Digging up the past

Dec 102006

For more than a century, the stories of 500 patients institutionalized in a mental health hospital have been buried in unmarked graves.

Ann Magennis, an associate professor of anthropology, is now digging up these people’s stories for the first time.

“Her research has shown that there were these people coming from the working class that were less educated and less affluent,” said Mary Van Buren, an associate professor in the anthropology department. “Her work really shows us that life on the frontier doesn’t really conform to a lot of the stereotypes that we have.”

But with very few written records to go by, the process of piecing together their lives can be frustrating.

“Accounts from newspapers indicated the superintendent was burying some patients on the grounds of the institution, although such a practice was not condoned as far as I can tell,” Magennis told Today @ Colorado State, a Web site and electronic newsletter.

The pieces of this puzzle comprised of about 135 skeletons, which were discovered in 1992 when the state began building a maximum-security facility for the criminally insane in Pueblo. In 2000, during the planning phase of another expansion for the facility, 20 additional skeletons were exhumed.

Magennis said that prior to the corrections department’s findings, utility workers in the area often reported finding bits and pieces of skeletal remains as they installed water and sewer lines in the area.

“People knew about it, but not one seemed to do anything official about it,” Magennis said.

It is believed that more than 500 bodies were buried at the mental hospital. Magennis said the unmarked graveyard extends to an area currently covered by a road.

In 2001, through an agreement between CSU, Colorado’s Department of Corrections, the State Archaeologist and Colorado College, Magennis assumed responsibility for the remains.

She will never be able to match these skeletons with names; however, she can paint a picture of who these people were and learn about the lives they led.

“Ideally, I would like to place these people in a social and economic context, in their setting,” Magennis said.

In order to do this, she is digging into the details of who these people were, what they did for a living, who their families were and where they came from. Magennis said that there were a large number of immigrants in Colorado during that time, many of whom rushed to the state for mining jobs.

“When you think about that time, you think about the wealthy and the miners and the rich, here we have opposite, the sick, the poor, the mentally ill – it’s a completely different way of looking at society from the 19th century,” said Jason LaBelle, one of Magennis’ colleagues in the anthropology department.

Since the skeletons arrival to Magennis’ laboratory in the General Services Building, she has been picking them apart, looking for clues to their age when they died, their gender and any diseases or injuries they suffered.

“Those I’ve looked at have led pretty vigorous lifestyles,” Magennis said.

In 1879, when the hospital was opened, Colorado was a new state. According to Magennis, the asylum was dramatically under funded.

“They said, yeah, you’re going to have (a mental hospital) but no, we’re not going to pay for it,” Magennis explained.

Despite repeated efforts by the hospital’s first superintendent, Dr. Pembroke Thombs, Colorado’s legislature and the Board of Charities and Correction, turned down his requests for additional funds.

In 1898, Thombs had a falling out with the board regarding the burials. Magennis is trying to get minutes of the meeting to determine, if possible, the topics of dialogue between Thombs and the board. It is believed that an effort by Thombs to save money may have led to hundreds of people being marked in unmarked graves on the hospital’s grounds.

“In part, it’s a puzzle and you have a few pieces that you might be able to get back in the right places, and a lot of missing parts,” said Magennis. “It’s your task to fill in the missing pieces.”

Staff writer Lyndsey Struthers can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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