A matter of definition
When is an inmate not an inmate?
Or, more accurately, when is an inmate not the kind of inmate we might expect? Not, that is, a prisoner.
And the answer is: much of the time.
In modern usage, the word inmate calls to mind prison cells and barred jail windows. Do a Google search for “definition inmate” and what you see is what we 21st century types expect: “a person confined to an institution such as a prison or hospital” with the synonyms “prisoner, convict, captive, detainee, internee.”1
But that’s not what the term used to mean, and not the way it was always used, particularly in one set of records we as genealogists use all the time: the U.S. census.
Start by reviewing what the law dictionaries tell us that the word means: a “person who lodges or dwells in the same house with another, occupying different rooms, but using the same door for passing in and out of the house”2 or “one who dwells in a part of another’s house, the latter dwelling, at the same time, in the said house.”3
That’s more the way it was used in the census: lots of places where people were perfectly free to come and go — like hotels and boarding houses and hospitals and convents — would have the residents listed as inmates:
• The Catholic sisters of Newburyport City, Massachusetts, were all identified as inmates on the 1900 census, with occupations listed as teacher.4
• The Catholic sisters of St. Vincent’s Hospital and Asylum of Santa Fe, New Mexico, were listed as inmates on the 1880 census; their charges were identified as patients.5
And it was used to denote residents of institutions like hospitals, orphanages and poorhouses as well:
• In 1880, seven elderly women residents of the Protestant Home for Aged Women in Nashua, New Hampshire, were identified as inmates on the census.6
• In 1880, the residents of the Rutherford County, Tennessee, Asylum for the Poor were all recorded as inmates as well.7
• In 1940, children living in the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin orphanage in Staten Island, New York, were all enumerated as inmates.8
• In 1940, adults living in the Waltham City Home in Waltham, Massachusetts, were also all recorded as inmates.9
That’s not to say the word “inmate” wasn’t used for folks in jail or prison: it was used that way, for sure. Take a wander through the pages of the 1850 census and the enumeration of the Auburn State Prison in Cayuga County, New York, for example: page after page of inmates serving time for crimes ranging from burglary to rape to manslaughter.10
So… why? Why one word for all these different folks?
Because those were the instructions given to the census takers.
In 1850, the enumerators were told that “The resident inmates of a hotel, jail, garrison, hospital, an asylum, or other similar institution, should be reckoned as one family.”11
The 1860 instructions were the same,12 but the concept was explained further in 1870:
By “family” (column 2) is meant one or more persons living together and provided for in common. A single person, living alone in a distinct part of a house, may constitute a family; while, on the other hand, all the inmates of a boarding house or a hotel will constitute but a single family, though there may be among them many husbands with wives and children. Under whatever circumstances, and in whatever numbers, people live together under one roof, and are provided for at a common table, there is a family in the meaning of the law.13
So too for 1880: “The word family, for the purposes of the census, includes persons living alone, … equally with families in the ordinary sense of that term, and also all larger aggregations of people having only the tie of a common roof and table. A hotel, with all its inmates, constitutes but one family within the meaning of this term. A hospital, prison, an asylum is equally a family for the purposes of the census.”14
By 1910, the census instructions were using the term “institutional families” to describe these groups.15
So when is an inmate not a prisoner?
Most of the time…
- Google search, search term “definition inmate,” Google.com (http://www.google.com : accessed 18 Aug 2014). ↩
- Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 625, “inmate.” ↩
- John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (1856); HTML reprint, The Constitution Society (http://www.constitution.org/bouv/bouvier.htm : accessed 18 Aug 2014), “inmate.” ↩
- 1900 U.S. census, Essex County, Massachusetts, Newburyport, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 421, p. 122B (stamped), dwelling 185, family 205; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 Aug 2014); citing National Archive microfilm publication T623, roll 646. ↩
- 1880 U.S. census, Santa Fe County, New Mexico, Santa Fe city, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 40, p. 25A (stamped), dwelling 170, family 214; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 Aug 2014); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 804. ↩
- 1880 U.S. census, Hillsborough Co., N.H., Nashua, pop. sched., ED 148, p. 321A (stamped), dwell. 24, fam. 30; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 Aug 2014); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 764. ↩
- Ibid., Rutherford Co., Tenn., pop. sched., ED 204, p. 321A-B (stamped), dwell. 312, fam. 314; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 Aug 2014); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 764. ↩
- See 1940 U.S. census, Richmond County, New York, Richmond Borough, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 43-263, sheets 1A-12B; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 Aug 2014); citing National Archive microfilm publication T627, roll 2764. ↩
- See ibid., Middlesex County, Mass., Waltham City, ED 9-554, sheets 5A-5B; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 Aug 2014); citing National Archive microfilm publication T627, roll 1619. ↩
- 1850 U.S. census, Cayuga County, New York, population schedule, pp. 315B-323B (stamped), dwelling 1211, family 1051; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 Aug 2014); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 482. ↩
- Jason Gauthier, Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses from 1790 to 2000 (Washington, D.C. : U.S. Census Bureau, 2000), PDF at 9. ↩
- Ibid. at 13. ↩
- Ibid. at 14. ↩
- Ibid. at 19. ↩
- Ibid. at 47. ↩