TAMPA — There wasn't much left of the boys.
By the time she came for them and brought them up from the earth and spread them on tables in a basement lab on Maple Drive in Tampa, they were in hundreds of pieces, some as small as a fingernail. All that remained of some of them could fit inside a lunch box.
It took imagination to remember that they were boys once, before their childhoods ran out at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, before they were buried without the dignity of headstones, before they were lost to time. All 55 of them were, in the cold language of forensics, unidentified human remains.
Erin Kimmerle wanted to give them their names back.
Never miss a local story.
She'd been working 14-hour days through January, February and March, stressing about finding time for teaching and advising on top of leading this massive project. She'd been missing her family, too. When her cell phone rang, the word BABE popped onto the screen — Mike, her husband. "Hey, babe," she'd sing, and walk out of earshot to get updates on school activities and runny noses.
When she started the project in 2012, her goal had been to map the cemetery on the reform school campus so that family would know where their relatives were buried. It would take a year, tops. But when ground penetrating radar showed 50 graves, 19 more than the state had said, and when families wanted the remains of their boys back, it became a mission.
Now she was in her third year. Now she had 55 sets of remains. Now she was trying to piece the boys back together, bone fragment by bone fragment, to figure out who they were and, she hoped, how they died.
She needed the bones to speak.
Her team that day in March, an attractive crew of graduate students, was busy around the lab on the campus of the University of South Florida. One was scraping tooth enamel to do isotope analysis, hoping to determine where a kid came from based on minerals in his teeth. Two other students had glued together a skull from dozens of broken bone shards to take a three-dimensional image of it so they could superimpose muscle and skin to see what the boy might have looked like. Another was analyzing the artifacts found in the graves, trying to date coffin handles and nails by their design. A faded label on a bottle of embalming fluid found beside a body, for instance, revealed it was made between 1931 and 1940. Archaeologists found two coins where a boy's eyes would have been, dated 1916 and 1917, clues to when he had been buried. As to how the boys died? There were no clear reasons, not yet. The found a bullet slug, but it was from the skull of a pig dumped in the woods.
Kimmerle picked up a sand-colored bone the size of a Matchbox car.
"See here," she said, pointing to a series of pinholes surrounding what would have been a boy's ear canal. "That's porosity. It's evidence of chronic ear infections. And if you have the same issues in the palate, or the eye sockets, it's indicative of nutritional issues, like scurvy."
The work is slow and tedious, not sexy. But analyzing remains can reveal a lot about the life the deceased lived. A tooth, for instance, can give you an age within a year or two.
Nearby, Ashley Maxwell, 27, peered into a microscope hovering over a molar.
"I can't tell whether that tiny crater is a cavity or something else," she said.
"His wear pattern is very interesting," Kimmerle said. "That's not just from teeth grinding or chewing food. It looks like if you chewed on something else, something harder."
"I would wash all of these with water," she said. "Brush his teeth."
A big chart took up most of one wall in the lab and they slowly filled it with information from the artifacts and remains. They hoped to find distinct matches, to one day be able to say specific bones belonged to Nollie Davis or Grady Huff or Thomas Varnadoe. To be sure, they were also shipping teeth and bone fragments to the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, Texas for genetic testing. Kimmerle planned to have them all shipped by May.
Then they'd wait.
• • •
There's a photograph of Thomas Varnadoe, a black and white family portrait taken late in 1925. Thomas is 4 years old, wearing a Peter Pan collar and breeches and he's squinting against the light. He's barefoot like his big brother, Hubert, who's standing behind Thomas. It's the only photograph of Thomas his family has.
The Hernando County sheriff came for Thomas and Hubert nine years later, in 1934. They'd been accused of stealing a typewriter from an old maid and they were charged with "malicious trespassing." They were not represented by a lawyer, nor were they tried. Their parents protested, but couldn't stop the sheriff, who shipped the boys that September north to the Marianna reformatory, which by then had a brick-making plant, printing press and farm, all of which relied on child labor.
Thirty-four days later, Thomas, 13, who left home in good health, was dead. The campus newspaper, the Yellow Jacket, reported the news under a front-page story about the school's productive dairy farm.
Thomas Varnadoe Claimed By Death
On Thursday, October 26, at 2:51 p.m., Thomas Varnadoe, age 13, succumbed to an attack of pneumonia which had been threatening his life for several days.
Thomas had been in ill health for several years, but his health seemed to be improving after his arrival at the school on September 22. On Sunday, October 21, he went to the school hospital complaining that he was feeling bad and was kept there and given medical attention. The little fellow's vitality was so greatly lowered from his protracted illness that he failed to respond readily to treatment and later developed pneumonia.
Thomas is the son of Mr. and Mrs. T.H. Varnadoe of Hernando county. Upon his arrival at the school he was placed in Cottage One, and assigned to the Yard Crew for work. He has a brother, Hubert, in Cottage Three at the present time.
Funeral services were held on Saturday, October 27, at the school cemetery. Dr. C.B. Toombs, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Marianna, conducted the services.
The Aces of the school acted as pallbearers, and a large number of the officers of the school were present.
The article was wrong on two counts. Oct. 26 was a Friday. And when Hubert came home nine months later, he told his mother that he, a minister and a gravedigger alone attended his brother's burial.
• • •
The good people of Jackson County were fed up.
Five white dignitaries, all former Jackson County Chamber of Commerce "Citizen of the Year" winners, gathered in front of the county courthouse in Marianna, not far from a Confederate monument and not far from an oak tree where a black farmhand was lynched in front of 2,000 people on Oct. 26, 1934, the same day Thomas Varnadoe died. They complained that out-of-towners were sullying their reputation.
"As a citizen of Jackson County, I think we need to reverse this a little bit," said Royce Reagan, a former school band leader, "and quit letting outsiders come in here and stir up something that is not the truth."
The Dozier story was huge. The BBC, NPR, Der Spiegel, the New York Times — most major news outlets had covered the exhumations. Most had quoted at least a few of the White House Boys, a group of men who named themselves after the squat cinder block building where they had been beaten bloody with a weighted leather strap in the 1950s and '60s. They hated Marianna, the City of Southern Charm, the place that harbored their abusers.
The citizens of the year blamed the media for unfairly linking Marianna and Jackson County to Dozier. But they also defended the school and tried to discredit the former wards.
"For five years we've heard the same allegations over and over and over and over, with no factual basis behind them," said Dale Cox, a local historian who had launched a blog to defend the school. "You should afford the people of this community the same treatment that you give a bunch of former juvenile delinquents who come up here and make wild allegations that have been proved to be incorrect."
"It infuriates me that former students would come in and make the accusations that they've made without substantiating the proof," said Dee Callaway Helton, a former nurse at Dozier. "Prove it."
It had been proven, over and over again, for a century. There was congressional testimony of former employees, class-action lawsuits, federal investigations, newspaper and magazine exposés.
When the state outlawed corporal punishment in the late 1960s, the reform school superintendent refused to quit whipping boys. He was fired, but people of Jackson County protested enough to get him reinstated. A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Christian Science Monitor who had visited Marianna tried to explain in testimony before Congress: "I talked to several officials, and they all seemed to favor the beating of children."
Dale Cox was leading the current protest. He was obsessed with undermining Erin Kimmerle and blasting inaccurate media coverage. But he'd made some big mistakes. In 2009, he was confident there were 31 burials, like state investigators said. "As I have been reporting here all along, there are no 'mystery graves' or 'unmarked graves' in the little cemetery near Dozier School in Marianna," he wrote on his blog. This was, of course, before USF found 55.
He posted on his blog an aerial photo that he said proved most of the graves were there before 1940. But the aerial didn't match up to the Boot Hill cemetery. Some USF grad students rotated the image and it fit into a different part of campus, far south of Boot Hill.
Back in Tampa, Erin Kimmerle read about the press conference in front of the Jackson County courthouse. The local backlash rattled at her, but she had support. She'd heard from Marianna ministers and politicians and the NAACP. She believed she was doing what was just, that families were entitled to bury their boys as they saw fit. It was a fundamental human right. It's what motivates the U.S. government to spend millions to find and bring home soldiers killed overseas. It's what stirred American Indian tribes to demand their ancestors from the Smithsonian, where Kimmerle had once worked. We have a right to know what happened, to memorialize, so we don't repeat. For her, that's what this was about.
• • •
He finally had a face. Or an approximation of a face.
Kimmerle had finished gluing skull fragments together, like a jigsaw puzzle, so it could be scanned into a computer. Then she added flesh.
And now the reconstructed face of an African American boy about 11 years old had muscle and skin, lips and eyeballs and a nose. He looked like the kid down the street. And on April 15, he stared out from a poster board at a room full of reporters gathered in downtown Tampa, where Sen. Bill Nelson was clearing his throat and stepping up to a bundle of microphones.
"Knowing that there was segregation there, I think where she has excavated is the cemetery for the African-Americans," said the senator, flanked by Kimmerle and Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee. "And on the south side, I think eventually they're going to find another cemetery, because back then they did not bury the two races together."
Kimmerle and her team had analyzed the bone structure of seven sets of remains. All of them were African-American. That could have been coincidence, or it could've been because the Boot Hill cemetery was reserved for black boys, which would mean there was another graveyard on the 1,400-acre property.
Kimmerle, far less comfortable in front of a microphone, was letting Nelson draw the conclusions. But she had already been thinking of the project along racial lines. She knew from school records by then that more than three times as many black boys were sentenced to Marianna as whites, and that more black boys died in custody than whites. That's also in a state where, from 1900, when the school opened, to 1930, Florida's per capita lynching rate was twice that of Mississippi, Georgia or Louisiana.
"We owe it to the families to get to the bottom of this," Nelson said.
She had to go back to Jackson County.
• • •
The bones arrived in Fort Worth, Texas, in a big cardboard box marked FRAGILE and THIS SIDE UP! A young man fetched them from the loading dock and wheeled them to the elevator and up to the sixth floor of the UNT Health Science Center here in Fort Worth, where, on a Tuesday morning in May, they were spread atop what looked like little blue diapers. A bone saw buzzed and scientists wearing rubber gloves and medical masks hovered over clear glass cases.
This is Art Eisenberg's lab, and his life's work. A pioneer in DNA identification, the 58-year-old helped launch the Texas Missing Persons DNA Database in 2001, the first crime lab in the country dedicated to the identification of human remains from victims of violent crimes. That evolved into the UNT Center for Human Identification.
Eisenberg has worked all kinds of cases. Identified victims of serial killers like John Wayne Gacy and the Green River Killer. Helped with Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina. Mass killings overseas.
"I've always loved a whodunnit," he said. "Trying to find the answer."
But the Dozier cases may be his biggest challenge. First, there are the samples.
"They're very deteriorated, very old, and they're not able to withstand the cutting and sanding," said Dixie Peters, who runs the bone-cutting lab here. "But we weren't expecting to get beautiful, what we call 'full profiles.' "
The bigger problem is the lack of comparison samples. USF and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office detectives were able to track down family for fewer than 10 boys.
"Statistically, the chance of making identification is remote," Eisenberg said.
A lot would hinge on what they call Cut Day.
Scientists were sanding the bone to remove dirt and debris, then cutting the bone — one small piece for testing, one for the archives. They decontaminated the pieces with bleach and water and ethanol, and then ground them to a fine powder to ready them for the DNA extraction.
Krystle Rodriguez, 31, an analyst on the Unidentified Remains Team here, watched from the hallway. When the fragments were so small and the science so clinical, it's easy to forget that these remains were once people.
"That's somebody," she said, looking through the glass.
To get the unique genetic material inside the cells, scientists add a solution to decalcify the bone powder and a detergent to pop open the cells. The scientists are looking for both types of DNA: nuclear and the longer-lasting mitochondrial. Nearly every cell in the human body has 46 chromosomes in the nucleus which hold most of the information, inherited from both your parents, about who you are. Outside the nucleus live hundreds of mitochondria, tiny energy-producing organs, which contain only the mother's DNA. A mother has the same mitochondrial profile as her children, and if her daughter has children, theirs would be the same, too.
This is important because nuclear DNA degrades at least twice as fast as mitochondrial DNA, and some of the remains from the Dozier school were 100 years old.
If the boys aren't identified by DNA, their biological profile will be entered into databases for missing and unidentified persons. Until 2007, no one really knew how many unidentified dead there were in the United States. That year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics surveyed 2,000 medical examiners across the country who said they had a total of 13,486 unidentified remains in their morgues. That was just MEs, so they knew there were more. Some estimate there are 40,000.
But they're slowly being identified, even old, forgotten cases.
"We deal with so many families that have been searching for decades," said B.J. Spamer, director of training and analysis for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Maybe folks will turn to the database decades from now, looking for a great-uncle who was sent to the Dozier School for Boys and never returned.
"The best thing we can hope for is to make some identifications," Eisenberg said. "Then it's up to the anthropologists to determine cause of death."
• • •
Thomas Varnadoe's Brooksville parents weren't given the chance to claim his remains, nor were they invited to Marianna to see their son's body into the ground.
The bit in the school newspaper about his "protracted illness" sounded to his family like a cover-up. Thomas wasn't sickly like the story said.
His brother Hubert came home deathly afraid of authority. He never drove over the speed limit, even on Hernando County back roads. Every time a police officer walked into the car dealership where he worked, he'd disappear into the rear office, said his brother Richard, 85.
The family didn't talk about Thomas' death, not until time had given them some distance. But Glen Varnadoe, Thomas' nephew, had a theory on how Thomas died, and it didn't involve pneumonia. "I believe he was beaten to death." Glen said.
In the 1990s, Glen drove to Marianna to find Thomas' grave. He remembered that a man — Glen can't recall what position he held — drove him to a graveyard across campus, Boot Hill.
"There's been a lot of kids buried up here," he remembered the man saying. The man seemed embarrassed about the overgrown cemetery. They climbed back into the pickup, drove a short distance and stopped at a clearing. "We believe there's six or seven other graves over here," the man said.
• • •
In late July, a man named Charlie Fudge pulled up to the front gate at the Dozier School for Boys. He hadn't been back in five decades, but Erin Kimmerle needed his help. She was trying to find a second cemetery.
An old man came out of the guard shack carrying a clipboard and pen and introduced himself as one of the last employees of a place that was open for 111 years. The buildings are dark now, but they keep him on because it's still state property, and even the 13-foot fence and razor wire wouldn't keep out looters if no one was watching.
He said it's spooky here at night. There are strange shadows.
Fudge signed his name on thelog.
"Now, Bob, you don't forget to let us back out," he said.
The old man chuckled and opened the gate.
Fudge drove ahead, scanning the campus.
"This used to be a one-lane gravel road," he said. "The White House is back over thataway. This was the canteen here, where if you had family with money you could buy little snacks and things."
When he pulled alongside a row of cottages, he hit the brakes, threw open the door and walked through a field of tall weeds. Kimmerle stood nearby.
"It's been 54 years," he said, fighting tears.
He and his brother, George, were held here as boys. Their story sounds like the others. Trips to the White House, biting the nasty pillow, trying not to scream. But Charlie and George also remember seeing another cemetery, this one on what was then the white side of campus. Charlie can still see it in his mind.
"I think it was somewhere in this area," he said, but the memory was fuzzy.
"There has been a lot of change," Kimmerle said.
"We're talking about 54 years ago," Fudge said.
There are dozens of people who remember multiple cemeteries. Ovell Krell, whose family drove to campus after her brother George Smith was found dead under a house in 1941, remembered the superintendent showing them a freshly-dug grave on the white side. A former ward remembers mowing two cemeteries. Another remembers finding a map that showed two. Horace Bouler, an inmate in 1963, remembers stumbling onto a bunch of impressions in the ground and digging down with a stick and finding a human skull. Charles Jones and Jared Hunt, inmates in 1988, remember unearthing human bones while clearing land.
On and on.
There were too many stories to ignore. But how do you find deteriorated remains that could fit inside a shoe box somewhere beneath a campus that spans 1,400 acres — 61 million square feet?
Five months before, in February, Kimmerle had brought in help. Cadaver dogs, trained to smell decades-old bone fragments or buried blood, ran the property in grids, through soggy swamps and kudzu-covered fields, followed by their handlers. When a dog alerted to a location, the handlers would bring in other dogs to confirm. Then a backhoe would rake the ground and Kimmerle, standing nearby, would look for the mix of dark topsoil and orange clay that was a sign of a burial shaft. They surveyed 33 areas on the south campus, which totaled about 2.8 acres, and found trash middens, building debris and water pipes. They found evidence that the land had been cleared or trenched in the area Ovell Krell said her brother was buried, but after days of searching they hadn't found any graves.
Charlie Fudge sat on a bench behind a cottage and stared across a wire-grass field, toward a tree line to the east. He thought if he came back, planted his feet on Marianna earth he hadn't walked in half a century, it would come back to him. He'd be able to point to a specific plot and solve the mystery.
"There is a cemetery on this property," he said. "I know that for a fact."
So long as there were people who remembered a second cemetery, Kimmerle wanted to keep looking.
• • •
Afew days later, on July 29, Kimmerle drove east from Tampa to Lakeland. She wanted to deliver the news in person.
She found Ovell Krell at home.
Are you sure? Krell, 86 now, asked.
Yes, she said.
The lab in Texas had contacted her. They'd made an identification.
It was against the odds, one of the oldest the lab in Fort Worth had ever made. Kimmerle had fought for it. She had overcome rejection from a judge and the secretary of state, endured challenges from Panhandle politicians and attacks from the local opposition who tried to have her arrested for disturbing graves. But it had been worth it. Krell had been her inspiration. Krell had trusted her. Kimmerle couldn't determine how he had died, but she could say for sure that these specific bones were once someone's brother. George Owen Smith.
Are you sure, Krell kept asking.
Somehow George Owen Smith was the first boy Kimmerle exhumed, the one on which the TV cameras were trained that day 11 months before. She said Smith was buried quickly, in a simple wooden casket, unclothed, wrapped in a shroud. There was no death certificate. His grave was only 2 feet deep, and his skeletal remains showed he was lying on his side, with one arm over his head. It almost looked as if he had been tipped into the shallow grave.
The identification also confirmed that white boys were buried at Boot Hill, not just black children. In Jackson County, Dale Cox jumped on the news.
"Many local residents and former employees of the now closed school for juvenile delinquents have said all along that the cemetery contained the remains of both white and black individuals," he wrote on his blog. "USF never believed us."
He castigated Kimmerle for searching the white campus for a second cemetery, complained that the Florida Cabinet extended her land-use permit for another year, and he insulted Ovell Krell.
"Even George Owen Smith's sister pointed out the wrong location for her brother's grave," he wrote. "In fairness, she apparently had not visited his grave in more than 70 years which likely led to her confusion."
Krell didn't mind. For the first time in 70 years, she actually knew where her brother was. They buried him at the feet of his mother and father in Polk County. They said a prayer and finally put him to rest.
Kimmerle wasn't there for the funeral. Just family. She still had work to do. The remains she unearthed at Dozier were so degraded that it was next to impossible to tell how the boys died. But maybe there was some clue buried with the boys whose bodies were sent home, boys who would have been embalmed and buried in better caskets.
Maybe she could answer that question for at least one boy.
• • •
The second and third identifications came in September. One was Earl Wilson, a 12-year-old sent to Dozier in 1944 on a larceny charge. He was killed 72 days later. He'd been locked in a 7-by-10 foot "sweat box" with eight other boys — 11 to 17 — for days. Four of them accused the other four of killing Wilson because he threatened to divulge their escape plans.
The other boy was Thomas Varnadoe.
His body was one of the last to come out in December. To identify him after 80 years was statistically improbable, but not impossible.
• • •
In early October, leaves blew across the Old Cathedral Cemetery in Philadelphia, past stone markers bearing names like McDevitt and Smyth and Quinlan. The sky was gray and cloudy. Crime scene tape was stretched around a little rise and Pennsylvania State Police troopers stood around a hole, six feet deep or more, staring down.
Erin Kimmerle had followed her gut here. She'd been studying the thousands of names in the big bound Dozier ledgers and wondering about the boys who died while trying to escape. Boys like Lee Goolsby, 13, who was sentenced for delinquency in 1918 and ran away the same year. School ledgers show he died the same day from an unknown cause. There's no record of where he was buried. Or what about Robert Hewitt, 16, admitted in 1960, who reportedly ran away on April 2? He was found two days later, dead in his own home from "gunshot wounds in chest inflicted by person or persons unknown," according to his death certificate. His family remembered that authorities said he shot himself with a 12-gauge shotgun, found nearby, but they think he was killed by somebody looking for him.
Now she wondered about a boy named Thomas Curry. He wasn't buried at the Florida School for Boys, but he'd been there. He'd served just 29 days in 1925 for delinquency, records showed, then tried to run away. He'd made it about 20 miles. Curry's body was found by some railroad tracks near Chattahoochee.
The coroner couldn't tell what killed him.
"(C)ame to his death from a wound to the forehead, skull crushed from unknown cause," his death certificate said.
Someone shipped a casket by train to his grandmother in Philadelphia, where she held services at a Catholic church and buried it on top of a casket that held his great-grandmother.
Maybe he was buried in a sturdy coffin and his remains were better preserved than the boys at Boot Hill. Maybe Kimmerle could tell how he died. She got permission from a judge in Pennsylvania and help from the state police.
She flew to Philadelphia on United Flight 1925 — a good omen. Kimmerle wanted to find Curry, even if it meant missing her son's first cross-country meet.
In the grave, they found something. Top of a shipping box, maybe. Kimmerle passed a piece of wood to a suspicious state trooper.
"You're handing me some bad mojo, aren't you?" he said, grabbing it gently, like a rat by the tail. "My bare hands, too."
They found a rosary cross. And they found pieces of Curry's casket. And they found a darker kind of wood that seemed to be boards of various sizes. Kimmerle was confused.
"What's the game plan?" one of the cops asked.
"Sorry," Kimmerle said. "I'm just thinking."
Another long pause.
"I guess we should just get all of this wood out and be careful, in case anything is in there. I don't think there is."
They kept removing pieces of wood until they got to a second coffin. Kimmerle handed up a nameplate to be cleaned. It belonged to Curry's great-grandmother.
"I'm starting to get claustrophobic," Kimmerle said. She was at least eight feet deep, her head beneath the ground. For all the time she spends in graves, she's deathly afraid of being buried alive.
Kimmerle tapped the second coffin with a trowel.
"Where is he?" asked state police Cpl. Thomas McAndrew. "That's the bottom, right?"
"Yeah," she said, baffled. "If he was in here, his teeth should be here."
All the police were silent.
The man who ran the backhoe spoke up, asking what all the stunned cops wanted to ask.
"Why wouldn't there be bones?"
Somebody shipped home a box full of wood. Thomas Curry wasn't there. If he wasn't there, where was he?
• • •
Their profiles, what she could learn, were penned on a giant grid on a wall in the lab. Names. Guesstimates. But there was so much unknown.
She'd found the remains, sent the DNA to the lab, but she couldn't tell how the boys died.
The mysteries stalked Kimmerle. By then, she'd found that the charred remains of the 1914 fire victims were mixed together, shoveled into the same pine boxes, and that they'd only found three distinct humans among them. Where were the others? Her colleague, archaeologist Christian Wells, had probed around the base of the hill where the old dormitory stood, and he'd found evidence that they'd buried the burned debris. Maybe the other fire victims' remains were there. She planned to go back to search more. She didn't want to leave any other deaths undiscovered.
And what about the second cemetery? She'd done everything she knew how to do to find it. Cadaver dogs. Trenching. Ground penetrating radar. There was just no evidence, beyond folklore, that another plot existed on the white side. But there were still a dozen boys she hadn't found.
Her permit from the state runs through the summer. She planned to keep looking.
She knew some questions might never be answered, but in the end, she had at least defined the questions. She had established the unknowns. And she had beaten time and brought three boys home.
• • •
Glen Varnadoe thought Erin Kimmerle was a god-send. Her sacrifices. Her determination. He took every chance he could to publicly thank her.
Glen had invested a lot, himself. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to stop the state from selling the reform school property so Kimmerle could find Thomas's remains. He made a vow to his sister Barbara, when she was on her death bed, that he'd see this through.
The fight to get Thomas home was personal. The resistance from the locals made Glen mad. March out there and show me where Thomas is, he often said, and I'll leave your town alone. He scoffed at folks like Dale Cox, who had announced he was publishing a new book called Death at Dozier School: The Attempted Assassination of an American City. Glen joked about buying the school property and turning it into a macabre tourist trap, with a museum and a big billboard on Interstate 10 and T-shirts that said "Florida's Auschwitz."
Glen's fight had been worth it. He and his family placed an obituary for Thomas Varnadoe in the Tampa Bay Times on Nov. 16. It was easy to miss among the 71 other lives memorialized in the newspaper that day. It came 80 years and one month after the boy died, but it served as a record that he had once lived, that he had once been part of a family.
VARNADOE, Thomas — age 13, of Brooksville, died on Oct. 26, 1934, in Marianna. He died under suspicious circumstances after 34 days of incarceration at the now closed Florida Industrial School for Boys, aka The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. With aid from the University of South Florida, his family recently recovered his unmarked remains on the school grounds. Thomas is survived by his brother, Joseph Richard Varnadoe of Salt Springs; nephews, Gene Varnadoe of Faber, VA, Glen Varnadoe of Lakeland, Randy C. Varnadoe of Brooksville, and Rudolph A. Varnadoe Jr. of Belleview; nieces, Pam Varnadoe Reed of Telford, TN, Marsha Varnadoe Patterson of Brooksville, Brenda Varnadoe Allman of Asheville, NC, Jeannie Varnadoe Littleton of Jacksonville, and Becky Varnadoe Schwarz of Plant City. His parents Thomas H. Sr; and Josephine Folks Varnadoe; and siblings, Hubert E. Varnadoe, Rudolf A. Varnadoe, and Ethel Varnadoe Tankersley, have since joined him in eternal rest. A private graveside service of remembrance will be held on Monday, Nov. 24, at Hopewell Memorial Gardens, in Plant City. Thomas will be laid into eternal rest next to his brother Hubert, who was incarcerated at the school alongside Thomas, and endured the same tortuous environment of the failed school.
• • •
She doesn't get to go to many funerals. She brings the bones up. Someone else puts them back in the earth.
But on a clear Monday morning in November, Erin Kimmerle drove past strawberry farms and orange groves and pulled off State Road 39 at Hopewell Memorial Gardens, south of Plant City. She wore a black dress and a French manicure. She walked toward a tent where a family shook hands and hugged.
A man wearing a short tie walked toward her.
"Gene Varnadoe," he said, extending his hand.
"I'm Erin …"
He cut her off.
"I know who you are," he said, locking eyes. "Thank you for everything. Forever."
Gene, 71, drove down from Virginia to be with his brother, Glen, and his uncle, Richard, 85, who sat in the front row. The importance of this day for Richard was hard to quantify. How do you put a number on an unfulfilled life?
He was five when the Hernando County sheriff dragged his brothers away. Eighty years later, he can still hear his parents screaming.
He spotted Kimmerle and hugged her.
"Because of you," he said.
She brought a small white box for the family, artifacts found with Thomas' remains. Rusty cut nails, eye screws, corrugated fasteners, small pieces of pine that made his coffin. The building materials suggested to Glen that they'd made it in 10 minutes, quickly and carelessly.
Thomas's bones were in a stone box now, atop a card table up front. Below the ground was his brother, Hubert, Glen's father and Richard's brother.
Kimmerle found a seat. Her students stood in the back.
Glen spoke first, about how long and hard they'd fought for this day, about the journalists who wouldn't let the issue die, about Erin Kimmerle's work to find and exhume Thomas. Gene was next, and he told of how the unanswered questions had haunted them all.
"We can only imagine the horror," Gene said. "Some of the Old South slave mindset died hard in Florida."
Glen invited Richard to speak. The old man stood and faced the crowd. He could barely talk.
"I feel like we plucked my brother out of the depths of hell," he said.
When it was over, people slowly peeled away, heading back to work and school and life. Erin Kimmerle, too. There were still questions about Florida's oldest reform school, about who the rest of the remains belonged to and how those boys died.
But this chapter felt closed. A family had answers. And they had bones that belonged with them. This part of her job was finished.
As she walked toward the car with the others, a small burial crew moved in. They lifted a piece of plywood to reveal a hole in the ground. They lowered the stone box inside and fetched dirt from the back of a John Deere. A little boy, maybe 5 or 6, watched his father shovel earth on top of the box that said:
March 13, 1921 — October 26, 1934
Brothers Together Again