Fri | Aug 17, 2018

Estimated 7,000 bodies may be buried at former asylum

Published:Thursday | May 24, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Mississippi State University anthropologist Molly Zuckerman holds a portion of a mandible extracted from one of the graves unearthed at what was the graveyard of the Mississippi State Asylum in Jackson, Mississippi. The jaw at left, is from another dig and is used for scale.

STARKVILLE, Mississippi (AP):

Some of the boxes stacked inside anthropologist Molly Zuckerman's laboratory contain full bones a skull, a jaw, or a leg. Others contain only plastic bags of bone fragments that Zuckerman describes as "grit".

These humble remains are among as many as 7,000 bodies that were buried at Mississippi's former insane asylum, a site that's now on the grounds of the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. Researchers are planning to exhume the bodies, create a memorial and study them for insight on how mentally ill people and other marginalised populations should be treated today.

"The individuals present this amazing snapshot of life and health and human biology in Mississippi during a really tumultuous time spanning from before the Civil War into Reconstruction and into Jim Crow," said Zuckerman, who operates her lab at Mississippi State University in Starkville. "This can provide a very rich, contextualised, detailed and personal understanding of how health changed throughout time and how people's health was influenced by structural factors such as poverty and racism and marginalisation."

The Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum later renamed the Mississippi State Insane Hospital operated from 1855 to 1935 and housed up to 35,000 patients from across the state. Patients who died while institutionalised were buried there if relatives didn't claim their bodies.

While researchers have limited information on those buried at the site, Zuckerman said many suffered from syphilis and associated mental symptoms at a time before antibiotics were known as an effective cure. Others' conditions ranged from schizophrenia to postpartum depression in an era when mental health wasn't well understood. Racial and economic backgrounds appear to have varied.

Pockets of remains had been found on the university's campus since the 1990s. But during a 2012 survey for planned road construction, archaeologists made the startling discovery that there are at least 3,000 buried bodies and possibly as many as 7,000.