“For Their Own Good," the St. Petersburg Times' special report on child abuse at the Florida School for Boys in Marianna, has drawn a wealth of calls and e-mails from readers across the country offering tips about the reform school, help for the victims and praise for bringing the issue to light.
The article documented the cycle of abuse and reform at the 109-year-old state-run school, which began in 1903, when investigators found children in shackles. It focused on a group of men called the White House Boys who were beaten in the 1950s and '60s in a small building on the campus called the White House. The school, now called the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, is still open.
The story was published on the Times' Web site, tampabay.com, on April 17, and in print last Sunday. The online presentation has received about 22,000 page views and has drawn more than 200 comments.
Many readers were astonished that the abuse had continued for years, through several public scandals and the ensuing political outrage.
"I can't begin to express my gratitude for the effort you put into researching this story and the gifted way in which you presented it," wrote Frank Smith, from Bluff City, Kan.
For some, the story answered deep questions.
Agnes Carter-Rush was sobbing when she called.
"Now I know what happened to my brother,'' she said. "When he came back home, he never was the same. He threw himself out in the middle of the street, screaming and yelling for a truck or car to hit him.''
Ten years later, her brother Ulysses Harvey committed suicide by jumping off the Sunshine Skyway bridge. He was 24 and left two young children behind.
Others were reminded of their own time at the school.
"It brought back memories,'' said Frankie L. Williams, 66, who lives in St. Petersburg. He worked in the shoe repair shop, where the leather straps used for the White House floggings were made. He says he helped to make the straps.
"It was like a belt, but wider and about 3 feet long. Nothing but pure leather," Williams said.
He, too, remembered trips to the White House.
"They put you in that room. Tell you to hold your legs close together and turn your face close to the wall."
David Dixon, of Springfield, Mass., was there in 1963. He recalled seeing a worker sewing what the boys called "silver dollars'' — some sort of slugs — into the leather straps used for the beatings.
"They put like three or four at the most in them,'' Dixon said, 56.
Sumter County resident Clint Davis, 59, accused a former school superintendent of twisting his arm behind his back during a beating in the White House. Davis, who was at the reform school in 1963, said he was hospitalized for almost two months because of the injury.
If he were to come face-to-face with the man again, "It would take all I've got not to slap his mouth,'' he said.
Not all readers were sympathetic. Bob Massingill called to defend Troy Tidwell, the man many said beat them brutally.
"I remember a totally different man. He was a very nice, friendly guy, an impeccably dressed man. He always wore a nicely pressed white shirt. Always wore long sleeves. If you had a problem, he would put you in the car and talk to you. He took me to the bus station twice when I went home,'' said Massingill, who was sent to Marianna three times and now lives in Lecanto.
Tidwell gave him "not more than three or four'' lashes on his first trip to the White House, he said. "Your butt was sore, but the next day you were ready to go. Somebody had to instill peace there.
"I don't ever remember anybody getting more than four or five licks. Blood on the walls, that's crazy. Where would the smell of whiskey come from? If this was going on, somebody would be aware of it. Marianna made a man of me.''
Kelley Benham can be reached at (727) 893-8848 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Reporter Ben Montgomery can be reached at (727) 892-8650 or email@example.com.