Article by Jerry Mitchell , for The Clarion-Ledger | May 6, 2017
They are former patients of the state’s first mental institution, called the Insane Asylum, built in 1855, and underground radar shows their coffins stretch across 20 acres of the UMMC campus, where officials have wanted to build.
But those officials have faced a steep cost — $3,000 to exhume and rebury each body, as much as $21 million total.
Now UMMC is studying the cheaper alternative of handling those exhumations in-house, at a cost of $400,000 a year for at least eight years. It also would create a memorial that would preserve the remains with a visitors’ center and a lab that could be used to study the remains as well as the remnants of clothing and coffins.
Dr. Ralph Didlake, who oversees UMMC’s Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, believes the lab would be the first of its kind in the nation — giving researchers insight into life in the asylum in the 1800s and early 1900s.
“It would be a unique resource for Mississippi,” said Molly Zuckerman, associate professor in Mississippi State University’s Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures. “It would make Mississippi a national center on historical records relating to health in the pre-modern period, particularly those being institutionalized.”
Didlake, Zuckerman and others have formed the Asylum Hill Research Consortium, made up of anthropologists, archaeologists, historians and even an expert in dating the wood of the coffins.
It was the consortium that developed the memorial/visitors' center/lab plans.
“We have inherited these patients,” Didlake said. “We want to show them care and respectful management.”
Mississippi’s first mental institution became a reality when reformer Dorothea Dix of Boston rallied support among Mississippi lawmakers to fund construction of the $175,000 asylum, completed in 1855 (photo).
Before the asylum, those suffering from mental illness were chained in jails and even attics, said Dr. Luke Lampton, chairman of the state Board of Health.
While the asylum provided a better place for patients, life remained harsh. Of the 1,376 patients admitted between 1855 and 1877, more than one in five died.
After the Civil War ended, the facility expanded to house 300 patients, and the area became known as “Asylum Hill,” a neighborhood that included houses, a school and Cade Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, a church for former slaves.
At its height, about 6,000 patients stayed at the asylum, and the facility provided many jobs to the area, which saw construction of a fertilizer factory, a Baptist orphanage and a sanatorium for those suffering from tuberculosis.
In 1935, Mississippi moved the asylum to the present location of the State Hospital at Whitfield.
Two decades later, construction began on the same hill for UMMC.
In 2013, UMMC officials discovered 66 coffins while constructing a road on the 164-acre campus.
When the university began work in 2014 on a parking garage east of the dental school, underground radar revealed 1,000 coffins. More radar work revealed at least 2,000 coffins total.
Didlake said current estimates put the number as high as 7,000.
The consortium is hoping grants can make it possible for other researchers to join the study, he said.