An empty coffin in Philadelphia creates more questions about notorious Florida reform school [UPDATE]

On Tuesday October 7th a research team from the University of South Florida (USF) exhumed a grave in Philadelphia belonging to Thomas Curry, a boy who died under “suspicious circumstances” in 1925. This excavation was related to the continuing investigation of the infamous Dozier School for Boys, a reform school in Marianna, FL.

The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys was a reform school in the Florida panhandle opened in 1900 and closed in 2011 following a DOJ investigation. The “school” was notorious for abusing its students and was plagued with horrifying allegations of torture and murder. Some former students have accused former employees and guards of physical and sexual abuse.

Thomas Curry was 17 years old when he was sentenced to the reform school in 1925, but he attempted to escape after 29 days. According to school records Curry was “killed on RR Bridge Chattahoochee, Fla.”   Curry’s death certificate from the Chattahoochee coroner says that he died of a crushed skull from an “unknown cause.”

The school shipped Curry’s body on a train to his grandmother in Philadelphia. After a service at a Catholic church, his body was buried in an unmarked grave, on top of his great grandparents, at the Old Cathedral Cemetery in West Philadelphia.  But no one at Dozier reported his death to the state.

A couple weeks ago a court order was granted allowing Curry’s exhumation saying he died “under suspicious circumstances while escaping Dozier twenty-nine days after arriving,”

When the USF team reached the casket they found that the thumbscrews used to seal it were identical to the ones used in caskets found in the reform school cemetery. Inside was a pile of wood but no signs of human remains or clothes.  Investigators thought at first they exhumed the wrong grave until they located Curry’s great-grandparents underneath.

If a fraction of the allegations against the school are true then it wouldn’t be beyond corrupt officials to send back an unoccupied casket to a grieving family to conceal a crime.

Cpl. Tom McAndrew of the Pennsylvania State Police, who was present when Curry’s grave was opened, says that the investigation into the school has revealed “decades and decades of efforts to deceive, coverups, and not just by one but by many people” and this empty burial suggests that school officials planned to mislead Curry’s family,

Forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, head of the USF team, hopes that Curry’s remains are among the unidentified bodies that were excavated from the school’s cemetery last year, and to positively identify the remains using DNA samples she obtained from one of his cousins.

So far Kimmerle and her team have identified the bodies of three boys:

George Owen Smith, 14, 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.

Thomas Varnadoe who reportedly died of pneumonia in 1934 when he was 13 years old.

Earl Wilson, 12, was beaten to death in 1944, allegedly by four other boys while in the “sweat box,” an isolated cottage on the property.


McLaughlin, E.C. (2014). Did Florida boys school officials send family a casket filled with wood? Retrieved on October 19th, 2014 from:

The Associated Press. (2014). Decades-old coffin found empty in Dozier School case. Retrieved on October 19th, 2014 from:

Categories: Forensic Science, News

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