The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys was a reform school for juvenile delinquents that operated in Marianna, Florida, for 111 years. Throughout its history, the school was plagued by disturbing rumors of neglect and abuse, and it finally shut its doors in 2011.
Recently, a team of researchers began investigating the old rumors. When their research led them to a 90-year-old grave in Philadelphia, they began to realize things at the school had been much worse than anyone had imagined…
The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys opened in 1900 in Marianna, Florida, and operated as a reform school for juvenile delinquents until it was shut down in 2011 for budgetary reasons.
As early as 1903, there were reports that the school was subjecting its students to severe beatings and other cruel and unusual punishments.
Stories about the school’s cruelty spread over the years. There were rumors that boys were sometimes shackled for punishment, and in the 1970s, six boys died in a fire when they couldn’t escape their confines.
According to the testimony of former attendees, students were frequently brought out to the “White House,” where they would receive beatings with a leather strap for their infractions, both real and imagined.
Supposedly, there were massive, violent manhunts for boys who tried to escape, and those who were caught received lashings so bad that their torn clothes would have to removed from their wounds. Thirty-one boys are reported to have died there over the school’s history.
However, Erin Kimmerle and a team of forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida suspected that many more boys had died at the Dozier School, and they began investigating Boot Hill, the school’s makeshift cemetery.
Most of the remains they found were badly decayed and didn’t provide much evidence for or against the team’s theory. Then, Erin learned about Thomas Curry…
In 1925, student Thomas Curry escaped the school. According to official reports, the boy was struck by a train while walking along the tracks about 20 miles away.
However, his autopsy suggested that he died of blunt force trauma to the head by an unknown object, which didn’t match up with the school’s story at all. Perhaps most importantly, Thomas’ body was transported to Philadelphia to be buried in his family plot.
Erin and her team hoped that Thomas Curry’s remains would shed light on the abuse that took place at the reform school. She received permission to exhume his nearly 100-year-old grave.
First, they dug six feet down, where they hit upon his wooden casket.
The casket shared the kinds of screws and hinges that had been recovered at Boot Hill, so they were confident that they had found the correct grave.
Things looked promising, and they began the careful work of excavating the fragile coffin.
However, when they went to open the coffin, Erin and her team were in for a tremendous shock…
When they opened the casket, they found no body at all — just a number of wooden planks!
After an extensive investigation, Erin and her team could find no evidence, such as hair or clothing fibers, to suggest that a body had ever been in the coffin…
They couldn’t say with absolute certainty, but they realized that Thomas’ body very likely never made it Philadelphia. This seemed to suggest that there was foul play involved in his death and the staff at the Dozier School had tried to cover their tracks.
Erin and her team moved their research back to Boot Hill, where they hoped to compare the DNA of Thomas Curry’s living relatives against that of the cemetery’s unidentified remains and hopefully locate his body once and for all.
They never conclusively found Thomas’ remains, but in January of 2016 Erin and her team published their findings, which suggested that more than 100 boys had been killed at the school between its opening and 1973.
Sadly though, since many of the school’s staff members are now deceased and the statute of limitations on most of the worst crimes committed there has passed, it’s unlikely that justice will ever be served. Still, former students of the institution take comfort in the fact that the Dozier School is now closed for good.
What happened at the Dozier School is truly unimaginable. It’s some consolation that the abuses are finally coming to light, but it’s frustrating that justice will likely never be served.
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