American Ancestors New England Historic Genealogical Society - Founded 1845 N.E. Historic Genealogical Society Seal View Your Shopping Cart Join NEHGS
  • 17th Century Wills: Death-Bed, Sick-Bed Or Prudent?

    Philip S. Thayer

    Published Date : June 1986
    Family genealogists accumulate varied amounts of data on each of their ancestors individually.  One can get an augmented picture of their lives and times if certain of these data are pooled and examined by a modest application of statistics.

    The present study deals with the wills of 40 ancestors of the author who died in Massachusetts before 1700, and for whom dates are available for the writing of a will and death.  In a few cases, the time between the writing of a will and the date of probate or the estate inventory has been used since the date of death was not found.  In 25 cases where both death date and inventory date were known, the average lapse of time between them was 26 days, and in 50 percent of the cases it was 14 days or less.  The longest death to inventory time was 90 days.  In Middlesex County, in the mid-17th century, the inventory was often taken soon after death and before the first court appearance.  Present day probate courts take note!

    This examination was provoked by a conversation with one of our more experienced genealogists, who responded to my suggestion that I was finding a lot of death-bed wills among my ancestors, with the statement that “oh, no, they wrote them well in advance.”  Another genealogist, however, guessed 95 percent were death-bed.  Perhaps my ancestors were atypical.  They were certainly for the most part humble people, but they did have property they wished to leave to specific heirs.  They lived in various parts of Massachusetts including Essex and Old Norfolk counties, and Plymouth Colony.

    The individual cases are presented in Table I, which shows for each man the year of death, days between the writing of the will and death, probate or inventory, and the net value of his estate.  In Table II, the results are grouped by elapsed time classes.

    In slightly more than half the cases, the time between writing a will and death was three months or less.  This suggests that sick-bed wills were common, if they weren’t death-bed wills.  It seems clear that the 22 percent written within 14 days of death were death-bed wills, and that in cases with longer periods up to, say, three months the testators had received strong indications of their mortal nature.  With intervals longer than three months, it is hard to argue between prudence and premonition, particularly in the absence of information as to the cause of death, whether acute or lingering.

    It might be argued that the degree of prudence shown as measured by increased length of the will-to-death time would be related to the size of a man’s estate, that is, the more he had to pass on, the more likely he would be to prepare for its disposition.  A plot of will-to-death time vs. estate value was prepared, but is not presented here since it shows no such correlation between the two variables.  At the extremes, the wealthiest man in the group, Joseph Jewett, had one of the shortest time lapses (nine days) and an estate worth more than 3000 pounds, and the four most prudent men with at least one year’s preparation for death had estates averaging less than 500 pounds.  The average estate for this sample was 430 pounds with a standard deviation of 595.  If the two largest (Dodge and Jewett) are excluded because they skew the average, the average is 311, with a standard deviation of 236, showing a more normal ratio of standard deviation to average.

    There are of course limitations which must be recognized in this preliminary analysis.  The sample is small, was not randomly picked except to the extent that anyone’s ancestors 8 to 10 generations back are something of a random group, and does not take into account how much of a man’s goods and property had been disposed by gift and deed [126] prior to the will and inventory.  Even with these caveats in mind, it can be fairly stated that a major proportion of these 17th century wills were written in morbidis, if not in extremis.

    Has a more comprehensive study of this situation been undertaken? The author would be interested to hear of any such effort. The limited data presented here does not justify a more sophisticated analysis. Kenneth A. Lockridge (Literacy in Colonial New England [New York, 1974]), in a study of literacy based on whether several hundred testators signed their wills, states without details that “a third of the persons in this sample made their wills within three months of probate.”  Of particular interest, besides knowing if the high incidence of late wills was generally true in the 17th century, would be to find if this trend changed materially in the next hundred years, or not until the 19th and 20th centuries.

    Time between Will and Death (or Will and Inventory) for 40 Massachusetts Residents - 1643-1694

    Name Year & County* Time Between Will and Death Time Between Will and Inventory Value of Estates (£'s)
    William Ager 1654 E   0-3-17 43
    George Aldrich 1683 S 0-5-24    
    Samuel Bass 1694 S 0-7-9   942
    Francis Bowman 1687 S 0-0-26   120
    Humphrey Bradstreet 1655 E   0-1-16 276
    Edward Breck 1662 S 0-0-3   607
    Thomas Bumstead 1677 S 0-0-28   99
    Nicholas Byram 1688 P 0-3-0   14
    John Carlton 1668 B 0-0-7   422
    John Cheney 1666 E   0-2-17 557
    Nathaniel Colburn 1691 S 0-10-14   87
    Richard Dodge 1671 E 0-7-1   1764
    George Dyer 1672 S 0-9-?   425
    Samuel Edson 1692 P 4-6-4   148
    Jonathan Fairbanks 1668 S 0-6-4   329
    John Gallop 1650 S 0-2-6   311
    Jonathan Hayward  1689 S 0-0-2   630
    Joseph Jewett 1661 E 0-0-9   3288
    Austin Kilham 1667 E 0-0-3   122
    Richard Kimball 1675 E 0-3-17   690
    Thomas Low 1677 E 0-4-19   276
    Michael Metcalf 1664 S 0-1-12   364
    John Mills 1678 S 0-6-1   211
    Ephraim Morton 1693 P   0-1-4 170
    Henry Neale 1688 S 0-2-5    
    Christopher Osgood  1650 E   0-5-21 (P)*  
    Moses Paine 1643 S 0-0-1   597
    Francis Parrot 1656 E   0-9-28 294
    James Penniman 1664 S 0-0-8   505
    Robert Pond 1662 S   0-2-5 95
    Robert Randall 1691 S 0-1-6   154
    John Reddiat 1687 S   0-4-20(P) 139
    John Rogers 1660 S   0-0-12 275
    Henry Smith 1687 S   3-6-2 261
    Thomas Snow 1669 S   0-4-3 125
    John Staple 1683 S 1-4-25   95
    Thomas White 1679 S   0-1-21 176
    Henry Withington 1666 S 2-0-25   850
    William Worcester 1662 E 0-0-10    
    John Wyatt 1665 E   0-1-3 156

    *County: E=Essex; P = Plymouth, including towns in present Bristol; S = Suffolk, including towns in present Norfolk.  Probate data for Plymouth and Suffolk at respective Probate Courts, for Essex from The Probate Records of Essex County (Salem. 1916-20).

    **(P) = will to probate time.



    Time Between Writing of Will and Death (Classed Data)

    Elapsed Time Number Cumulative No. %
    0-7 days 5 5 12
    8-14 days 4 (1) ~ 9 22
    15-21 days 0 9 22
    22-30 days 2 11 28
    1-3 months 10 (6) 21 52
    3-6 months 8 (4) 29 72
    6-9 months 4 33 82
    9-12 months 3 (1) 26 90
    1 year + 4 (1) 40 100

    *(x) = Number of cases based on will to probate or inventory time.



    By Philip S. Thayer
New England Historic Genealogical Society
99 - 101 Newbury Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116, USA

© 2010 - 2014 New England Historic Genealogical Society