WHITE HOUSE BOYS: Some didn't make it out of the school alive
A former inmate recalls digging the grave for a boy who was repeatedly beaten for multiple
By Jim Schoettler Story updated at 6:05 AM on Sunday, Apr. 12, 2009
He was the Cool Hand Luke of the Florida Industrial School for Boys.
He'd run, get caught, get beaten. Then he'd do it over again.
About the fourth time, the young boy left the White House punishment room with a bloated belly. After being
treated, he bolted again. Another flogging followed.
Billy died less than two weeks later.
That's how Johnnie Walthour of Jacksonville remembers Billy. Walthour remembers the boy appeared pregnant
and asking if he was OK. He remembers warning his younger friend, then no more than 12 years old, not to run
again. He remembers the whispers around campus that Billy had died.
And Walthour recalls digging Billy's grave at the Marianna school's cemetery in 1953. Then 17, he prayed over
the boy's casket as a few other kids, a chaplain and two adults watched.
"I felt real bad because he was so young," said Walthour, 73.
Dozens of Jacksonville-area men who were former inmates at the school 70 miles west of Tallahassee have
recently told the Times-Union chilling tales of their own abuse. Others say their lives were saved.
Walthour's account is unique in that he's the only one to discuss digging a grave and watching a burial at the
cemetery, where 31 crosses made from pipe stand over anonymous plots.
What happened to the dead is at the heart of an ongoing criminal investigation ordered by Gov. Charlie
Crist in December after former school inmates alerted him to abuse there.
Dozens of inmates and staff are being interviewed by Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents. Walthou
has yet to contact authorities, but stories such as his will be investigated if witnesses come forward, said FDLE
spokeswoman Heather Smith.
The graves remain untouched and there are no immediate plans to exhume the bodies, Smith said.
Marianna historian Dale Cox, a native of the city and author of several books on Florida history, said he can
account for most of the dead through his research of school records and other material. He said they include
19 inmates and three staff who died in a fire and influenza outbreak in the early 1900s. Two dogs and a pet
peacock named Sue are also buried there, he said records show.
However, Cox said one grave, perhaps two, remain a mystery. Walthour insists he holds one answer.
Sent to the school for destroying a Jacksonville concrete plant during a joyride in a mixer truck, Walthour said
he quickly befriended Billy. He can't recall his last name after 57 years, but knows the boy came from
A quick friendship
Shortly after the boys met, they were cleaning trash in the woods on the rural campus. They found a nest of
black widow spiders and Billy wanted to let one bite him so he could "duck" - get out of work, Walthour said
laughing. Billy heeded his older companion's warning about the danger and their friendship was born.
Walthour said Billy had no desire to remain at the segregated school where violating rules, including smoking
and being disrespectful, could lead to a bloody beating. He compared Billy to a character Paul Newman played
in a classic movie named after a man who refused to conform to life in a rural prison.
"He was just like Cool Hand Luke. Every time he got a chance, he was gone," Walthour said. "You'd wake up
in the morning and the first thing you'd hear, 'Billy's gone again.' "
But Billy would repeatedly get caught, sometimes by inmates and their bloodhounds from a nearby prison
Walthour remembers passing the boy entering the dining hall shortly after he was captured and beaten in the
White House. He said it was about Billy's fourth time.
"His stomach was swelled up. I said, 'You all right?' And he said, 'Yeah, I'm all right.' I said, 'Don't run no more,
man, they're going to catch you.' He said, 'Well, I don't care if they do, I'm going to get out of here.' "
Recaptured and whipped
Walthour said he believes Billy was hospitalized before returning to his cottage. He said he saw the boy a
few more times before he ran again. Walthour said he was told by other boys that Billy was recaptured and
Walthour never saw his friend again. He said he learned about his fate less than two weeks later.
"I'm quite sure whatever killed him came from those beatings," Walthour said.
Walthour said he was invited by someone to pay his respects, though no one else interviewed by the
Times-Union remembers attending any burials at the school. He said he and some of the other 10 boys
who went dug the boy's grave.
"They just said a few prayers and that was it," he said.
Many former inmates said they have no doubt someone could have died from punishment at the school.
Roger Kiser, a Brunswick author and leader of a group of former inmates, said the abuse was unchecked.
"They would take you and beat you and they didn't care if they killed you," said Kiser, at the school in 1959
But Lenox Williams, the school's superintendant from 1967 until his retirement in 1982, said stories of killings at the
school are a "bunch of bunk."
Williams said he beat inmates in the White House and believes some could have been emotionally damaged,
but nothing more.
"It wasn't brutal," he said.
But Walthour is convinced Billy died brutally. And more than a half-century later, he continues to hope for
"I think somebody should be made to pay," Walthour said.