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A matter of definition

So… it wasn’t a good idea to be distracted.

Not in Delaware.

distractionOr the Dakota Territory.

Not in the District of Columbia. Or in Iowa.

Not in Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, or West Virginia.1

And most assuredly not in Michigan,2 where The Legal Genealogist is joining other genealogists this week in a recharge-the-batteries retreat up in the North Woods called GenStock.3

In the 19th century, in all of those jurisdictions, to be a distracted person was to invite being locked up.

Because it didn’t mean just not paying attention.

It was a synonym for insanity.

Michigan put it this way right at the very beginning of its laws in 1838, in the definitional provisions telling people how to construe the statutes it was putting together: “The words ‘insane person’ shall be construed to include an idiot, a non compos, lunatic and distracted person.”4

And there was an awful lot that those 1838 Michigan laws said someone in that category couldn’t do, such as:

• Serve or continue to serve as executor of an estate.5

• Get married.6

• Serve or continue to serve as a juror or grand juror.7

And the law also said the governor could put off the death penalty for any convict in that category too.8

What the law didn’t say, with any degree of clarity, was what it meant to be distracted.

We can hope, those of us who are genealogists and suffer from the “oh look there’s a chicken” type of distraction, that our form of affliction wasn’t included.

And we can look to the law itself for some guidance, because that same Michigan law did indicate what evidence was required for finding that an insane person needed to have a guardian appointed: that wasn’t to happen unless, “after a full hearing, it shall appear to the judge that the person in question is incapable of taking care of himself…”9

So if you happen to run across a court case in Michigan in the 1840s, or in one of those other states that used this terminology, don’t think the person said to be distracted was texting while driving the buckboard.

The language of the law was very different in those days…


  1. Stephen Smith, M.D., “Proposed Change of the Legal Status of the Insane…,” in G. A. Blumer and A. B. Richardson, editors, Commitment, Detention, Care and Treatment of the Insane (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1894), 109, n. *; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 24 Aug 2015).
  2. §3, Title I, Chapter 1, Revised Statutes of the State of Michigan… 1838 (Detroit: John Bagg, 1838), 2; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 24 Aug 2015).
  3. As in “taking stock of ourselves as genealogists.” Or at least that’s how it’s billed. We’ll see over the next few days…
  4. §3, Title I, Chapter 1, Revised Statutes of the State of Michigan… 1838, 2.
  5. Ibid., §7, “Probate of Wills,” 278.
  6. Ibid., §5, “Marriage,” 334.
  7. Ibid., §13, “Juries,” 441.
  8. Ibid., §9,
    “Execution of Judgments,” 678.
  9. §9, “Guardian and Ward,” 347.
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