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Twice forgotten: More than 2,000 bodies of mental patients buried on grounds of UMMC

[Xpost from a Clarion-Ledger article originally posted on March 1, 2014]

by Jerry Mitchell

Evalina Seastrunk was 29 when she entered the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum.

The Copiah County woman was the 635th patient — and the first one listed in the still existing Registry of Admissions. She was admitted Jan. 10, 1857, for mania.

Her date of discharge came 35 years, three months and 25 days later — on May 3, 1890.

The reason given? Death.

Hers is among the bodies of mental patients, now numbered at more than 2,000, that are buried on the grounds that today houses the state’s only teaching hospital. Forgotten in their lives and in death, they are known of now because their remains are on the site of a planned expansion by the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

So what will the medical school do?

That’s what UMMC officials are trying to determine. “We recognize the historic nature, and we recognize there is a direct link to living people,” said spokesman Jack Mazurak. “At the same time, the projects we have are extremely important.”

Underground tests that have found an estimated 2,000 bodies east of the dental school are expected to lead to the relocation of three projects: a parking garage, the $11 million American Cancer Society Hope Lodge and the Children’s Justice Center.

Marie Daniels of Forest would like to see a state historical marker erected to remember the mental patients buried here a century ago, including her great-grandmother, Epsie Seals — “just to acknowledge the lives they’ve lived.”

Mazurak said medical center officials are discussing the best way to recognize these patients as well as what should be done with the property.

Dorothea Dix, a Boston schoolteacher who became a mental health reformer, rallied support among Mississippi lawmakers to fund construction of the $175,000 asylum, completed in 1855.

During the 1800s, treatment of the mentally ill was inhumane, said Dr. Luke Lampton, chairman of the state Board of Health, who has written about the history. “People were chained up in jails and attics.”

Lampton called the creation of the asylum “one of Mississippi’s finest accomplishments as a young state. This was an act of enlightenment, in a violent period, to care and provide refuge for God’s smitten, as they termed the insane.”

Constructed on an old penal colony, the original institution held up to 150 white patients, many of them children.

By its second year, the facility began to include slaves and free persons of color — segregated from the whites.

By 1877, the asylum had taken in a total of 39 children under 15 and 104 young people between the ages of 15 and 20.

Of the 1,376 patients admitted between 1855 and 1877, more than one in five died. Among those who died: 44 from “unknown” causes, 30 from “softening of the brain,” 24 from dysentery, 17 from “nervous exhaustion,” 10 from dropsy, nine from pneumonia and eight from “chronic diarrhea.”

While illnesses topped the asylum’s “assumed causes of insanity,” other causes listed included “domestic trouble,” “religion,” “masturbation,” “pregnancy,” “disappointed in love” and “in the sun exposure.”

Lampton said these kinds of “causes” were often “wrongly blamed as the inducers of psychiatric illness rather than understanding them as simply expressions of bipolar depression and mania, schizophrenia, postpartum depression or neurosyphilis.”

In 1858, Dix successfully lobbied lawmakers to expand the overflowing asylum. “I am happy, at all seasons, to apply my time and best energies in aid of the insane in Mississippi, no less than in Massachusetts in Carolina or in Missouri,” she said. “My life, sir, belongs to the cause — through this to my whole country.”

In 1863, Union troops took over the asylum and used it as a signaling station until Confederate troops returned fire.

The asylum superintendent walked all the patients outside, waving a white flag. The shooting stopped.

After the Civil War ended, the asylum also became a home for some veterans, widows and families.

The neighborhood included houses, a school and a church for former slaves, Cade Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.

Asylum Hill, as it became known, had several cemeteries: one for asylum patients, one for Missionary Baptist church members and one for paupers. Bodies from the Civil War and disease outbreaks also may be buried there.

“In the early years, the Jackson asylum survived fires, tornadoes, yellow fever epidemics and shifting Yazoo clay,” according to the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.

So many died from yellow fever epidemics that bodies were reportedly found on sidewalks and in parks.

In 1870, Gov. James Alcorn appointed Dr. William Compton to serve as superintendent of the asylum. Compton, who had become nationally known for his surgical techniques in the Civil War, served in the state Legislature.

He worked to modernize mental health care, reducing the use of patient restraints.

After he took over, the asylum added two more wings, doubling the room. Other wings followed, according to the encyclopedia. “The main building, with six marble columns and a classic front, crowned with a cupola, had wing after wing added onto its sides and sprawled out like a prehistoric bird on the outskirts of early Jackson.”

In those days, running the asylum resembled running an estate, with Mount Vernon-like buildings sprawling across the 3,500 acres.

Patients helped farm half the acres, which included a fruit orchard, a dairy and a garden, where in one year, they gathered more than $14,000 (more than $311,000 today) in bushels of potatoes, tomatoes, okra, field peas, watermelons, cabbage and other vegetables.

The asylum welcomed high society to “lunatic balls,” said Allan Branstiter, a doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi who wrote his master’s thesis on Compton.

At the time, there was some belief that patients benefited from dancing, he said.

A newspaper correspondent attending one such ball in Jackson, Branstiter said, talked of seeing “a lady dancing with wild eyes. I found out that was the superintendent’s wife.”

She was, in fact, addicted to opiates, Branstiter said. The correspondent, he said, also spotted a bald-headed man with beady eyes, who turned out to be Compton.

While heading the asylum, Compton became president of the Mississippi State Medical Association, a member of the first state Board of Health and a member of the International Medical Congress.

He continued to gain national acclaim for his work in mental health even as secrets threatened his career.

The asylum’s former matron accused Compton of having an affair with a female staff worker, but he denied the claim and so did 18 asylum employees.

Another doctor, who was similarly accused, left the asylum.

Compton’s mother became the next matron.

The board of the lunatic asylum concluded the evidence was “not sufficient to convict Dr. Compton of any criminal act — at the same time, they regret that a sense of this duty as guarding of a most delicate public trust compels them to say that enough is shown by the testimony to convince them that great irregularity, impropriety and want of dignity has been suffered to go on at the asylum with the superintendent, former assistant physician and some of the attendants were calculated to lead to improper remarks.”

The board’s sole action was to bar the purchase of wines “except for strictly medicine purposes.”

Compton came under public criticism when he called for better mental health care for African Americans and was called a “race traitor” after he reportedly gave shelter to a black man during a riot.

The irony was Compton had started a branch of the Ku Klux Klan in Marshall County after the Civil War, Branstiter said. “He’s an enigmatic figure.”

With Reconstruction ending, political forces pushed out Compton, who decided to start a private asylum on his property near Holly Springs.

A yellow fever epidemic led him to send his children away. He stayed and died of the disease, just two months before his private asylum would have opened.

His death came just a year after the asylum superintendent had declared nationally that Mississippi was the healthiest state in the Union.

The asylum population continued to grow, and in 1918, a House committee investigated rumors after then-Gov. Theodore Bilbo replaced the asylum superintendent with a friend, Dr. R.M. Butler, later accused of being “too free and intimate with the young female nurses,” according to the 1951 book, “Revolt of the Rednecks.”

A House committee investigating that matter found the patients had no heat and could only bathe once a week because of a defective hot-water system and that male and female nurses were getting drunk on whiskey and spending the night together. Several nurses became pregnant, and at least one reportedly had an abortion performed there.

Butler resigned, and Bilbo declared he was guilty of no wrongdoing, even as rumors swirled that he had joined the parties.

By 1921, Bilbo had left office, and the asylum had retreated from the headlines, even as the population swelled past 2,000.

In 1935, mental health officials, concerned the old asylum had become a firetrap, relocated patients to a new facility in Rankin County. Two decades later, the University Medical Center was built on the same hill, which continued to serve as a cemetery.

Jimmie Robinson Sr., 80, of Jackson recalled helping bury a body for Cook Funeral Home in the area in 1959 or so.

“There were very few markers then,” he said. “I can remember backing the hearse up. Most of the graves were not very well kept.”

Today, the land west of the dental school represents a prime place for the growing medical center to expand, but relocating and reburying the 2,000 bodies would cost officials $6 million.

Robinson would like to see the patients honored. “That would please a lot of people to put up a historical sign,” he said.

Jackson area consultant Pam Johnson said she dreams of a small park with pathways in memory of the patients, a “peaceful and beautiful place for the living to enjoy.”

Lampton said the thousands of patients buried on what was once Asylum Hill have been “forgotten twice — when they were originally sent there for treatment and after they were buried there.”

A historical marker would “remember these twice-forgotten patients,” he said, “as well as the noble work of the doctors and nurses who cared for this vulnerable population for so long.”

To contact Jerry Mitchell, call (601) 961-7064 or follow @jmitchellnews on Twitter.

Allan Branstiter is a writer and Ph.D. student studying U.S. History at the University of Southern Mississippi. Currently residing in Los Angeles, California, he is writing a dissertation examining the experiences of Civil War veterans in the American West. He is a veteran of the Iraq War and a former candidate for the North Dakota State Senate.

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