Lost to History
Abandoned cemeteries are lost to history. I’ve previously blogged on this topic; however, the subject-matter has made headlines in the past month. The University of Mississippi Medical Center broke ground for an expansion and discovered the mother lode of coffins. Before it was not uncommon for construction workers to uncover a few gravesites. In fact, this university has had its fair share of discoveries, but the numbers hovered well below 100. This recent discovery is in the thousands—roughly 2,000 unmarked pauper-type coffins.
History: The Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum was constructed based on the Kirkbride Plan, where patient areas were to be bright and open. The facility opened on January 8, 1855. One hundred and fifty (150) patients were housed there then. In 1892, a fire broke out; however, only one person was killed. The Kirkbride Plan was abandoned at the turn of the century. At its peak, the asylum housed over 2,500 patients—well above the proscribed limits of care. The facility was antiquated and lacked sufficient funding when it closed in 1935. The building was demolished in 1954.
Questions quickly mounted as who were these people and where did they come from. Historians dismissed the possibility of Civil War soldiers being buried there. Although the institute was seized and the property pilfered, the area did not see significant battle. State archives also eliminated the possibility that it was a slave cemetery.
A team of anthropologists determined that the graves were connected to the asylum because the remains lacked personal effects. The bodies were either pitched into the wooden coffins in the nude or with a simple shroud. Initially, the number of coffins was estimated at 1,000. Ground-penetrating radar was used to survey the area. More coffins were discovered. Today the number sits at 2,000.
Re-interment of the bodies is cost prohibited. Officials state that the cost would surpass $3 million dollars. For the time being, the bodies will remain where they are. The expansion project has been halted while another viable location is identified. But ancestors are still seeking answers.
Although the building is gone, the asylum records remain. The state archive has 16 bound volumes of handwritten records detailing every patient. Digitizing the records will take years. Some answers will have to wait.