The first set of 55 remains unearthed from graves at the now closed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys have been identified by the anthropology team at the University of South Florida (USF).
The researchers used DNA and other tests to identify the remains of George Owen Smith They said Owen’s DNA matched a sample taken from his now 86-year-old sister, Ovell Krell.
The USF team said Owen’s body was found in a hastily-buried grave wrapped only in a burial shroud, but they couldn’t say how he died. Erin Kimmerle, the lead researcher and an associate anthropology professor, told The Washington Post there is no death certificate for Owen, only a school roster and old newspaper clips that report the school’s official story of how he died.
Here is a link to an undated photo of Owen, who ended up at the reform school at the age of 14 in 1940 for his alleged role in a car theft. Shortly after arriving to the reform school, Owen wrote his family about an escape attempt and his subsequent punishment. After that letter his family never heard from him again.
When Owen’s mother wrote the school’s superintendent in December 1940 to ask about her son she got a letter back that said they didn’t know where he was. In January 1941, officials from the reform school told his family that Owen’s body was found under a house where he died of exposure. Later, a fellow student, who was allegedly with Owen during a second escape attempt, told Krell her brother was shot at by three men with rifles during the escape.
When the family traveled to Marianna to claim his body, they were led to an unmarked grave. His sister Ovell Krell said her mother never accepted that her son was dead and spent the rest of her life waiting for him to come home.
“We may never know the full circumstances of what happened to Owen or why his case was handled the way it was,” Kimmerle said in a news release reported by ABC News. “But we do know that he now will be buried under his own name and beside family members who longed for answers.”
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.
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.
Official records show 31 burials at the school, but researchers found the remains of 55 people during excavations from September to December of 2013. University officials said all the bodies found were interred in coffins that were either made at the school or purchased from manufacturers. Some of the graves were found under roads or trees, far away from the school’s 31 “official” graves at the “Boot Hill” cemetery.
Since the team only excavated about five acres of the property’s 1,400 acres during the four month excavation, officials said it’s unclear if there are other burials elsewhere on the school’s property.
The USF team continues to seek DNA matches. Samples from the remains and possible family members were sent to he University of North Texas Health Science Center for DNA matching.
Boy identified from remains found in abandoned Florida reform school. (2014) Retrieved on August 7th, 2014 from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/07/florida-body-identified-reform-dozier-school-graveyard
Bever, L. (2014). First of 55 bodies buried at Florida reform school identified. Researchers seek more DNA matches. Retrieved on April 11th, 2014 from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/08/11/first-of-55-bodies-buried-at-florida-reform-school-identified/?tid=hp_mm
Leone, J. (2014). 1st Set of Remains ID’d From Florida Reform School. Retrieved on August 7th, 2014 from: http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/researchers-id-boy-buried-fla-school-1940-24884628