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Yet it was not until the murder trial, held in early April, that the full extent of Doctor Minor’s illness became starkly apparent. Among the score of witnesses who appeared before the lord chief justice in the court at Kingston Assizes—for this was Surrey’s jurisdiction still, not London’s—three of them told a stunned courtroom what they knew of the sad captain.
The London police, for a start, admitted that they were already somewhat acquainted with him, and that for some time before the murder had known that they had a troubled man living in their midst. A Scotland Yard detective named Williamson testified that Minor had come to the Yard three months earlier, complaining that men were coming to his rooms at night, trying to poison him. He thought that they were members of the Fenian Brotherhood—militant Irish nationalists—and they were bent on breaking into his lodgings, hiding in the roof rafters, slipping through the windows.
He made such allegations several times, said Williamson; shortly before Christmas, Minor had even persuaded the commissioner of police in New Haven to write a letter to the Yard, underlining the fears that Minor felt. Even after the doctor moved to Tennison Street, he kept in touch with Williamson—on January 12, 1872, he wrote that he had been drugged and was afraid that the Fenians were planning to murder him and make it look as though his death had been a suicide.
A classic cry for help, one might think today. But an exasperated Superintendent Williamson did nothing and told no one, beyond noting with some contempt in his logbook that Minor was clearly—and this was the first use of the word to describe the hapless American—insane.
Then came a witness who had something very curious to offer from his observations of Doctor Minor during the time the American was held on remand in the cells at Horsemonger Lane.
The witness, whose name was William Dennis, was a member of a profession that has long since receded from modern memory: He was what was called a “Bethlem watcher.” Usually he was employed at London’s Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane—such a dreadful place that the name has given us the word bedlam—where his duties included watching the prisoner-patients through the night to make sure that they behaved themselves and did not try to cheat justice by committing suicide. He had been seconded to the Horsemonger Lane Jail in mid-February, he said, to watch the nocturnal activities of the strange visitor. He had watched him, he testified, for twenty-four nights.
It was a most curious and disturbing experience, Dennis told the jury. Each morning Doctor Minor would awake and immediately accuse him of having been paid by someone specifically to molest him while he slept. Then he would spit, dozens of times, as though trying to remove something that had been put into his mouth. He would next leap from his bed and scrabble about underneath it, looking for people who, he insisted, had hidden there and were planning to annoy him. Dennis told his superior, the prison surgeon, that he was quite certain William Minor was mad.
From the police interrogation notes came the evidence of an imagined motive for the crime—and with them a further indication of Doctor Minor’s patent instability. Each night, Minor had told his questioners, unknown men—often lower-class, often Irish—would come to his room while he was sleeping. They would maltreat him; they would violate him in ways he could not possibly describe. For months, ever since these nocturnal visitors had begun to torment him, he had taken to sleeping with his Colt service revolver, loaded with five cartridges, beneath his pillow.
On the night in question he awoke with a start, certain that a man was standing in the shadows at the foot of his bed. He reached under the pillow for his gun; the man saw him and took to his heels, running down the stairs and out of the house. Minor followed him as fast as he could, saw a man running down into Belvedere Road, was certain that this was the intruder, shouted at him, then fired four times, until he had hit him and the man lay still, unable to harm him further.
The court listened in silence. The landlady shook her head. No one could get into her house at night without a key, she had said. Everyone slept very lightly; there could not have been an intruder. And as final confirmation the court then heard from the prisoner’s stepbrother, George Minor. It had been a nightmare, said George, having brother William staying in the family house in New Haven. Every morning he would accuse people of trying to break into his room the night before, trying to molest him. He was being persecuted. Evil men were trying to insert metallic biscuits, coated with poison, in his mouth. They were in league with others who hid in the attic, came down at night while he was asleep, and treated him foully.
Winchester, Simon (2009-10-13). The Professor and the Madman (P.S.) (Kindle Locations 335-346). Harper Perennial. Kindle Edition.