Abstract

A review of the laws and records of the courts of colonial New England indicate some ways the early settlers thought about and responded to idiocy. Early Massachusetts laws extended certain rights to idiots: They authorized the transfer of property, exonerated idiots who committed capital crimes, and extended relief to idiots who were impoverished. There is no documentation of the implementation of these laws nor is there direct reference to idiocy in court proceedings. Nevertheless, the court records identify certain individuals with incompetence and atypical behavior suggestive of idiocy. Most of the colonial laws as well as the colonists' ways of thinking about idiocy originated in English common law and custom. The New England colonial laws and records of the courts offer insights into contemporary issues regarding mental retardation.

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