Thomas Curry met his death by some railroad tracks near Chattahoochee in 1925, trying to run away from the Florida School for Boys. He'd served just 29 days for delinquency at the hellish reform school some 20 miles away in Marianna. The coroner who examined his body couldn't tell what killed him.
"(C)ame to his death from a wound to the forehead, skull crushed from unknown cause," wrote Chattahoochee coroner L.H. Sanders on the boy's death certificate.
His body was shipped by train to his grandmother in Philadelphia, where services were held at a Catholic church, and a box was buried at the Old Cathedral Cemetery in West Philadelphia, on top of a casket that held his great-grandmother.
But researchers trying to determine how Curry was killed unearthed a mystery Tuesday.
With permission from officials in Pennsylvania, University of South Florida forensic anthropologists dug down 6 feet to Curry's casket and found a partially intact wooden box. The thumbscrews used to clamp shut the casket were identical to those found in burials on the Florida reform school campus. Atop the casket, they found a small cross, like a rosary necklace.
But inside, there was no body, no human remains. Where the boy should've been, they found wood.
The discovery shocked the researchers, Philadelphia archdiocese officials, the Pennsylvania State Police troopers helping and the local assistant district attorney, who expressed his exasperation with quiet expletives as he paced around the burial shaft.
"Where is he?" asked state police Cpl. Thomas McAndrew.
"I just can't believe it," said USF forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, who is leading the research. "It defies logic."
Burial records at the archdiocese show the exact spot where Curry was buried and name the church where the funeral service was held. The records go even further, saying he was "killed by train," which seems to contradict the coroner's verdict.
No one can say yet whether officials at the reform school shipped a box filled with wood to a grieving family in Philadelphia, or whether someone removed Curry's body when it arrived and held a funeral for a box with no body inside.
It was common at the reform school, known in modern times as the Dozier School for Boys, for armed guards to search for runaways. One longtime guard told the Tampa Bay Times in 2009 that school officials referred to it as "boy hunting." Sometimes trustees from a nearby prison, known as "dog boys," were called in to help search. Former wards have told the Times that they were brutally beaten after being caught while trying to escape.
Researchers had hoped to perform a skeletal autopsy on Curry, who they believe was about 17, to determine how he was killed. Now, they say, they'll continue to search for his remains. Curry has distant cousins in the Philadelphia area who will provide DNA samples to researchers.
The school was closed in 2011, after 111 years in operation and dozens of scandals. Kimmerle's ongoing investigation aims to answer questions for families of boys who died in state custody or while running from the school.
According to a preliminary report, USF has found seven cases in which boys died while trying to escape from the school.
Among them were: Lee Gaalsby, 13, who ran away in 1918 and died the same day from an unknown cause; Oscar Elvis Murphy, 15, who died after being hit by a car in 1932; Robert Jerald Hewett, 16, who was found dead from a gunshot wound in 1960 after he escaped, but whose manner of death was listed as "unknown" on his death certificate; and Billey Jackson, 13, who died shortly after being beaten by guards in 1952 for trying to escape.
Contact Ben Montgomery at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.