Grad student Jamie Gluvna, 25,
looks shocked Wednesday as she
enters a dilapidated former
dormitory at the Dozier School for
Boys in Marianna. Gluvna is part of
a team from the University of South
Florida that is trying to solve a
mystery at the now-closed reform
USF team looks for lost graves at closed Dozier School for Boys
By Ben Montgomery, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Sunday, May 20, 2012
The fates that befell boys across a century at the state's oldest reform school, here on the outskirts of town, are
hard to imagine. They came here to be reformed and some never left. • Eight burned to death in 1914, locked
inside a tinderbox dormitory. More than 20 died from influenza and pneumonia. One boy was murdered by his peers
while locked inside a 7- by 10-foot building for days. Another died, according to school records, during a
tonsillectomy. Records suggest at least 81 boys met their deaths in state custody in the 111 years the school was
For the families of boys who died here, what's more disturbing is that no one knows for sure where they and dozens
of others are buried. The school cemetery, called Boot Hill, was neglected for years. School burial records are
incomplete. Folklore is inadequate.
But a team of anthropologists, biologists and archaeologists from the University of South Florida has been working
quietly to find answers in a place shrouded by mystery. The massive multidisciplinary project, made public for the
first time here, aims to preserve the records, inventory historic buildings, find the graves, identify the forgotten
remains, protect the historic cemetery and open it to families.
"It's a humanitarian effort," said Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist and assistant professor at USF who is
guiding the project. "I hope for those families that have questions and are looking for information, that this will begin
to give them some of the information and history they're looking for."
Arthur Dozier School for boys in
A team of anthropologists and
biologists from USF are performing
an extensive amount of research,
including using ground penetrating
radar, to search for potential graves
at the Arthur G. Dozier School for
boys in Marianna.
Thirty-one metal crosses in a little clearing in the woods mark a mystery.
The crosses, situated inside cable fence that measures 11.5 meters by 15.5 meters (38 feet by 51 feet), were
planted in 1996, after a former superintendent discovered the old graveyard in disarray and grown over. Trees
had fallen on concrete crosses that had been placed in the 1960s. Workers discarded those in the woods and
planted the new metal crosses in rows based on depressions in the ground where they thought boys were buried.
The state closed the campus in June after a century-long cycle of scandal and short-lived reform at the school,
which has been known as the Florida Industrial School for Boys, the Florida School for Boys and the Dozier School
for Boys. Over the years, kids were locked in irons, beaten with a leather strap in a building called the White
House, locked in isolation for as long as three weeks, hog-tied. The school has been subject to lawsuits and
scrutiny, but no one has been able to answer the questions about the cemetery.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated in 2008 and 2009, but could not come up with records
that showed who had been buried where, or exactly how many bodies were buried at Boot Hill. The FDLE
determined that ground-penetrating radar would be futile because so much time had passed. "There were too
many variables," the lead investigator said in 2009.
But Kimmerle, 39, thought radar could work. She and archaeologist Richard Estabrook applied for an
archaeological research permit with the state's Division of Historical Resources and persuaded the Department of
Environmental Protection to grant access to the cemetery.
The two have used GPR to find clandestine burials for law enforcement agencies in Florida and to map historic
burial grounds. Kimmerle was chief anthropologist in 2001 for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for
the former Yugoslavia and she worked with a Peruvian team in 2008 near Putis, a hamlet in southern Peru where
men, women and children were buried in mass graves since the 1980s.
In February, she and her team began mapping Boot Hill using GPR and other "ground truthing" techniques to try
to establish how many boys are buried here and where exactly their remains are located. The radar suggested the
burials extended into a patch of woods north of the existing cemetery clearing.
Kimmerle enlisted the help of the warden at nearby Jackson County Correctional Facility. Convicts cleared trees,
kudzu and underbrush from woods to the north, opening a large area around the base of an old oak.
• • •
On Tuesday morning, as the sun peeked over the pines, Kimmerle and her team drove down a narrow path in the
woods and parked short of a small clearing. They hauled their gear, shovels and shears and trowels, in 5-gallon
buckets to the edge of the cemetery and found stakes they had used to mark their old grids.
Estabrook inspected the new clearing. "They did a great job," he said. "This is perfect."
"Maybe we can jog around these trees and treat this as its own little grid," Kimmerle said.
They staked out a grid and Estabrook went to work with the GPR, which he named Matilda, pushing the device
back and forth along the lines, like mowing a lawn. The GPR recorded 250 subsurface samples every 2
centimeters, and Estabrook watched the monitor, noting places where the radar picked up an anomaly, a spot
where the subsurface density changes.
"We've got an anomaly right here," he said, toeing the ground.
"Nice," Kimmerle said.
She followed, marking the anomalies with orange flags. Before long, a portion of the new clearing was speckled
with markers. Estabrook sat at a card table and looked at his laptop. Images from the radar flashed on the screen.
He explained what he was looking at.
"The cemetery isn't really contained here," he said, pointing to the white crosses. "It's more over in that area.
That's the area we're interested in. That's why we came back."
After lunch, Kimmerle surveyed the new field.
"I think I want a trench," she said. "I think I want to do it here."
Four graduate anthropology students set to work under the hot sun. They staked out a section of earth 5 meters
long and half a meter wide, running north and south, perpendicular to the graves, which have an east-west
orientation in folk cemeteries. With shovels and a pickax, they broke through the topsoil and gradually penetrated
a layer of orange clay.
When the trench was half a meter deep, they scraped flat the walls and floor. Most of the trench walls revealed a
clean line between the dark brown topsoil and the orange subsurface clay. But at two wide spots that should have
been solid clay, you could see a mixture of clay and dark brown soil.
"There's one there," Kimmerle said. "That's a shaft."
"Yeah," said John Powell, a grad student. "That's a big change."
"Let's clean that up," Kimmerle said.
The burial shafts aligned perfectly with anomalies that had registered on the GPR. The mixture of soil and clay
suggested that at some point in the past, a hole had been dug and filled in, Kimmerle said.
"We had a strong sense when we came this far that the cemetery had moved," said Estabrook. "This is some of
the better proof we have."
The team dug a longer trench that ran farther north and identified several more burial shafts. They also found
buried two rows of hand-made bricks near the burial shafts that seem to indicate graves.
By the end of the week, they found five confirmed burial shafts to the north. The northernmost anomaly was more
than 20 meters from the marked cemetery. Kimmerle said it's clear that the marked cemetery doesn't account for
all the burials. And the radar has indicated there are multiple anomalies to the east as well. Kimmerle is going to
ask for even more forest to be cleared so that section can be mapped.
"We're finding graves throughout this whole area," Kimmerle said. "Each step gives you a little more information."
• • •
Besides mapping the cemetery, a biologist has been coring a group of cedar trees — known to mark folk
cemeteries — found along the perimeter, to determine when they were planted. The team located remnants of an
old fence that may outline some earlier property line. Others from the anthropology department are interested in
ethnography, which includes interviewing former wards, employees and area citizens, and taking stock of the
historic structures on campus, from the syrup house to the butcher shop to the saw mill, dilapidated buildings that
are now entangled by vines and forest. The USF Libraries Special Collections wants to preserve the historic
The mission for Kimmerle and Estabrook in this phase is to use the historical records, data and testing to establish
a minimum number of graves. But they won't know for certain how many there are without a more thorough
"That'll be the question," Estabrook said. "Do we have more than 31?"
"That's the question," said Kimmerle.
Two families of boys said to be buried here — Thomas Varnadoe in 1934 and George Owen Smith in 1941 —
have expressed interest in repatriating their remains to family plots.
"I would just like to have some closure," Thomas Varnadoe's brother, Richard, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2009.
"And I'd like if someone could find his remains and dig him up and get him down here where we could give him a
proper funeral and bury him close to family.''
Kimmerle said she wants what is right for those families.
"Their wishes and rights will guide what happens next," she said. The group hopes to present its initial findings at a
symposium in the fall.
"I think everyone can understand that children came here and died here and there are people who are related to
them who have questions," Kimmerle said. "Nobody wants to see a cemetery lost."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-9650.
The fieldwork has been funded by the USF Office of Research and Scholarship. If you'd like to contribute to the
project, you can donate at anthropology.usf.edu. Donations should be made to the foundation account 42-1200,
"Anthropology Operating Fund," and marked for a donation to the "Forensic Anthropology Laboratory."
To see more photos of work going on now at the closed Dozier school, go to links.tampabay.com.
To read more
To read the prize-winning story For Their Own Good about the decades of abuse at the Florida School for Boys,
go to links.tampabay.com.
Click on highlighted link below for slideshow