On January 1, 1900, the Florida State Reform School (later renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys) opened its doors. By all accounts a beautiful campus, the school was set on 1,400 acres just outside of the town of Marianna in the Florida Panhandle. The facility was intended to help wayward boys turn their lives around before they entered adulthood. Instead, the campus became hell on earth for hundreds of children between the ages of 5 and 21. Adolescent boys were often sent to the school for offenses as trivial as smoking cigarettes, others found themselves on the campus simply because they were orphans. The more serious offenders housed on the grounds were often convicted of rape or assault. No matter what brought them there, they all witnessed and endured brutal torture.
The White House Boys are a group of more than 500 men who survived the atrocities at the Florida State Reform School. Named for the small white building in which punishment was meted out, these men’s mission is to ensure that no other child is destroyed by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. They share many of the same memories: blood-caked walls, being drug from their beds in the middle of night, a one-armed man flogging them with a three-foot strap weaved around a metal slat. They are all haunted by the trauma they endured during their time at the Florida State Reform School. Along with the nightmares, many still bear scars left on their backsides from the vicious lashings they endured.
The one-armed man that the White House Boys remember, Troy Tidwell, was usually the one who doled out the merciless beatings. Several survivors have recounted the way Tidwell would shuffle his foot as he prepared to strike, telegraphing the incoming blow. Boys were drug into the White House, told to lay on a cot, bite a pillow, and hold onto a bedrail. Then they were beaten. The beatings lasted until some fell unconscious. Several others describe standing in a shower while picking out bits of their underwear that had become embedded in their skin during the abuse, and being unable to recognize their own face in the mirror after having been pummeled. They all agree that the boys who cried were beaten worse than the ones who remained silent despite the pain.
Some of the White House Boys have shared memories of children who would never make it out of the Florida State Reform School alive. White House Boy, Roger Kiser recalls a black boy being shut in an industrial dryer before staff members turned it on. He recalls later seeing those staff members removing the boy’s body and wrapping it in linen. Dick Colon, another ward of the reformatory, corroborates Kiser’s story. Bill Price writes about the time that his own lashings were postponed by a full day after the child who went before him fell completely silent. Bill never saw that kid again. Then, there are the unmarked graves that speak for themselves.
There is a small cemetery on the grounds where the now defunct Florida State Reform School stands. The children at the school came to call the graveyard Boot Hill, and they always wondered who was buried there. Boot Hill had no marked graves, just 31 crosses constructed out of pipe which were arranged in a slightly haphazard manner. Shortly after the White House Boys banded together and began speaking out, then-Governor, Charlie Crist ordered an investigation into the allegations of abuse. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded its investigation with a report that stated that there was no evidence that guards had murdered anyone on the school’s campus. The FDLE clarified that the 31 crosses were for the 29 students and 2 staff members who had been buried on the grounds. Their official causes of death included an influenza breakout, a fire, and surgical complications during a tonsillectomy. The town of Marianna was incredulous, and they insisted that Troy Tidwell and other staff at the school were upstanding citizens of great moral character. Locals insisted that the White House Boys were out for a payday and were destroying their town’s reputation in the process. The local newspaper, The Jackson County Times, even ran a series of articles entitled “In Defense of Dozier.” Then, forensic anthropologist, Dr. Erin Kimmerle discovered some discrepancies in the FDLE’s official report.
The FDLE claimed the number of deaths that occurred on the Florida State Reform School’s campus was 81, but Dr. Kimmerle found records pertaining to the deaths of 98 boys between the years of 1911 and 1973. She also discovered that some of the deaths were never reported, and death certificates had never been issued for some of the deceased. Dr. Kimmerle wanted to get to the bottom of things and sort out these discrepancies. The state allowed her to investigate on the condition that she did not do any digging. With digging off the table, Dr. Kimmerle enlisted the help of archaeologist, Dr. Richard Estabrook. Using ground penetrating radar, the doctors discovered that the 31 crosses didn’t mark actual gravesites. Instead, the graves were located outside of the actual cemetery boundaries, and rather than 31 graves, the doctors found 55.
As Dr. Kimmerle continued to uncover discrepancies in the FDLE report, the state of Florida began making plans to sell the property at auction. If the land were bought by a private owner, there was no guarantee that they would cooperate with the doctor’s investigation. Upon learning this, Glen Varnadoe filed a lawsuit demanding that the state of Florida release his uncle’s remains. Thomas Varnadoe, Glen’s uncle, died at the Florida State Reform School. His official cause of death was listed as pneumonia, but Thomas’ family has always been skeptical. Varnadoe’s suit bought Dr, Kimmerle some time, and when Glen enlisted the help of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, the team was able to petition a circuit court judge for permission to exhume the bodies the doctors had discovered. Ultimately their petition was denied. The team appealed, but when they received word that their appeal had also been denied, only one option remained. Dr. Kimmerle brought the case before the Florida Cabinet in a final effort to gain permission to exhume the 55 graves she’d located, and she won.
Ultimately, Dr. Kimmerle and her team would discover a total of 82 unmarked graves at the Florida State Reform School. The remains and their graves showed forensic evidence of shotgun pellets, blunt force trauma, malnutrition, and untreated infection. Some of the remains have been identified through DNA analysis, but the White House Boys will keep the pressure on until all of the bodies have been identified.
“May this building stand as a reminder of the need to remain vigilant in protecting our children,” reads a plaque in front of the now sealed “White House.” It would have taken much less than watchful vigilance to prevent the horrors that occurred here from unfolding. Anything other than blatant indifference and neglect would have resulted in a far less tragic outcome. Beginning in a 1903 investigative committee report to the Florida Senate, the alarm was raised repeatedly, but officials failed to listen or to act. That initial report detailed how children were being held in leg irons. A 1911 investigative committee reported that children were “unnecessarily and brutally punished, the instrument of punishment being a leather strap fastened to a wooden handle.” On January 5, 1915, a grand jury concluded that the employees of the school were immoral and should not be tasked with caring for and reforming children. On March 3, 1958, Dr. Eugene Byrd, a psychologist and former staff member, testified before the U.S. Senate that “There are two rooms, one room in which they weighed in; the other room in which they are beat consists of a cot on which they lay down. They are told to hold the head rail and not to yell out nor to move. They are beaten by the director of the department, not the superintendent of the school. The superintendent does witness each beating.” In 1968, a U.S. Department of Health official declared that the reformatory was “one of the worst examples in the nation of a boys’ reform school.” A 1969 Evening Independent editorial urged, “It is time that we quit being shocked every time an outsider visits Marianna. It is time we found out why such conditions continue to exist and who is responsible for them.” In 1982, an editorial in the St. Petersburg Times read, “The cruel practice cannot be justified. Guards wouldn’t be allowed to hogtie inmates in adult prisons. Why should authorities be allowed to do something that barbaric to children? State officials responsible for allowing the practice deserve more than admonishment. They should be fired.” Despite these declarations, findings, and outcries, the abuse at the Florida State Reform School was permitted to continue for more than 111 years.
If you’d like to learn more about the White House Boys while also supporting Mean & Evil, use the link below to purchase a copy of The White House Boys: An American Tragedy by Roger Dean Kiser.