3 On Your Side Mystery: The 66 - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

3 On Your Side Mystery: The 66

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You know the story of the 2,000 graves discovered on the University Medical Center property right here in Jackson. As our 3 On Your Side investigation reveals, there's a lot of history in those bones. Who were these people, and how did they die?

Step by step, bone by bone, Anthropologists at Mississippi State University are piecing together a part of Jackson's history that lay hidden for decades. Meticulous research is giving new life to old bones, like the skeleton of a young lady that's close to a century old.

"A young adult female with some evidence of trauma. Her third molar is fully erupted, that happens late teens. We can look at the medial clavicle that is also completely formed, that happens in the mid 20's. We also see she had very good dental remains," says Dr. Nicholas Herrmann, Associate Professor of Anthropology, who is studying the 66 sets of remains with his team of graduate students.

The mystery began in 2012, when UMC dug a test trench to make way for University Drive. A hexagonal pine coffin was uncovered, then another. Eventually, up to 2,000 were discovered, and 66 were unearthed by the Mississippi State University Department of Anthropology. They're now at MSU in Starkville.

"The graves all appear to be associated with the Mississippi Asylum and roughly date from 1855 to 1935," Dr. Herrmann says.

During that time period, the State Lunatic Asylum stood where UMC now stands.

"We had a single individual interred in each coffin," Dr. Herrmann tells us.

One of the two skeletons he showed us is that of a man who was older than his 20's at the time of death.

"Significant dental problems, some large cavities. Indicative of diet," Dr. Herrmann says. "We also see evidence of osteoarthritic lipping. Just arthritis, a common malady we see in Mississippi today."

The researchers will learn as much as they can from each of the 66 sets of remains.

"And going back the historic record, we can build maybe a candidate list of potential people this might match with," Dr. Herrmann reveals.

Amber Plemons and other graduate students are pouring over 250 digitized pages of admission and death records for the Asylum. Plemons is learning how the patients died.

"We're seeing a lot of pellagral insanity as well as general consumption, and a lot of tuberculosis," she tells us.

Pellagra is a nutritional deficiency disease, and consumption is a form of insanity brought on by tuberculosis.

"We hope to tie in the death records with the skeletal evidence to try to get an understanding of the types of mortality in the century," she says.

More clues come from the coffins themselves. Another researcher at the University of Southern Mississippi is counting the wood rings. If a coffin sample is from the outer part of the tree, the researcher can pinpoint the age of the tree when it was cut.

It's been determined the 66 coffins date from 1909-1930. That knowledge unlocks another secret about those who died.

"When one of these boards goes to 1930, we know that individual inside that coffin could not predate this," Dr. Herrmann tells us.

DNA samples have been taken from each set of remains. Whether they can be tested elsewhere and reveal a positive match with people living right now, remains a mystery.

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