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  • Writer's pictureKristin Wenger

Are you Deaf or Hearing? (#52Ancestors week 34: Non-Population)

Updated: Aug 25, 2018

Fun fact: When I was a freshman in high school, I played Helen Keller in our school’s production of The Miracle Worker. To prepare for the role, I spent time observing in classrooms for children who were visually and hearing impaired. The actress playing Annie Sullivan and I mastered the sign language alphabet and my fingers can still spell W-A-T-E-R by muscle memory. That experience, combined with my degree in elementary education, gave me an especially keen interest in the education of children with vision and/or hearing loss.

So when I saw this week’s topic, I immediately knew which family I was going to profile.

Last winter, I posted a tip on how to make the most of census research. As an example of the fascinating information you might find in these records, I featured a family with multiple children who were born deaf.

The 1880 schedule of "Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes" showed that four Denlinger siblings had attended a school that looked to me like “Penna. Phila.”[1]

It was time to follow up and research those school records. My research on the school led me to two unbelievable finds:

  • an original composition by the youngest daughter, Katie

  • a special supplement to the 1890 U.S. census (that was not destroyed by fire!). It contains some of the greatest genealogical information from a primary source I’ve ever seen in a “non-population” census.


My husband's 4x great grandparents, Benjamin Landis Denlinger and Anna (Kreider) Denlinger had thirteen children. Their first two children, Martin (b. 1838) and John (b. 1839) were born deaf. Their third child, Abraham (b. 1841, Eric’s 3x great grandfather), was born hearing and was followed by eight more hearing children. The final two children in the family were girls named Lydia (b. 1859) and Catherine (b. 1862) who were born deaf.[2] The family was book-ended by these sibling pairs without the ability to hear.

I was so curious how those siblings’ deafness impacted the family dynamic in that time and place. Was the experience and education of the oldest boys, born essentially a generation before the youngest girls, substantially different? What, if any, resources were available to a mid-nineteenth century farming family living in the rural, agricultural area known as Fertility, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania?[3]

Mellinger Mennonite Church, very near the Benjamin L. Denlinger home [4]


Drawn by Albert Newsam, former student [5]

Originally called the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, the school was founded in 1820 and the building erected in 1824 at the northwest corner of Broad and Pine Streets in Philadelphia. [6] Can you imagine a ten-year-old child from a rural tight-knit community going to live in the big city of Philadelphia and facing this imposing building? For further reading on the history of the school, click here.

During the early 1870s when the two girls attended, the residential school term ran from the first Wednesday of September to the last Wednesday in June. Students were admitted beginning at age ten. The annual tuition was $280 per year including room, board, and clothing. If parents supplied the clothing, the cost was lowered to $230.[7] $230 in 1870 is equivalent to about $4,400 today.[8] (Seems like a relative bargain compared to college tuition these days!)

The annual reports included many additional details including application questions, statistics on students, methods of instruction, and more. However, the highlight element was the original compositions of students, named only by first names and then initials for middle and surnames. I scanned the relevant years, hoping to find one of the Denlinger siblings, and sure enough, I found “Katie K.D.”

“Summer” by Katie Kreider Denlinger, 1876 [9]

What a precious window into her summers at home on the farm with her family!


I was delighted to find an archive collection focused on the deaf housed at Gallaudet University. Their records include the applications of students to the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. Using the index, I located all four Denlinger siblings with their application years. Unfortunately, because they are original manuscripts, an in-person visit is necessary to view them and that simply was not happening this week.

Perusing the other offerings, I found “Fay Marriage Index.” Of the four siblings, only Katie was included, and again, the records were only available onsite.

According to Gallaudet’s website:

At the third convention of the National Association of the Deaf in 1889 then-President Hodgson cited the need for statistical analysis about the Deaf to either refute or confirm Alexander Graham Bell's theory that intermarriage among the Deaf led to a greater chance for a couple to have Deaf children. Dr. Edward Allen Fay, an editor of the American Annals of the Deaf produced a 528-page report titled "Marriages of the Deaf."[10]


I first found the digitized book Marriages of the Deaf in America: An Inquiry Concerning the Results of Marriages of the Deaf in America (Washington, D.C.: Gibson Bros., 1898). Another search for that exact title led me to a supplement to the 1890 census, available as a database with images at Ancestry. The database includes an excellent summary of why and how these records were created:

The Volta Bureau, located in Washington, D.C., was founded in 1887 by Alexander Graham Bell. The Bureau “serve[d] as a center of information for deaf and hard of hearing persons.” Bell had a deaf wife and taught at a day school for deaf children.
As a center of information, one of the things the Bureau did was promote research in regards to marriages of the deaf in America. This work was primarily undertaken by Dr. E. A. Fay. The federal government, seeing a need for an official supplement to the 1890 U.S. census, even appointed Dr. Fay as its special agent for collecting such statistical information.
As part of Dr. Fay’s research on marriages of the deaf, he distributed a questionnaire to deaf couples and family members of deaf individuals. Some of the questions Dr. Fay was trying to answer through these questionnaires included:
1. Are marriages of deaf persons more liable to result in deaf offspring than ordinary marriages? 2. Are marriages in which both of the partners are deaf more liable to result in deaf offspring than marriages in which one of the partners is deaf and the other is a hearing person? 3. Are certain classes of the deaf, however they may marry, more liable than others to have deaf children? If so, how are these classes respectively composed, and what are the conditions that increase or diminish this liability? 4. Aside from the question of the liability of the offspring to deafness, are marriages in which both of the partners are deaf more likely to result happily than marriages in which one of the partners is deaf and the other is a hearing person?
This database contains the questionnaires issued by Dr. Fay to deaf couples in America. The questionnaires were completed during the years 1889-1894.
The above information was taken from the preface to Marriages of the Deaf in America: An Inquiry Concerning the Results of Marriages of the Deaf in America by Edward Allen Fay (Washington, D.C.: Gibson Bros., 1898) and from the Volta Library & Bureau section of the National Register of Historical Places Travel Itinerary website ([11]

Katie married Henry B. Kulp on 16 January 1890.[12] Below are the most telling pages from their 1890 supplement.

Katie's responses [13]

Henry's responses [14]

Here we have primary information about parents, siblings, and even the fact that Katie's parents were second cousins. Katie was born deaf, while Henry was hearing until he contracted scarlet fever at age three. They were both students at the same school in the early 1870s, so it is likely they had known each other for almost twenty years before they married.


I was aware of the existence of a congregation in Lancaster County called First Deaf Mennonite Church which now shares a building with Witmer Heights Mennonite Church. This location is within a few miles of the Benjamin L. Denlinger farm and Mellinger Mennonite Church. After learning so much about the Denlingers, I suspected that this family must have had a connection to its founding. Some quick research showed that the congregation only began in 1945.[15] Tracing the Denlinger siblings' children, I soon discovered the link. Lydia’s son, Israel Denlinger Rohrer, was ordained as pastor of First Deaf Mennonite Church in 1949. One of his sons, Raymond Eby Rohrer, also served as pastor of the church and, as evidenced by the excerpt from his obituary below, he was extremely involved in ministry to the deaf.[16]

He graduated from Philadelphia School for the Deaf and worked at Feldser Printing as a linotype printer for 25 years. He became the pastor of First Deaf Mennonite Church in 1973 and pastored there for 22 years. He also served as interim pastor for Orville Deaf Mennonite Church in Ohio and Frederick Deaf Church of the Brethren in Maryland. Prior to becoming a pastor, he taught the deaf Sunday School for many years. He started deaf Youth for Christ, deaf youth camp, Deaf Crusade for Christ and a deaf ­senior citizen group. He served on the boards for several agencies: Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services in Lancaster, Anabaptist Deaf Ministries in Elkhart, and American Deaf Missions. He was a long-time member of Pennsylvania Society for the Advancement of the Deaf (PSAD). [17]

I imagine Lydia Denlinger was a nervous and frightened little girl making the trip from her rural home to attend her first year at the “Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb” in 1871. I wonder if she ever dreamed that she was paving the way for future generations to make the most of their circumstances. Her son and grandson became leaders in ministry to the deaf. I believe she would be proud.


[1] 1880 U.S. Census, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, “Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes,” Deaf-Mutes, East Lampeter Township, enumeration district (ED) 143, p. 13, Martin, John, Lydia, and Kate Denlinger; citing NARA microfilm publication M597; digital image, Ancestry ( : accessed 24 August 2018).

[2] “U.S. Special Census on Deaf Family Marriages and Hearing Relatives, 1888-1895,” database with images, Ancestry ( : accessed 24 August 2018), path: K > Ku > Kulp, Henry B. > image 3 of 8. Confirmed by multiple other census and vital records.

[3] Everts & Stewart, “Map of East Lampeter, Smoketown, Soudersburg,” Combination Atlas Map of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1875); digital image, Historic Map Works, LLC Residential Genealogy : accessed 24 August 2018).

[4] Image from “300 Years of Mellinger Mennonite Church, 1717-2017,” Lancaster Roots ( : accessed 24 August 2018).

[5] Albert Newsam, lithograph, “Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb,” digital image, World Digital Library ( : accessed 24 August 2018).

[6] “Pennsylvania Institute for the Deaf and Dumb,” Free Library of Philadelphia ( : accessed 24 August 2018).

[7] Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, The Annual Report of the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb (Philadelphia, PA), years 1871-1876; digitized at Internet Archive ( : accessed 24 August 2018).

[8] "U.S. Inflation Rate, $230 in 1870 to 2018,"CPI Inflation Calculator ( : accessed 24 August 2018).

[9] "Summer," by Katie Kreider Denlinger, 1876, in Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, The Annual Report of the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb (Philadelphia, PA), 1876, p. 38-39; digitized at Internet Archive

[10] Gallaudet University, “Fay Index, Gallaudet University Archives and Deaf Collections ( : accessed 24 August 2018).

[11] “About U.S. Special Census on Deaf Family Marriages and Hearing Relatives, 1888-1895,” Ancestry ( accessed 24 August 2018).

[12] Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Marriage License Docket Book G-H, 1889-1890, no. 4672, Henry B. Kulp – Katie K. Denlinger, 16 January 1890; Orphan’s Court Office, Lancaster; "Pennsylvania, County Marriages, 1885-1950", database with images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 24 August 2018).

[13] “U.S. Special Census on Deaf Family Marriages and Hearing Relatives, 1888-1895,” database with images, Ancestry ( : accessed 24 August 2018), path: K > Ku > Kulp, Henry B. > image 3 of 8.

[14] “U.S. Special Census on Deaf Family Marriages and Hearing Relatives, 1888-1895,” database with images, Ancestry ( : accessed 24 August 2018), path: K > Ku > Kulp, Henry B. > image 2 of 8.

[15] Ira D. Landis, "First Deaf Mennonite Church (Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA), " Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (,_Pennsylvania,_USA) : accessed 24 August 2018).

[16] “Raymond Eby Rohrer,” LNP Lancaster Online ( : accessed 24 August 2018), originally published 28 October 2013.

[17] Ibid.


Aug 27, 2018

I did a quick check of your ancestry using Familysearch (again, I know - not the most reliable). If my calculations are accurate and the information is reliable, you and I are sixth cousins twice removed, our common ancestors being Peter Shirk (1709-1770) and Maria Swarr.

Martin Sensenig Sensenig (the one I mentioned in my third response) is also descended from Peter and Maria so that's another distant cousin in your own family tree that attended PSD. I haven't checked the others,

IF that info in Familysearch is accurate, you're related to all the Shirks in the PSD application archives - Henry, Katie, Annie, Eli (siblings) and Robert and Harrison (two of five siblings born to Eli N Shirk and…


Kristin Wenger
Kristin Wenger
Aug 27, 2018

Thank you so much for sharing this wealth of information! I would love to see an example of the application. You can email me:

I do have Mennonite ancestors as well through one of my great grandmothers, Lizzie Graybill Landis. I do not have any of the names you mentioned. Thanks again for sharing!


Aug 27, 2018

Last comment today, I promise. I wanted to show you how I got the information about what each student's parents paid, where it's written on the application. I have a photo of four applications lined up showing amounts written on each. Can't post that there - or is there a way to do that?

The applications are designed like the old maps we used before GPS, Waze, etc., came along. They fold down into what look like neat brochures but they fold out pretty big. The older ones, like the ones you identified for the Denlingers, aren't very clear and the questions kind of run together. So you have the parents writing "yes, no, maybe, yes, yes" in one box…


Aug 27, 2018

About the other Wenger descendants who attended PSD - I need to explain one thing first. I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but the Swiss Germans who settled in Lancaster County brought more than their religion with them. They brought a mutation to the Connexin 26 gene that, when both parents are carriers, result in a 25% chance that the baby will be born deaf and a 50% chance that the baby will be a carrier. Deafness pops up pretty often - back then, there was no such thing as newborn screening and the parents often didn't notice later. They'd attribute the hearing loss to illness, being struck by lightning (yes, the deaf parents of a deaf child…


Aug 27, 2018

Wow. I read the two blog entries you referenced, and several others of the 52Ancestors as well. Enthralling. Thank you so much for doing that research and sharing those stories. My mother and I visited the Groffdale Mennonite Brick Church Cemetery and saw the big memorial the descendants of Christian Wenger and Eve Graybill put up, as well as stones for the Hubers and Groffs. We wondered what happened to their descendants, and you answered that question.

As for the Archives - I have some information for you, related to both a potential visit on your part and to other Wenger descendants who attended PIDD/PID/PSD (the name grew more politically correct over time).

--Seeing the applications yourself is certainly a…

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