Some of the boys from the reform school use to take lunch down to the graveyard. They'd eat bologna sandwiches and wonder aloud about the boys buried beneath their feet. The dead boys' names were lost to time and neglect and, if you believe the men who made it out of Florida's oldest reform school alive, the callous hearts of guards who took home paychecks signed by the state.
It was always a mystery for Michael Littles, 58, from Tampa, who was sent to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys outside Marianna the first time when he was 12, in 1969.
"The guards used to tell us, 'We got somewhere we gonna put you,' " he said. "'It's called Boot Hill. It's where we put the bad guys.' "
The boys were buried in crooked rows, some of them in haste. Years slid by, birthdays and Christmases. Records were lost, broken headstones discarded.
Now, though, almost half of those forgotten boys have names, or close. Four have been returned to their families. The next step is for the state to decide what to do with the rest of them.
University of South Florida anthropologists will tell Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet today that their project to identify the boys, which started in 2012, has ended with seven positive DNA matches and 14 presumptive identifications. A total of 51 sets of remains were found on the campus, which is 20 more than the state's chief law enforcement agency said were buried there after a rudimentary investigation in 2008 and 2009.
The report ends the university's work on the school grounds in Jackson County, about 60 miles west of Tallahassee.
The project, headed by USF anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, was launched several years after five former wards of the school spoke publicly in 2008 about being tortured by school employees and about classmates who disappeared. The men, invited to the campus for the ceremonial closing of the building in which they were spanked until they bled, led reporters to a small clearing in the woods where 31 crude pipe crosses supposedly marked graves. USF's investigation, which included the use of ground-penetrating radar, showed burials far outside of the marked graveyard.
The two new DNA matches are Loyd Dutton and Grady Huff, who died in 1918 and 1935. Dutton's is the oldest DNA match the anthropologists made. The remains of the boys who were identified have been or will be returned to families.
Dutton, from Lee County, was sent to the reformatory at age 14 for delinquency. He was to be confined there until the age of 21, but he died less than a year after his arrival in 1918. His cause of death is unknown but coincides with an influenza outbreak that occurred at the school, which opened in 1900.
Huff's DNA remains were matched to that of his maternal cousin, Evelyn Hawkinson, as well as to three more of his cousins: Elmer Hutchins, Geneva Harling and William Saye, USF said.
Huff, from St. Petersburg, was 17 when sentenced for larceny in 1934. He died in 1935 from acute kidney inflammation, followed by a hernia.
The presumptive matches anthropologists made are based on age and ancestry of the remains. Anthropologists also used school records, artifacts, location of the burial, and the association of remains compared to known individuals.
Researchers will continue to try to identify more remains even though field work on the campus is finished. The state closed the school in 2011, after decades of scandals about the treatment of boy inmates.
USF will ask lawmakers to create a plan for burying the unidentified children in a proper memorial, Kimmerle said. USF returned the remains of four boys to their families. The rest are pending.
The city of Marianna wants the property and wants to erect a memorial to the boys. But many White House Boys are opposed to the city getting involved.
The anthropologists searched the 1,400-acre campus, which opened in 1900, for additional burial sites using cadaver dogs, ground penetrating radar and digging. They found charred remains near the site of a 1914 dormitory fire but were unable to identify them due to their condition.
The men who prompted the inquiry, known as the White House Boys after the small white building where they were punished, had mixed emotions about the findings.
The report "should be the straw that breaks the state's back," said Jerry Cooper of Cape Coral, who says he received more than 100 lashes with a weighted leather strap in the White House. He remains appalled that Kimmerle had to cut through bureaucratic red tape to get permission to exhume the boys and give them a proper burial. Cooper also wants criminal charges brought against guards who he says forced his friend Edgar Elton to run himself to death in the school gymnasium in 1961.
Others took a more cooperative stance.
"What happened in the past cannot be undone," said Robert Straley of Clearwater, one of the original five men to take the story public. "Now is the time for reconciliation."
Straley said the state should erect a memorial as a reminder that there is no place for whipping boys in modern society.
Michael Littles is just glad some of the boys he used to wonder about got their names back.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.