marriage had been unraveling for a while, causing Cage to pen such works as Root of an Unfocus, The Perilous Night, and Daughters of the Lonesome Isle. He was clearly distressed. But the more he composed, the more he realized that music failed to communicate his feelings. It made him feel worse.

Cage, like many artists, had taken it as a given that the point of music was to share emotions. But in one of his lessons with Sarabhai, she mentioned that, in India, music had a different purpose. “To sober and quiet the mind,” she said, “thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.” Cage was taken aback. She didn’t mention feelings at all. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed she had a point. Sounds don’t have emotions. They’re meaningless. He wondered whether Western music had it all wrong.

Cage was onto something. The idea that music should express feelings is relatively new. Before the Enlightenment, European music was functional—it didn’t gush from a brooding composer’s soul. Instead, it was a conduit for dance, song, or praise. Even in Mozart’s day, it was heavily improvised—the composer’s control was limited. But in the early 19th century, the Romantic movement—a celebration of ego and emotion—erupted, and suddenly, the artist’s feelings meant everything. Composers asserted more power over how their music was played, and improvisation practically vanished. By Cage’s time, classical composers—serialists especially—were micromanaging every detail.

Cage was convinced this rift was a mistake. Music wasn’t about the composer: It was about the sounds. So he removed himself from his work. Just as Jackson Pollock embraced the uncertainty of splattered paint, Cage started to flip coins and let heads or tails dictate which notes or rhythms came next. His “chance music” gave performers more liberty to play whatever they liked.

The technique was a perfect stew of Zen and Dada. Both, after all, teach that everything is one and the same, that labels are arbitrary. Art, non-art. Music, noise. Sound, silence. There’s no difference. It’s just perception. The croak of a frog can be just as musical as the purr of a cello if you choose to hear it that way. This wasn’t a new concept. Sitting around Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau outlined the same thought, writing: “The commonest and cheapest sounds, as the barking of a dog, produce the same effect on fresh and healthy ears as the rarest music does. It depends on your appetite for sound.” By the late 1940s, Cage was hell-bent on changing our appetite for sound. He just needed a spark.

Enter Muzak.

JOHN CAGE (1990) THE FESTIVAL DES HORENS, ERLANGEN PHOTOGRAPHER: ERICH MALTER COURTESY OF THE JOHN CAGE TRUST

BY 1949, A CULTURAL PLAGUE was being piped into offices, train stations, and bus terminals: canned, generic background music. The brainchild of an Army general, the idea was pure packaged capitalism. The Muzak Corporation sold hundreds of businesses and cities on the promise that a wash of faint background music would increase productivity, quell boredom, and prevent people from skipping work.

Cage hated it. It was just more proof that silence was going extinct. America’s soundscape had changed drastically after World War II. Traffic drowned out birdsong. Construction clanged through the night. Before the phonograph, if you wanted music, you often had to make it yourself. Now it was like wallpaper—just another part of your surroundings. For musicians, that alone made Muzak public enemy No. 1. But nonmusicians complained that it was annoying. Commuters in Washington, D.C., despised Muzak so much that they eventually fought it at the Supreme Court, arguing that it infringed on their right to be left alone. They lost.

The revolt was the trigger Cage needed to create a silent piece. At the time, Cage wrote, “I want to ... compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co. It will be three or four minutes long—these being the standard lengths of canned music.” Tongue-in-cheek as it sounded, Cage wasn’t kidding. He may have schemed 4'33" to “provide listeners with a blessed four-and-a-half-minute respite from forced listening,” writes Kyle Gann in No Such Thing as Silence. Cage was the captive audience’s savior.

By 1950, Cage was serious about writing a silent piece of music. It wouldn’t just be a Zen experiment. It would also be a political statement: an attempt to restore, for a brief moment, the silence industrial America had lost, a plea asking people to listen closely again. Still, the idea seemed radical. Cage had a reputation to uphold, and he didn’t want people to think it was a shtick. “I have a horror of appearing an idiot,” he confessed. So he approached the project as he would any new work—by experimenting. In 1951, Cage visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard, a foam-padded room designed to absorb every ripple of sound, to hear what silence was really like. But there, in one of the quietest rooms in the world, Cage sat and listened—and heard something: the whooshing of his own blood. It was an epiphany. For as long as he lived, there would be no such thing as true silence.

That same year, Cage walked through an art gallery and saw a series of flat white canvases by Robert Rauschenberg. The paintings were blasphemy, a big middle finger to the art establishment. There was no narrative, no gesture, no representation—just white streaked with thin black vertical lines. Cage, however, saw Zen: The paintings highlighted shadows, light, and dust falling onto the canvases. Depending on when and where you stood, they always looked different. The painter had no control—the surroundings did. “Oh yes, I must,” Cage thought. “Otherwise ... music is lagging.”

LESS THAN A YEAR LATER, 4'33" made its debut in Woodstock. It was greeted as heresy. During a post- concert Q&A session, a peeved audience member yelled, “Good people of Woodstock, let’s run these people out of town!” Two years later, popular reaction hadn’t changed. When the piece made its New York City debut, The New York Times called it “hollow, sham, pretentious Greenwich Village exhibitionism.” Even Cage’s mother thought it went too far. But more sympathetic listeners saw it as a perplexing thought experiment, an IV drip of instant Zen. Musicians from John Lennon to Frank Zappa to John Adams would go on to hail it as genius.

The value people see in 4'33" is best explained by bread crumbs. One day, Cage was at a restaurant with the abstract painter Willem de Kooning, arguing about art. At one point, De Kooning made a rectangle with his fingers and dropped them over some crumbs on the table. “If I put a frame around these bread crumbs, that isn’t art,” De Kooning piped. Cage shook his head. The frame, he argued, meant everything.

Dump a virtuoso violinist on the street corner, and nearly everyone will walk past without a second look. Put the same violinist in a concert hall and 1,500 people will hang onto every note. The concert hall is a frame—a palace for listening—and when you frame silence there, incidental sounds may froth to the foreground. The hum of the lighting. The ticking of your wristwatch. The mad ringing in your ear. If you stop and contemplate the world buzzing around you, you may realize how rich and interesting it can be.

Cage’s point has largely fallen on deaf ears. A University of Virginia study published in July 2014 put hundreds of people in an empty, quiet room alone for 15 minutes. Most participants found it insufferable—25 percent of women and 67 percent of men opted to endure painful electric shocks rather than pass the time without any stimulation.

4'33" is a gentle reminder to embrace your surroundings, to be present. If art seems severed from life—isolated in concert halls and art galleries— that’s a matter of your perception. But, as Gann says, if you pay the same attention to the hum of traffic or the rustling of wind as you would your favorite album, you just might realize that the line dividing art and life, music and noise, doesn’t actually exist. If you treat every sound as you would music, you just might hear something unexpected, something beautiful. At its core, 4'33" isn’t about listening to nothing. It’s about listening to everything.

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Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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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
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
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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