Suicide in Colonial Pennsylvania

Dateline, Sussex County and Philadelphia: 1704. This happened rarely, but here is a sad but true case. How would these Bible-following Christians handle it?

Sussex County was still annexed to Pennsylvania. Today it is in Delaware.

The case is straightforward, so no long introduction needed.

6 Feb 1704


John Evans, Esq. and Lt. Governor

Edward Shippen, Griffith Owen, Thomas Story, Caleb Pusey, Esquires

William Trent, Joseph Pidgeon, James Logan (other records say they are esquires, so it was a clerical oversight)

Modernized transcription begins:

A letter from Nehemiah Field of the County of Sussex to the Governor was read, informing of one John Williams of the said County, who was found to have committed self-murder by hanging himself in his own loft and thereupon craving direction—what should be done with the estate;

Upon which a debate arose, whether those of the Territories have a right now to the privileges of the Proprietor’s Charter by the 8th Article, of which he was pleased to grant all forfeitures of estate upon self-murder; and being argued, it was concluded in this point to be the safest method;

And thereupon it is ordered that the coroner of the county shall take an inventory of the whole estate of the defunct [deceased], both real and personal, and take the same into his possession or good security for its value from such persons as now have it and claim any right to it, till such time as the above said questions shall be decided.

Transcription ends.

What was the outcome? Read next:

6 Mar 1704


John Evans, Esq and Lt. Governor

William Clark, Griffith Owens, Richard Hill, Esquires

William Trent, James Logan

Modernized transcription begins:

Cornelius Wiltbank, brother-in-law to John Williams, who hanged himself at Lewis, having waited on the Governor acquainted him that he desired and requested letters of administration on the said defunct’s [deceased’s] estate. And the Governor acquainted him with the orders made concerning that estate, the sixth of last month.

The said Cornelius Wiltbank appeared at the board and pleads that his brother-in-law was not compos mentis [sound mind] at the time of making himself away and that it appears to be so by the inquest then passed upon him.

But it is questioned by the board whether that inquest being made by a justice of the county and no coroner be valid.

And hereupon it is left to the said Wiltbank and his Council to prove that the said inquest is valid in law; and should it be so proved that then he further make it appear that by the tenor and words thereof the defunct [deceased] was not compos mentis [right mind] in the eye of the law and his estate not forfeited.

Transcription ends.

The outcome is that the usual probate laws apply. He was not in his right mind.


Minutes from the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania, vol. 2, 1700-1717 (Harrisburg: Theophilus Fenn, 1838), pp. 186-87 and 189.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s