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Twenty-Seven Possible Graves Found at Notorious Florida ‘Reform’ School

Following Hurricane Michael, a subcontractor picked up the anomalies while surveying the area, but investigations are still pending

Roger Kiser, a member of the 'White House Boys', kneels in front of a cross while visiting the small graveyard at the former Florida School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, on October 29, 2008. (Photo by Emily Michot/Miami Herald/MCT via Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

Within one year of its opening in 1900, reports began to surface of horrific abuse taking place at a reform school in the Florida city of Marianna. The Florida State Reform School would, however, remain in operation for another 111 years, finally closing its doors on June 30, 2011.

Five years after it had shuttered, forensic anthropologists investigating the site revealed they had unearthed 55 graves and 51 sets of human remains, far more than they would have expected to find based on historical death records. Now, as Ben Montgomery reports for the Tampa Bay Times, an additional 27 graves may have been discovered.

The possible burial sites were detected when a subcontractor performing pollution cleanups in the wake of Hurricane Michael picked up 27 “anomalies” while using ground-penetrating radar to survey the area. In a letter obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, Governor Ron DeSantis directed state representatives to connect with county officials “as a first step to understanding and addressing these preliminary findings.”

Geosyntec, the environmental cleanup company that hired the subcontractor, issued a report to the Department of Environmental Protection late last month, which revealed that a “liberal approach” had been taken when interpreting possible gravesites due to the property’s torrid history. The discoveries were made about 165 yards outside the Boot Hill burial ground, where there the 51 remains had previously been located by University of South Florida experts, and do not follow an ordered pattern.

“This randomness might be expected in a clandestine or informal cemetery, where graves were excavated haphazardly and left unmarked,” company wrote in its report.

At this point, however, the true nature of the “anomalies” is not clear. Erin Kimmerle, the forensic anthropologist who led previous research at the site, tells CBS News that the historical record does not support another burial ground at the school, and “additional fieldwork is critically important to establish if these are in fact burials, the actual number, and context.”

The institution, renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in 1967, opened with a mandate to transform young offenders into respectable members of society, Erin Blakemore reported for Smithsonian.com in 2016 when news of the 55 graves first surfaced. Children were sent there for a broad range of misdeeds—everything from “theft and murder” to “incorrigibility.” But reports indicate that the school, rather than functioning as a center of reform, became a nightmarish prison of abuse. A series of investigations between 1903 and 1913 found that children were being shackled in chains, denied food, subjected to forced labor and beaten. In more recent years, a group of survivors—known as the “White House Boys” for the color of the building where they were reportedly brutally beaten—have detailed other horrific abuses, including sexual violence.

The 2016 report found that nearly 100 boys died at the school between 1900 and 1975. Many of the deaths were not documented by the school or reported to the state. While some children died in a 1914 fire and of diseases like influenza, other deaths were deemed “suspicious” by the University of South Florida investigators. A 15-year-old boy named Thomas E. Curry, for instance, died of blunt trauma in 1925 after attempting to run away from the school. His death certificate states that he was killed by “a wound to the forehead, skull crushed from unknown cause.” The location of his body is not certain; Curry’s remains were reportedly shipped to his grandmother in Philadelphia, but as the remains could not be found in the grave upon later excavation, experts think he may have been buried at Boot Hill.

Though the classification of the recent discoveries is still uncertain, survivors of the school’s brutality believe that there are additional remains to be found on the school’s property.

Jerry Cooper, now 74, was 16 years old when he attended the Florida School for Boys in 1961. “Mark my words,” he tells Montgomery of the Tampa Bay Times, "there are more bodies out there."

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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