Thomas Varnadoe’s nephew was the first to ask how the uncle he never met had died from pneumonia at the age of 13 just a month after entering a Florida reformatory school in perfect health, as staff members had told his parents. According to them, Thomas died on October 26, 1934; they never returned his body to his family. This Thursday, almost 80 years later, anthropologists at the University of South Florida identified Thomas among the remains of 55 children discovered in the institution’s cemetery in December 2013. Only 31 bodies were supposed to have been buried there. Thomas is the third boy to be identified on a list of boarders who died under mysterious circumstances at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys between 1914 and 1952.
Arthur G. Dozier, located in the town of Marianna in Florida, was founded in January 1900 and closed in June 2011 because of budget constraints. For a century, it served as a training school for problem youngsters – most of them black – when there were no prisons in the area. Then it became an industrial school and detention center for delinquent youths. The school, which was always under the supervision of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, fell under investigation at least 10 times for subjecting the boys to brutal punishments, including beatings, whippings and confinement.
Earl was allegedly killed
During the press conference announcing this most recent discovery, Glen Varnadoe, Thomas’s nephew, said, “I am overwhelmed that we have achieved the goal we originally set of removing him from this atrocity-laden ground. It gives me great pleasure and spiritual relief that Thomas will not spend eternity in the humanly demeaning surroundings, but will rest in peace in eternity with his brothers and family members who have never forgotten him.”
Glen began searching for answers about his uncle’s death more than 20 years ago. Thomas and his brother, Hubert, Glen’s father, were sent to Marianna after they were accused of “malicious violation of private property” for entering a neighbor’s yard without permission. Thomas died 34 days after he entered the reformatory. Hubert told the family that he, the priest, and a gravedigger were the only ones present at the funeral. He never talked about the incident again.
Thomas died 34 days after arriving at the reformatory
In 2012, when the school was auctioned off, Glen Varnadoe sued the state, forcing authorities to suspend the sale until a publicly funded University of South Florida team of anthropologists could determine how many children were buried in its grounds. The group finished its first excavation in 2013. They found 55 children’s bodies in the Boot Hill Cemetery where only 31 graves had been registered. The remains were sent to laboratories at the University of Texas where experts are comparing them to DNA samples from 12 families who are still looking for their relatives.
Thomas’s grave was on the edge of the woods, very near to that of Owen Smith. Smith was the first boy to be identified by forensic experts in August. He was 14 years old when he died. Owen and Thomas were both buried in simple wooden coffins with no adornments or handles; the level of decomposition of the bones has made it impossible to determine their real cause of death.
The second child to be identified is Earl Wilson, a 12-year-old African-American boy. According to the school’s pathologist, he died on August 31, 1944 after receiving a strong blow to the head. Earl was allegedly killed by four of the other nine boys with whom he shared a small cell. During the trial, they said Earl had died of asphyxiation as a bat was pressed against this throat. The trial lasted a day and the boys involved – William, Charles, Robert and Floyd, who were between 11 and 17 years of age and all African American – were convicted to life in prison.
Arthur G. Dozier School fell under investigation more than 10 times for brutal punishments
Earl Wilson’s grave was unmarked. His arms were lying by his side and no clothing or shroud was found among the remains. “When he died, Earl suffered from a severe pathology in his left ear known as mastoiditis, a middle-ear infection that is severe enough to affect the bone tissue around it,” explained Dr Erin Kimmerle, who is leading the team of 50 anthropologists taking part in the investigation. “None of the head injuries linked to his death and aired during the trial could be identified because of the damage to the tissues over time,” she continued.
Florida State authorities have agreed to finance the investigation for a further year so that researchers can search other areas of the school grounds where more bodies may be buried. They will resume work in October. “This investigation has just begun. There are still many mysteries left out there,” Florida’s Democrat Senator Bill Nelson said to the families who have been waiting for the bodies of their sons and brothers for decades.
Translation: Dyane Jean François