The winds of Hurricane Michael might have uncovered another clandestine burial ground inside a thick pine forest on the campus of Florida’s oldest reform school.
After clearing downed trees, a company doing pollution cleanup at the old Dozier School for Boys property in Marianna, 60 miles west of Tallahassee, has discovered 27 “anomalies” that could be possible graves about 165 yards outside the reform school’s Boot Hill cemetery.
Gov. Ron DeSantis directed Florida agencies to work with Jackson County officials “to develop a path forward,” according to an April 10 letter he sent to Jackson Commission Chairman Clint Pate, which was obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
The finding is shocking because forensic anthropologists have already turned up far more burials on school property than the state knew about.
Relying primarily on historical records, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded in 2009 that there were 31 burials in the cemetery. But anthropologists from the University of South Florida found an additional 24 graves — a total of 55 graves — and unearthed the remains of 51 individuals. The vast majority were boys who died in state custody, and they’ve since been returned to families or reburied in Tallahassee.
The brutal 1,400-acre reform school was open from 1900 to 2011, when the state shuttered it under mounting public pressure. The Tampa Bay Times and other newspapers reported at length on terrible, unceasing abuse and neglect of boys held at the school, and on a number of suspicious deaths.
The reports were driven by a group of old men calling themselves The White House Boys, so named for a small, white cinder-block building in which they were beaten bloody by guards with a weighted leather strap.
Many of the same men who were imprisoned at the school in the 1950s and ‘60s remember seeing several graveyards on the vast rural campus.
“Mark my words: there are more bodies out there,” said Jerry Cooper, 74, of Cape Coral, who says he received 135 lashes by guards as punishment one night in 1961. “I’m more concerned about those kids than anything else in the world.”
Bryant Middleton of Fort Walton Beach, who was sent to the school for “incorrigibility” in 1959, said he wasn’t surprised.
“We’ve been trying to tell the state of Florida that there’s more bodies out there for a long time,” he said. “I’m in possession of a list of 130 some odd boys who died at the school or disappeared and whose last known resting place we can’t find.”
In his letter, DeSantis said he directed representatives from the state to reach out to Jackson County officials “as a first step to understanding and addressing these preliminary findings” and that he would “ensure this issue is handled with the utmost sensitivity and care.”
Geosyntec, the contractor doing the pollution cleanup, sent its report to the Department of Environmental Protection on March 26. The reports shows a subcontractor, New South Associates, used ground-penetrating radar to survey 1.78 acres and found “27 anomalies” consistent with the expectations for possible unmarked graves.
“Due to the sensitive nature of this site, particular caution was used to identify possible graves in this survey,” New South reported, noting that a “liberal approach” was taken in interpreting the data from ground-penetrating. “If an anomaly had any of the features typically used to identify graves” — like size, shape, depth — “it was interpreted as a possible grave.”
The possible graves do not follow any obvious pattern, like a formal cemetery.
“This randomness might be expected in a clandestine or informal cemetery, where graves were excavated haphazardly and left unmarked,” the report says.
New South recommends the site be treated as a graveyard until more testing can be done.
Forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, who led USF’s research at the Boot Hill cemetery, warned against making any firm judgements based on the ground penetration radar data.
“I would just urge a lot of caution and suggest ground truthing be done no matter what,” she said.
Ground truthing is a scientific process of carefully digging trenches and removing topsoil to determine what lies beneath the earth’s surface. Kimmerle and her team used the method on several sites outside the Boot Hill cemetery where the ground penetration radar data showed anomalies, but found things like tree roots rather than burials.
“We dug up a lot of tree stumps all over campus,” she said. “We followed every lead and we feel like we exhausted those leads.”
Regarding the new finding?
“It’s a simple solution. Ground truth it and see what’s buried there,” Kimmerle said. “If there’s more work that needs to be done and we can contribute, we’d be happy to do that.” What
has long puzzled Kimmerle is that the first recorded burial at the facility came in 1914, more than a decade after the school opened. Yet historical records suggests its early years were especially brutal for children.
For instance, in 1903, an investigative committee reported to the Florida Senate that it found kids as young as six locked “in irons, just as common criminals … We have no hesitancy in saying, under its present management it is nothing more nor less than a prison.”
In 1911, another committee reported that children are “at times unnecessarily and brutally punished, the instrument of punishment being a leather strap fastened to a wooden handle.”
The Florida Cabinet voted in December to turn the Dozier property over to Jackson County, which planned to use state grants to build a distribution and manufacturing center, and a training center for people with autism.