In a cemetery on the outskirts of Philadelphia, a group of police troopers and scientists gather round a grave. They’re on the hunt for clues to a sinister mystery that started more than 1,000 miles away. Slowly, they prize open the lid of a coffin sealed almost a century before – but what they find will raise more questions than it answers.
In October 2014 a team of forensic anthropologists based at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, began excavations at the Old Cathedral Cemetery in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Their aim was to exhume the body of Thomas Curry, a young boy who died in 1925.
Erin Kimmerle, head of the research team, hoped that Curry’s remains could shed some light on the events that occurred at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, where he had been a student up until the time of his death. For more than 100 years, the facility has been at the heart of a sinister saga of abuse and neglect.
The Dozier School opened its doors in 1900 as a reform school for juvenile delinquents. But as early as 1903, reports began to emerge that the young, male residents were being kept in some cruel and unusual conditions.
Over the years, in fact, various inspections revealed some disturbing scenes at the school. At the beginning of the 20th century, for example, boys were allegedly discovered confined to shackles. And a decade later, six youths died in a fire while the adults in charge were enjoying a night on the town.
According to the students who lived at the school, meanwhile, beatings were frequent and severe. Accounts claim that, every day, boys would be taken to a small outbuilding known as the White House and administered lashings with a leather strap.
Indeed, several former students and staff members have spoken of beatings so bad that the victims’ clothing became embedded in their flesh. Some also told of violent manhunts conducted for boys who tried to escape and of the harsh punishments they would face when caught.
In June 2011, meanwhile, the Dozier School was closed by the state, which put the decision down to financial difficulties. However, just six months later, the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division released a report condemning the conditions at the school.
According to officials, 31 young boys died while in residence, over the course of the school’s 111-year history. But recent research by Kimmerle and her colleagues has suggested that this statistic is just the tip of the iceberg.
Thomas Curry was one of the young men who died during his time at Dozier. Having escaped the school and gone on the run, he was seemingly hit by a train and killed on tracks around 20 miles away. Or at least that’s what the Old Cathedral Cemetery records cite as his official cause of death.
According to Curry’s Florida death certificate, however, he suffered blunt force trauma to his skull from an unknown force. Still, whatever the circumstances around his mysterious death, his coffin was subsequently shipped to Philadelphia – where his grandmother lived – to be interred there.
While investigating the alleged abuse at Dozier, then, Kimmerle and her team began excavating a makeshift cemetery, known as Boot Hill, in the school grounds. Unfortunately, however, the remains were badly decayed. But having traced Curry’s body to Philadelphia, Kimmerle hoped that it might be in a better state of preservation – and more likely to yield valuable information about the circumstances surrounding his death.
And after having gained permission from the state of Pennsylvania to dig, Kimmerle and her colleagues then began the delicate work of exhuming Curry’s grave. Indeed, they dug six feet down through the earth and eventually came across a wooden casket.
At first, things looked promising, too. Not only was the casket still partially intact, but the screws used to hold it shut were identical to ones that had already been recovered from the graves at Boot Hill.
Nevertheless, when they finally took a look inside, the scientists were in for a shock. Why? Because instead of housing Curry’s decaying body, the casket was filled with nothing but planks of wood.
Surprisingly, too, there was no evidence that the casket had ever contained any human remains. Indeed, there were no traces of hair or clothing to be found, leading Kimmerle to theorize that Curry’s body had in fact never been sent to Philadelphia at all. “I can’t say he was absolutely never there,” she told CBS News in October 2014, “but I can say that it’s likely.”
So, without a body to investigate, Kimmerle returned to Dozier and Boot Hill. There, she hoped to compare samples of DNA from Curry’s family with unidentified remains from the school cemetery to see if the boy’s body had been buried there after all.
Then in January 2016, after four years of research at the school, Kimmerle and her colleagues published their findings in a report. Based on their investigations, they concluded that more than 100 boys died at Dozier between the start of the 20th century and 1973.
Still, although evidence against the school is mounting up, those who allegedly oversaw abuse may never see the inside of a courtroom. Back in 2010, for example, a group of former Dozier students calling themselves the White House Boys attempted to sue the state, but the case was thrown out of court for being past the statute of limitations.
Today, then, the focus is on identifying the dead and attempting to provide closure for people such as Ovell Smith Krell. Krell’s brother George died after escaping Dozier in 1940, and she subsequently spent the next seven decades hunting for his remains. Now, thanks to Kimmerle, who identified George’s remains among those found at Boot Hill, Krell finally has an answer to the mystery that has haunted her all those years. However, many other mysteries – such as the final resting place of Curry – might remain buried forever.