The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys was an infamous reform school that was opened in 1900 and shuttered in 2011, following a Department of Justice investigation. The “school” was notorious for abusing its students and was plagued with horrifying allegations of torture and murder.
In August of 2013 the University of South Florida (USF) forensic anthropology team was granted permission to find unmarked graves and excavate others at the school’s “Boot Hill” cemetery, in the hopes of identifying the remains, as well as figuring out when and how the boys died. The team conducted excavations from September to December of 2013.
On Tuesday researchers working on the project announced they found human remains from 55 grave-sites near the defunct reform school, with some remains discovered under roads or overgrown trees outside of the official cemetery. They believe that these bodies were buried between 1920 and 1950. Besides skeletal remains, workers also found a metal plate from a coffin, reading “At Rest,” and a marble in a boy’s pocket.
School records indicate there were 98 deaths at the school between 1914 and 1973. Two of these were adult staff members and the rest were children, between the ages of 6 and 18. School records say some of the students died from illness (i.e. influenza, pneumonia, and tuberculosis), knife wounds, or during a fire that occurred in 1914. However, official records only note 31 burials at Boot Hill cemetery.
When USF anthropologists started probing the 1400 acre property for graves, they found 45-50 graves. Their research also indicates that 31 of the 98 bodies were sent elsewhere for burial. This leaves 15-20 bodies unaccounted for. When they found remains from 55 people, this exceeded even their expectations.
USF professor Erin Kimmerle, who is head of this project told The Florida Current, “This is precisely why excavation was necessary. The only way to truly establish the facts about the deaths and burials at the school is to follow scientific processes.”
Members of 12 families who lost boys at Dozier have donated samples for DNA sampling, and researchers hope to find 42 more families for possible matching. The remains and the samples were sent to the University of North Texas’s Center for Human Identification for testing.
Excavations will resume at Dozier in the coming months.