August 22, 2010
Late in life, White House Boy found his
Frank Marx was among the men who were beaten at
the Florida School for Boys. He died Tuesday.
By Chris Anderson
Published: Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 1:00 a.m.
On the front of the T-shirt was the dark silhouette of a one-armed man swinging a leather strap, the blows still
excruciating a half-century later. Behind the man was a small white house, where the reform school children were
brought in the middle of the night, made to bite a dirty pillow, and beaten into unconsciousness as an old industrial
fan droned over their screams and blood splashed onto the walls.
The shirt also said, "Torture Chamber" and "Florida's Shame."
Frank Marx, 67, died Tuesday at his Sarasota home proudly wearing that T-shirt.
He never overcame the beatings he took as a teenager in 1959 at the Florida School for Boys in Marianna, a small
town in the Panhandle.
There was kindness at his core, but mostly he struggled with raging anger and experienced terrifying nightmares
that would leave him in a fetal position, whimpering like a child.
And yet, in the final years of his life, Marx found unexpected love and support from the hundreds of men who had
experienced the same horrors but hadn't spoken of them for decades.
They were called the White House Boys, and he was one of them, even on the day he died. Especially on the day
"Finding the White House Boys two years ago was the best thing that ever happened to that man," said Marx's wife,
"They're just united by this ... 'We survived.' "
On Saturday, about two dozen of the White House Boys came from as far away as Baltimore to pay their respects to
Marx. The men filled a small Sarasota church, and spoke of his impact on their lives.
"Frank will always be with me and he will always be with the White House Boys," said Dick Colon, who then began
crying and walked away.
From early in his childhood, it was clear that Marx's life would be rough. He was born in Sarasota, but the family
moved to Montana for a short time. When he was 41/2, he heard some children playing down the street, so he
opened the gate at his house to join them. His 11/2-year-old sister got out, fell into a drainage ditch and drowned.
Marx's mother kept the girl's clothes, and when she was drunk she would take them out, show them to Marx and say:
"This is your fault. You murdered your sister."
At her funeral, according to an account Marx wrote for a White House Boys website, he was made to stand in front
of her casket and stare at her.
"Better not move, boy," he remembered someone saying. That was a phrase he would hear again at reform school
as leather cut through his flesh.
He shuffled between Sarasota and Fort Myers as a teenager. Then, one night in 1961, he and some boys were
firing BB guns at each other from a shopping mall roof.
When the police came, Marx was the only one who got into trouble. He was sent to the Florida School for Boys in
There, Marx would be sleeping when someone would grab him hard by the underwear and bring him to the place all
the children feared but no one dared talk about: The White House.
Troy Tidwell, the school official who lost an arm in a shotgun accident at 6, was said to be one of the men who
delivered the beatings to Marx. However, Tidwell, now 84, said in a deposition that he only gave "spankings" and
usually no more than 10 to any boy.
Former students interviewed said the lashes from the 3-foot piece of leather sounded like the discharge of a
12-gauge shotgun -- Pop! Pop! Pop! -- and sometimes the leather was turned on its side, cutting into skin and
spraying blood on the walls.
The first trip to the White House, Marx said, he counted 118 lashes before passing out.
The second trip? More than a hundred.
The third? Pop! Pop! Pop!
He wrote on a website that the men would take bets on when they would draw blood, make the boy move, or bring
him to tears. If you spoke, they started over.
More than 300 former students filed a class-action lawsuit against the state for abuse suffered in the 1950s and
60s, but in February a Leon County judge dismissed the suit.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated the claims at Gov. Charlie Crist's request, but announced
earlier this year it would not prosecute anyone.
Jerry Cooper, a White House Boy who said he got 138 of those ferocious lashes in 1961, is incensed.
"It's got to be the most ferocious case of child abuse in this country's history," Cooper said. "Who in the hell else
would do this to a child?
"You just don't know what they did to us. You just don't have a clue."
LIVING WITH THE PAIN
The best time of Marx's life was a few years ago, when he and Peggy traveled the southeastern United States for
seven months in a 37-foot motor home.
They sold fried alligator tails along the way, and he loved telling stories to the customers.
Like that one Halloween at Horse Creek when he was in his 20s and he draped seaweed all over a girl, making her
look like a monster.
When cars approached he would throw the girl over the bridge. Of course no one knew she landed in the hay Frank
put in the bed of a pickup truck down below. Too bad the police didn't think it was funny.
Marx met Peggy 36 years ago at the old Loft bar on Bee Ridge Road; Peggy worked there. By then, Marx was 31
and had already been married three times.
Two years later, at the Sarasota County courthouse, Peggy became No. 4. She also became an outlet for anger
that she traces back to Marianna.
There was serious verbal and physical abuse. One time he hit her, knocked her over in a chair, sat on top of her
and hit her again.
Another time they settled a dispute in their truck. She made him drive, afraid that if his hands weren't on the wheel
he might strike her.
Marx was known to put the toothpaste cap on the floor by the toilet, and berate Peggy if she didn't find it fast
enough. She dreaded 3 p.m., the time he would come home each day from his job as a stucco contractor.
He was tough on the kids. Peggy had four when they married. He had one. She used to pray for them not to come
home with bad report cards, afraid of Marx's explosive reaction.
Their schooling was important to him because he couldn't read or write.
They were about five years into their marriage when he told her about the Florida School for Boys and the beatings
It was a Sunday afternoon and they were sitting in bed, eating a salad tray and watching some prison movie.
He turned to her and said, "They do that to children right here in the state of Florida."
"Are you kidding me?" she said.
"No, I'm not kidding. They make you lay on this cot, they make you hold the rails, they stick your face in this dirty
pillow and they beat you with a leather strap until they bust you open.
"They bet on you," he continued. "They bet on how many licks it would take before they could draw blood."
Now, Marx could tell a story and stretch the truth, but when she looked into his eyes this time, she knew he was
"None of our kids will ever go there," he said to her. "I'll kill them first."
For decades he had nightmares and she would often find him curled up and whimpering.
Nightmares were common for many of the White House Boys. In fact, for a long time Peggy was a designated
person the men could call in the middle of the night for comfort.
"I'd say 99.9 percent of the nightmares were of the one-arm man coming in with that hand of steel," she said.
Sitting in her living room just hours after Marx died, and making arrangements for his service, Peggy explained why
she remained in such a tough marriage for 34 years.
"I stayed because of the whimpering little boy I knew inside, the child who cried at night," she said.
"I knew the child who couldn't sleep without waking up with this look of terror on his face."
The boys were standing in line at lunchtime one day, two by two, and next to Marx was a disabled boy without his
crutches. The school had taken them away.
The boy began to lose his balance, so Marx reached over and steadied him.
That night in the dark Marx was pulled from his bed, taken to the White House and beaten unconscious. The
reason? When he had helped the disabled boy at lunch he had broken form.
Few people spoke of the beatings for decades. In fact, Frank's younger brother, Johnny Marx, was also beaten at a
reform school in Okeechobee around the same time, and the two never discussed it until two years ago.
That is also when the media began writing stories, websites were launched where the men could share their
accounts, and a reunion was held in Brunswick, Ga.
Frank Marx was one of dozens who showed up, all with essentially the same stories, and when he scoured the
crowd his eyes landed on one man in particular. He was sure this was the disabled boy he had helped all those
"That's him," he said to Peggy.
He walked over and hugged the man, whom he hadn't seen in more than 40 years. Neither said a word to each
other. But both began to cry. Then they walked out of the room holding hands. This, from a man so tough he used
to pull his own teeth with pliers.
It wasn't until months later he learned that the man at the reunion wasn't the disabled boy he took a beating for that
day after all. It was a guy he had never seen before in his life.
But that's how it was after all those years and all those awful memories. The White House Boys were an
unbreakable family, even though the only thing many had in common was a leather strap and a fear of sleeping in
"He fell in love with all those guys," Peggy said. "It was like he had found his family. Because here's a room with 30
or 40 guys in it and they all know he's not lying."
Meeting the other White House Boys certainly changed him. He got softer, kinder. Last Christmas, for example, he
stood in front of a Walmart and raised money to buy food for underprivileged youngsters.
When store staffers asked him to sign a permission form so he could stand there, he had to admit he couldn't write,
which was humbling. But he didn't care. The children were more important than his pride.
For his fundraising efforts, Marx was named the 2009 Man of the Year by the White House Boys organization.
The last few years were easily the best in his marriage to Peggy, and he even went to each of his ex-wives and
apologized for his past behavior.
And yet, even in his final days, there was one thing he couldn't do.
He couldn't forgive that strap-swinging one-armed man.
ALONE NO MORE
The original diagnosis was lung cancer. Marx went through 19 aggressive chemo treatments and 25 radiation
treatments, and yet he only lost 6 pounds and kept his hair.
He was getting five phone calls a day from different White House Boys. Peggy was getting even more at night.
When he needed to call someone back he pulled out the White House Boys phone book Peggy had made for him.
The phone numbers were next to pictures of the men instead of their names.
"Hey, man, you're a White House Boy," they'd say to him. "You're going to beat this thing."
And when he found out the tumors were in remission, he turned to Peggy and said: "The White House Boys pulled
me through. My brothers pulled me through."
It was only in the last two weeks that he learned of the bone cancer that had spread through his body. He didn't
have much time.
Still, he told Peggy not to sell the motor home because they had a White House Boys reunion go to in the fall.
In the final days, the things he said didn't make sense, but when a White House Boy called him something seemed
to happen. "He'd get on the phone and talk to those guys and his voice would be strong and clear and alert," Peggy
The morning after Marx's death, Peggy received at least 75 calls from White House Boys, and some couldn't finish
speaking. They just cried and hung up.
"It was just as important as my own brother passing," said Jerry Cooper, who lives in Cape Coral.
ONE FATE, ONE SHIRT
The end of Marx's life was as rough as its start, even though Peggy said, without a trace of hesitation, that being
beaten in the White House was worse than having cancer.
His condition was deteriorating fast, and it was clear he would die without seeing any justice, at least from the state
He was so cold that he would have to take a hot shower every hour.
When he came out, Peggy would offer him a dry, new shirt.
No, he didn't want one. He insisted on wearing his White House Boys T-shirt. He never wore T-shirts, but he wore
this one for three straight days until he drew his last breath.
As his body was being removed from the house, a hospice worker offered to change his shirt, maybe put something
on a little more dignified.
A little more dignified?
No, Peggy said, he was going to be cremated in that White House Boys T-shirt.
Then she added: "I think he's earned the right to take it with him."
STAFF PHOTO / THOMAS BENDER
John Bordnax, 66, one of the White House Boys,
wears his shirt at a memorial service for Frank Marx
on Saturday. The men, who share a painful past,
have found one another in recent years. In Marx's
final days, he refused to wear anything but his White
House Boys shirt.
"They make you lay on this cot, they make you hold
the rails, they stick your face in this dirty pillow and
they beat you with a leather strap until they bust you
open." -Frank Marx