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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

He was, the record shows, some 74 or 75 years old, living with his son Jeremiah. He had some money coming to him from a mortgage on some property in New York, and had a few hundred dollars in cash of his own.

spendthriftAnd, the record makes it abundantly clear, he was steaming mad.

His name was Ezra Gladding. He lived in the town of Romulus, in Wayne County, in what was then the Territory of Michigan, and he was not at all happy with a label that had been stuck on him by the Probate Court in 1835.

The label: spendthrift.1

The application was made to the Probate Court by the Overseers of the Poor of the town on 1 May 1835:

The memorial of the Overseers of the Poor, of the town of Romulus in said County — respectfully sheweth — that Ezra Gladding of said Township has been a resident therefor for near two years, during which time, he has lessened and wasted his means, whenever it reached him, by excessive drinking and debauchery —

Your Memorialists further state, that they are apprehensive, the said Ezra, will become a charge to the town, if left to the management of his own concerns — & therefore pray that Yr Honor may appoint a Guardian to him & such other relief in the premises as may be fit —2

On 30 June 1835, the Court ordered that Gladding be notified of the application, and on 23 December 1835, Hale Wakefield was named guardian of Ezra Gladding a Spendthrift of the Town of Romulus.3

And that’s when the fur started flying.

First there were all kinds of accusations by Wakefield against Jeremiah Gladding, that Jeremiah was collecting money for his father and giving it to him.4

Then there were all kinds of accusations by Jeremiah and Ezra against Wakefield, that Wakefield was lining his own pockets at Ezra’s expense.5

It’s one of those wonderful kinds of court records that add so much color to a family history.

But what’s with this spendthrift bit?

The term itself had a very specific meaning in the law. A spendthrift was a “person who by excessive drinking, gaming, idleness, or debauchery of any kind shall so spend, waste, or lessen his estate as to expose himself or his family to want or suffering, or expose the town to charge or expense tor the support of himself or family,” and the term included included “every person who is liable to be put under guardianship, on account of excessive drinking, gaming, idleness, or debauchery.”6

And just how was someone liable to be put under guardianship, and why?

You already know the answer.

You even, The Legal Genealogist will bet, know where to look for the specifics.

It’s the law. In this case, the laws of the Territory of Michigan, in effect at the time of the Gladding case:

Whereas, to the dishonor of human nature and the great injury of society, individuals oftentimes spend, lessen, or waste their estates by excessive drinking, gaming, idleness, and debauchery, and thereby involve themselves and families in distress, misery and ruin, and subject the counties or townships to which they belong, to expense and charge, for their maintenance and support ; Be it therefore enacted, That when any person, by excessive drinking, gaming, idleness, or debauchery of any kind, shall so spend, waste, or lessen his or her estate, as thereby to expose himself or herself, or his or her family, or any of them, to want, or suffering circumstances, or shall, by thus spending, wasting, or lessening his or her estate, endanger or expose the county or township to which he or she belongs, in the judgment of the overseers of the poor of the township, to a charge or expense for the maintenance and support of him or her, or his or her family, or any of them, the overseers of the poor of the township, or a major part of them, shall in such case lodge a complaint with the judge of probate of the county to which the person spending, wasting, or lessening his estate, as aforesaid, doth belong ; and if it shall appear to the said judge of probate, that the person complained of comes within the description of this act, and has had due notice of the complaint exhibited against him or her, as the case may be, then, and in that case, the said judge of probate shall appoint the overseers of the poor, or other suitable and discreet person or persons, guardian or guardians, to such person, and no sale or bargain of any personal or real estate, made by such person or persons, after the appointment of guardianship, as aforesaid, shall be held valid in law ; and the guardian or guardians that may be thus appointed, shall, in discharging the duties of their appoinment, pursue the same method, and be under similar obligations for a faithful discharge of their trust, as guardians appointed for lunatics, ideots, or for persons non compos mentis.7

Note that the kicker here is the risk that the town or the county or the jurisdiction at some level will end up footing the bill for the spendthrift and/or his family. It’s not so much social welfare, to care for the spendthrift, as much as it is preventive medicine, so the taxpayers don’t end up paying.

Many jurisdictions had these laws; you’ll find both statutory provisions and court records on spendthrifts in both colonial and early state records all over North America.

These days, about the only remnant you’ll find is what’s called a spendthrift trust: “a trust designed so that the beneficiary is unable to sell or give away her equitable interest in the trust property. The trustee is in control of the managing the property. Thus, the beneficiary of the trust is not in control of the property and her creditors cannot reach those assets.” 8

And Ezra Gladding?

Well, Hale Wakefield gave up, sold out and moved on, and on the 6th of December 1836 the court removed Wakefield as guardian.

There’s nothing in the file about Gladding’s behavior after that.

You kind of have to hope he had some fun, though…

At least lifted his glass in the judge’s direction…


Note: The Latin phrase Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is usually translated as “who will watch the watchmen?” or “who will guard the guardians?” See Wikipedia (, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?,” rev. 22 Sep 2014.

  1. Wayne County, Michigan, Probate Court, Probate estate packet 676, Ezra Gladding, Spendthrift (1835); Wayne County Courthouse, Detroit; digital images, “Michigan, Probate Records, 1797-1973,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 30 Sep 2014 2014).
  2. Ibid., Memorial, 1 May 1835.
  3. Ibid., Notice, 30 June 1835; and Guardian Bond, 23 December 1835.
  4. Ibid., Petition by Wakefield, Guardian, 17 June 1836.
  5. Ibid., Order to Wakefield to show cause why he should not be removed as guardian, 9 July 1836.
  6. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1115, “spendthrift.”
  7. §7, “An Act empowering the Judge of Probate to appoint Guardians to Minors and others,” 12 April 1827, Laws of the Territory of Michigan, Condensed, Arranged, and Passed by the Fifth Legislative Council (Detroit: p.p., 1833), 304-305; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 30 Sep 2014).
  8. Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School ( : accessed 30 Sep 2014), “Spendthrift Trust.”
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