Boot Hill, Florida reform school for boys

Photo courtesy of University of South Florida

Boot Hill's Buried Crimes

By Earl H. Perkins | Published, Monday, February 3, 2014 |
Thursday Review associate editor

Trespassing, school truancy, running away from home, and general incorrigibility.

These are certainly causes for concern when disciplining youths, but murder, rape, forced labor, abuse, beatings and torture are excessive answers. However, these are now believed to have been fairly common occurrences during the 111-year history of the Florida School for Boys (Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys) in Marianna, according to Associated Press and Wall Street Journal reports.

The remains of 55 people were recently exhumed from unmarked graves at the former state reform school. Forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida excavated from last September to December, with official records indicating 31 burials at the 1,400-acre Panhandle campus. In 1929, a concrete block structure was built—eventually nicknamed "The White House"—where many of the beatings and torture took place.

The institution for wayward youth was open from 1900 to 2011, and had faced allegations of impropriety throughout its history. Former students and relatives of boys who died there had insisted for decades that numerous children perished under mysterious circumstances. In some cases, the school simply reported the young people as “missing,” and told families they were presumed to have escaped. But there were frequent suspicions among families and survivors that there was more to the story. Numerous state and federal investigations were unable to make any charges stick, often due to a lack of witnesses coupled with shoddy or contradictory records (i.e. the guards kept their mouths shut and the other witnesses were either ignored or dead).

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is now supporting the excavation and identification efforts.

"Hopefully, surviving family members are closer to the closure they deserve," she said. "It's such a tragedy that so many young boys lost their lives there."

The bodies were discovered at Boot Hill, a makeshift cemetery on school grounds. Most of the graves were unmarked. Thousands of artifacts have been retrieved from the site, including bones, teeth, a marble in a boy's pocket and a metal coffin plate, reading "At Rest." The USF group is analyzing remains to determine how the boys died, and then they'll submit DNA samples in hopes of identifying who the boys are.

"We're hoping to bring the families resolution and hopefully some sense of peace," said Erin Kimmerle, a USF professor leading the research team. "Locating 55 burials is a significant finding, which opens up a whole new set of questions for our team."

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is helping locate possible relatives who might submit DNA samples for comparison against the boys' remains, and families from 12 boys have already come forward. A list with 40 additional names has been released, which will hopefully render more answers.

The group will continue its research at another site, seeking burial shafts with ground-penetrating radar. Five sets of DNA samples have been sent to the University of North Texas Health Science Center for analysis. The project is being funded by the Florida Legislature and the National Institute of Justice, which is part of the US Justice Department.

Ovell Krell is one of the people seeking information concerning a relative. Her brother, George Owen Smith, was 14 when he was sent to the facility for allegedly stealing a car with an older teen. The family received word the following year that Owen had disappeared from the school, and he was later found dead of pneumonia. His parents asked that his body be sent to a funeral home so they might retrieve his remains, but the school buried him before they arrived, according to Ms. Krell, who is now 85. Unable to see her son's body, the boy's mother suffered the remainder of her life worrying over the incident.

"Every night, she sat out on the porch, waiting to see if he could find his way home," said Ms. Krell. "My mother was never the same."

She has submitted a DNA sample and hopes to bury his remains between his parents at their family plot in Auburndale. "In my heart, I want to believe they would know he was there," she said.

The school was originally intended for youths who had committed serious crimes like theft, violence and murder, but in later years the bar was lowered to include minor infractions, including the petty offenses of repeat runaways, incorrigibility and truancy.

Robert Straley, who was sent to Dozier at 13 for car theft, was among a group of former students who helped expose the alleged horrors. The first night he was there, he received 35 to 40 lashes which left scars several feet long. The school was brutal beyond belief, he said.

Another former inmate is Roger Dean Kiser, who spent two years at the reform school beginning in 1959. Kiser, who is 67 and now lives in Brunswick, Georgia, was not optimistic about the circumstances, and predicted to the Los Angeles Times that many more graves will be discovered, including in some of the wooded areas of the school property. Kiser even wrote a book, titled “The White House Boys,” about his experience (and that of other boys) at Dozier.

Current investigations conclude that at least 100 boys died at the school, but many, like Kiser, believe that number may grow much larger.

This story is a festering sore on the reputation of Florida and humanity, and there will be no happy or heartwarming ending. You can bet that books will be written and motion pictures produced about this dark, long-hidden chapter.

Unfortunately, these bodies may be the tip of a larger iceberg. Powerful people were aware of this activity but saw no reason to take action. If there had been intervention earlier in the last century, generations of families would be celebrating renewed life instead of shattered lives.