Four years after the discovery that approximately 49 children’s bodies are buried in the grounds at a former reform school in Marianna, Florida, investigators and anthropologists will unearth the bodies starting this weekend.
The school, Dozier School for Boys, was only closed recently in 2011, but state and school records report that almost 100 children died there, and the memories from today’s senior citizens come forward with heartbreaking stories of being children being beaten, tortured, sexually abused and killed at this school from the 1940s through the 1960s.
In further reported history, other state records confirm that, due to a fire in 1914 and a flu epidemic in 1918, over 100 children died in those years. On the school property, set back in the woods, are 31 crosses presumable signifying the bodies of many unnamed students. The school, with a fatefully wrenching past, has shed quite a shadow over the town of Marianna.
Some rumors imply the bodies are actually of African-Americans who were murdered and hidden in the ground by the Ku Klux Klan because the graveyard containing the crosses lies in the area of the property referred to as the “black side.” Other rumors include talk of at least one other graveyard that has yet to be discovered on the 1400-acre plot.
Leading the exhumation is Forensic Anthropologist, Erin Kimmerle of University of South Florida, known for her work in collecting evidence for the Yugoslavian war crimes trials.
Kimmerle explains, “These are children who came here and died, for one reason or another, and have just been lost in the woods.” Kimmerle believes exhuming the bodies is crucial for putting an end to rumors and assumptions.
One senior citizen, named Robert Staley, recounted the 10 months he spent at the reform school in 1963 after getting caught stealing a car. “I came out of their in shock, and when they hit you, you went down a foot into the bed, and so hard, I couldn’t believe,” explained Staley. “I didn’t know what they were hitting you with.”
Troy Tidwell, a former employee on the administration staff of the school, refused to acknowledge any abuse or death, but did acknowledge that physical punishment, such as spankings, did occur.
The sister of a student, Owen Smith, of the school spoke up, now at the age of 84, about her brother’s experience. Ovell, the sister, explains that her brother “ran away from home in 1940” to pursue his dream of being a musician in Nashville, but after stealing a car and being arrested, he found himself at the reform school. Her brother, Ovell explains, had run away from the school twice, and the second time the school reported that the boy was never found, asking the family to notify the school if they heard from their son.
Just as they were on their way to visit the school and look for the boy, the school called to explain that Owen’s body had been found, and was presumed to have died from pneumonia after running away the second time.
The suspicious turn came when the school refused to show the family Owen’s body, claiming it was unrecognizable and already buried. “They said that the body was so decomposed, you wouldn’t be able to identify him …they took him straight out to the school and buried him,” said Ovell, still mourning the loss of her brother.
But Owen’s family was told a very different version of Owen’s death by another student of the school. After escaping the second time, explains Ovell, “my brother was running out across a field, an open field, and there was three men shooting at him, with rifles.”
She continued, “I believe to this day, that they shot my brother that night, and I think they probably killed him and brought him back to the school and buried him.”
Ovell is just one of many relatives who suspect their family member’s life was taken unjustly at this reform school, and once the bodies are exhumed, the University of South Florida will do everything they can to identify the bodies, giving closure at last the loved ones.
Then, if identification can be confirmed, the families will be able to take the bodies to the rightful family plots for reburial. However, the likelihood of any judicial punishment for the presumptions and accusations of murder making its way to court is slim, because, as Jackson County State Attorney Glenn Hess explains, “You have to have witnesses. Nobody can place a name with a homicide victim and a perpetrator.”
As for sisters like Ovell, wondering all these years what truly happened to her brother, the exhumation and investigation can hopefully bring some much needed closure.
Written by Ginger Vieira