Pueblo County, Colorado
Colorado Insane Asylum

Denver Evening Post 1-24-1899 Burrows' Graphic Story – Thomas J. Burrows, supervisor of the male department was placed on the stand. The witness had come from a sick bed and his voice was husky, but he did not hesitate in his answers… Witness said (referring to a baby born at the asylum who lived for several weeks and died), to his knowledge, no record was made of the occurrence or death certificate issued; it was not his business. Some 200 bodies were buried in the asylum grave yard, before the contracts for burials were given to the Pueblo undertakers.

CSU researcher uncovering mystery behind 19th-century skeletons found at mental hospital

October 23, 2006 Fort Collins, Colorado State University News Release

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 She will use historical documents in a quest to identify these individuals and their ailments, such as the handwritten log kept by the institution's first superintendent of all patients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."

Remains of patients discovered in 1992

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.

Institution was initially a simple farm house

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.

Majority of people committed to the insitituion came from Denver area

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

[Ann L. Magennis - Dr. Magennis' teaching and research interests include human adaptation to disease and nutrition, human skeletal biology, bioarchaeology, and global health.  Her current research involves the late 19th Century Colorado Insane Asylum, focusing on the skeletal remains as well as relevant historical documents.  She has also carried out fieldwork in North America, Morocco, Belize, and Tanzania.  She has published a monograph, The Indian Neck Ossuary, is co-author of a book, Black Mesa Anasazi Health:  Reconstructing Life from Patterns of Death and Disease, has published articles in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Northeast Anthropology, and Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Growth and Development, and chapters in books.]

Digging up the past

Professor reveals bones, stories from unmarked graves
By: Lyndsey Struthers Rocky Mountain Collegian 12/11/06

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.

The skeletal remains of human hands and other bones lay in a lab in the General Services Building on Thursday December 7, 2006.

"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."
© Copyright 2008 Rocky Mountain Collegian

Whose bodies are in graves?
The Pueblo Chieftain Sunday July 26, 1992 

Research offers no solution to mystery

Who is buried in the graveyard unearthed last week on the grounds of the Colorado Mental Health Institute?

That's the question a small army of public officials is trying to answer in an attempt to get construction of a new $22 million, 250-bed prison for the chronically mentally ill under way.

Using heavy earth-moving equipment, construction workers with the Department of Corrections began removing the dirt from the estimated 120 graves on Monday. The project was brought to a grinding halt Tuesday after the sheriff, the chief of police and the county coroner questioned whether state law and protocol for exhuming human remains was being followed.

Sheriff Dan Corsentino and Police Chief Bill Young said they had received numerous calls from citizens horrified by newspaper and television pictures showing a bulldozer scraping away the earth above the graves.

DOC Chief Frank Gunter agreed to stop the project until the questions posed by the lawmen and the coroner could be researched and answered.

Since that time, state archaeologist Susan Collins, Lt. Gov. Mike Callihan and field workers for the State Health Department have visited the site.

ALL AGREE the decision to halt the exhumation was the right thing to do until more is learned of the unmarked graveyard. Specifically, what they want to find out is:

Who is buried in the graves and were any of them American Indians?

Are the graves more than 100 years old? Who operated the cemetery and when did they start? When did they stop?

Is there any evidence that foul play was involved in the deaths of any of the bodies buried there?

Answers to these questions will determine what happens next.

For example: If the graves turn out to be older than 100 years, Ms. Collins will have to decide whether the site has any historical value. If some of the remains are determined to be those of American Indians, Callihan, as head of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, will have to decide what protocol should be followed in disintering and reburying the remains. If it appears that homicide was involved in any of the deaths, local law enforcement officals along with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation would likely launch a belated criminal investigaton.

BEGINNING MONDAY, a ramdon sample of the graves will be opened under supervision of Ms. Collins and County Coroner James Kramer. This, it is hoped, should clarify some of the mystery surrounding the graveyard.

When the graveyard was first discovered by workers repairing a water main 22 years ago, it was speculated that the graves might be those of victims of a Spanish influenza epidemic that peaked in Pueblo in November and December of 1918. Little has been found to support that theory.

Last week, officials began pouring over yellowed and tattered records from the days of Pueblo's infancy in an attempt to uncover any documentation of when the cemetery was used. The most solid lead found in the case was the following entry in the Colorado Directory of Cemeteries:

"Colorado State Hospital Cemetery No. 2: North of Building 15, occupying entire width of service road which turns off of Hood Street to northeast corner of the South Campus, near Women's Wards."

THE DIRECTORY says that inscriptions for the graves are available at McClelland Library, but Noreen Riffe, librarian for western research, has not turned up any such records after an exhaustive search.

A search of records at the T.G. McCarthy Funeral Home from before the turn of the century indicates that the business processed the bodies of many people who died at the then Colorado Insane Asylum, but they were interred at either Roselawn or Mountain View cemeteries or were shipped to other cities.

A Pueblo Chieftain search of newspaper records from 1879, the year the asylum opened, and 1918 show no records of any burials at the mental institution. Newspaper reports of the flu epidemic of 1918 report that in only two months, there were more than 2,600 Puebloans stricken with the flu and more than 230 died.

An emergency hospital was set up in Clark's Mineral Wells Hotel; schools were closed; all public gatherings were prohibited; houses were quarantined; and only the immediate family, a clergy, a singer and an accompanist were allowed to attend funeral services of victims by order of the Health Department.

Twenty and 30 obituaries were listed in each day's newspaper, but none say anything about a cemetery at the asylum. A 1953 historical article states there were 180 cases and 30 deaths at the asylum during the 1918 Flu Epidemic.

Other newspaper accounts document at least two other major plagues in Pueblo's early history. In 1898-99 it was small pox. Guards were posted at quarantined houses to insure that no one either went in or left the premises. A man was hired to shoot stray dogs and cats. Most of the victims went to pest (short for pestilence) houses. One of these pest houses was located north of Pueblo and at least one reader believes the graves unearthed last week could be from the pest house cemetery.

Mary Plunkett, who identified herself as an 85-year-old native of Pueblo, wrote in a letter.

"Hospitals refused to care for them (victims of plagues). The victims were removed from their homes and placed in the `pest house,' which was located near where bones are being found. Of course the people died. No funeral services were held and no undertaker was notified. The bodies were always buried at night in unknown graves."

This seems unlikely.

A March 9, 1960 Pueblo Chieftain story by Dayle Molen reports that the pest house was ``established in Central Park, an area north and south of 24th Street between Elizabeth and Greenwood. Construction was started on a similar 28 by 70-foot frame hospital three miles north of the city."

In 1928, another outbreak of influenza struck 322 patients and 63 employees at the then State Hospital resulting in 29 deaths. Ten years earlier, the hospital began receiving tuberculosis patients.

All these deaths were reported at the hospital, but there was no documentation of the victims being buried in either cemetery.

Whatever probers unearth this week, it is certain many in the community will be watching.

Eddie Bohn (pronounced 'bone') called the newspaper last week to comment on the project. Bohn introduced himself as the "Dean of cemetery movers in the West." Part of his claim to fame is that he oversaw the exhumation and reburial of those buried at the Swallows Cemetery in 1968 to make way for Lake Pueblo.

BOHN SAYS workers in Pueblo could be in for a real surprise.

"When we moved the cemetery in Trinidad, there were 350 graves, but we ended up with over 900 bodies. There were five and six people in some of the graves."

The professional gravedigger was appalled by reports that DOC workers were using heavy equipment to unearth the graves.

"I called DOC and told them what they were doing is illegal and they wouldn't even talk to me," said Bohn.

DOC officials deny doing anything illegal or disrespectful. Spokeswoman Liz McDonough said DOC is intent on moving the graves in a legal and dignified manner.

Doing what is right for those who are buried in the unmarked graves seems to be the motivation that has banded together the group of local and state officials.

As Chief Young put it last week as he stood over the graves, ``Everybody is concerned with their future."

Historic Collection

Graduate students under the supervision of Linda Carlson, curator of the Historic Collection have undertaken an archeological project. Working with Centennial Archeology, four graduate students are analyzing fabric fragments, buttons, buckles, and suspender straps from a burial excavation located at the site of the 19th century Colorado Insane Asylum. This unmarked graveyard was discovered during preparations to build an addition at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in 1999. The students began by attempting to determine the fiber content and weave structure of the fabric fragments. They then compared them to known second half 19th century garments from the Historic Collection to see if any conclusions could be made as to what the burials goods were originally. Research included checking primary resources. The research has been difficult as many of the fragments are very degraded having been underground for close to 125 years. “This project gives students a unique opportunity to do real investigative work and to use our Historic Collection,” said Linda. A final report will be submitted to Centennial Archeology. CSU Newsletter, Spring 2002

Colorado State University
Leslie Johnson
Session 17. Skeletal Analysis of Sex in the Colorado State Insane Asylum Cemetery 1879–1899

On October 23, 1879, the Colorado State Insane Asylum opened its doors in Pueblo, Colorado. During the next twenty years (1879–1899), many patients who met their demise here were buried on the asylum grounds. Unfortunately, the death records from this time do not reveal exactly which individuals were buried in these unmarked graves, and they remain unidentified today. This poster examines the skeletal collection excavated from the asylum. Analysis of the pelves indicates the sex ratio of the individuals in this collection. These results are compared with the death records to demonstrate whether this sample is representative of the total deaths that occurred.

Colorado State University
Alissa Leavitt-Reynolds
Session 17. Skeletal Trauma at the Colorado State Insane Asylum

Compared to contemporaneous populations, the skeletal collection from the Colorado State Insane Asylum (1879–1899) shows high rates of trauma. This poster will examine the rates of trauma per skeletal element. A discussion of interpersonal violence and accidental/occupational trauma and their manifestations on various skeletal elements will also be included.

to the Pueblo County Index Page.

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