Monday, August 17, 2015

52 Ancestors: Disabled But Not Defective

Amy Johnson Crow of No Story Too Small has issued a challenge:  write one blog post each week devoted to a specific ancestor. It can be a story, a biography, a photograph, an outline of a research problem – anything that focuses on one ancestor.

In 1880, there was a special census schedule for “Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes” — the blind, deaf-mutes, paupers, homeless children, prisoners, insane, and idiotic. Those with mental or physical illness were asked additional questions regarding their medical history. Homeless children were asked about their parents. Prisoners were asked details regarding their imprisonment.

After looking at census records for my 3X great-grandmother Nancy Elizabeth Frazier Shiflett for last week’s prompt, I fully expected to find her son George in this special census. After all, he was enumerated in 1870 as being “Dumb.” Evidently he was also deaf. Census takers had been instructed NOT to check that box if a resident could still speak despite loss of hearing. However, George is not listed at all, suggesting he had possibly died before 1880.

Yet George’s brother John Conway Shiflett made the list. Or so I thought.

In 1880, John Conway and his two children by his first wife were living with his mother.  There is a check mark in the box denoting “disabled.” So I went to the special census schedule to learn more about his disability, assuming that might have caused him to be destitute.

1880 Federal Census Monroe District, Greene Co, VA

“John C. Shiflett” appears in the DDD schedule on the pauper page.

Pauper and Indigent page of the 1880 special census for Defective, Dependent, Delinquent Classes
John C. Shiflett is the second name on the page.
At first the tick marks seemed to add up to “my” John C. Shiflett:

  • Is this person able-bodied?  NO
  • Is he or she habitually intemperate?  NO
  • Is he or she epileptic?   NO
  • Has he (or she) ever been convicted of crime?   NO
Then “Is he or she idiotic?”  Check

What? Idiotic? This census was conducted on June 1, and there is a marriage record for John C. in July 1880. What woman would marry an “idiotic” man?  (Don’t answer that. I just realized how funny that sounds.)  What’s more, John C. was also listed on the Deaf-Mute page.

“MY” John C. Shiflett married Mary D. Shiflett July 28, 1880.  Together they had 3 children. So now I was not sure that this was the right guy.  Fortunately, the DDD census includes the page and line numbers where the person is listed in the regular population census.  Page 15, Line 13 Monroe District of Greene County. Sure enough there was John C. Shiflett, deaf-mute. Son of James F. and Mary E. Shiflett.
1880 Federal Census Monroe District of Greene Co, VA
Note John C. on line 13. The tick marks indicate deaf-mute, idiotic, and disabled.
Oops. Wrong guy after all. But I have to wonder why the right guy is NOT included. Evidently his disability did not cause him to be a pauper, thus sparing him from being included.

© 2015, Wendy Mathias.  All rights reserved.


  1. It's all so unpolitically correct now...imagine a special census nowadays?!

    1. Oh I know. But I do wonder if that type of information is being tracked today. The last census form I filled out asked practically nothing.

  2. That must have been an interesting census with tracking down homeless children and then to ask about their parents, especially for that time period when it took place. I learned something new today in that such a census even occurred!


    1. Every census year has different questions and certainly some years are more interesting than others.

  3. I had no idea there was a special census. I'm putting that in my back pocket to bring out on a rainy day.

  4. One of my great-great-grandfathers is listed in the regular 1880 census as disabled but I don't find him in the DDD schedules. Your post prompted me to browse the 1880 DDD schedule for the area where he and several lines of my ancestors lived and I find other individuals among my families who are included. But it's strange that that particular g-g-grandfather is not.

    1. Apparently "disabled" was not the same thing as "defective," which I take to mean something more severe like blindness, deafness, retardation, mental illness. That has made me curious about the disability -- did he lose an arm or leg? was he partially paralyzed?

  5. Seriously can you imagine anyone referring to someone like that today? I have to believe that idiotic must have meant something slightly different than today. It's sad that the more problems someone had (with the law, with their health, with their income) the easier they are to find.

    1. Oh I know. While I KNOW that "idiotic" meant some form of "retardation," I still cringe whenever I see the word in old documents. I think even the word "retarded" is out of vogue.