The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Exhuming a dark past: Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum’s 7,000 coffins

About 35,000 people were sent to the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum between 1855 and 1935. (Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

As many as 7,000 coffins lie beneath a 10-acre patch of undeveloped land on the campus of the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. The people buried in those coffins lived and died at what was once known as the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum.

Opened in 1855 and operated until 1935, the asylum housed about 35,000 patients over the course of eight decades, said Molly Zuckerman, an associate professor at Mississippi State University. Many of them had been institutionalized for depression, schizophrenia or some other mental illness at a time when those afflictions carried a deep stigma. Some were sent there against their wishes by their spouses or families; others because they suffered chronic illnesses and their relatives couldn’t support them at their homes. If they died and their bodies went unclaimed, they were buried on the property.

The state has long known about the existence of the cemetery because of hand-drawn maps from the 19th century. But the first coffin wasn’t found until 2012, when a crew working on a new parking garage discovered a pine coffin and bone fragments. The following year, 65 more coffins were unearthed. The remains of the 66 were exhumed and stored in acid-free containers two hours north at an archaeology center at Mississippi State University. From 2013 to 2015, surveys and radar detection uncovered the possibility of between 5,000 and 7,000 more coffins.

But how will the remains — and the heartbreaking history each coffin contains — be exhumed? Rather than re-bury the coffins somewhere else with little acknowledgment of the institution’s past, officials in Mississippi have proposed building a memorial and visitor’s center on the hospital’s property. The remains would be stored safely in acid-free containers for examination by researchers, who could potentially learn more about the way mentally ill were treated more than a century ago. Members of the public could learn more about the asylum’s history and see if their loved one was possibly one of the thousands buried on site.

The major hurdle: the cost. Ralph Didlake, the director of the hospital’s Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, said it will cost about $4 million to exhume the remains and catalog them. It’s unclear how much the entire project would require since the visitor’s center and memorial site haven’t been designed yet. Not only does the proposal honor the history of a marginalized group of people, Didlake said, but the plan is also much cheaper: It would cost about $3,000 to exhume and re-bury each set of remains, a price that could potentially soar past $20 million.

“There’s a historical stigma associated with mental illness, and that’s very true historically, but this is an opportunity for us to deconstruct that stigma by studying that experience,” Didlake said. “How do we look at this through a modern lens and how does all this inform how we take care of mental health issues going forward?” 

Zuckerman, who is working with Didlake and others on the project, said the proposal is fairly unusual: “No other place has done this. Lots of other insane asylums’ cemeteries have been found and re-buried. The problem is made to go away, and the coffins are removed by funeral homes and buried elsewhere. But nothing is gained by that act. We don’t get any scientific information.”

Ever since news of the coffins’ existence surfaced, Zuckerman said she receives emails each week from people whose relatives were patients at the asylum decades ago, but have no idea where they  are buried.

“People who have been institutionalized became these symbols to their families — they’re lost and the relatives want to know what happened to them,” Zuckerman said.

The Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum opened in the 1850s, thanks largely to famed social reformer Dorothea Dix, according to The Mississippi State Asylum Cemetery Project’s web site, which is run by Zuckerman and other researchers. Dix, known as “the Angel of the Madhouses,” had been visiting Mississippi and declared that the state’s mentally ill and developmentally disabled lived in “jails or dungeons.”

But the place was hardly luxurious — or well protected. During the Civil War, Union soldiers pillaged the institution, killing its livestock and luring seven of its ten employees to join the Union Army, according to the cemetery project. And in the late 1880s, numerous patients suffered from disease because of the facility’s reliance on poor water from polluted ponds.

In 1900, the institution’s name was changed to something less incendiary: Mississippi State Insane Hospital. But by the late 1920s, the Mississippi State legislature appropriated funds to build a successor institution. In 1935, the Mississippi State Hospital opened in Whitfield, just east of Jackson. It remains in operation to this day.

Read more Retropolis:

‘Great God, he is alive!” The first man executed by electric chair died slower than Thomas Edison expected.

Virginia Tech was not the worst school massacre in U.S. history. This was.

A young photographer took this harrowing image of the Vietnam War. He didn’t live to see it published.

‘Assassins!’ A Confederate spy was accused of helping kill Abraham Lincoln. Then he vanished.

Trump called Andrew Jackson ‘a swashbuckler.’ The Cherokees called him ‘Indian killer.’

Gen. George Patton’s wife put a Hawaiian curse on his ex-mistress. She was dead within days.