The fates that befell boys across a century at the state's oldest reform school, here on the outskirts of town, are hard to imagine. They came here to be reformed and some never left. • Eight burned to death in 1914, locked inside a tinderbox dormitory. More than 20 died from influenza and pneumonia. One boy was murdered by his peers while locked inside a 7- by 10-foot building for days. Another died, according to school records, during a tonsillectomy. Records suggest at least 81 boys met their deaths in state custody in the 111 years the school was open.
For the families of boys who died here, what's more disturbing is that no one knows for sure where they and dozens of others are buried. The school cemetery, called Boot Hill, was neglected for years. School burial records are incomplete. Folklore is inadequate.
But a team of anthropologists, biologists and archaeologists from the University of South Florida has been working quietly to find answers in a place shrouded by mystery. The massive multidisciplinary project, made public for the first time here, aims to preserve the records, inventory historic buildings, find the graves, identify the forgotten remains, protect the historic cemetery and open it to families.
"It's a humanitarian effort," said Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist and assistant professor at USF who is guiding the project. "I hope for those families that have questions and are looking for information, that this will begin to give them some of the information and history they're looking for."
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Thirty-one metal crosses in a little clearing in the woods mark a mystery.
The crosses, situated inside cable fence that measures 38 feet by 51 feet, were planted in 1996, after a former superintendent discovered the old graveyard in disarray and grown over. Trees had fallen on concrete crosses that had been placed in the 1960s. Workers discarded those in the woods and planted the new metal crosses in rows based on depressions in the ground where they thought boys were buried.
The state closed the campus in June after a century-long cycle of scandal and short-lived reform at the school, which has been known as the Florida Industrial School for Boys, the Florida School for Boys and the Dozier School for Boys. Over the years, kids were locked in irons, beaten with a leather strap in a building called the White House, locked in isolation for as long as three weeks, hog-tied. The school has been subject to lawsuits and scrutiny, but no one has been able to answer the questions about the cemetery.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated in 2008 and 2009, but could not come up with records that showed who had been buried where, or exactly how many bodies were buried at Boot Hill. The FDLE determined that ground-penetrating radar would be futile because so much time had passed. "There were too many variables," the lead investigator said in 2009.
But Kimmerle, 39, thought radar could work. She and archaeologist Richard Estabrook applied for an archaeological research permit with the state's Division of Historical Resources and persuaded the Department of Environmental Protection to grant access to the cemetery.
The two have used GPR to find clandestine burials for law enforcement agencies in Florida and to map historic burial grounds. Kimmerle was chief anthropologist in 2001 for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and she worked with a Peruvian team in 2008 near Putis, a hamlet in southern Peru where men, women and children were buried in mass graves since the 1980s.
In February, she and her team began mapping Boot Hill using GPR and other "ground truthing" techniques to try to establish how many boys are buried here and where exactly their remains are located. The radar suggested the burials extended into a patch of woods north of the existing cemetery clearing.
Kimmerle enlisted the help of the warden at nearby Jackson County Correctional Facility. Convicts cleared trees, kudzu and underbrush from woods to the north, opening a large area around the base of an old oak.
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On Tuesday morning, as the sun peeked over the pines, Kimmerle and her team drove down a narrow path in the woods and parked short of a small clearing. They hauled their gear, shovels and shears and trowels, in 5-gallon buckets to the edge of the cemetery and found stakes they had used to mark their old grids.
Estabrook inspected the new clearing. "They did a great job," he said. "This is perfect."
"Maybe we can jog around these trees and treat this as its own little grid," Kimmerle said.
They staked out a grid and Estabrook went to work with the GPR, which he named Matilda, pushing the device back and forth along the lines, like mowing a lawn. The GPR recorded 250 subsurface samples every 2 centimeters, and Estabrook watched the monitor, noting places where the radar picked up an anomaly, a spot where the subsurface density changes.
"We've got an anomaly right here," he said, toeing the ground.
"Nice," Kimmerle said.
She followed, marking the anomalies with orange flags. Before long, a portion of the new clearing was speckled with markers. Estabrook sat at a card table and looked at his laptop. Images from the radar flashed on the screen. He explained what he was looking at.
"The cemetery isn't really contained here," he said, pointing to the white crosses. "It's more over in that area. That's the area we're interested in. That's why we came back."
After lunch, Kimmerle surveyed the new field.
"I think I want a trench," she said. "I think I want to do it here."
Four graduate anthropology students set to work under the hot sun. They staked out a section of earth 5 meters long and half a meter wide, running north and south, perpendicular to the graves, which have an east-west orientation in folk cemeteries. With shovels and a pickax, they broke through the topsoil and gradually penetrated a layer of orange clay.
When the trench was half a meter deep, they scraped flat the walls and floor. Most of the trench walls revealed a clean line between the dark brown topsoil and the orange subsurface clay. But at two wide spots that should have been solid clay, you could see a mixture of clay and dark brown soil.
"There's one there," Kimmerle said. "That's a shaft."
"Yeah," said John Powell, a grad student. "That's a big change."
"Let's clean that up," Kimmerle said.
The burial shafts aligned perfectly with anomalies that had registered on the GPR. The mixture of soil and clay suggested that at some point in the past, a hole had been dug and filled in, Kimmerle said.
"We had a strong sense when we came this far that the cemetery had moved," said Estabrook. "This is some of the better proof we have."
The team dug a longer trench that ran farther north and identified several more burial shafts. They also found buried two rows of hand-made bricks near the burial shafts that seem to indicate graves.
By the end of the week, they found five confirmed burial shafts to the north. The northernmost anomaly was more than 20 meters from the marked cemetery. Kimmerle said it's clear that the marked cemetery doesn't account for all the burials. And the radar has indicated there are multiple anomalies to the east as well. Kimmerle is going to ask for even more forest to be cleared so that section can be mapped.
"We're finding graves throughout this whole area," Kimmerle said. "Each step gives you a little more information."
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Besides mapping the cemetery, a biologist has been coring a group of cedar trees — known to mark folk cemeteries — found along the perimeter, to determine when they were planted. The team located remnants of an old fence that may outline some earlier property line. Others from the anthropology department are interested in ethnography, which includes interviewing former wards, employees and area citizens, and taking stock of the historic structures on campus, from the syrup house to the butcher shop to the saw mill, dilapidated buildings that are now entangled by vines and forest. The USF Libraries Special Collections wants to preserve the historic school-related documents.
The mission for Kimmerle and Estabrook in this phase is to use the historical records, data and testing to establish a minimum number of graves. But they won't know for certain how many there are without a more thorough excavation.
"That'll be the question," Estabrook said. "Do we have more than 31?"
"That's the question," said Kimmerle.
Two families of boys said to be buried here — Thomas Varnadoe in 1934 and George Owen Smith in 1941 — have expressed interest in repatriating their remains to family plots.
"I would just like to have some closure," Thomas Varnadoe's brother, Richard, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2009. "And I'd like if someone could find his remains and dig him up and get him down here where we could give him a proper funeral and bury him close to family.''
Kimmerle said she wants what is right for those families.
"Their wishes and rights will guide what happens next," she said. The group hopes to present its initial findings at a symposium in the fall.
"I think everyone can understand that children came here and died here and there are people who are related to them who have questions," Kimmerle said. "Nobody wants to see a cemetery lost."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-9650.