Thursday, November 7, 2013

Death at Dozier School (Part Two: The 1914 Fire)

Dormitory destroyed by fire in 1914.
Note:  This is part two in a series on known deaths at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. The focus is on probable burials at the school's "Boot Hill" cemetery. Please click here to read Part One of this series.


Death at Dozier School

A History of “Boot Hill Cemetery” at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida

by Dale Cox

Part Two: The 1914 Fire

The deadliest single day in the history of the facility later known as Dozier School for Boys was November 18, 1914. Ninety-nine years ago this month, a fire erupted in the “white” dormitory of the school, burning it to the ground and killing seven students and two employees.

The year 1914 was a momentous one in history. An estimated 1,047 people died when the barely-remembered RMS Empress of Ireland went down after colliding with another vessel in the St. Lawrence River, just two years after the legendary RMS Titanic had carried 1,500 to the bottom. Central America witnessed the passage of the first vessel passed through the now famous Panama Canal.  In Sarajevo, a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, sparking World War I, while in Siberia an attempt to assassinate the brutal Rasputin failed. In the United States, Babe Ruth played in his first major league baseball game, Charlie Chaplin appeared in the first feature-length silent film comedy, Ford Motor Company introduced the 8-hour workday and the Federal Reserve Bank opened for business.

In Jackson County, an unexplained series of fires continued on the campus of the Florida Industrial School for Boys (future Dozier School) in Marianna.

Building identical to burned dormitory (at right, notice the tower)
Florida State Archives, Florida Memory Collection
These fires took place with alarming frequency over the first 14 years of the school’s operation. One in February 1906 had killed six mules and three horses and destroyed corn, hay and 32 barrels of syrup. The cause was arson and the suggestion was raised that former guards had been responsible. “It is supposed that the barn was set on fire to spite the superintendent,” reported the Pensacola Journal, “as several guards have been discharged for various reasons.” Tracking dogs brought to the scene, however, failed to detect the trail of the perpetrator.[i]

The fires continued over the next five years with growing frequency and on January 25, 1911, a new brick barn burned to the ground with almost disastrous consequences:

That the school’s loss is not greater is miraculous, as the dormitory for colored inmates is within fifty to seventy-five feet of the barn. None of the livestock or farming implements were lost. This will badly cripple the school as all of the supplies of this kind [i.e. hay and cattle feed] were in this one barn.[ii]

The outbreak of a fire described as “spectacular and fierce” so close to one of the school’s two dormitories alarmed employees, authorities and reporters alike. Damage was estimated at $10,000, a massive figure in that day and age, with 1,000 bales of hay and several tons of cattle feet being destroyed, along with a supposedly “fireproof” barn.[iii]

Newspaper clippings indicate additional fires took place over the next three years, although none resulted in destruction on the scale of the 1911 blaze. All were blamed on an “incendiary” or arsonist.[iv]

The escalating series of fires came to a dramatic end in the predawn darkness of November 18, 1914:

Closeup of building identical to burned dormitory.
The superintendent and older boys escaped through the tower.
Florida State Archives, Florida Memory Collection
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.[v]

Immediate reports from the scene indicated that the fire had been discovered by a night watchman at around 3:30 a.m. The watchman passed the main dormitory and saw no problems at 3:15 a.m., but when he returned from his rounds fifteen minutes later, a large fire was burning on the ground floor near the base of the main stairway. He began to call out to the boys and employees sleeping on the second and third floors of the building, trying to alert them to the danger.[vi]

The calls of the watchman alerted Severino Gustinez, a student considered so trustworthy by administrators that he had been given employment at the school and assigned to watch over the younger boys who were housed on the second floor of the east wing of the dormitory. Although some media reports of the time claimed that fire drills had never been held at the school, the opposite appears to have been true.[vii]

Realizing the danger, Gustinez called out “fire drill” to awaken the young students under his charge. Sleepily rising from their beds, they 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 down the western stairway to safety. Thanks to “Toto,” all of the younger students made it out of the building without incident.[viii]

Leaving the small boys in charge of a guard named Register, Gustinez then went back into the building where he found an older boy nicknamed “Monkey Wrench” lost in the smoke.  Carrying “Monkey Wrench” in his arms, he made his way back to the stairway but found the door now in flames. Risking his own body to bring “Monkey Wrench” to safety, Gustinez leaped through the burning doorway. Both survived, although the heroic rescuer suffered slight injuries.[ix]

Another older student named Walter Tucker made it out, but was unable to find his bunk mate Button Shaw. Desperate to save his friend, he went back into the burning building, found Shaw still in bed, pulled him out and carried him up to the third floor of the building. The tower that rose above the center of the structure had windows that also functioned as skylights. Dragging Shaw up into the tower and through one of these windows, Tucker carried him across the roof and down the fire escape to safety.[x]

The acting superintendent of the school – later claims to the contrary aside – was in the building and asleep when the fire broke out. Making his way up to the tower, W.H. Bell helped most of the older boys escape through a window and then down the fire escape to the ground.[xi]

Having already saved many lives, Bell now joined a desperate effort to save two employees and a student who could be seen trapped inside a locked grate 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.[xii]

Two of the men who died as Bell and Allen tried to save them were Bennett Evans, the school carpenter, and Charles M. Evans, his son who was employed as a guard. Charles had made it out of the building, but was unable to find his father and went back inside to save him. He found Bennett looking for him in the smoke and tried to bring him and a student they found lost in the smoke to safety, but found their escape barred by the locked grate. All were killed when the floor collapsed beneath them.[xiii]

Despite folklore repeated second hand by researchers from the University of South Florida, there was no mention of any kind in the eyewitness accounts of the fire, let alone any actual evidence, that any of the students were chained to their bunks or that they had to break locks to get out of the building. In fact, original reports indicate that all who died were moving freely inside the building, that the western stairway was open and that the fire escape could be and was accessed via the roof of the building. Reporters noted that had some students not panicked, all could have escaped.

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

According to the Tribune, the guard named Register went back into the building after getting the smaller boys to a safe place. He found a group of older boys still inside and led them to a stairway by which escape was still possible. Frightened by the smoke that filled the stairwell, however, they panicked and went back deeper into the building to a locked window that opened onto the fire escape. They lost their lives as a result. 

The windows had been locked to prevent boys from using the fire escape to run away during the night. The school grounds were not fenced at the time and escapes had been a problem for the staff, which had been overwhelmed by judges around the state with many more students than the facility was designed to handle. The stairways and doors were not locked, nor was the entrance to the fire escape from the top of the building, but the windows opening onto it had been secured.

Within thirty minutes of the time the fire was discovered, the “white dormitory” of the Florida Industrial School for Boys burned to the ground. By the time the sun rose over the horrible scene, only the ruined sections of walls could still be seen.

Although researchers from the University of South Florida have made questionable claims that as many as twelve people died in the fire, initial reports from the scene placed the number at ten (two employees and eight students). Subsequent investigation revealed that the actual number was somewhat lower.  

I will provide more information on the true number of deaths from the fire and some of the controversy surrounding it in my next post in this series.  Be sure to check back regularly at http://twoegg.blogspot.com.





[i] “Fire at State Reform School,” report from Marianna dated February 28, 1906, Pensacola Journal, March 1, 1906, p. 1.
[ii] Pensacola News, January 1911, clipping in Singletary Collection.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Clippings from the Marianna Times-Courier, 1911-1914, Singletary Collection.
[v] Gov. Park Trammell to Hon. W.H. Milton, President of the Board of Governors, November 18, 1914, Singletary Collection.
[vi] “Heroic Tampa Boy saves many lives at Marianna Fire,” datelined Marianna, November 20, 1914, Tampa Tribune, November 21, 1914, p. 1.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Ibid.
[xi] Anonymous, “Ten Lives Lost When Florida Reform School Burns at Marianna,” November 18, 1914, report reprinted in numerous newspapers across the United States.
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Ibid.
[xiv] “Heroic Tampa Boy saves many lives at Marianna Fire,” datelines Marianna, November 20, 1914, Tampa Tribune, November 21, 1914, p. 1.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

white cemetary is flaged with yellow flags go ahead sneak over there clue look behind brick smoke stack in the far courner towards the whitehouse

Dale Cox said...

Your comment aside, NO graves have been found anywhere on campus but within the old fence line of the "Boot Hill" cemetery. They have looked in other areas, but came up empty.

Anonymous said...

According to documents I read myself in 1986 suggested that as many as 30 kids perished in that fire, but was covered up due to the use of ankle irons. A timeline of events was painstakingly typed, then stored in a place that I found it. In the binders found, everything was chronologically listed, everything from students "disappearing" to the amount of "lashings" that were administered. It also spoke of scandal that was otherwise covered up. Who kept these records, and why, is a mystery. But the puzzle pieces can be reunited if the binder was ever found and made public. The original was so damaged (aged) that I typed a new one, then returned it to where I found it.

Brian S.

Dale Cox said...

Brian,
Absolutely no one believes that 30 people perished in the 1914 fire. I don't believe it, USF doesn't believe it, FDLE doesn't believe it. The media at the time was very consistent in its reporting of the fire and gave a number nowhere near 30. I believe the media accounts are generally accurate since they were written by independent reporters who witnessed the bodies being removed from the ruins.

If you can produce an original document dating from 1914-1915, however, I am sure we would all be delighted to see it.

Dale

Anonymous said...

Sorry Dale, it's too convenient to believe these journalists of the day were any more credible than you, and just because you said so, doesn't necessarily make it so. Lies abound, and so do special interests in the case(s). Whatever special interest it is to you also remains a mystery, but we can easily use common sense to imagine why.

Dale Cox said...

The bodies from the fire have already been exhumed and were among the 55 found within the fence line of the old cemetery. There were not 30 fire victims nor were there hundreds of murder victims buried there as some continue to claim. If you have facts about the fire that counter what was reported independently and in state documents of the time, feel free to submit them. I am always willing to look at actual facts. And my personal interest is to defend the community against blatant lies, which is what the murder claims were, are and will remain after USF finishes their project.