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Dozier School Victim's Casket Opened; No Body Found

Oct 8, 2014

Both the University of South Florida and the Tampa Bay Times are reporting that USF researchers sent to exhume the body of a boy who was killed at the infamous Dozier School for Boys in Marianna and buried in a Pennsylvania cemetery found nothing when they opened the casket.

Workers excavate the casket at the Pennsylvania cemetery
Credit Katy Hennig/University of South Florida

Nothing, except for a few pieces of wood.

Here's what the Times wrote:

The discovery shocked the researchers, Philadelphia archdiocese officials, the Pennsylvania state police troopers helping, and the local assistant district attorney, who expressed his exasperation with quiet expletives as he paced around the burial shaft.

"Where is he?" asked Pennsylvania state police Cpl. Thomas McAndrew.

"I just can't believe it," said USF forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, who is leading the research. "It defies logic."

The boy's name was Thomas Curry.

He was found dead in 1925 with his skull crushed from an unknown cause, according to the coroner's report at the time. He was found along railroad tracks near Chattahoochee, after he was trying to run away from the Dozier school. He'd been there less than a month.

USF researchers, led by anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, were at the Old Cathedral Cemetery in West Philadelphia.

Here's a statement from USF:

“As part of USF’s continued research into the history, deaths and burials that occurred at the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, in Marianna, Fla. our research team was granted permission to excavate Thomas Curry from a Philadelphia, Pa. cemetery. 

In 1925, Curry, 18, reportedly died after escaping from the school, less than a month after he was first admitted.  Several historical records list different injuries at the time of his death, including “wound to forehead” and “crushed skull cause unknown.”  According to cemetery records in Philadelphia, school officials reported to them that he was hit by a train. 

In order to better understand and document the nature of injury and circumstances surrounding his death, on Tuesday members of our research team excavated Curry’s burial for the purpose of a skeletal autopsy. Skeletal trauma analysis is a tool that may help establish facts about the cause of death as well as clarify the official record, in hopes of helping his family find answers and allowing the State of Florida to have a full accounting of the events that occurred at the school. 

Though multiple historical records indicate Curry was buried in Pennsylvania, the casket for Curry was excavated, however no remains were present.  Efforts will continue to locate the remains of Thomas Curry. 

We are grateful for the local, state and national support of our ongoing research.  In particular we’d like to thank Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Brendan O’Malley, Pennsylvania State Corporal Thomas McAndrew, Philadelphia Chief Medical Examiner Sam Gulino, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (PA) and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (FL) and representatives of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, for making this step in the research possible.”

USF anthropologist Erin Kimmerle brings out pieces of wood from the casket
Credit Katy Hennig/University of South Florida

Last month, Kimmerle's team announced they had identified the remains of Thomas Varnadoe and Earl Wilson, the first African-American student identified.

Kimmerle’s team used ground penetrating radar and other methods to map the school's graveyard, finding more grave shafts than school records and previous investigations had said there were. The researchers exhumed remains from 55 shafts last year, and began trying to match DNA from the remains with that of relatives of boys who had died at the School, many under suspicious circumstances.

So far, three boys have been identified. The third was 14-year-old George Owen Smith.