How was idiotic determined for the census?

+6 votes
My 3.great-grandmother is checked as idiotic in the 1880 Arkansas census. She was 28 and living with her spouse and children at the time so it is not a code for senility. She went on to live another sixty years and ultimately had ten children.

If they are looking for mentally deficient, how would an enumerator verify this?
in The Tree House by Ron Moore G2G6 Mach 2 (21.4k points)
retagged by Ellen Smith
It might just be an error, but I think that term was a catch-all for almost any mental illness. She might have had post-partum depression.

Epilepsy was enough to be labelled as an imbecile/ idiotic.

2 Answers

+4 votes
Best answer
When the U.S. Census began enumerating individuals by name in 1850, and asking a few health questions, the designations for idiocy and insanity began to crop up.  The census enumerators were even given some definitions and instructions to distinguish the two.  I encountered one case of this and found some references discussing the subject:

As far as I can tell, there was no backup medical diagnosis for use of those terms, and I suspect the census enumerators didn't attempt any verification, but just went by whatever they were told by the responding household member.  I have seen the column checked on some U.S. census forms for people who appear to have lived normal lives.  In a couple of cases, people seemed to be labeled only because they could not read or write.

There are a couple of links to the references that discuss this on the Buhrman-18 profile.  They apply to the U.S. census, and I can't say whether there is any difference about the way this would have been handled in Arkansas, or any other state census.
by Dennis Barton G2G6 Pilot (471k points)
selected by Ron Moore
Thanks for the star Ron.  I should add that the cases where I have encountered these terms have mostly occurred in rural areas or small, close-knit communities.  It seems likely that the census enumerator and the family being counted would have known each other, so I think it's quite possible that in some cases the enumerator was just documenting what would have been considered general community knowledge.
+1 vote
A couple different census reports have that question.  It is always important to note that many mistakes were made.  So always verify which you are doing.  It could that the census taker was off by a line.  Is there another in the family that this would qualify for?  Could be a different family?  Could be a stray pencil mark and the census taker thought he didn't mark strong enough and marked it later.  Or the computer saw a mark when it was transcribed and said it was a mark for idiotic when it clearly wasn't.
by Gurney Thompson G2G6 Pilot (280k points)

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