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Julia Keay is upfront about the limitations of the subject of her new biography, Alexander the Corrector. “[At no] time in his life did Alexander Cruden aspire to be an original thinker,” she admits. If anything, the greatest work of the 18th-century Scotsman—Cruden’s Concordance, a chapter-and-verse locator for all but the most utilitarian words (of, the, etc.) in the King James Bible—was the product of a mind dependent on certainty, “a dogged rearguard action mounted against the stampede for practical and scientific knowledge,” a threat to “humility, penitence, abstinence, and, above all, a complete and utter belief in the word of God.”

Cruden’s masterwork “transformed the search for a reference, the preparation of a sermon or the pursuit of Biblical knowledge from a duty to a delight.” Coming to prominence gradually, by word of mouth, it was greeted as being to a man of the cloth “‘as a plane to the carpenter, or a plough to the husbandman’”—and it has stayed in print for over a quarter of a millennium (20 editions in the 20th century alone). Still, it’s more useful than revolutionary or thought-provoking, and it is not the focus of Keay’s attention.

Not that Keay underestimates the sheer amount of time—12 years—and brain power it took to organize such a book two centuries prior to word processing: Noting that the Old and New Testaments hold 1,019 words beginning with the letter C, for example, 153 alone of which start with “Ca,” she asks, “Using just pen and paper, how long does it take to put 153 words into their correct alphabetical order, let alone 1019 words?”

But she also rightly ignores the concordance for long stretches. What propels her book, subtitled The Tormented Genius Whose Cruden’s Concordance Unwrote the Bible, is Cruden’s life story. Despite the reputation his opus enjoyed, he was haunted throughout his adult life by allegations that he was insane. The impression is perhaps understandable, given that he was institutionalized three or perhaps four times between the ages of 21 and 54.

If anything, according to Keay, Cruden’s reputation has declined over the centuries: Whereas a 1789 biography speaks of his “symptoms of insanity,” by 1987’s A Social History of Madness by Roy Porter, he had become “the perfect fool.” A trio of portraits gracing the book’s midsection make the same point. Though all derived from a common ancestor—a no-longer-extant work by one T. Fry, circa 1760—the renderings show an image of Cruden that becomes less attractive over time. The earliest, from the 1760s, depicts a man with an untextured, mostly light face, but by the time the third image (derived in 1934 from T. Cook’s copy of Fry’s original) was created, Cruden comes across as a man whose face was craggy and gaunt, with sunken eyes—“a wizened caricature,” according to Keay, “of a perspiring, importunate and dangerous man.”

But to hear Keay tell it, it may all be the centuries-long fallout of an 18th-century Scottish sex scandal. Cruden’s life started solidly if modestly enough: Born into a staunch Presbyterian family in Aberdeen in 1699, Cruden got a stern religious and classical education—by age 13, Keay notes, he had read and partly memorized the Bible and such ancients as Virgil, Cicero, and Livy. Though overshadowed academically by his brother George, he aspired to enter the clergy.

So far, so good. But when Cruden was about 20, something rather unfortunate happened: “Alexander’s attention wandered,” Keay writes. “[H]e looked up from his books, he saw a girl, and he fell in love.” After Cruden was rebuffed by this unnamed beauty, early biographer Alexander Chalmers noted, his “outrageous attempts” to see his crush again landed him in the Tolbooth, Aberdeen’s prison-cum-asylum.

There’s not much more to go on. Cruden wrote extensively about later episodes in his life—including later incarcerations—and Keay draws frequently from these works. But concerning the Tolbooth, Cruden remarked only, much later in life, that “In the year 1720 [I was] in a treacherous Manner decoy’d into the publick prison at Aberdeen by the Advice of a conceited [i.e., scheming] Man.” Chalmers fudged some of the particulars, blaming Cruden’s lockup on, at different points, “his friends,” “her friends,” or “his or her friends.” And identifying “her” simply as “daughter of a clergyman from Aberdeen” was almost like saying “daughter of a D.C. attorney.” But Chalmers did leave a tantalizing clue: Not long after Cruden’s confinement, he writes, “it was revealed that a criminal intercourse had subsisted between her and her own brother, by whom she was actually pregnant.”

Keay wanders into the murk with an admirable flurry of historical detective work. Following a trail that passes through a “demented spider’s web” of Aberdeen family trees, the dedication to an 18th-century botanical text, a red herring by the name of Elizabeth Blachrie, and an easy-to-miss clause nestled in Cruden’s own will, Keay concludes that the love of Cruden’s youth was (drum roll, please)…Elizabeth Blackwell.

Not quite a household name. But it’s one that by this point in the book—the fourth of 13 chapters—will ring a bell with Keay’s readers. As principal of Marischal College, Blackwell’s father, the Rev. Thomas Blackwell, not only was a big shot generally but, because George Cruden was a professor of Greek at Marischal, had leverage over Cruden’s family in particular. (It didn’t help matters that, to hear Keay tell it, Cruden’s father, Baillie William Cruden, longed to be Blackwell’s social equal.)

Given this power, and the motive he had to avoid a serious scandal—it was an era when garden-variety extramarital sex could get you a weekly public flogging—Keay concludes that the Rev. Blackwell was Cruden’s “conceited Man.” Keay theorizes that Blackwell sequestered both wife and daughter for the requisite number of months to enable him to pass off his granddaughter as his daughter. And just in case, he sent Cruden away to get him out of the picture for a while—in a way that would deprive him of any credibility when he returned.

Then as now, mental illness carried a stigma, and from the very beginning it posed problems for Cruden. With the clergy no longer open to him, he went to the same place many before and since have gone when reputations crumble—exile. He decamped to England and eventually found work in London’s publishing industry as a “corrector of proofs,” a fitting job for one with a rigorous mind and a craving for order and certainty. By 1726, he’d set to work on his concordance in earnest.

One of Keay’s strengths is her ability to step back and sketch in the cultural, political, and social milieu of the times. As you read her account of Cruden’s second lockup, in 1738, it becomes clear that what happened to him wasn’t all that unusual. In England, sending an indigent person to a public madhouse required consent of more than one justice of the peace. But the private sector observed no such restraint with paid-for customers. Predictably, the “insane” were often unwanted spouses or the parents of inheritance-hungry children.

This environment, combined with Cruden’s earlier confinement, made it all too easy for enemies to have him put away. Cruden was living in London at the time but had fallen on hard times. Though he’d finished the task that had occupied his life for a dozen years, he was broke. He’d found a fan in Queen Caroline of Anspach, but she’d died 17 days after her November 1737 audience with Cruden—too soon to pay out the 100 pounds she’d promised. Not too keen on the prospect of going back to proofreading, he endeavored to wed a wealthy widow, with disastrous results. His term at Bethnal Green (“one of the most notorious private madhouses in the country”) was arranged—and paid for—by a rival for the affections of a wealthy widow. He may also have landed, for 11 weeks, at London’s Bethlehem Royal Hospital (the infamous “Bedlam”) in 1743 and 1744. (Details are scarce enough that Keay isn’t 100 percent sure.)

And then, one afternoon in 1753, Cruden apparently happened upon a group of fighting soldiers and entered the fray. Grabbing a shovel, he repeatedly exclaimed, “You must not swear” as he aimed at those around him. He would later refer to it as “the battle of Southampton Row.” But Keay reads the resulting lockup—at a private madhouse in Chelsea, for a mere 17 days—more as the result of sibling rivalry. His sister Isabella had recently moved to London, and she was as gossipy as he was restrained; she was one of the instigators of this confinement.

Over the course of his life, his purported condition became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy—when he tried to sue his Bethnal Green captors, for instance, his past history worked in the defendants’ favor. Fortunately, Cruden’s Concordance proved as durable as his unfortunate reputation. It eventually won him a reasonable income, warm receptions among the intelligentsia of Oxford and Cambridge, and 100 pounds from King George III (who shafted Laurence Sterne on the same day). He was even greeted as a hero when he returned, after more than four decades in exile, to Aberdeen for a year.

Some of his later behavior was certainly strange, at least to modern readers. Following his 1753 lockup, for example, Cruden poured himself into another form of correction: resolving to make himself a moral watchdog, he campaigned (without success) to have himself named a knight, a member of Parliament, and most strangely, “Corrector of Public Morals,” an office he tried to resurrect from ancient Rome.

Keay’s take on his sanity varies somewhat over the course of his life. She argues convincingly that earlier in his life he probably wasn’t insane—merely “dedicated, meticulous and very stubborn” and for such heartfelt endeavors as the concordance, “single-minded to the point of obsession.” Even so, he “had never done anything that could possibly be construed as mad.” But when writing about later confinements, she’s more speculative—the possible Bedlam lockup and the known-for-sure tenure in Chelsea may have simply resulted from, well, the pressure of everyone’s calling him crazy. In short, he may have finally cracked.

Conversely, the last round may also have liberated him from the need to prove his sanity. The post-Chelsea Cruden, per Keay, instead of being “timid, unassuming or introspective,” was “generous, brave, angry and, if increasingly eccentric, also rather admirable.” She notes that a 64-year-old Cruden used his influence to save a young man condemned to death for a relatively minor crime—a task that entailed scurrying around London to bang on various doors for the better part of two days. In Cruden’s account of the situation, he referred to himself simply as “I,” in contrast to “Mr. C” when writing about his Bethnal Green term and “The Corrector” in his later writings. Keay sees this adoption of the first person singular as fitting, given Cruden’s “urgency, clarity and determination.” It may also suggest happiness, peace of mind, a more full acceptance of himself; Keay leaves that for the reader to infer.

Keay has painted a rich, readable, and sympathetic portrait of Cruden, and it’s to her credit that she knows when it’s appropriate to engage in conjecture. Even with a copious amount of sources written by Cruden himself, coming to a complete assessment of Cruden’s mental state seems at least as tentative as, say, trying to diagnose a brain-damaged patient from a videotape; at two-and-a-half centuries’ remove, it’s impossible to know for certain. CP