The Florida School for Boys, opened at the turn of the 20th century, was supposed to provide a new start for troubled young men who had committed crimes ranging from theft to rape. Instead, it was the beginning of a horrifying, 111-year-long chapter of Florida history that has yielded troubling revelations to this day.
Twenty-seven geological “anomalies consistent with possible graves” based on their shape and size were discovered by a contractor near the now-shuttered school, according to an April 10 letter issued by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to Jackson County officials and obtained by The Washington Post.
More than 50 sets of human remains had previously been exhumed by researchers from a small cemetery on the grounds.
DeSantis’s letter explains that a contractor employed by Geosyntec, an environmental cleanup company, was using radar to survey the grounds when they found the “anomalies.” Given the history of the site, the company issued a report to the Department of Environmental Protection, recommending the area be treated as graves until further testing could be done.
DeSantis directed state officials to work with Jackson County “as a first step to understanding and addressing these preliminary findings” and vowed to “ensure this issue is handled with the utmost sensitivity and care.”
The Tampa Bay Times first reported the contents of the letter Friday.
The school opened in the Florida Panhandle town of Marianna on Jan. 1, 1900, and disturbing stories began to emerge almost immediately afterward. Decades of reports detail how boys were dragged into a building called the “White House,” where they were flogged and beaten bloody by school staff. Children were chained or tied up, forced into solitary confinement or attacked by violent peers. Others allegedly suffered sexual abuse by staff or other boys. Those who tried to run away faced severe corporal punishment. Some survivors were haunted by the memory of a “one-armed man” who distributed lashings.
Some of the boys who entered the notorious reform school never came out.
A 15-year-old boy named Thomas Curry died just 29 days after arriving at the school in 1925, according to a 2016 report by the University of South Florida on deaths and burials at the school. He had tried to run away, and a coroner’s report states that he “came to his death from a wound to the forehead, skull crushed from unknown cause.” Though his remains were reportedly shipped to his grandmother in Philadelphia, testing and research conclude he may have actually been buried at the school’s Boot Hill Burial Ground.
In April 1960, another boy, Robert Hewitt, attempted to escape. His cause of death was documented as “gunshot wounds in chest inflicted by person or persons unknown."
In three cases documented by researchers, boys were killed by other boys at the school. Others perished in a 1914 fire or died of illnesses such as influenza. However, the reasons for several deaths remain unknown.
Those who survived the brutality remained haunted by their experience long after they left.
“I’ll be laying in bed,” a former student, Eddie Horn, told the Times in 2009, “and I can feel the pain from where they beat me.”
Nearly 100 deaths took place at the school between 1900 and 1973, according to the report, many of which went undocumented by the school or unreported to the state. Researchers excavated 55 graves on the grounds — far more than the state had previously known about. Some of the remains, but not all, have been identified.
Much work would need to be done to verify that the newly discovered anomalies were, indeed, graves. Erin Kimmerle, a member of the team that investigated the burials, told CBS News that “from a forensic and archaeological perspective, additional fieldwork is critically important to establish if these are in fact burials, the actual number, and context."
She noted to CBS News that the historical record did not support the existence of another burial ground.