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]

Mastodon Bones Have Been Discovered by Sewer Workers in Indiana

Thomas Quine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Thomas Quine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When something unexpected happens during a sewer system project, the news is not usually pleasant. But when workers installing pipes in Seymour, Indiana stopped due to an unforeseen occurrence, it was because they had inadvertently dug up a few pieces of history: mastodon bones.

According to the Louisville Courier Journal, workers fiddling with pipes running through a vacant, privately owned farm in Jackson County happened across the animal bones during their excavation of the property. The fossils—part of a jaw, a partial tusk, two leg bones, a vertebrae, a joint, some teeth, and a partial skull—were verified as belonging to a mastodon by Ron Richards, the senior research curator of paleobiology for the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites. The mastodon, which resembled a wooly mammoth and thrived during the Ice Age, probably stood over 9 feet tall and weighed more than 12,000 pounds.

The owners of the farm, the Nehrt and Schepman families, plan to donate the bones to the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis if the museum committee decides to accept them. Previously, mastodon bones were found in Jackson County in 1928 and 1949. The remains of “Fred the Mastodon” were discovered near Fort Wayne in 1998.

[h/t Louisville Courier Journal]

Middle School Student Discovers Megalodon Tooth Fossil on Spring Break

iStock.com/Mark Kostich
iStock.com/Mark Kostich

A few million years ago, the megalodon was the most formidable shark in the sea, with jaws spanning up to 11 feet wide and a stronger bite than a T. Rex. Today the only things left of the supersized sharks are fossils, and a middle school student recently discovered one on a trip to the beach, WECT reports.

Avery Fauth was spending spring break with her family at North Topsail Beach in North Carolina when she noticed something buried in the sand. She dug it up and uncovered a shark tooth the length of her palm. She immediately knew she had found something special, and screamed to get her family's attention.

Her father recognized the megalodon tooth: He had been searching for one for 25 years and had even taught his three daughters to scour the sand for shark teeth whenever they went to the beach. Avery and her sisters found a few more shark teeth that day from great whites, but her megalodon fossil was by far the most impressive treasure from the outing.

Megalodons dominated seas for 20 million years before suddenly dying out 3 million years ago. They grew between 43 and 82 feet long and had teeth that were up to 7.5 inches long—over twice the size of a great white's teeth. They're thought to be the largest sharks that ever lived.

Megalodon teeth have been discovered on every continent except Antarctica, but they're still a rare find. Avery Fauth plans to keep her fossil in a special box at home.

[h/t WECT]

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