Updated at: 10/08/2014 12:52 PM
(AP) ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) â€” Anthropologists investigating the deaths of dozens of boys at a closed Florida reform school dug up a decades-old grave in Philadelphia looking for the body of one of the boys only to find a casket filled with wood.
The Tampa Bay Times reported (http://bit.ly/1vNbSVp ) that University of South Florida forensic researchers, with permission from officials in Pennsylvania, exhumed the grave on Tuesday. They were expecting to find the body of Thomas Curry, who died in 1925 from what a coroner said was a crushed skull after running away from the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.
They dug down 6 feet to Curry's casket and found a partially intact wooden box. They found thumbscrews used to clamp shut the casket that were identical to those found in burials on the Florida reform school campus. A small cross, like a rosary necklace, was atop the casket.
But inside, there was no body, no human remains. Where the boy should've been, they found wood.
The discovery shocked the researchers, Philadelphia archdiocese officials, the Pennsylvania state police troopers helping, and the local assistant district attorney, who expressed his exasperation with quiet expletives as he paced around the burial shaft, the newspaper reported.
"Where is he?" asked Pennsylvania state police Cpl. Thomas McAndrew.
"I just can't believe it," said USF forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, who is leading the research. "It defies logic."
No one can say whether officials at the reform school shipped a box filled with wood to a grieving family in Philadelphia, or whether someone removed Curry's body when it arrived and held a funeral for a box with no body inside.
Curry met his death by some railroad tracks near Chattahoochee in 1925, trying to run away after serving just 29 days for delinquency at the hellish reform school some 20 miles away. The coroner who examined his body couldn't tell what killed him. "(C)ame to his death from a wound to the forehead, skull crushed from unknown cause," wrote Chattahoochee coroner L.H. Sanders on the boy's death certificate.
His body was shipped by train to his grandmother in Philadelphia, where services were held at a Catholic church, and a box was buried at the Old Cathedral Cemetery in West Philadelphia, on top of a casket that held his great grandmother.
Burial records at the archdiocese show the exact spot where Curry was buried and name the church that hosted the funeral. The records go even further, saying he was "killed by train," which seems to contradict the coroner's verdict.
It was common at the reform school, known most recently as the Dozier School for Boys until it closed in 2011, for armed guards to search for runaways. One long-time guard told the Times in 2009 that school officials referred to it as "boy hunting." Sometimes trustees from a nearby prison, known as "dog boys," were called in to help search. Former wards have told the Times that they were brutally beaten after being caught while trying to escape.
Researchers hoped to perform a skeletal autopsy on Curry to determine how he was killed. Now, they say, they'll continue to search for his remains.
So far, they've unearthed 55 burials from a cemetery on the Marianna school campus, far more than the state determined were buried there. Using DNA, they've identified three boys and handed over their remains to family members who long wondered where their loved ones were buried.
Information from: Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.), http://www.tampabay.com.
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