Lunatics & Habitual Drunkards, 1790-1899

Estates for individuals declared “non compos mentis” (of unsound mind) fell under the jurisdiction of equity courts. Under the English system, equity cases were handled by the court of chancery. For much of Pennsylvania’s colonial history, the court’s jurisdiction over these cases was in constant flux.   A court of chancery existed briefly in the colony between 1720 and 1736. Before and after that date, the power once vested in chancery courts was generally split between the county courts of common pleas and the provincial court. With the adoption of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, the power was formally vested in the state supreme court and the courts of common pleas.  The first known case concerning the estate of a lunatic in Chester County came before the court of common pleas in 1790.

The process by which an individual could be declared a lunatic followed the English practice, though it was not codified into Pennsylvania Law until the nineteenth century.  The first step in the process was to petition the court for an inquisition. The petitioner was required to be a relation by blood or marriage; if no known relation existed, the court allowed a disinterested member of the community to submit a petition. If the petition was accepted, the court appointed a commission to hold an inquisition into the mental state of the supposed lunatic. If the individual was found to be “non compos mentis” a committee would be established to oversee the lunatic’s estate. This committee had the power to pay creditors and sell real estate for the upkeep and maintenance of the lunatic. In 1819 the law expanded to include habitual drunkards.

For more information on what each file may contain, see the Guide to Records of the Court of Common Pleas, Chester County, Pennsylvania 1681-1900, pages 87-88.

Indexing Note: This index includes the names of all the heirs listed in the inquisition and on the original petition. Deponents are also included. These individuals had firsthand knowledge of the lunatic or habitual drunkard. While in most instances they only provide brief statements in support of the petition, in some circumstances, they may also provide detailed testimony about their history with the lunatic or habitual drunkard.

*”Lunatic” was the term used in the records for a person found to be incompetent due to mental illness or intellectual disability. “Habitual drunkard” was the term used for someone whose use of alcohol significantly impaired his or her abilities on a regular basis.