Unexpected glimpses of our ancestors’ private lives.

Most people are familiar with the U.S. Census. It rolls around every 10 years counting us all. Genealogists love the Population Schedule because it gives us a snapshot (hopefully!) of our ancestors’ families. Few realize other census documents also get created. Those are the Non-Population schedules.

They aren’t talked about as much, and in the past weren’t easy to access. While a State Library may own the entire Population Schedule on microfilm, they may not spend additional funds to acquire Non-Population reels. The internet—and genealogy databases—has changed that, making them readily available. Non-Population schedules rarely solve “who belongs to whom” problems, though they can help sort out same-named people in an area. Mostly they provide interesting details about our family members.

I looked in Michigan for Mike’s Nolans, expecting to find an Agricultural Schedule. I did, but I also found his 2nd great-grandmother, Elizabeth Mary Alpin Nolan (Betty) on the “Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes Schedule.” Oh! . . . Deep breath . . . Not a very friendly—much less politically correct—title, is it?

The 1880 census had a Health section, asking in column 15, “Is the person [on the day of the Enumerator’s visit] sick or temporarily disabled, so as to be unable to attend to ordinary business or duties? If so, what is the sickness or disability?” Most answer “No.” Five check boxes follow, in case the answer is “Yes”:

  • blind
  • deaf and dumb
  • idiotic
  • insane
  • maimed, crippled, bedridden, or otherwise disabled

Not politically correct, remember? So Betty had “yes” and a slash in “insane.”¹

1880 MI census merged 2
1880 Michigan census, John Nolan, wife Betty, sons Michael & John, and Michael’s wife, Theresa.

That created an entry in the other schedule. I found that record image:²

1880 MI census insane
1880 Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes Schedule. Betty Nolan, line 12.

The form has a top (“insane”) and bottom (“idiots”) section. It’s interesting that they wanted the two categories separated. The form also advised the enumerators to talk to the physicians within their district boundaries to obtain names for those individuals, to make sure they were included. Furthermore, the category of “idiot” had instructions to limit it to persons “whose mental faculties were arrested in infancy or childhood before coming to maturity.” Those with dementia, mania, melancholia, epilepsy, etc., needed to be on the other list.

Why am I explaining all that? The instructions are quite specific about who to include or not. It’s important to know the rules that applied in order to understand what we see in the record. I couldn’t just tell the enumerator my husband’s insane—he would have to meet the criteria in the eyes of the enumerator.

So back to Betty.  How do I know this is her? The Non-Population schedule ties her back to the Population Schedule: page 35, line 25. Betty is living “at home” and suffers from melancholia. That doesn’t sound “insane” to me. We have to be careful, though, not to impose our modern interpretation of a word on an older document. So I searched and found:

Melancholia: noun–³

  • deep sadness or gloom; melancholy.
  • dated: a mental condition marked by persistent depression and ill-founded fears.

For an 1880 document, the “dated” definition would seem appropriate. Continuing on, we find the duration of her melancholia has been 20 years, she’s had only one attack, and it occurred at age 40. To me that implies it’s been continuous. It also correlates to her age 60 on the population schedule.

Reading that leaves me a little melancholy! On the other hand, the last three columns end on a somewhat positive note: she does not need to be locked up or restrained (for her own or others’ protection), and she has not been hospitalized or institutionalized. All good news!

Again, you have to consider that era. None of the treatments available now to someone experiencing mental health issues were available then. Problems of the mind were not understood, and people outside the “norm” (particularly women) frequently were locked up, away from their families and the world. It was certainly worth looking for this extra document to clarify what the “insane” mark signified in the Population Schedule.

I will probably never know more about the difficulties Betty experienced, or what might have caused her depression, but I can draw some tentative conclusions:

  • this was a long-term issue for her
  • she didn’t pose a danger to herself or others
  • she was stable enough to remain at home
  • her husband, John, must have loved her—shipping off to an institution was a convenient way to deal with an unpleasant wife/bad marriage—but he didn’t

So, what became of Elizabeth? Well, her husband, John, died 11 January 1886. Elizabeth died 29 January 1900, before the 1900 census was taken. While her death certificate4 doesn’t specifically state where she was living, her youngest son, John, provided the information. It’s likely she was living with him. If she was institutionalized, I’m pretty sure its name would have been on the certificate.

Also, her cause of death was “burnt to entire surface.” I hope no one living in a hospital or institution would have access to open flames! Death by burning (from clothes catching on fire) was not uncommon in earlier times, since fire was used for cooking and heating. There’s no indication this was anything but accidental, so I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt.

Finding a notation in the health section of the census is a bit awkward. It’s easy to gloss over it, think “crazy lady/guy,” and move on. But if we ignore the follow-up records, we do our family members a disservice. This is their story, not ours, so we owe it to them to delve a little deeper into the facts, doing it with care and respect. We come away with a much clearer picture of them than we get from a generic pigeon hole label.

Even if misunderstood in life, we can try to do better for them after death. Looks like I need to go back through my census records and see who else I need to follow up on!


¹ 1880 U.S. census, population schedule, Michigan, Saint Clair, Wales, e.d. 393; Page 34B; dwelling number 324; family number 330; line 25; John NOLAN household; accessed 22 August 2018. Betty Nolan, age 60; NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 609; digital image, (

² 1880 U.S. census, “Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes schedule”, Michigan, Saint Clair, Wales, Insane Inhabitants, e.d. 393; Page 313742-A (written), line 12, Betty NOLAN; accessed 22 August 2018. Population schedule page 34, line 25; NARA publication; T1164 digital image, (

³ Google Dictionary (using the Oxford Pocket English Dictionary, supposedly, but you know how Google likes to change things up!)

“Michigan Death Records, 1897-1920”, database, Michigan Historical Society, Seeking Michigan (, accessed 24 August 2018, entry for Elizabeth NOLAN, 80, 29 January 1900, citing Wales Township, St. Clair, Michigan, registered no. 15.