A boy buried in an unmarked grave at a reform school with a sordid past was the first of 55 sets of remains to be positively identified, researchers said Thursday according to CBS News. The boy was positively identified with the help from DNA from living relatives. The boy, George Owen Smith, would have died in 1940.
The story behind the reform school is a true American horror story. NPR reports that over the past decade, hundreds of men have come forward to tell gruesome stories of abuse and terrible beatings they suffered at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys, a notorious, state-run institution that closed in 2011 after more than a century ruining boys lives. The boys who suffered abuse at the reform school are known as the “White House Boys.” Approximately 300 men were sent as boys to the reform school in the 1950s and 1960s. They have joined together over the years to tell their stories of the violence administered in a small building on the school’s grounds they knew as the White House.
Some 81 boys are known to have died there, but where their remains are buried is a mystery that researchers are now trying to solve. Since excavation of the area began, 55 sets of remains have been positively identified, but the identities of these lost boys is still unknown, except for Smith. The boy’s family was suspiciously told that he had already been buried when they showed up to claim his body some 74 years ago.
Smith’s sister, Ovell Krell, told WFAA:
“It shocked me totally numb for a moment. I couldn’t say a word. This, to me, is a miracle [he was identified…] when I think of all the boys and all the graves.”
DNA experts at at the University of North Texas Health Sciences Center used fragments of Smith’s bones and teeth to make a positive association. The work took months and they are still working to identify the other 54 remaining individuals found in the mass grave. The DNA experts are having a hard time identifying the boys due to the low participation rate by surviving family members to offer up DNA samples. Dixie Peters, who oversees the missing persons lab, said that only eight families have come forward to offer DNA samples for analysis and comparison.
Unfortunately, there are still more questions than answers when it comes to how these boys died and why they were buried without being handed over to families. Erin Kimmerle, the lead researcher and an associate anthropology professor, said in a news release:
“We may never know the full circumstances of what happened to Owen or why his case was handled the way it was. But we do know that he now will be buried under his own name and beside family members who longed for answers.”