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Buried at an asylum, the 'unspoken, untold history' of the South.

NYT Syndicate For thousands of patients, a stay at a state asylum in Mississippi ended in unmarked graves. One man was a former soldier who had"acute mania." Another was an impoverished farmer who developed dementia from malnutrition because he made sure his children ate before he did. And then there was the woman who was forced into the asylum by her husband, just so he could remarry. Not much is known about the more than 11,000 patients who died at the state asylum in Mississippi from 1855 until it closed in 1935. But a group of researchers at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson is trying to change that. This month, the researchers announced their plans to dig up remains from unmarked graves on the former asylum site and preserve them in a memorial and study centre. The news has renewed the hopes of descendants that they can find out more about what befell their distant relatives who went into the asylum and never came out. And with those hopes, came the stories. Families have been contacting the experts at the Asylum Hill Research Consortium to share their history, pieced together from old records, DNA profiles, ancestry searches and stories passed down through generations. "I get emails from descendants to see if I can confirm their ancestors are buried there," said Dr Molly Zuckerman, an associate professor at Mississippi State University, one of the seven universities involved in the project."They relate the stories of their lost loved ones. Some are detailed and others tragic. They represent the unspoken, untold history of this phenomenon, specifically in the postwar South." Once known as the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, the facility underwent changes that reflected the history of the region, such as its slavery, civil war and segregation. Diagnosis records include syphilis, poverty, pellagra (a nutritional disease endemic to the early 20th century South) and hysteria, which was related to"excessive emotions, anxiety and sexual forwardness in women," said Michelle Davenport, who researched some of the remains as a graduate student. University administrators have long known of the existence " but not the number " of the bodies buried at the 20-acre site on the eastern edge of the campus. Sixty-six sets of remains were exhumed in 2013, and surveys detected about 2,000 coffins by 2014. Now, archaeologists say there could be up to 7,000 sets of remains, mostly of former patients from the asylum. The team is considering preserving the bodies in a memorial centre and for study. The $3.2 million project, for which funds have not been procured, could take eight years, the consortium said. Zuckerman said the research could contribute to understanding a time when mental illnesses were stigmatised or misdiagnosed. Admissions records and analysis from bones and teeth could yield information about patients' lives to an extent that she said did not exist elsewhere. For some families, their reasons for uncovering the mysteries of their ancestors include tracing inherited medical history, but more compelling are the emotional reasons " to answer questions about an adoption, to place a skeleton in a family plot or to simply embed a marker where none now exists. Was my ancestor, a woman with many children, treated with dignity? wondered one woman. "There is a little pain involved as well as lack of closure," said Elaine Perryman, 56, whose search for her distant relative Ethel reflects how African Americans in particular struggle to trace their ancestors through a period of slavery. Ethel, Perryman said, had been told she had a white father."Who we are, and everything about us, is the contribution of our ancestors," she said. Like others, Perryman's search has been going on for years, but it recently tapped a new vein of hope when the consortium announced its plans. A report in The Clarion-Ledger that highlighted the estimates of up to 7,000 skeletons also set off widespread media attention. "One can rightly make the claim that it is the most respectful thing to do to leave them alone," said Dr Ralph Didlake, the consortium's head."On the other hand, we have mission-critical obligations for health care, research and education." "And we have the opportunity to honour these people in a way that they have not been in the past," he said."They lived marginally in life as patients in an asylum. They were marginalised in death in an almost forgotten, unmarked cemetery."

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Publication:Qatar Tribune (Doha, Qatar)
Date:May 26, 2017
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