7,000 Bodies From 19th-Century Asylum May Be Buried Under Mississippi University Campus

An archaeologist from Mississippi State University removes the soil from the lid of one of over 60 graves discovered in 2013. University of Mississippi Medical Center

Around 7,000 patients from a 19th-century mental institution could be buried underneath the University of Mississippi Medical Center's (UMMC) campus.

Experts first discovered bodies on the site in 2013 when the construction of a road revealed 60 coffins. Further work in 2014 revealed there could around 1,000 coffins. Now, academics on the site are estimating there could be more than 7,000 bodies buried there, local newspaper the Clarion-Ledger reports. They have recently used ground-penetrating radar to discover that the lines of coffins stretch for 8 hectares (20 acres) around the UMMC campus.

Teams of historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists have been studying the bodies to understand the life of a 19th-century asylum. The institution, known as the "Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum" and "Mississippi State Insane Hospital", operated from 1855 until 1935. The asylum housed thousands of patients during this time. As a testament to the grim reality of these early modern asylums, it’s thought around one in five patients died in the first 20 years of its opening, the majority of whom were buried in the institution's grounds in unmarked graves.  

“Asylums in the late 19th century or early 20th century probably weren’t salubrious places to live, so it matters to us to be able to exhume these people in a very respectful and ethical manner that’s very standardized,” Molly Zuckerman, assistant professor of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures at MSU, said in a statement in 2013 following the initial discovery. 

In 2013, the researchers studying the bodies said they hoped to carry out analysis of the skeletal remains and tooth enamel. Using this information, they would be able to identify the deceased person's diet, the environment they lived in, and an estimation of their age.

They are also hoping to relocate and rebury the bodies out of respect and duty. However, the discovery of so many more bodies comes at a price, with the university facing a bill of $21 million to carry out the work, at a cost of over $3,000 for each body, according to the Clarion-Ledger. UMMC is now looking at a cheaper alternative to bring the work in-house at a cost of $400,000 a year for at least eight years, which would also create a memorial and a lab to preserve some of the findings.

“It would be a unique resource for Mississippi,” Zuckerman said. “It would make Mississippi a national center on historical records relating to health in the pre-modern period, particularly those being institutionalized.”

“It’s the right thing to do. Things expand, but memory doesn’t expand with them,” Jim Woodrick, director of the Historic Preservation Division of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, added.

“This doesn’t stop progress, but we are also able to accommodate those who died. We learn things about our past. We honor the dead.”

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