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KBO
08-06-11, 21:09
Hello all. I have been diligently researching my family tree for months now with the intention of providing other family members and their children with a nice written family history. I have encountered something that I’m not sure I should share. It appears that on the 1880 Federal Census a direct ancestor of mine was classified as “Idiotic” / “Insane”. I don’t know historically what would qualify a person to be classified this way or who would do it, but it’s right there. Should I conceal this from the rest of the family, maybe redact it or something or should I let them all know? Thanks in advance for any help.

Olde Crone Holden
08-06-11, 21:30
KBO

Hello and welcome to FTF.

Why do you feel that other members of your family must be protected from the truth and that you are the only one who can take it?

I have some relatives described as Idiot, imbecile, insane etc. It wasn't always the truth, as one "imbecile from birth" appears 30 years later running a successful greengrocers business with his wife and many unidiotic children!

OC

KBO
08-06-11, 21:34
Oh....I don't think I said i thought i was the only one who could take it.....I mean....gee....I guess I'm asking what level of sensitivity one must use before telling a lot of people something like this.

Jill on the A272
08-06-11, 21:40
KBO, 1880 is a very long time ago, so I would guess nobody would be shocked. Old descriptions can be quite brutal.

KBO
08-06-11, 21:41
Yes Jill, they can! Do you have any idea how one would get classified as an "Idiot" or "Insane" on the Federal census from that time?

margaretmarch
08-06-11, 21:45
They could easily be researching themselves and find this information - it's public knowledge - why shouldn't they know if the rest of the world can look and see that X was noted as an imbecile.
I think the best policy is always to be open and honest unless it is something you would not be expected to have a legitimate interest in - such as the relatives of in laws etc.
Margaret

Olde Crone Holden
08-06-11, 21:45
KBO

No, of course you didn't say you were the only one who could take it, but the inference was that the rest of your relatives couldn't!

For a start, I wouldn't take just one census report as being gospel. As this is your direct ancestor, he/she couldn't have been completely idiotic and insane, otherwise they would never have married and produced children (one assumes!)

If this were my relative, I would collect up ALL the available information and then present it without comment. If I were presenting it to my elderly uncle, wgho might be upset by this finding, I would say something like:

The 1880 census shows her to be an idiot/insane but this is almost certainly wrong as she lived until she was 90 and died at home of flu. (Or whatever the appropriate findings are).

Otherwise I really wouldn't worry too much about something which possibly happened 130 years ago.

OC

KBO
08-06-11, 21:48
Good point Margaret, me and my sisters are direct descendants of this person, it is public knowledged.....buried, but public.....maybe they should know.

Olde Crone Holden
08-06-11, 21:50
Oh, I forgot!

In 1871 and 81, a relative of mine is described as "imbecile from birth" and is in an institution. In 1891, she has been reclassified as deaf and dumb.

Idiocy, imbecility, insanity, were all subjective conditions in the 1800s and when reported on the census, might just be the spiteful remark of an ignorant enumerator. You need more than one report of this condition before you can even begin to take it seriously.

OC

margaretmarch
08-06-11, 21:57
I think what OC says is very relevant in that in those days there was not the 'fine methodology' that we have today for diagnosing what someone suffered with. You only have to see some death certificates that say cause of death was 'visitation by God' to understand the limitations of medical science in years gone by.

Don't see some of the information you find as 'the truth' just a comment made at the time!
Margaret

Olde Crone Holden
08-06-11, 22:04
SoG suggests that three pieces of evidence should be collected to prove an event. They mean birth marriage and death of course, but it's a good rule to follow for any other "fact". So, what do other census reports say, what does the death cert say, where did the person die, did this person marry - idiots and imbeciles were not allowed to marry in the US, nor in England I shouldn't imagine.

OC

KBO
08-06-11, 22:46
Thanks OC and Margaret, I feel a little better. While my relative was able to father nine children, they all were not with him at the time of the census; I found them with other relatives. This leads me to believe something was probably wrong. Recently I casually mentioned to one of my sisters that another relative died of syphilis in the 1920s and BOY did she let me have it! The syphilis thing doesn't bother me as much as potential mental problems do.......

Olde Crone Holden
08-06-11, 23:06
Syphilis causes mental problems too!

Honestly, I think you are worrying too much. Even if he did have mental health problems, they are not necessarily hereditary and unless any of his children suffered from severe and properly diagnosed mental conditions, it's not worth worrying about. You can be both an idiot and insane, but you don't SUDDENLY become an idiot. Sounds like it could have been severe depression, for instance.

OC

KBO
08-06-11, 23:32
Thanks OC, I'm overthinking it. It's just that I imagine MY Ancestry.com commercial where I go "I found out my Great-great-grandfather was an Imbecile!".....oh and he had syphilis too...

clematised
09-06-11, 00:21
Another cause for being institutionalised in the past was Epilepsy, a condition now treated with tablets and well controlled but they too were labelled with insanity.
Recently it has been discovered that many pregnant women were also institutionalised as insane for being pregnant out of wedlock.

Dont forget that back in time people were burnt as witches for reasons that today we just can not believe they had been put through so take it with a pinch of salt if it looks as though it doesn't stack up.

Edna

Vivienne
09-06-11, 00:36
Hi, welcome to FTF

I would say that if your sister is that sensitive to historical information then she should not look at the tree, it is inevitable that somewhere along the line you will uncover some unpalatable facts.
A large proportion of the armed forces had syphilis at some point in their service career. As has already been said many common conditions today were wrongly classified. People went to prison or were hung for quite trivial things.
Just post world war 2 a nieghbour was locked up in the local mental hospital/insane asylum every month when she had her monthly cycle. If she happened to be there during a census, a future descendant could look at that & draw the wrong conclusion.
I'm doing a tree for a friend at the moment & I don't know if he's noticed that his gt Grandmother proudly states on the 1911 census that she is single with 7 children & there is no evidence of a husband in any other census either. Knowing my friend I think he'll find it hillarious when the penny drops.

KBO
09-06-11, 00:47
Thanks clematised! I'm thinking my relative wasn't epileptic or pregnant (he was a man.....with the syph....) but it's funny you mentioned the "out of wedlock" thing because I found that too! Vivienne, I kind of forced the syphilis thing on my sister, she didn't really care about the tree.....I like that phrase "when the penny drops" what does it mean?

clematised
09-06-11, 01:14
"when the penny drops" when he realises

Edna

Olde Crone Holden
09-06-11, 09:14
KBO

I may have misunderstood - is it the same relative who is insane AND has syphilis? If so, poor soul was in the final stages of his life and his wife deserves a medal for not having him put into an institution.

In 1998 (I think it was) the fifth most common cause of death in the UK was Grand paralysis of the Insane (GPI) which is the term used here on a death certificate for syphilis, to spare the embarrassment of the relatives. AIDS wasn't even on the list.

OC

KBO
09-06-11, 11:04
Oh I'm sorry, I was trying to be funny. The relative in 1880 did not have syphilis to my knowledge, it was a different relative in the 1920s. Whatever caused my great-great-grandfather's idiocy, it wasn't syphilis.

Janet
09-06-11, 12:00
Sadly many cases of people being classed as imbeciles or idiots over 100 years ago may just have had some form of learning difficulties today and we all know that that phrase can conjure up many different aspects of a person's capabilities. The words, imbecile and idiot seem very brutal today, which is why we no longer use them. I am all in favour of honesty though when dealing with all relatives where I am passing on much information but I also I like to think I am tactful so being honest does not have to equate to being brutal with the truth. There are ways and means of telling a story to your other relatives without bludgeoning them with the truth.

I am sure we all have our achilles tendon when it comes to certain aspects of our family history. I have fenian ancestors which excite my rebellious attitude, yet I found a 16 year old with syphyllis quite shocking. I am not sure how I would view a murderer within the family though my convict convicted of poaching game which could have been rabbits as well as deer had all my sympathies, especially when he had left 5 children in dire poverty. I have one suicide in the family which various members did not like me to talk about so yes we have to be honest but also respectful of our relatives' attitudes, which equates to respect for our long gone ancestors, whose lives we are laying bare. I have now, after many years of patience, at last won over all my relatives, even those who were initially quite upset with me uncovering details they felt should stay hidden. I have not done this by not telling them the truth, but by being honest and as tactful as I can be.

I think that if you can always remember that these were real people you are tracing and passing on their information to others, and always give them the due respect they deserve you will not go far wrong.

Janet

KBO
09-06-11, 12:54
Thanks Janet, nicely put. It looks like you found out quite a lot. I guess we'll never know what caused people to be classified as imbeciles or idiots back in the day; my great-great-grandfather could have just been a little stupid. It's comforting to know that with nine children somebody loved him, a lot.

greyingrey
09-06-11, 13:47
Hello KBO

I agree with the others. Unless there's someone in the family who is VERY VERY sensitive (one might almost say to the point of insensitivity), then I don't think you need to worry. You will know if someone is like that without asking, & they'd probably be just as likely to be angry & ask you why you didn't tell them if it ever came out you'd kept it to yourself.

"Imbecility" covered such a wide range of things. When I was 18, I was in a hospital & the building used to be a workhouse/home. There were still a handful of old people living there, who'd been classed as "imbeciles".....it was sometimes used to cover moral judgements, too, such as having an illegitimate child etc. They'd been perfectly OK when they were sectioned (or whatever it was called then), but by then they'd become so institutionalised (&, of course, they had no families) that there was no way out for them.

Even if the tag of "imbecility" does apply to something we would today term as learning difficulties/mental illness (severe or otherwise) or other medical conditions, that's no reason to be ashamed or shocked (not that I'm suggesting that you are).

greyingrey
09-06-11, 13:58
I think what might hurt is not the idea of having someone with a certain condition in the family, but if you'd known them personally & could imagine how society must have viewed them. For example, a relative of my grandparent's generation wasn't able to go to school because of severe physical disability. They were bright as a button but couldn't spell for toffee. I'd be very upset if I found they'd been described as an imbecile after all they'd cheerfully put up with.

And I still get a gulp if I find someone I never knew who died in the workhouse.

But, there you go.

One of my direct ancestors left a man for dead...only luck that he recovered (this was in the 1830s). But it doesn't bother me

KBO
09-06-11, 13:59
Thanks greyingrey. I didn't take it that you were suggesting I was shocked or ashamed at all. I'm all about turning over all the stones I can find and shining a big bright light on what's underneath! In fact, if I lived in 1880 I'd probably be considered an imbecile too! There is someone in my family who would probably not react well to this, so maybe I'll skip her.

colin taylor
09-06-11, 17:06
In the 1950s when I studied law there wer legal differencies between Imbecile and idiot... no idea of the exact differences now but an idiot could not be seen as making decisions that would protect his own intersts but imbeciles not could be considered to have the ability to look after their own interests.... the distinction being important in contract and criminal responsibility.
As mentioned before thes legal terms were probably not considered when filling in a census deaf people were not necessarily mute but were unable to speak because they were never taught.
In the 1880s people were admitted to the asylum if the family could not cope with a medical condition.. the local authority of the patient paying the asylum .

KBO
09-06-11, 17:41
Thanks Colin, that makes sense because my relative was classified as "Idiotic" and "Insane", he fathered nine children none of whom were with him, maybe if he was an imbecile the children would have been permitted to remain with him, I'm thinking he was an idiot instead of an imbecile.

Olde Crone Holden
09-06-11, 18:41
KBO

No no no! WHY would anyone marry an idiot and have nine children with him?

I am saying that as this is the ONLY reference you have found to him being an idiot/insane (and which was it, was he BOTH, poor man?) you must not assume that the description was correct - you are looking at a copy of a copy of what someone wrote at the time and that is not a reliable source for ANYTHING, let alone a judgment of idiocy and insanity, no more than it would be proof of someone's age or occupation or anything else. You still haven't said how he was desribed on previous and later census, nor where and what he died of.

EDIT - As Colin has stated above, an idiot cannot enter into a legal contract and that includes marriage. Also, who would have taken his children away from him and on what authority? I know I'm labouring the point here, but I personally don't think your relative was idiotic or insane, or certainly not in terms we would understand that condition today.

OC

KBO
09-06-11, 18:52
OC, unfortunately my trail ends with 1880, the 1890 Federal Census being destroyed and all. I wasn't able to find any previous trace of him on any earlier census so maybe he was locked away(?). It is my understanding that there may be supplemental schedules to the 1880 census that would have additional information as to the degree of his idiocy. I would really like to find that.

Olde Crone Holden
09-06-11, 19:13
KBO

In Victorian times, once you were in an asylum or other institution you stayed there till you died, mostly. Very few people ever left. Ordinary people were much more respectful and accepting of authority, so if someone said "No, he cannot be released from the asylum" then that would be that.

The dictionary defines an idiot as "someone so permanently deficient of mind as to be incapable of rational thought or behaviour". I am not quite sure how you would then further decide that person was insane as well, nor who would decide those facts.

It's a pity there aren't any other census records, nor a death certificate. For example, someone who had suffered a serious head injury might been seen by the neighbours and the census enumerator as being "an idiot and insane" but that doesn't make it true!

OC

KBO
09-06-11, 19:22
I know, I wish I had more information. I do know from my grandfather that his father (the idiot’s son) was very small, only about 4’11” and traveled around in a carnival, eventually settling down in Brooklyn. I figure my great-great-grandfather (the idiot) must have been small as well. Fortunately for me my family line grew a little bit since those days’ although some people think I’m an idiot too!

darannon
09-06-11, 19:31
If it is any help, my aunt was classed as 'mentally defective' as a child, and lived away from home from early age. As a young adult she was transferred to a 'mental asylum' and categorised as a 'harmless imbecile'. She was only 31 when she died of pnuemonia. Since researching my family history I have obtained her medical records, and it was heartbreaking to read that she was 'put away' for things like not being able to count to 5 and 'having a constant foolish smile on her face'. This was only in the 1950's, and as far as I can understand from her records, and my dad (her brother) it sounds to me that these days she would be called a special needs child and given support to live her life.

This just illustrates how much the world has changed in the last 50 years, never mind 150. Families used to be told to forget they ever had these children (my nan couldn't do that, and visited her daughter every week).
Your relative was obviously well enough to marry and father 9 children - he may well have suffered some sort of breakdown or misunderstood medical condition in later life.

good luck with your research
Darannon

colin taylor
09-06-11, 19:41
I think that common conditions we recognise today would not be understood in the 1800s and would lead to people attaching the description of idot to describe them

KBO
09-06-11, 19:41
Thank you darannon, that's very sad indeed. Yes, maybe my great-great-grandfather wasn't an idiot and just had a breakdown. I suppose the nine kids didn't help...

Olde Crone Holden
09-06-11, 19:42
Darannon

I can fully empathise with that - my relative who was "an imbecile from birth" and later discovered to be deaf and dumb, was actually released from the workhouse in her late 30s, into the care of her "kinsman" to go and be his skivvy.

Her release coincided not with some new humane understanding of her real condition, but with the death of her father who had been paying for her keep in the workhouse since she was a toddler. Believe me I have wept bitter tears for her wasted life. I obtained her records and discovered she had been put into the workhouse on the advice of a doctor who had diagnosed deep imbecility. The fool.

OC

darannon
09-06-11, 20:27
yes OC, I can understand your tears - I always knew from my dad's family that my aunt's story was sad (they used to say they had a handicapped sister who lived in a hospital that wasn't very nice, and she couldn't talk much).
But until I got her records I had no idea just how sad, the things written were so upsetting (for example 'amenable to discipline'). Then I looked up the asylum online, and it was a huge, cold place. It sounds to me that my aunt just spent years basically sitting in bed, until she wasted away and died.

There are many cases like ours, your own relative also sounds like a special needs child - if only they had been born today. I agree with you - a wasted life - and the doctors were just cruel.

Darannon

Janet
09-06-11, 20:36
I do agree with everything that is being said here.

Not sure where you are coming from but some parts of USA have census in between main census so for example Albany New York State has an 1875 census. Maybe you could try to see if there are any inbetween census for you?

Also remember that just because children are not with family on census night does not mean that the person could not look after his children. The children may just happen to be staying with Grandparents, Uncles, Aunts, friends on census night. I have quite a number of mine who are with other members of the family and one who is a a servant age 15 in another household as well as one "living" with a family about 30 miles away from the parental home. Not being with the family on census night can mean anything but usually means just that they were with someone else, so do not read too much into that one. Remember as well that children could become servants from age 13 onwards so with 9 children that is going to be a distinct possibility that some will have gone out to work from one census to the next. Nine children and more was a very common occurrence in the 1800's, the more there were the better to look after the young ones and the better chance enough children would survive to look after parents in their old age as well as being able to work from 10 onwards to help keep the family in the essentials of life.

Many women ended up in mental insitutions when they were menopausal so anything could and did happen back then


Janet

Olde Crone Holden
09-06-11, 21:26
Darannon

On mine it said

"Jane is neat and clean of person and can obey instructions. She is skilled at needlework and laundrywork and has special affection for small children"

That upset me on many levels - an "imbecile from birth" having care of small children????

Most upsetting of all though - the family lived literally a stone's throw from what was considered at that time the finest institution in the world for deaf and dumb people. If she had been correctly diagnosed and gone there, who knows how different her life might have been.

I also agree about not reading too much into children not being at home on census night. My mother, born in the 1920s, had six brothers and the family lived in two rooms. The neighbour had 13 children (!) and several of the boys slept down the road in the front room of a widow woman, who welcomed the male protection and I dare say the odd halfpenny this brought in.

OC

KBO
10-06-11, 00:11
Oh my goodness, I feel really bad, I didn't mean to bring up all of these sad stories! I'm definitely going to take my great-great-grandfather's idiocy / insanity with a grain of salt.....maybe he was just a little off and some nasty person called him an idiot! Daranon and OCH, thnk you! You both have been extrmely helpful! Janet, yes there were State census taken so I will check those out! Thank you!

PhotoFamily
10-06-11, 02:25
Some state censuses are available on FamilySearch, including some that are not (yet?) available on Ancestry. I've seen NY in 1905 (FamilySearch). The Iowa 1925 census (Ancestry) is a genealogist's dream - both parents' names (including mother's maiden name), place of birth, place of marriage. Why couldn't all my relatives been in Iowa in 1925?

JBee
10-06-11, 07:03
Ok I have a rellie who became a tramp after his beloved wife died young and his children were scattered amongst rellies - iirc he was classed as insane either on a census or his death certificate can't recall at the minute. I think he may have had a drink problem driven by grief.

Guy
10-06-11, 07:11
First we have to differentiate between the American census and the UK census.

Here in the UK the householder fill out the census schedules and answers according to his/her understanding of what terms mean.

In general the use of lunatic, idiot and imbecile was pretty confused but basically followed the following definitions:
Lunatic: A mentally ill person with periods of lucidity.
Idiot: Persons who have been mentally ill from birth.
Imbecile: Persons who have become mentally ill later in life.


There were specific definitions but those were followed by staff in lunatic asylums rather than the general public when they filled out census forms.
Cheers
Guy

Olde Crone Holden
10-06-11, 10:06
Guy
What you say is correct of course, but apart from the 1911 census, what we see is what the enumerator copied off a form supposedly filled in by the householder. It is quite obvious if you look at many of the pages, that a lot of "ditto-ing" went on, to the detriment of accuracy and occasionally, that the enumerator or copyist added a personal opinion.

What I'm trying to say is that the UK census isn't to be considered an accurate recording of anything and I would assume the same applies to the US census.

OC

KBO
10-06-11, 13:11
Thanks guy; based on these descriptions I would venture to guess that my great-great-grandfather was either a lunatic or an imbecile because he managed to have nine children; I don't think an idiot could do that.