Testing in the area revealed 1,000 bodies, believed to have been patients at the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum a century ago

SHARE 16 6 COMMENTMORE

JACKSON, Miss. — Future progress for the state's longtime medical school has collided with the ghosts of Mississippi's past — the discovery of a 1,000 bodies buried on its campus and the likelihood of more.

Officials of the fast-growing University of Mississippi Medical Center had planned to build a parking garage east of the dental school, where a grove of trees now sits.

But testing in the area revealed 1,000 bodies, believed to have been patients at the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum a century ago.

"None have names," said Dr. James Keeton, dean of the medical school.

Paying for reburials elsewhere would cost about $3,000 a piece, or $3 million total, he said. "We can't afford that."

New plans include building the parking garage next to the dental school, he said.

Others plans may have to change, too. Medical center officials had hoped to use the property west of the dental school for future expansion, but Keeton said they might have to rethink that approach, because other bodies may lie beneath the earth — former slaves, TB victims and possibly even Civil War dead.

The UMMC ground on which Keeton and Gov. Phil Bryant recently stood to announce construction of the $11 million American Cancer Society Hope Lodge is believed to contain yet more bodies.

For that reason, UMMC officials said both the lodge and a new Children's Justice Center would likely have to be relocated on the 164-acre campus, where both space and parking seem to be growing scarce.

The State Lunatic Asylum opened on the site in 1855, housing 150 patients.

Eight years later, the Union's 46th Indiana Infantry Regiment arrived at the asylum. One soldier wrote that the patients "were terribly excited and were seen at the windows shouting to the soldiers."

med school graves

James Roncki of Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research measures the length of a coffin on University of Mississippi Medical Center property in 2012.(Photo: The Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger)

Readying for the siege of Jackson, the soldiers set up camp, built fortifications and grew vegetables to sustain themselves, said Jim Woodrick, director of the Historic Preservation Division of the state Department of Archives and History.

During the ensuing battle, Confederate soldiers fired back and hit the asylum, injuring at least one patient, he said.

By the time the Union Army left, one soldier penned that Jackson is a "ruined town," he said.

After the Civil War ended, the mental facility expanded to house 300 patients, and the area became known as "Asylum Hill," a neighborhood that included houses, a school and a church for former slaves, Cade Chapel M.B. Church.

The area eventually saw construction of a fertilizer factory, a Baptist orphanage and a sanatorium for those suffering from tuberculosis.

The hill had several cemeteries: one for asylum patients, one for M.B. church members and one for paupers. Some have suggested there may be Civil War graves there, too.

In 1935, Mississippi moved the asylum to its present location at Whitfield.

Two decades later, construction started on the University Medical Center, and officials dubbed the area "Education Hill."

It didn't stick.

Dr. Luke Lampton, chairman of the state Board of Health, said his father, who taught at UMMC for four decades, told him every time the institution broke ground, they found more caskets.

"There are probably thousands more bodies that we've never seen," said Lampton, who has researched and written about the days of the asylum.

By 1926, the patient population had swelled to 2,000, and the patients grew their own crops, Lampton said.

In 1990, The Clarion-Ledger reported about 20 tombstones had been discarded in a gully behind UMC.

After the article appeared, archives officials warned UMC that hundreds of bodies might be buried there, saying, "This site is a potential Mississippi Landmark and may be adversely affected by any development on it."

A UMMC official responded: "Should any development occur in the future in that area, I know the information you sent will be helpful."

A few years later, workers found 44 unmarked graves while putting in a steam line for a new laundry.

During 2012 construction on the crossing of East University Drive and University Drive on campus, workers discovered the first of 66 pine coffins that held bodies, leading UMMC to contact state archives and Mississippi State University.

Medical center officials announced plans to rebury those in a small cemetery there.

But that option isn't possible with the discovery of 1,000 bodies, Keeton said.

Biological anthropologist Nicholas Herrmann, an associate professor at MSU, said through recent testing, they've been able to get a good idea of the location of the asylum graves.

What is less certain, he said, is where other cemeteries might have been.

In most cases, anthropologists have been able to determine gender and approximate age.

Mable Daniels is hoping such information might help to confirm her great-grandmother, Epsie Seals, was indeed buried there. "It would be closer than what we know right now," said Daniels, whose great-grandmother died at the asylum on Valentine's Day in 1916 after "14 days of paralysis."

Woodrick said the crescent-shaped earthworks on the UMMC campus are part of the only two military fortifications left from the 1863 siege The other is in Battlefield Park, marked by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, he said. "They identified them as Confederate trenches. They are actually Union trenches. They also put cannons there that are actually Spanish-American War guns, and they're pointed the wrong way. Other than that, they got everything right."

If a bulldozer ever tries to disturb the earthworks on old Asylum Hill, Woodrick vows to do all he can to halt it. "I'll go down," he said, "and lay in the road."

SHARE 16 6 COMMENTMORE