Colorado State University Researcher Uncovering Mystery Behind 19th-Century Skeletons Found at Mental Hospital

The first decades of operation at Colorado’s state mental health institution in Pueblo in the late 1800s were plagued with scarce resources. The facility was overfilled and understaffed; often, the first supervisor of the facility was forced to make tough decisions. It was, perhaps, an effort by the institution’s first superintendent to save money that led to hundreds of people presumed to be patients, who died while committed, to be buried in unmarked graves on the hospital grounds.

Ann Magennis, professor of anthropology at Colorado State University, wants to discover who these people were, the reasons they were institutionalized and, ultimately, how they ended up buried in unmarked graves. Magennis, who specializes in human skeletal biology and bio-archeology, plans to carefully examine the skeletal remains of about 155 people that have been brought to Colorado State. She will use historical documents in a quest to identify these individuals and their ailments, such as the handwritten log kept by the institution’s first superintendent of all patients admitted from the time it opened in 1879 to the end of his tenure in 1899. In the log, the patient’s name was logged along with information about their age, marital status, county of residence, occupation, whether they died at the institution and a vague note of their presenting condition, such as "severe mania" or "dementia."

"Among the things I would like to figure out is who was buried there," Magennis said. "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."

The graveyard and remains of the patients were discovered in 1992 when the state was building a maximum security facility for the criminally insane, Magennis said. When construction activities revealed the graveyard, the remains of 135 individuals were exhumed under the direction of the state archeologist and turned over to an anthropologist at Colorado College. Other artifacts found with the remains, such as buttons and scraps of clothes, were turned over to the Colorado History Museum. The remains of approximately 20 other individuals were uncovered and exhumed during the planning phase of another expansion of the facility in 2000. Through an agreement between Colorado State, Colorado’s Department of Corrections, the State Archaeologist and Colorado College, Magennis assumed responsibility for the skeletal remains of 155 individuals.

How these patients ended up buried on the grounds of the institution was likely the result of many factors, Magennis said. When the institution first opened, it was a simple farm house. Under the direction of the first superintendent, Dr. Pembroke Thombs, patients tended the gardens and orchards which helped sustain the institution. As the population grew, funding did not, Magennis said. Thombs’ repeated requests for more funds were turned down by Colorado’s legislature and the Board of Charities and Corrections, which oversaw the institution. Thombs apparently had a falling out with the board in 1898 regarding the burials, Magennis said. She is seeking minutes of the meetings to determine, if possible, topics of dialogue between Thombs and the board.

The identities of the individuals is a mystery, and likely always will be, Magennis said. More than 500 patients died at the institution between 1879 and 1899, but only 155 have been uncovered. Magennis suspects the unmarked graveyard extends to an area currently underneath a road.

"The majority of people committed to the institution came from the Denver area," Magennis said. "There are two or three young children, and I may be able to figure out who those children were."

The skeletal remains still contain clues, Magennis said. Some have elaborate gold fillings which would have been expensive. Others show evidence of skeletal lesions that would be an indicator of advanced stages of syphilis, which caused delusional behavior if untreated. Prior to antibiotic treatment in the 1940s, it is estimated that as many as 20 percent of 19th-century patients committed in mental asylums suffered from late-stage syphilis.  

"It will be very interesting to see if this is true for the Colorado insane asylum," Magennis said.