During its 111 years in operation, at least 80 young men died at the Dozier School for Boys in the Panhandle city of Marianna. Some died in fires, some from health problems, and some from violence.
Last year, citing budget cuts, the state closed the reform school.
However, decades of allegations of torture and abuse mar the school's legacy--as does the fact that some of the boys who died there found their final resting place in the unmarked graves of the campus’ Boot Hill Cemetery.
“Today there are 31 metal crosses in rows to commemorate the 31 boys that are believed to be buried there," USF forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle tells USF News. "But what’s sort of unknown is whether those crosses really correspond to actual graves.”
Kimmerle, who's been in the news recently for her investigation into a 1971 Tarpon Springs cold case, is now trying to uncover the secrets of Boot Hill.
“I think that the fact that there have been family members who’ve come forward and been very public about what happened to their brothers, their uncles, and the fact that they’re seeking information and really asking for repatriation, their voice should be heard.”
So a team of USF archaeologists, historians, biologists and anthropologists went to work. They first looked into the history of the site, going through historical photographs, maps, and soil profiles. They also speak to people who were there at the time of the burials and go through similar statements from people who are now dead.
"That gives us sort of a formula to make certain expectations,” Kimmerle says.
Once at the cemetery, the team broke the area down with a grid, and then went to work with ground penetrating radar (GPR).
Richard Estabrook, the regional director of the Florida Public Archaeology Network, described how the device, which resembles a lawn tiller with a small monitor on top, works.
“It basically sends a radar pulse into the ground and gives us a picture or at least an impression of what’s below the surface," said Estabrook, a faculty member in the USF Department of Archaeology. "It can be anything from the roots from these trees to graves to pieces of metal to pieces of concrete.”
Estabrook says this technology doesn’t just save time and money—it also saves history.
“Archaeology is destruction. No matter how well excavated a site is, no matter how meticulous you are taking notes, no matter how many artifacts you collect, no matter how many things you do, you destroy the site in the process. The GPR and remote sensing allows us to work on sites, tease some data from those sites, but still preserve them for future generations and future researchers.”
Once the GPR spots anomalies, Kimmerle’s graduate students perform “ground-truthing”: digging trenches to look for more clues.
“So the intention is to not disturb the actual burial itself," Kimmerle said, "but to look at the layers of soil above the grave and use that to indicate where the ground has been disturbed and where it’s natural.”
The team has returned to USF to analyze the data and begin putting together a more detailed plot map. And while they can’t go back and perform excavations of the graves without permission from the boys’ family members, at least figuring out the location and number of graves might put them on the right path.
“There are questions that the public and families have and hopefully this will answer some of those questions,” Kimmerle said.