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Up to 7000 Former Mental Institution Patients are Buried Beneath a Mississippi Medical Center

The University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi is home to six health science schools—and a sobering history. Long ago, the state’s first mental institution sat on the Center’s present-day grounds, and from 2013 to 2014, construction efforts revealed thousands of coffins, all of which belonged to former patients. Now, instead of exhuming and burying each body, a team of researchers want to analyze and preserve some remains and construct a memorial and visitor's center to honor their memory.

The "Insane Asylum," as the facility was once called, was built in 1855, thanks to the advocacy efforts of mental health crusader Dorothea Dix. These types of hospitals have a grim reputation today, but back then, they were considered to be humane alternatives to the jails, attics, and prisons that commonly held (and notoriously mistreated) people with mental illnesses.

The asylum was likely an improvement for some residents, but conditions there still weren’t great: More than one in four patients died between 1855 and 1877, and at one point, the hospital’s population swelled to around 6000 residents. In 1935, Mississippi moved the asylum to the State Hospital at Whitfield’s present-day location, and in the 1950s the University of Mississippi began building its medical center.

In 2013, construction for a road revealed 66 coffins. The following year, while building a parking garage, ground-penetrating radar showed more than 1000 coffins buried beneath the site. According to estimates, up to 7000 bodies may lie beneath the Medical Center’s grounds.

It would cost upward of $21 million to exhume and rebury each body. Biological anthropologist Molly Zuckerman, who works at the university, told Laboratory Equipment this is "because ethical and professional standards within archaeology have to be followed in their removal." That's why Zuckerman and a team of anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, and bioethicists have formed a group called the Asylum Hill Research Consortium. To learn more about asylum life during the 19th and early 20th centuries, they want to build a lab to study patients’ remains, clothing, and coffins, as well as a visitor’s center and a memorial.

This plan would cost $400,000 a year, for at least eight years, and outside researchers could join the project if they received grant funding. But aside from cutting costs, the project would provide academics with an invaluable resource, Zuckerman tells USA Today: "It would make Mississippi a national center on historical records relating to health in the pre-modern period, particularly those being institutionalized," she says. (Research projects examining the 66 patients found in 2013 have already yielded findings about patients' health, lifestyles, and diets, according to Smithsonian.)

But above all, consortium members say, it's a dignified way to remember the patients who died and were buried on asylum grounds instead of with their families. "We have inherited these patients," Ralph Didlake, director of the university’s Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, tells USA Today. "We want to show them care and respectful management." In the future, a full list of the people who lived and died at the asylum will also be posted online.

[h/t USA Today]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
9-Year-Old Boy Trips Over the Bones of a Long-Extinct Elephant Relative
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A 9-year-old boy quite literally stumbled across a new paleontological discovery when he tripped over a giant skull while hiking in Las Cruces, New Mexico in November 2016. As The New York Times reports, the fossilized bones have been identified as the million-year-old remains of a Stegomastodon, a long-extinct distant relative of the modern elephant.

It all began with a game of chase: Jude Sparks, now 10, was running from his younger brothers when he tumbled face-first over what appeared to be a giant tusk. "My face landed next to the bottom jaw," Sparks told ABC news affiliate KVIA-TV. "I look farther up and there was another tusk."

Sparks's parents thought it looked like an elephant skull; his brother, a cow skull. As for Jude himself, he eyed the oddly shaped bones, and "just knew it was not something that you usually find," he later told the Times.

The Sparks didn't dig up the bones, but they did take a cell phone picture. Later, they compared the snapshot to elephant skulls, but they weren't 100 percent identical. So to solve the mystery once and for all, the family sought the opinion of Peter Houde, a biology professor at New Mexico State University.

Houde instantly recognized the skull as that of a Stegomastodon, a creature that belonged to the animal family Gomphotheres and is a distant cousin of ancient mammoths and modern elephants. Stegomastodons roamed the Earth in the past few million years, and may have been hunted by early humans. This particular specimen is at least 1.2 million years old. Theories for the Stegomastodon's extinction include climate change or the arrival of mammoths, which may have led to a competition for food resources, according to National Geographic.

Mammoth fossils are relatively common across the western portion of North America, but only a couple hundred Stegomastadons have been found throughout the world. The Sparks had serendipity on their side, as they visited the site right after heavy rains had exposed the Stegomastodon skull.

Together, Houde and the Sparks family reburied the skull and sought permission from the landowner to excavate the find. Once they obtained a team, a permit, and funding, they got to work and dug up the skull in May.

"All of the protein is gone from these fossils, and the bone is very, very brittle and fragile," Houde told KVIA. "And as soon as the sediment is taken away from around it, it just falls apart completely on its own. So we have to use preservatives to stabilize it before we remove the sediment around it. And then build plaster and wooden casing around it to remove it safely. It's a big job."

The Stegomastodon will likely go on display at New Mexico State University, providing students, faculty, and visitors alike with an up-close view of the rare fossil.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Melting Glacier Reveals Bodies of Swiss Couple Missing Since 1942
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On August 15, 1942, Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin ventured to the meadow above their house in the Swiss Alps to milk their cows. What should have been business as usual turned into a harrowing missing-persons case when the married couple never returned. Now, nearly 75 years later, two frozen bodies that likely belonged to Marcelin and Francine have been found in the dwindling Tsanfleuron glacier near their former home, Reuters reports.

An employee at the Les Diablerets resort in Switzerland's Valais canton saw the remains near a ski lift earlier in July. The bodies, one male and female, were perfectly preserved down to their belongings and 1940s attire. Experts believe the couple perished after falling into a crevasse. Like other Alpine glaciers, the Tsanfleuron glacier has been hit hard by rising temperatures associated with climate change. The glacier finally revealed the missing bodies this summer after years of receding.

When Marcelin and Francine vanished, they left behind seven children who never gave up hope of finding them. Seventy-nine-year-old Marceline Udry-Dumoulin, the couple’s youngest child, told a local newspaper the discovery brings her a "deep sense of calm."

The bodies will now undergo DNA testing to verify their identities. Once that's taken care of, Udry-Dumoulin plans to give her parents "the funeral they deserved."

[h/t Reuters]

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