The University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi is home to six health science schools—and a sobering history. Long ago, the state’s first mental institution sat on the Center’s present-day grounds, and from 2013 to 2014, construction efforts revealed thousands of coffins, all of which belonged to former patients. Now, instead of exhuming and burying each body, a team of researchers want to analyze and preserve some remains and construct a memorial and visitor's center to honor their memory.
The "Insane Asylum," as the facility was once called, was built in 1855, thanks to the advocacy efforts of mental health crusader Dorothea Dix. These types of hospitals have a grim reputation today, but back then, they were considered to be humane alternatives to the jails, attics, and prisons that commonly held (and notoriously mistreated) people with mental illnesses.
The asylum was likely an improvement for some residents, but conditions there still weren’t great: More than one in four patients died between 1855 and 1877, and at one point, the hospital’s population swelled to around 6000 residents. In 1935, Mississippi moved the asylum to the State Hospital at Whitfield’s present-day location, and in the 1950s the University of Mississippi began building its medical center.
In 2013, construction for a road revealed 66 coffins. The following year, while building a parking garage, ground-penetrating radar showed more than 1000 coffins buried beneath the site. According to estimates, up to 7000 bodies may lie beneath the Medical Center’s grounds.
It would cost upward of $21 million to exhume and rebury each body. Biological anthropologist Molly Zuckerman, who works at the university, told Laboratory Equipment this is "because ethical and professional standards within archaeology have to be followed in their removal." That's why Zuckerman and a team of anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, and bioethicists have formed a group called the Asylum Hill Research Consortium. To learn more about asylum life during the 19th and early 20th centuries, they want to build a lab to study patients’ remains, clothing, and coffins, as well as a visitor’s center and a memorial.
This plan would cost $400,000 a year, for at least eight years, and outside researchers could join the project if they received grant funding. But aside from cutting costs, the project would provide academics with an invaluable resource, Zuckerman tells USA Today: "It would make Mississippi a national center on historical records relating to health in the pre-modern period, particularly those being institutionalized," she says. (Research projects examining the 66 patients found in 2013 have already yielded findings about patients' health, lifestyles, and diets, according to Smithsonian.)
But above all, consortium members say, it's a dignified way to remember the patients who died and were buried on asylum grounds instead of with their families. "We have inherited these patients," Ralph Didlake, director of the university’s Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, tells USA Today. "We want to show them care and respectful management." In the future, a full list of the people who lived and died at the asylum will also be posted online.
[h/t USA Today]