1914 Fire Victims returned to Marianna

by Dale Cox

Update 1/30/2019: Seven bodies from “Boot Hill” Cemetery at the former Florida Industrial School for Boys (Dozier School) were reburied in eight graves in Marianna this morning. Family members, state officials and former students (“White House Boys”) were present. Rev. Alan Cox delivered a eulogy and the names of the dead were read aloud.

The following tells the story of the terrible 1914 dormitory fire that killed two employees and five students:

Fire victims back at Boot Hill

Researchers from the University of South Florida (USF) released them in mid-January after a failed project to provide their identities – although the names of everyone in the group are known. The remains were reburied  at Boot Hill – from which they were exhumed by USF – on Wednesday, January 30, 2019.

More than 30 other bodies from the school – also dug from their graves by university researchers – are in Tallahassee for re-interment. USF failed to identify them as well, although lists exist of almost everyone buried at Boot Hill.

The new memorial area at “Boot Hill” Cemetery on the former Dozier School campus in Marianna, Florida.

University researchers found no evidence that any of the individuals they dug up were murdered by employees of the school, despite wild media speculation to that effect. Most died of disease or in a 1914 fire that destroyed one of the school’s dormitories. All were placed in their original graves more than 70 years ago. 

The only possible bullet found in association with any of the graves proved to be a Civil War artifact from a muzzle-loading musket that one of the students likely had in his pocket.

The seven men and boys being reburied in Marianna were victims of the dormitory fire. Their return from USF finally ends a long and painful fight by members of one Jackson County family to have their loved ones brought back home. 

Led by Rhonda Dykes, descendants and relatives of Bennett and Charles Evans – two of the victims – battled for years to have the two men returned to Marianna.

Bennett Evans, a school carpenter, and his son Charles Evans, a guard, were from Jackson County. They died after rushing back into the burning dormitory in a tragic yet heroic effort to save the lives of others. The Evans men were identified after the fire by their doctor and were buried in the school cemetery by and at the expense of their own family. 

Another view of the memorial area in Marianna where the fire victims will be reburied on Wednesday.

A USF team dug them up but failed to assign individual identities to the group of 105 year old bodies. The Tampa Bay Times newspaper feverishly pushed the project by publishing claims of murders and hidden burial grounds at the school. The only graves ever found were in the known cemetery.

 It took an incredible effort by their family members to have them returned home. Researchers – who claimed that their project was a “humanitarian” effort to “bring closure” to families with loved ones buried at Dozier School – would not even return calls from one relative of the Evans men.

The state, in turn, planned to bury the men in Tallahassee with the other bodies – despite promises to return them to their family – only relenting after one relative made repeated pleas to have her loved ones back. 

The “Boot Hill” Cemetery as it appeared in the 1980s.

The stories of the fire victims – and the heroic actions of both students and employees to save lives during the blaze – were largely forgotten in the media fiasco that surrounded USF’s dig. They died in when the school’s “white” dormitory was destroyed in the predawn hours of November 18, 1914:

W.H. Bell, acting superintendent, has just wired from Marianna that main building white school was destroyed by fire last night, and eight boys and two officers dead. Please call meeting of Board of Managers with least possible delay. Have matter exhaustively investigated and let me have report. [I]

A night watchman discovered the fire at around 3:30 a.m. He passed the main dormitory and saw no problems at 3:15 a.m., but when he passed back by fifteen minutes later, a large fire was burning on the ground floor near the base of the main stairway. The guard started calling out to the boys and employees sleeping on the second and third floors of the building, trying to alert them to the danger. [II]

This photo shows the dormitory that was destroyed in the 1914 fire. USF used a photo of a different building in its reports on the incident.

Severino Gustinez, a student considered so trustworthy by administrators that he was hired to watch over younger boys, heard the watchman’s calls. He awakened the students on the second floor of the east wing: 

Realizing the danger, Gustinez called out “Fire Drill!” to awaken the young students under his charge. Sleepily they arose from their beds and immediately formed into the proper lines for evacuating the building. Realizing that he could not take them down the main stairway due to the fire, he led them to the west end of their wing and down the stairway to safety. Thanks to “Toto,” all of the younger students made it out of the building without incident. [III]

Some media outlets claimed at the time that no fire drills had been held at the school, but the account of Gustinez’s actions proves otherwise.

Memorial crosses at the “Boot Hill” Cemetery as they appeared when USF began its dig.

Leaving the small boys in charge of a guard named Register, Gustinez went back into the building to save others. He found an older boy nicknamed “Monkey Wrench” wandering and lost in the smoke. The student worker picked up “Monkey Wrench” and started back to the stairway, but found the way barred by flames. Gustinez leaped through the burning doorway, risking his own life to bring “Monkey Wrench” to safety. Both young men survived, although the heroic rescuer suffered slight injuries. [IV]

Another older student named Walter Tucker also made it out, but could not find his bunkmate Button Shaw. Tucker was desperate to save his friend and went back into the burning building. He found Shaw still in bed, pulled him out and carried him up to the third floor of the building. A tower that rose above the center of the structure had windows that functioned as skylights. Tucker dragged shaw through one of these and then carried him across the roof and down the fire escape to safety.

W.H. Bell, acting superintendent of the school, was in the building and asleep on the third floor when the fire started – despite false claims to the contrary. He made his way up to the tower and helped most of the older boys escape through a window and down the fire escape to the ground. [V]

Another view of the new memorial at the site. The bodies will be reburied here on Wednesday after a project costing more than $600,000 failed to determine their individual identities.

Bell joined a desperate effort to save two employees and a student found trapped inside a locked gate that blocked access to the fire escape from the second floor:

…The office being in flames, he procured an axe and with the assistance of Mr. Allen, one of the guards, he climbed to the landing of the fire escape at the second floor, where three men were trying to make their escape. He succeeded in breaking the locks of the barred grating to the window, but was unable to get the metal frame out of the window. In the meantime, the floors gave way and the inmates were hurried to their doom. [VI]

Two of the men who died as Bell and Allen tried to save them were Bennett and Charles M. Evans. Charles made it out of the building, but couldn’t find his father and went back inside to save him. He found the older man looking for him in the smoke and tried to bring him and a student who was also found lost in the smoke to safety but found the escape route barred by the locked grate. All three died when the floor collapsed beneath them. [VII]

Despite secondhand folklore repeated by employees of the University of South Florida, none of the eyewitness accounts of the fire mention that students were chained to their bunks. In fact, eyewitnesses reported that all of the victims were moving freely inside the building and could have escaped.

A view of the new memorial site from the parking area.

The Tampa Tribune reported that most of the dead were in the west wing of the building farther from the fire than the smaller boys led to safety by Severino Gustinez. They became “panic-stricken” the newspaper reported, and lost their lives as a result. [VIII]

The Tribune further noted that a guard named Register went back into the building after securing the smaller boys in a safe place. He found some older boys still inside and led them to a stairway by which escape was still possible. They panicked in the smoke that filled the stairwell, however, and refused to go up. They died when the floors collapsed. [IX]

Within thirty minutes of the fire’s discovery, the “white dormitory” of the Florida Industrial School for Boys burned to the ground. The sun rose over a horrible scene.

Shock spread across Jackson County and then Florida as citizens learned of the deadly fire. Initial reports indicated that 10 people died, 8 students and 2 employees. The Pensacola Journal, Tampa Tribune, Miami Herald, Montgomery Advertiser, Atlanta Constitution and dozens of other newspapers identified them as follows:

Bennett Evans, Employee
Charles Evans, Employee
Joe Wethersbee, Student
Walter Fisher, Student
Clarence Parrott, Student
Louis Fernandez, Student
Harry Wells, Student
Earl E. Morris, Student (Note: Later arrested in Georgia)
Clifford Jefford, Student
Waldo Drew, Student (Note: Family later told he may have escaped)

At least one and possibly three of the students on the list did not die in the fire but instead used it as an opportunity to escape. Earl E. Morris, for example, was arrested in Georgia the next year. Search teams likewise could not find Waldo Drew. School employees telegraphed his family with news of the tragedy, only to later inform them that he may have escaped. [X]

Two other names – S. Barnett and Lewis Haffin – surfaced as possible victims, but were not actual people. The mistake resulted from garbled transcriptions. [XI]

State authorities further concluded that at least one additional more student survived, but unfortunately did not identify him by name. The final death toll from the terrible fire – according to state investigators who completed their work in 1915 – was seven. USF researchers likewise found that while the remains of the fire victims were somewhat co-mingled, they came from seven distinct individuals. [XII]

Ninety-five students were led to safety by Superintendent Bell, Severino Gustinez, Mr. Register, Walter Tucker, and Mr. Allen. 

Students and employees fought desperately to save others. Bennett Evans and Charles Evans gave their lives in the process. They, along with students Severino Gustinez and Walter Tucker and employees W.H. Bell, Mr. Register, and Mr. Allen, should be remembered as heroes. 

The aerial photograph below shows the location of the “Boot Hill” cemetery. A small memorial area has been constructed on-site.

[I] Gov. Park Trammel to Hon. W.H. Milton, November 18, 1918, Singletary Collection.

[II] “Heroic Tampa Boy saves many lives at Marianna Fire,” datelined Marianna, November 20, 1914, Tampa Tribune, November 21, 1914.

[III] Ibid.

[IV] Ibid.

[V] Ibid.

[VI] Anonymous, “Ten Lives Lost When Florida Reform School Burns at Marianna,” November 18, 1914, report reprinted in numerous newspapers across the United States.

[VII] Ibid.

[VIII] Tampa Tribune, November 21, 1914.

[IX] Ibid.

[X] Report of the State Board of Institutions to Gov. Park Trammell, April 21, 1915; Georgia Arrest Record; Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Report of May 14, 2009, CASE NO. EI-73-8455.

[XI] Kimmerle EH, Estabrook R, Wells EC, Jackson AT. 2012. Documentation of the Boot Hill Cemetery (8JA1860) at the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, Interim Report, Division of Historical Resources, Permit No. 1112.032, December 10, 2012.