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USF Researchers Travel To Historic Cemetery In Philadelphia

University of South Florida anthropologists discover an unexpected find during an excavation with the assistance of Pennsylvania authorities.

Video by Katy Hennig | USF News

By Katy Hennig
USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 16, 2014) – The historic mystery surrounding a now-closed reform school located in the Florida panhandle recently led researchers north, to Philadelphia, in search of a key piece of the story.

Instead of finding the remains of 17 year-old Thomas Curry at Old Cathedral Cemetery in West Philadelphia, they uncovered only wood, buried in the place where he should have been.

 “All of the records from the cemetery and the local church point to this location as his burial location," said Erin Kimmerle, associate professor of anthropology at USF.  "He was supposed to be buried here and there is definitely a casket here, but it’s filled with different layers of wood, and unfortunately there is no evidence of him.” 

University of South Florida anthropologists have been conducting ongoing research into the history, deaths and burials that occurred at the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, in Marianna, Fla., and gained permission from Pennsylvania officials to excavate Thomas Curry, one of nearly 100 boys who died at the school and one of approximately 30 who were sent home to their families for burial.

Records show that in 1925, Curry reportedly died after escaping from the school just 29 days after he was brought there. Several historical documents list different injuries at the time of his death, including “wound to forehead” and “crushed skull cause unknown.”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 types of injuries he sustained and learn more about the circumstances surrounding his death, USF anthropologists excavated Curry’s burial for the purpose of conducting a skeletal autopsy. They had hoped to complete the skeletal trauma analysis, a tool that could establish facts about the nature and cause of death, to clarify the official record, help his family find answers and allow the State of Florida to have a full, accurate accounting of the events that occurred at the school.

Pennsylvania State Police Cpl. Tom McAndrew and the assistant DA in Philadelphia assisted the team with obtaining the permission and permits and participated in the excavation, providing resources and helping to locate answers. "It comes down to justice," said McAndrew. "I think that is what we all work for, from a homicide that occurs today to a cold case to something that happened this long ago. Even though theoretically for this particular case happening back in the 1920’s there would not be a chance of prosecution, there is still justice.”

The casket built for Curry was excavated using mechanical excavation, and then shovels, trowels and brushes. Researchers found very well preserved wood, casket hardware and remnants of a funeral wreath, but no remains. 

Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Brendan O’Malley, who has been closely involved with the case and supports the research, expressed his confusion when learning of the findings, “Initially very shocked, but upon contemplating it, really not shocked at all, that this was par for the course for how this operation was conducted," said O'Malley.

The prospects of determining cause of death would have been better than the burials excavated from the cemetery in Florida due to different conditions in the soil. Since that is now not possible, researchers are optimistic that Curry could be one of the unidentified burials already located and excavated from the Boot Hill cemetery, and with a maternal DNA sample now provided by Curry’s distant cousin, there could be a match. USF anthropologists have successfully matched three boys with their families using DNA and will continue to try to identify every one. 

Pennsylvania authorities contributed extensive resources to assist the team form USF. Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Brendan O’Malley, Pennsylvania State Cpl. Thomas McAndrew, Philadelphia Chief Medical Examiner Sam Gulino, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (PA) and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (FL), as well as representatives of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia were all integral in obtaining the exhumation order, permits and excavating the burial.

View a gallery of photos from the Philadelphia excavation:

Additional articles and further information about the research at the former Dozier School for Boys:

Additional resources relating to USF’s research at the former Dozier School for Boys is available through the following links, which are provided for research and public information purposes only. No further right or license is granted. Questions about reproduction of broadcast or print media articles should be directed to the original author or media outlet.

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