USF Anthropology Team Identifies 2 More Sets of Human Remains From Infamous Reform School [Update]

Dining hall construction with

Dining hall construction with “White House” in background, 1936. Image Credit: Wikipedia

The anthropology team from the University of South Florida (USF) has positively identified two more sets of remains exhumed from graves on the property once belonging to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys: 13-year-old Thomas Varnadoe and 12-year-old Earl Wilson.

Thomas Varnadoe (pictured here) reportedly died of pneumonia in 1934. He was reportedly sent to the school for stealing a typewriter.  Earl Wilson was beaten to death in 1944, allegedly by four other boys while in the “sweat box,” an isolated cottage on the property. The boys accused of Wilson’s murder were convicted in his death.

In August of 2014 the USF team announced they identified the remains of George Owen Smith, the first of 55 bodies exhumed the school property. 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.  Official school records state that Owen died of exposure in 1940 during an escape attempt.

Owen 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 stating that the school didn’t know where he was.  In January 1941, officials told Owen’s family that he had crawled under a house during an escape attempt, where he died of exposure.  Later, a fellow student, who was allegedly with Owen during a second escape attempt, told Owen’s family that he was shot at by three men with rifles during the escape.

The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys was an infamous reform school in the Florida panhandle opened in 1900. It was closed 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. Some former students, who were at the school in the 1950s and 1960s, have accused former employees and guards of physical and sexual abuse. After an investigation the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded that it couldn’t substantiate or dispute the claims “because too much time had passed.”

Former Dozier inmates from that period call themselves “The White House Boys,” a name referring to the white building where they say the worst abuse happened. Official records indicate 31 burials at the school, but researchers found the remains of 55 people during excavations from September to December of 2013.  Some of the graves were found under roads or trees, far away from the school’s 31 “official” graves at the “Boot Hill” cemetery.  USF officials said all the bodies found were interred in coffins that were either made at the school or purchased from manufacturers.

Pictures of the “confinement cottage” and the area excavated can be see here.

Researchers are continuing the work to identify the other remains recovered from the unmarked graves. Samples from the remains and possible family members were sent to he University of North Texas Health Science Center for DNA matching.


Lush, T. (2014). Two more sets of remains from Dozier School for Boys identified.  Retrieved on September 25, 2014 from:

Parentau, C (2014). 2 more sets of remains from reform school ID’d. Retrieved on September 25, 2014 from:

Categories: Forensic Science, News

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2 replies

  1. Thank you for keeping us up to date on this tragic event, and well done for the anthropologists for being able to positively ID some of the remains.


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