Making Madness: Community Standards and the Determination of Non Compos Mentis

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:00 AM
Mississippi Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Kim E. Nielsen, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
Throughout most of U.S. history the legal determination of non compos mentis (incompetency) has taken place at a local court level and remained legally unrelated to questions of institutionalization. If courts determined an adult to be “incompetent,” that court also assigned a legal guardian to manage and control any property (land, goods, and/or the physical and economic results of labor) owned by the person determined non compos mentis.  Prior to World War II, the determination of non compos mentis was made by the local or county judge. Those who testified included family members, neighbors, local merchants, servants, church leaders, and general medical practitioners. Understandings of gender, age, class, disability, and race profoundly shaped the resulting definitions of competency. Did she clean her house well? Could he control a horse? Did he understand the instructions of his employer? Did she spend her money wisely? Did the accused individual conform to gender, sexual, and racial expectations? Competency hearings thus illustrate that competence is an ever-changing historically bound construct scaffolded upon a society’s already existing power structures. 

This paper uses competency hearings from Wisconsin state courts between the 1860s to the 1960s, along with tax and census records, to examine how mental incompetency was understood, acted on, and defined in competency hearings. It will examine how ideas of race, gender, age and disability intersected to determine competency. It also reveals that even in madness money mattered: financial resources played powerful roles in familial politics, and familial financial power struggles played roles in nearly all competency determinations.

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