By M.P. Pellicer | Stranger Than Fiction Stories
For years as students walked about the campus of the University of Mississippi's Medical Center, they were unaware that they were only a few feet from the remains of as many as 7,000 patients who died while institutionalized at Mississippi's first insane asylum.
Like many mid-19th century projects built to address the problem of the destitute and the insane, the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum was built in 1855 at the cost of $175,000.
Like many similar projects, despite the good intentions, there were hardships to be endured either through overcrowding or unexpected circumstances.
Union soldiers did not spare it during the Civil War. They killed the livestock, and seven of ten employees left to join their ranks.
In the 1880s, drawing water from polluted ponds caused disease to spread to the patients.
In 1900, it was renamed to the State Hospital for the Insane.
At its peak, it housed 6,000 patients, which were also kept at surrounding houses, a school and a church. The area became known as Asylum Hill.
A fertilizer factory, an orphanage and a tuberculosis sanatorium were built close by, providing jobs for the residents of the area.
The asylum closed in 1935, and the inmates were moved to the State Hospital at Whitfield. Approximately 35,000 patients were housed there during the 80 years it was active. Most of them were buried in the hospital's graveyard. The majority of them never got better, and their families didn't pick them up for interment elsewhere.
For twenty years the grounds were undisturbed, then in 1955, construction started on the medical campus.
Two-foot, wooden crosses with names painted on them succumbed to the Mississippi weather. Inconspicuous from the beginning, as the years passed the graves were forgotten until the mid-1990s when construction was undertaken for a new laundry facility. Holes dug for the new pipes revealed forty-four pinewood coffins. There was nothing there to identify who lay in them. Even the asylum building had been torn down.
The solution then was simple. The remains were re-interred at the medical school's cemetery for anatomical donors.
Fast forward to 2012, when road construction was started at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC). Iron gates from the asylum were re-purposed and used at the Old House Depot in Jackson, others were used in an area hotel. Then another sixty-six pine coffins were unearthed. It seems they were digging through a swath of one of the hospital's obliterated cemeteries. Most of the graves dated to burials from the 1920s to the 1930s.
Not unexpectedly, the following year the construction of a parking garage alongside the dental school revealed 1,000 coffins. Prudently a radar scan was made, which found more than 2,000 graves.
Using hand-drawn maps dating back to the 1800s, estimates placed the body count at about 7,000 to 11,000 spread throughout the 20-acre site.
The discovery of the cemetery offered a challenge and an opportunity. It would cost about $3,000 each to exhume and rebury them elsewhere, however during the process a study could be completed on the health of those institutionalized there.
There was an opportunity to take DNA samples from the patients and make them identifiable if family members were willing to be matched.
Karen Clark, who lives in Clinton, Mississippi said her great-great-great-grandfather, Isham Earnest, a war veteran was ruled insane and is believed to have died at the asylum between 1857 to 1859.
Penny Stiles says her great-grandmother, Buelah (Bulah) Jackson ended up at the asylum in 1901, not long after giving birth to her son. Her husband Thomas Pritchard was sentenced to prison for being an accessory to murder the same year.
Her husband went on to remarry, listing her as dead, even though she was very much alive. In the 1940 census she was still institutionalized. She was in her late fifties, which indicates she went into the asylum around the age of twenty.
Another one who was laid to rest in the asylum cemetery was Charles Gaines Armistead. Born in 1826, he was a lawyer and state representative senator. During the Civil War he served as a colonel in the 12th Mississippi Calvary. He was the leader of "Armistead's Raiders" a well-known group of Confederate fighting men. He was shot in the shoulder in December, 1863, and in the side in June, 1864 which caused paralysis. He died on June 28, 1869, at the asylum of his "war wounds and resulting insanity." His wife Fanny had died in 1856.
Ed Franks was born in 1884. In 1904, his wife Amelia died in childbirth at the age of 19. His baby son, Lauson survived until May. Soon after he married his second wife named Martha. Together they had nine children.
Ed played the fiddle, and sometime before WWI he lost his right arm either in a shooting incident or logging mishap. Despite this impairment he continued to play the fiddle.
In 1929, when Prohibition was the law of the land he was involved in a shootout at a moonshine still. A man was killed. Ed's involvement on that day was not clear, however after this he developed paranoia, which led to his commitment at the hospital that same year. He died while a patient there on August 6, 1931. In the interim his family had moved to Arkansas, and since his family did not come to claim him he was buried in the hospital cemetery.
In October, 2022, the Asylum Hill Project along with archaeologists started the process of exhuming those buried in a 4-acre piece of land on the UMMC campus. In the last 10 years the estimates of those laid to rest on the asylum grounds has gone up to 10,000.
Preliminary examination of oral bacteria from several skeletons pointed to nutritional deprivation and stress. Other bones exhibited signs of pellagra, caused by Vitamin B deficiency, which was common in the South at the turn of the 20th century. There was also signs of syphilis which caused madness during the years the asylum was open.
Family of those who believe they are related to one of those who died at the asylum pre-1935, are encouraged to contact the Asylum Hill Project. A memorial garden is planned in their remembrance.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer