Lizzie Caldwell

Lizzie Caldwell’s refusal to answer questions during the 1890 Census landed her in jail. What happened?

By Sean E. Andres

On 7 June 1890, Lizzie Caldwell, a Black woman living at 21 Gano Alley (in the back of where Down to Mars Vintage now stands), sat down with the Census Enumerator J. J. Moore. When he began asking questions, including her age, she thought the questions were too personal, she “jest pintedly got right up and left him sittin’ there writin’ down things that wuzn’t none of his business.” The Enquirer liked to report Black people’s criminal cases with quotes written in dialect, as seen here. It 1) portrayed them as being less educated because it looks like they can’t spell, and 2) it amused the white audience as a type of minstrel show.

Moore issued a complaint, and the U.S. Commissioner Dorger issued a warrant for her arrest. Deputy U.S. Marshal William Betts arrested her at noon, when she was taken to the U.S. Marshal’s office. Here, she was shown the mandatory questions asked of everyone, and she reported the entire incident. She was then released on an enormous $200 bail. Who paid that?!

Most people arrested for not answering questions or falsely answering were people of color. They were almost always arrested and fined. In fact, one of the others arrested that day was a “Chinaman” Charles Lee, who did not report to the Census Enumerator that he had a “colored” wife and child. It was from the arrest report that we find Lizzie was 21 years old.

On Tuesday, 10 June, Lizzie’s case went before the U.S. Commissioner. However, I haven’t been able to find out what happened to her after. Just like with other women who cause up a stir, if the results aren’t dramatic (like prison, psychiatric hospital, or work house), then the papers didn’t report on them. And, of course with the 1890 Census records lost, it’s hard to trace her further, especially because newspapers reported h as both Mrs. and Miss. Was she married? Single? The directories don’t reveal that either.

There is a Lizzie Caldwell that appears five years before in April and August 1885 for loitering and robbery; but because her age is not given, it’s hard to tell. Dates with other Lizzies in the Census do not line up with our 21-year-old Lizzie. One Lizzie Caldwell, married, died in 1926 but was only living in the area for nine years.

While we get somewhat of a history for more socially prominent Black women such as Sarah Fossett, poor, criminalized Black women are hard to find in historical documents.


  • “Census-takers’ trials.” The Cincinnati Enquirer [Cincinnati, OH], 08 Jun. 1890, p. 13.
  • “The recalcitrant Chinaman.” The Cincinnati Enquirer [Cincinnati, OH], 10 Jun. 1890, p. 8.
  • Greg Hand (Cincinnati Curiosities)

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