Over 7,000 bodies may be buried on 20 acres of the University of Mississippi Medical Center campus. The bodies are former patients of a mental institution, and college officials are exploring the possibility of placing them in a memorial.
The bodies belong to former patients of Mississippi’s first psychiatric hospital, which was built in 1855 and called the Insane Asylum. Underground radar shows that their coffins stretch across all 20 acres of the UMMC campus.
Exhumating the bodies in UMCC will cost $400,000 a year
Officials have wanted to build on the 20 acres where the bodies are buried, but relocating the coffins has proven to be overly pricey. They would have to pay around $3,000 to exhume and rebury each body, meaning they would have to pay around $21 million for relocation.
Weighing the costs for the task, the University of Mississippi is now considering handling the exhumations in-house, which would cost them about $400,000 a year for at least eight years. UMMC would also create a memorial for the Insane Asylum patients, which would preserve the remains. The memorial would also include a visitor’s center and a lab for studying the remains and the remnants of clothing and coffins.
Dr. Ralph Didlake, who works at UUMMC’s Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, said that the lab would be the first of its kind in the United States and that it would provide insight into life in the mental asylum in the 1800s and early 1900s.
“It wold be a unique resource for Mississippi, ” noted Molly Zuckerman, associate professor in Mississippi State University’s Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures, according to The Clarion-Ledger. “It would make Mississippi a national center on historical records relating to health in the pre-modern period, particularly those being institutionalized.”
Along with Zuckerman and Didlake, other researchers recently formed the Asylum Hill Research Consortium, a team made up of anthropologists, archeologists, historians and an expert in dating the wood of the coffins. The consortium was responsible for developing the plans for the visitor’s center and the lab.
“We have inherited these patients,” said Didlake. “We want to show them care and respectful management.”
Over 7,000 patients may be buried in UMMC campus
Mississippi’s Insane Asylum was built in 1885, following a petition from reformer Dorothea Dix of Boston to create a mental asylum. Before its construction, people suffering from mental illness were chained in jails and attics, according to Dr. Luke Lampton, chairman of the state Board of Health.
However, life proved to be hard for people in the asylum, and records show that of the 1,376 patients admitted between 1855 and 1877, more than one out of five died.
When the Civil War ended, the asylum expanded to house 300 patients, and the site became known as “Asylum Hill.” The neighborhood grew, and more houses were built, as well as a school and a church for former slaves called Cade Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.
At one point, around 6,000 patients stayed at the asylum, which helped create many jobs in the area. In 1935, the state moved the asylum to its present location of the State Hospital at Whitfield. Then, 20 years later the state began construction on the same hill for the University of Mississippi.
In 2013, while UMMC officials were making a road on the 164-acre campus, they discovered 66 coffins. Then, in 2014, while working in a construction for a parking garage, underground radar revealed 1,000 coffins. More underground radar work showed at least 2,000 coffins total, but according to Didlake, the number could be as high as 7,000. He expects that grants will also allow other researchers to join the study.
Theses have shed light on the patients living conditions
A woman called Karen Clark expects to see a grant given to collect DNA from all the patients buried on the campus, as she claims that her great-great-great grandfather may be buried there. Clark is willing to donate her DNA to see if it matches that of her ancestor, called Isham Earnest. Ernest, a war veteran, moved to Neshoba County in 1842, and according to Clark, he was ruled “insane” in the 1850s and is believed to have died at the mental asylum between 1857 and 1859.
“Hundreds, if not thousands, of descendants are here today because of Isham Earnest,” said Clark. “Many are teachers, nurses, educators, and ministers.”
Clark recently went through old asylum records and discovered that Earnest had been a patient there. She said she felt overcome with emotion upon her finding, and regrets that modern medicine was not present at the time to help her ancestor.
Mississipi State University’s Cobb Institute of Archaeology has already started studying some of the remains of 66 exhumed patients. Three master’s students completed theses on them, and according to Zuckerman one of the students used genetic sequencing to reconstruct oral bacteria from skeletons, which shed light on the health conditions at the time the patients were alive.
Another student focused on missing lines of tooth enamel, highlighting the nutritional deprivation and other severe stress some of the patients underwent. The third student studied evidence of pellagra in the skeletons, a disease caused by Vitamin B deficiency, which was common in the south in the early 1900s.
According to Zuckerman, records show that up to 35,000 patients stayed at the asylum between 1865 and 1935 and that around 9,000 died there. Records also show that over 6,000 of them were buried in the asylum cemetery. Zuckerman said that a list of all the patients who stayed at the asylum would eventually be available online.
Source: The Clarion-Ledger