JACKSON, Miss. — Experts estimate up to 7,000 bodies are buried on the University of Mississippi Medical Center campus.
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 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.
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’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 rallied support among state lawmakers to fund construction of the $175,000 asylum, completed in 1855.
Before the asylum, those suffering from mental illness were chained in jails and even attics, said 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, 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.
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 more coffins.
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.
Karen Clark of Clinton would like to see a grant given to collect DNA from all the patients. “It would make these people identifiable if family members came forth,” she said.
She is willing to donate her own DNA to see if it matches her great-great-great grandfather Isham Earnest. The War of 1812 veteran moved to Neshoba County in 1842, was ruled “insane” in the 1850s and is believed to have died at the asylum between 1857 and 1859.
“Hundreds, if not thousands, of descendants are here today because of Isham Earnest,” she said. “Many are teachers, nurses, educators and ministers.”
When she recently went through old asylum records and read about patients there, she felt overcome with emotion, she said. “I thought, ‘This person could be saved if modern medicine were there.’ ”
Her sympathy runs high for those in the asylum “because I’ve had mental issues in the distant past,” she said. “No one took me and dumped me.”