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Overheard in GenForum: What is an "idiot" in the Census?
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

April 26, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Was that just a person uneducated or usually mentally deficient? -- SD

A: Beginning in 1850, when the census began to record information on everyone in the household, additional questions were asked in regard to each person in the household.

One set of questions that is often overlooked is the column asking if an individual was "deaf and dumb, blind, insane, and idiotic." Perhaps we ignore this column because we do not wish to know the answer.

Idiotic was one of the disabilities enumerators recorded.

How Was it Asked?

The first census to enumerate all individuals in a given household was the 1850 Census. The enumerator was also required to ask about the full health of each individual living in the household.

Most of the years this question was asked, the information was recorded in a single column. This includes the 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, and 1910 Censuses, although the recorded information has varied from year to year.

  • 1850 - The enumerator was to record the exact ailment in the column. Therefore if an inhabitant was blind, then in the column the enumerator was to record the word blind.
  • 1860 - The enumerator's directions were the same as 1850.
  • 1870 - The enumerator's directions were the same as 1850.
  • 1880 - There were separate columns for "blind," "deaf and dumb," "insane," and "maimed, crippled, bedridden, or otherwise disabled."
  • 1910 - Two columns are listed asking "Whether blind (both eyes)" and "Whether deaf and dumb."

What is Idiotic?

Enumerators were not just sent out with a bunch of forms to fill in. In typical federal style, they were supplied with an abundance of record-keeping rules. As the census forms increased in the number of questions asked, and the information desired, so too did the directions given to the enumerator.

Enumerators were given a specific definition for a person who was blind or deaf and dumb. They were also given a specific definition for the term "idiot." An idiot was "a person the development of whose mental faculties were arrested in infancy or childhood before coming to maturity." For us, in a more enlightened age, a number of known disabilities would have fallen under this category, including Downs Syndrome.

1880 Defective Schedules

While these questions were asked in a number of different census years, it is only in 1880 that we find the Defective Schedules. Officially known as the "Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes," this enumeration is more commonly known as the "Defective Schedules" or the "3D Schedules."

Five separate schedules enumerated those individuals who were on the 1880 Population Schedule. This involved placing a check mark in one of the boxes for blind, deaf and dumb, idiotic, insane, and maimed, crippled, bedridden, or otherwise disabled. If you have discovered such an entry in a family you locate in the 1880 census, you will then want to find the corresponding entry in the Defective Schedules.

Questions in the Schedule of Idiots

Should you discover an individual enumerated as an idiot in the 1880 census, you will get additional information in regard to that person from the Defective Schedules. Some of the questions asked will give you insight into how long the individual has suffered as well as some physical characteristics.

Some of the questions asked dealt with prior institutionalization, the age of onset of idiocy, the size of the head (whether large, small, or natural), and if the person was self-supporting.

In Conclusion

While we may not be comfortable with the terms used in these older census records, such indications as "deaf and dumb" or "idiotic" may offer valuable insight into the family. Additional, albeit institutional records, may exist to aid in our research.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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