In Marianna, Florida, there was, located inside the razor wired fences of a youth prison, an old graveyard. Thirty-one small metal crosses leaned like crooked teeth in a clearing in the woods. The staff at Dozier School for Boys knew the cemetery existed – they called it Boot Hill – but no one knew for sure who was buried there. Among the kids sentenced to Dozier, there were rumors that fellow “students” sometimes disappeared, never to be seen again. Somewhere on Dozier’s 1400 acres, according to stories passed on through the years from kid to kid, were the bodies of kids who had been killed by guards. Perhaps, the boys whispered, some had been secretly buried in Boot Hill.
This first story is a mystery story.
It sleuthing starts on October 22, 2008, when Governor Charlie Crist is handed a newspaper clipping about his state’s troubled Dozier School for Boys. The Governor knows all about Dozier and the allegations of abuse at the facility. For nearly 100 years, the shortcomings of the state’s longest standing juvenile facility have regularly made the news. But that had all been local news.
This time, the headline “Florida Reform School Abuse Victims Recall Horrors” is splashed across the pages of USA Today. The article features a photograph of five middle-age white men calling themselves the White House Boys, after the building where they had been whipped with a three-foot long leather strap as children in the 1950s and 1960s. The men give graphic descriptions of being beaten bloody with upwards of a hundred licks. They describe a “rape room” in the building across from the White House. The men plant a tree and then drive to Boot Hill. One of the White House Boys looks at the 31 crosses made of old metal pipes and says, “That’s a sorry something for a head marker.” They tell the reporter they believe the cemetery contains the bodies of boys who were beaten to death.
The Governor glances at the byline and sees it is an AP wire story. It’s just the sort of story that will be picked up by dozens, perhaps hundreds of newspapers across the country. This is not the sort of publicity any Governor would want for his state.
Two years earlier, on January 6, 2006, a 14-year old boy named Martin Lee Anderson had collapsed during a forced run at one of the state’s juvenile boot-camp. The local examiner ruled the boy had died of “complications from sickle cell.” After a video surfaced showing six officers swarming around Anderson, kicking him and forcing him to the ground, a second autopsy determined Anderson had died when one of the guards had covered the boy’s mouth and forced him to inhale ammonia fumes. Anderson’s death and the state’s nonsensical death investigation had made national headlines, embarrassing then Governor Jeb Bush.
Governor Crist in 2008 does not want to repeat his predecessor’s mistakes. Soon after the USA Today article, he directs the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate. “Justice cries out for a conclusion,” the Governor says.
The state’s best hope for controlling the story is to issue a conclusive investigative report. In this regard, the FDLE is in a race against the press. Ben Montgomery, a reporter at the Tampa Bay Tribune, had read the same USA Today article and is interviewing former wards of the state. As word spreads that a reporter is a interested in their story, more and more men call Montgomery with stories many had kept to themselves for forty or fifty years. “Within a few days,” Montgomery will later write, “I couldn’t keep up with the calls.”
The FDLE investigators comb through school and state records, pore over aerial photographs, and inspect the cemetery. They move quickly.
But not quickly enough. On April 19, 2009, Ben Montgomery’s story is ready to run in the St. Petersburg Times. After talking with dozens of men who had be incarcerated as children at the Florida School for Boys (as Dozier was then called), Montgomery writes,
The men remember the same things: blood on the walls, bits of lip or tongue on the pillow, the smell of urine and whiskey, the way the bed springs sang with each blow. The way they cried out for Jesus or mama. The grinding of the old fan that muffled their cries. The one-armed man who swung the strap.
The men he interviewed had no concrete information about the cemetery, of course. They have only questions: who are the children buried there? How did they die?
A month later, the FDLE issues a summary of its investigation. The FDLE’s findings are bland as cottage cheese. There are, the FDLE report intones, records of 29 dead boys and 2 adults buried at school, including ten burned to death in 1914 fire. Others died of influenza and pneumonia. There are records of additional deaths at the school, but the records do not indicate whether the bodies were buried at the school or shipped back to their families. There is no evidence in the records of murder by the guards. While exhumations are possible, they are unwarranted.
The Governor is satisfied.
Ben Montgomery is not. He continues writing stories about abuse at the school, both historical and ongoing. Over the next two years, he writes twenty more stories about Dozier as the school goes through its own death spiral. In the spring of 2011, in the midst of an investigation by Eric Holder’s Department of Justice, the state of Florida announces it intends to close Dozier School for Boys.
It is the right thing – the best thing – for the school to close. But if the school closes and the state sells the land, the mystery of who is buried in the cemetery will never be solved.
Ben Montgomery seeks out Dr. Erin Kimmerle at the University of South Florida to see if she might be interested. Dr. Kimmerle has analyzed mass graves in Bosnia and Croatia, identified victims of the Peruvian military murders, and worked as the Chief Anthropologist at the Hague. Dr. Kimmerle is no slouch.
Dr. Kimmerle takes an interest. She gets permission to go look around.
She goes to Marianna with archaeologist Richard Estabrook, who brings a ground penetrating radar he calls Matilda. The little machine is pushed around in what looks like a baby carriage. They are looking for “anomalies” in the soil that indicate graves. As they push Matilda around, Dr. Kimmerle and Estabrook realize that the area marked by 31 crosses is not the cemetery at all. The actual cemetery seems to be to the north by about 20 yards.
In December 2012, Dr. Kimmerle issues a preliminary report. Turns out, it is not only the metal crosses that are off. The number of deaths reported is off as well. Rather than the 81 deaths uncovered in the FDLE report, the school’s records actually make note of at least 98 deaths. And there are other significant problems that the FDLE did not report at all. Death certificates, for example, were issued for less than half the deaths. Seven of the children had died during escape attempts, including two by gunshot wounds. There were two 6 year olds among the dead.
One of the 6 year olds was George Grissom, a black boy sentenced to the School for Boys in 1918 for delinquency. He was hired out as a houseboy and brought back to the school unconscious.
Wait – hired out as a houseboy? What?
That’s a whole other story, a second story, about the school and convict leasing. Let’s finish this first story first, about the cemetery.
It is now 2013. News reports about the mysterious cemetery at Dozier School for Boys are running on CNN, and the New York Times. Now that a forensic anthropologist from USF has contradicted the state’s own findings, dozens of local newspapers around Florida are following the story. A new group of people start to contact Dr. Kimmerle: brothers and sisters of missing boys, nieces and nephews. They want to bring the remains of their family members home, to be properly buried.
In order to identify remains, though, Dr. Kimmerle will need to exhume the bodies.
Exhumation is an invasive, time-consuming task, and Dr. Kimmerle needs permission to dig. There is resistance from some of the townspeople of Marianna. Local historian Dale Cox writes to his representative arguing there is no need for exhumations. Cox and other local leaders hold a press conference to say Dr. Kimmerle’s research is poorly done and there is no need for the exhumations.
Dr. Kimmerle’s request to dig is denied. It takes a full presentation of the evidence to the Governor’s cabinet in Tallahassee to secure permission.
In early September 2013, Dr. Kimmerle starts digging. She is surrounded by twenty anthropologists, archaeologists, police detectives and graduate students. A group of reporters are there – Ben Montgomery, of course, CNN and others – as is novelist Tananarive Due. She is here with her son and her father. They are watching the dig on behalf of her great-uncle, who they believe is buried in the cemetery.
For two days, the team digs and sifts and digs and sifts and there is nothing. On day three, a graduate student calls over Dr. Kimmerle. Here is something.
The first human remains the Dozier earth gives up is a set of baby teeth.
This first story about the cemetery has an ending, of sorts. The ending goes like this: on January 18 of this year, Dr. Kimmerle’s team at USF submitted its final report, regarding fifty-one sets of remains in 55 graves. There have been 21 DNA identifications, seven of them positive and the other 14 presumptive. One of the positive IDs is Robert Stephens, 15 years old when he was killed at the prison in 1937. Stephens is Tananarive Due’s great-uncle.
The Florida legislature recently released a small amount of funding to help families who have positive matches with reburial costs. The process for families to claim the shoebox size container of remains will take a while longer to complete, but the story of Boot Hill cemetery has reached as conclusive an ending as there ever will be.
But before we leave Boot Hill, let’s pause at one of the graves in the cemetery’s southwest corner. Analyzing bone fragments, the University of North Texas’ Health Science Center identified the remains of Earl Wilson, who died at the School for Boys in 1944. The 12-year old boy and eight others had been locked together in a cell as punishment for an unknown infraction. The 7×10 foot cell contained one bunkbed. A bucket served as a toilet. There is no record of how long the nine boys were locked in – the practice at the time was to leave boys in the “sweatbox” for periods of days to weeks. When the guards unlocked the door, four of the boys accused the other four of killing Wilson.
What kind of place locks nine children into a 7×10 cell in the heat of a Florida summer for days or weeks at a time?
The fifty-licks with a leather strap, as described by the White House Boys, seem part and parcel of such a place.
This is the second story, about how a place like the Dozier School for Boys came to be.
If the first story about the cemetery is a mystery story, this second story about the prison itself is a horror story.
This one starts immediately after the end of the Civil War, as the routed Confederates at the 1865 Constitutional Convention discussed ways to “preserve as many as possible” of the “better features” of slavery.
Florida’s former Confederates settled on using labor contracts to maintain the conditions of slavery. A set of bills that became the Black Codes specified any person not working under a labor contract was subject to arrest as a vagrant. Not working hard enough? Vagrant. Having to the boss in a disrespectful way? Vagrant.
A person convicted of vagrancy was punished by “labor or imprisonment not exceeding 12 months or by pillory/whipping.” For those sentenced to labor, “the sheriff or a court officer will hire out the offender with proceeds paid to the county treasury.”
This vagrancy law was the basis of Florida’s convict lease system, which over the next fifty years became the state’s post-war criminal justice system. Convict leasing served dual purposes: the threat of being arrested for vagrancy enforced labor contracts that kept Blacks laboring under slavery-type conditions, while the actual convictions for vagrancy created a pool of people whose criminal convictions made them, in legal fact, slaves for the duration of their sentence.
It was brutally lucrative for the turpentine and lumber companies that leased people convicted of crimes and worked them as hard as whips could crack. Historian David Oshinsky deemed the system Worse Than Slavery for the reason historian Matthew Mancini uses as his book title: One Dies, Get Another.
It was one such death that led to the creation of the Florida State Reform School. In 1887, a 16-year old boy was whipped to death at a convict camp. Talk started circulating about the need to separate out boys from grown men, and the grandson of Florida’s Confederate Governor John Milton came up with a plan.
Send the boys here to Marianna, W.H. Milton proposed, and we will set them to work.
On January 1, 1900, Florida State Reform School opened for business. In the first years, though, the counties around the state sent only a handful of children. A county with a wayward child on its hands could either bring in money by leasing them out – the Naval Store & Commission Company paid $150 a year in 1902 – or lose money by paying $50 for their maintenance at the Reform School. Very few chose to lose money.
Within a few years, two fires left the school $4500 in debt. W.H. Milton, as president of the school’s board, authorized the purchase of a brick-making machine capable of making 20,000 bricks per day. The boys would make the bricks to rebuild the school’s buildings, then plenty more to “supply the local demand for brick.” In addition to the brick, the twenty children (including at least 3 girls) also produced 1,500 barrels of corn, enough to feed themselves and the 48 hogs ready for slaughter.
More could be done with more hands. Milton asked the Governor to send “incorrigible children…without conviction, for an indefinite period, leaving the term to be fixed by the management.” A few years later, after the school’s superintendent complained that “having so few inmates make the crops come in slow,” and Milton asked the Governor to also eliminate the $50 per head charge on the counties.
Within a year, the number of inmates doubled and the school started to turn a profit. Part of that profit came from working the children in the brick plant and the fields rather than teaching them – a 1909 legislative investigative committee found the school rooms had no desks.
Another part of the profit came from hiring out the children to mine phosphate, cut timber, harvest resin for turpentine, and chop and pick cotton. A 1911 legislative investigative committee reported that ““The Negro School impressed your committee as being more in the nature of a convict camp, than anything else we can think of…” Running the Reform School as a convict camp rather than a school was within the letter of the reform law that created it (the children were not worked in the adult convict camps) but far afield the spirit.
In response to the investigations, which also found “overcrowding particularly on the colored side” and boys “unnecessarily and brutally punished” by a “leather strap fastened to a wooded paddle,” the Reform School’s superintendent made more excuses than changes.
It was a pattern that repeated itself over and over again. By the time Jerry Cooper stepped onto the school grounds in 1961, state investigations in 1909, 1911, 1913, 1914, 1920, 1921, and 1953 had all substantiated reports of abuse and called for reforms. Each time, the school made the minimum changes necessary to continue operating as before.
The justifications for operating the school as a prison labor camp became as hardened as the bricks the children made: the economics were good for Marianna and Jackson County; and the children needed whipping because they were bad, mean delinquents.
Children ran away with such frequency that “boy hunting” became a bit of a sport for the staff and other Marianna residents. Boys on the run, get your guns. Bounties in 1961 could be a hundred dollars or a side of beef.
That year, 15 year old Jerry Cooper was convicted of car theft and sentenced for an indefinite term to what was now called the Florida School for Boys. A few months after he arrived, he was dragged out of his cottage and driven across the grounds to a small white house. What happened there is well described by David Kushner in the Bones of Marianna:
As the guards shoved Cooper through the door, the stench of bodily fluids overwhelmed him. A lightbulb hung from the ceiling of the bare concrete room, illuminating three husky men: Walters, school disciplinarian R. W. Hatton, and a supervisor, Troy Tidwell, whom the boys nicknamed the One-Armed Bandit. As a child, Tidwell had leaned on the muzzle of a shotgun and blown off his left arm. His remaining arm possessed a fearsome strength, and he was known to the boys as the strongest whipmaster of the White House.
“What do you know about a runner?” Walters asked Cooper, referring to a boy who had run away from the school earlier that night.
“I don’t have a fucking clue,” Cooper replied.
Walters lunged for him, and Cooper’s football instincts took over. The boy jammed his shoulder into the superintendent, taking Tidwell down with him. But the men recovered, and Tidwell’s hand closed around Cooper’s neck, hurling him against the wall. Tidwell smashed his heel down on Cooper, shattering the ball of his foot. When Cooper grabbed his foot in agony, he caught a fist to the mouth, which knocked loose his front teeth.
The men threw Cooper facedown on an army cot and tied his legs down. Cooper heard Tidwell’s whip snap against the ceiling and an instant later felt it sear his skin. One burning lash followed another, and Cooper, who never considered himself a coward, begged for mercy. “Jesus, God help me!” he cried. “Mother!” Then he passed out from the pain.
That night in his cottage, Cooper nursed his broken foot. The wounds from the whip were still so raw that the blood soaked through the back of his nightshirt. A boy who had been waiting his turn in the White House during Cooper’s beating later told him he had counted 135 licks in all.
Cooper’s description of his beating in 1961 echoes the stories told by hundreds of other men who served time as boys at the school.
After Cooper left, state investigations in 1963, 1968, 1976, 1982 and 2007 all substantiated reports of abuse and called for reforms.
But the economics of the school were still good for Marianna and Jackson County. And the staff still saw the children as bad, mean delinquents in need of a good whipping.
So long as the justifications remained intact, the reforms remained superficial.
Like the first story of the cemetery, this second story of the Dozier School for Boys has an ending. Decades after being abused at the school, men started finding one another on the internet and formed the White House Boys. They brought in the press, which brought in more investigations. Different from past cycles, though, the White House Boys insisted that the place could not be reformed and had to be shut down. Their organizing and Ben Montgomery’s reporting kept turning up the heat until the Department of Justice stepped in to take a look.
The State of Florida finally quit trying to reform an incorrigible institution. In June 2011, Dozier School for Boys transferred out its last wards and closed its gates for good.
There is a third story. This is the story of the White House Boys, who are still looking for justice.
This third story is a quest story.
The White House Boys was a term coined in 1997 by Roger Dean Kiser when he put up a website telling about his experiences. For a decade, he got nowhere, until he connected with Robert Straley and Michael O’McCarthy. With bullheaded determination and extreme hustle, the three men managed in 2008 to convince the Department of Juvenile Justice to allow them to be present for a ceremony sealing the White House and placing a commemorative plaque.
This was the event that the AP reporter covered, forcing open the Dozier School for Boys to increasing press scrutiny. Over the next ten years, the White House Boys managed to keep the pressure on the state while managing serious internal strife and splits.
Jerry Cooper is now the President of the Official White House Boys Organization. His wife Babbs Cooper, its Secretary, is the glue that holds it together.
I sat down with Jerry and Babbs in their home in Cape Coral last week to ask what the White House Boys, as a group, might consider to be justice for the abuse they endured at Dozier.
It is not an easy question. There are now over 500 survivors who are connected through the White House Boys, and twice that number in wives, partners and children who have struggled with the school’s aftereffects on their husbands’ and father’s psyches.
They are now, by and large, believed. The sheer number and consistency of their stories overwhelms the pooh-poohing that still happens among certain Marianna residents. For true nonbelievers, there’s the lie detector test. After Troy Tidwell swore under oath that he never gave any boy more than a dozen licks, Jerry challenged him to take a lie detector test. Tidwell refused. Jerry took one himself, putting to the test his claim that Tidwell in fact gave him more than a hundred licks. Jerry passed.
“That’s something,” Jerry says, to be believed. “But it’s not justice.”
In an interview with Jezebel magazine, Dr. Kimmerle suggested that “there are a lot of different forms of what justice means…[including] to have the facts established and have a lot of transparency and acknowledgment of what happened.”
Would an acknowledgement by the state help?
Yes, says Jerry. An acknowledgement in the form of “an official apology for ruining so many lives.” He would frame it and hang it on the wall.
That would be a help, but maybe not enough. He would like to see the building be razed. He thought some more.
“And make peace with ourselves,” Jerry finally says. “That still might not be justice, but it would help.”
As we talk, a string of texts and calls come in to the Coopers’ phones. It is clear that the White House Boys organization is itself part of the process of making peace.
Babbs tells me that Dr. Kimmerle found a marble in the grave of a 7 year old boy, where his pocket would have been. He took his marble with him is now a phrase that gets repeated by the White House Boys. She shows me a photo on her iPad, of a circle of upturned palms, each holding a marble.
These men in their sixties and seventies, many after lifetimes of passing their anger and abuse on to their wives and children, now say to one another every time they meet, “Love you, brother.”
Their wives and children say, “God bless the survivors,” and “May justice prevail.”
They have given endless interviews. They have made dozens of trips to Tallahassee, Marianna and elsewhere, to give official testimony, to bear witness, to meet up, and, increasingly, to attend one another’s funerals.
They are something like Jason and the Argonauts, on a quest for the golden fleece.
This third story of the White House Boys has no ending. Not yet. Perhaps not ever. God bless the survivors. May justice prevail.
Kung Li is a writer based in East Point, Georgia traveling the country in a three-month investigation of criminalization and justice. This project is supported by NEO Philanthropy.