Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Tampa Atrocities: Officially-sanctioned beatings, torture and death in Hillsborough County, Florida.

Skyline of Tampa, Florida
Photo by Lauren Pitone
by Dale Cox

This is a story that the Tampa Bay Times would not not tell.

There is a place in Florida where beatings of jail inmates was commonplace. It is a place where those in custody were stretched out face down in public view and lashed with a leather whip for minor offenses. It is a place where the officials called upon to investigate the practice voted instead to legally authorize it. And it happened during the 20th century.

Marianna and Dozier School?  Some other sleepy small town nestled in the pines and steeped in Old South tradition?  No, that place is Tampa and Hillsborough County, home to the University of South Florida and the Tampa Bay Times.

The use of the lash by authorities in Tampa and Hillsborough County was widespread and accepted deep into the 20th century. It continued for decades and no prisoner was immune to the threat of flogging on the whim of city and county officials. Judges even beat children in the courtrooms of the city.

The Tampa Tribune reported in 1909 that the practice of flogging prisoners had been initiated there ten years earlier by Judge Whitaker of the municipal court.  He "set a precedent," the historical account noted, "by personally applying the lash to two boy offenders convicted in his court."

The word "precedent" according to Merriam-Webster means "something done or said that can be used as an example or rule to be followed in the future."  When Judge Whitaker beat two children in Tampa's municipal court, he set an "example or rule to be followed in the future." Hillsborough County was not shy in following that example.

Road Gang Members in the 1920s
On April 10, 1921, for example, the Tampa Tribune reported that it had received a letter from a "well-known woman resident of Clearwater" who alleged that she had witnessed the "brutal flogging of a convict."

The unidentified eyewitness said that she and several others were traveling by car between Oldsmar and Tampa on the afternoon of Thursday, April 7, when she witnessed "the most brutal act I have ever seen." In a letter to the editor of the Tribune, she described seeing a county road camp prisoner face-down on the ground beside the road as a guard beat him "with all his might with a leather strap." The sound of the beating was so loud that the witnesses could hear each of the blows as they struck the man.

The woman was unable to say how long the beating went on, but she said that it continued for the entire time she and others in the car were within sight of the road crew. She also said that it caused her to wonder what else happened in the county prison camp "where there was no public to look on."

The eyewitness raised a good question. If a guard was so bold as to force an inmate to stretch out face down by a public road for a beating that continued for an untold length of time, what else could have been taking place in Hillsborough County away from the eyes of the public?  Could inmates of the county's prison camp have been maimed or even killed by the floggings they received?

The incident took place in the County Commission district of John T. Gunn, who told the Tribune that he had no reports of "extreme conduct on the part of the guards." He promised to make a "thorough investigation" of the allegations.

Hillsborough County Courthouse in 1921
Burgert Brothers photos, Courtesy Florida Memory Collection
True to his word, Gunn did investigate. In fact, he was so impressed with the details of the beating that he recommended the implementation of flogging as a standard punishment in Hillsborough County.  In fact, the Hillsborough County Commission called the county's sheriff on the carpet before a meeting of the board to demand he explain why 15 federal prisoners housed at the county jail were not turned over to the county to be used as forced laborers on its roads.  The sheriff had previously told Commissioner Gunn that he was willing to allow the county to use the prisoners, but that they could not be flogged. Before the commissioners on that day in 1921, however, he changed his mind and "withdrew his restrictions."

On April 14, 1921, the Tampa Tribune ran letters from readers both supporting and opposing the beating of county inmates with whips. On the same day the newspaper reported that Superintendent McIntosh, who managed the work camp, had given assurances that "no color discrimination" was being made in selecting inmates for flogging. McIntosh proudly described the whipping of three men in one day, two of them white and one black. The road camp "boss" told the newspaper that floggings also took place in the state convict camp in Hillsborough County as well.

The county's investigation of the beatings at its road camp ended with a commission vote giving full sanction to flogging as a suitable punishment for inmates.

St. Petersburg, Florida
Photo by Lauren Pitone
Flogging, in fact, became so popular in the Tampa Bay area that it soon spread to St. Petersburg. In 1931, ten years after Hillsborough County officially adopted flogging, a civilian group in neighboring Pinellas County started a "flogging for hire" organization.  For the right amount of money, they would arrange the flogging of anyone you wanted flogged.

The commercial floggers, however, went afoul of the law when they flogged... the law. On March 8, 1931, the group kidnapped and flogged Constable F.A. Howard of Ballast Point. Arrests followed.

Despite such evidence that flogging was reaching out of control proportions around Tampa Bay, the practice continued. On November 30, 1935, officers of the Tampa Police Department seized three Union labor organizers without a warrant and carried them to police headquarters. The men were illegally questioned about their political and organizing activities as a "mob" gathered outside. When the three Socialist Party members - Joseph Shoemaker, E.F. Pulnot and S.D. Rogers - were released, they were seized on the grounds of the Tampa Police Department by the "ruffian band" that lay in wait. Carried to a remote area, they were flogged and then scalding hot tar and feathers were poured on their bodies.

Pulnot and Rogers survived the barbarous treatment, but Shoemaker did not.  He died one week later from hideous injuries. Rev. G.F. Snyder of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Tampa boldly spoke out against the atrocity, aiming his finger at "the very citadel of justice and law administration." A mass meeting was held, but public officials did not attend.

The focus of the nation fixed itself on Tampa. Florida Governor Dave Sholtz demanded a thorough investigation and labor leader Norman Thomas accused law enforcement of mishandling the investigation to "save the face of Tampa police and higher-ups." The president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) threatened to cancel his group's planned national convention, set for Tampa in 1936.

Tampa Police officers in 1935
Courtesy Florida Memory Collection, Florida State Archives
Then came the bombshell. Six Tampa policemen were arrested on the night of December 18, 1935, on charges that they were members of the so-called "ruffian band." Shoemaker's death, it was alleged, did not result from an attack by a mob, but instead was an execution carried out with a lash and hot tar by Tampa police. A member of the city's fire department also was arrested.

A second bombshell came on January 23, 1936, when Tampa Police Chief R.G. Tittsworth was indicted by a special grand jury as an accessory to the crime. In the end, a total of 10 arrests were made in connection with the incident and Governor Sholtz appointed a special prosecutor to handle the case, saying in the process that he meant no disrespect to the Hillsborough County Solicitor, C.Jay Hardee.

The police officers were acquitted. The family of Joseph Shoemaker never received justice. There was no closure.

Nine hate groups are active around Tampa Bay
Photo by Lauren Pitone
A national civil rights publication called it a "Whitewash" and alleged that the police officers were members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Whether they were or not is impossible to prove, but the Tampa Bay area is still infested with hate groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Alabama, there are 9 hate groups active in the Tampa Bay area. These include the New Black Panther Party, Neo-Nazis, Christian Identity and the racist Skinhead group Confederate Hammerskins. By comparison, Miami and North Miami are home to three hate groups, only one-third as many as Tampa Bay.  Marianna and Jackson County, home to the former Dozier School, have none.

The Tampa Bay Times has run story after story on the allegations of murders at Dozier School, even though 52 of the 55 people exhumed from the Dozier Cemetery are believed to have been buried there more than 75 years ago. How many stories has it published in the last two years about the officially-sanctioned beatings and death in Hillsborough County from the same era?  None.

I told Ben Montgomery, a reporter with the Tampa Bay Times, about the Tampa floggings in April 2013 and he told me he had never heard of them. I encouraged him to look into them. As of today, his paper continues to publicly ignore the horrors that took place in Tampa even while "seeking the truth" about Marianna. Montgomery has not responded to an email asking why he elected not to report on events that took place in his own community.

Think the official violence in Tampa and Hillsborough County ended long before the days of the "White House Boys" at Dozier School in Marianna?  Watch this video and think again: 2008 Abuse at Hillsborough County Jail.

The Tampa Bay Times at least covered that one.  And then there is this one, reported just today by the Tampa Tribune:  Woman dragged by Tampa police officer.

So far as is known no Tampa area media outlet has tried to find either the survivors of beatings or the families of individuals who were abused by authorities in Hillsborough County during the early 20th century. They continue, however, to run interviews and stories about alleged events that took place in Jackson County at exactly the same time in history.

The University of South Florida, meanwhile,  is spending more than $600,000 of taxpayer money in a "humanitarian effort" to identify 55 unknown graves at Dozier School.  How much money has USF spent to identify the 187 unknown graves at Woodlawn Cemetery within 15 minutes of the doors of its Anthropology Department?

Pam Bondi, Florida Attorney General
She has made no calls for justice in Hillsborough County atrocities.
How much money has the university spent to learn whether any beaten and abused inmates disappeared from the Hillsborough County Road Camp in the 1920s and 30s?

How much money has USF spent looking for a "lost" cemetery associated with the atrocities suffered by adults and children in Hillsborough County?

How many times has Attorney General Pam Bondi commented on the documented atrocities that took place in Tampa and Hillsborough County?  How often has she called for closure for the families of the victims?

Officers from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department spent time in Marianna assisting USF in its exhumation of the graves from the Dozier School Cemetery. How much time did they spend last year looking into the skeletons of their own past?

I think you already know the answers to these questions.

This is the first in a series of articles on this topic. Watch for part two in coming days.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Update: Icing a problem in Jackson County

Update: 1/29/2014: We had quite a few snow flurries across the county last night, but no real accumulation. There is a great deal of icing and it is not melting as we move through the afternoon, so please exercise extreme caution driving or walking on sidewalks, decks, steps or patios.

A very cold night is ahead with temperatures into the teens, so please look out for your pets, plants and leave your water dripping (dripping means an almost or slightly constant stream).  You would rather pay a little more for water, electricity or gas than one of my great plumber friends!


(Earlier Posts)

4:30 p.m., 1/28/2014 - Snow flurries and freezing rain are being reported across Jackson County at this hour. Accumulation is possible as the evening continues.

The National Weather Service forecasts that snow will likely fall in the county from 6 p.m. tonight through at least 9 a.m. tomorrow. Jackson County and adjacent areas are under a Winter Storm Warning.

Exactly how much ice and snow the county and surrounding areas will receive tonight is difficult to predict, but please be cautious driving. Bridges and other concrete pavements will ice first and can become dangerously slick in these conditions.

The National Weather Service is predicting that Jackson County and other parts of the northern Florida Panhandle, Southeast Alabama and Southwest Georgia could experience between 1" and 3" of accumulation tonight and tomorrow as the freeze line dips across the area.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

USF confirms: No Mass Grave at Dozier School Cemetery

Memorial area at Dozier School Cemetery
BREAKING NEWS:  Tampa and Hillsborough County authorities beat, tortured and killed prisoners during same era as Dozier School allegations. Click here to read about the Tampa Atrocities

In a press conference this morning in Tampa, employees of the University of South Florida (USF) confirmed that the number of graves found at the Dozier School Cemetery matched exactly the number provided by me and others in the community.

The media all day has been claiming that researchers found "24 more graves than should be there."  That is categorically false. They found exactly the number of graves that documentation indicates should be there.

The university, which has spent more than $600,000 in taxpayer funds to dig up the historic cemetery at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, FL, confirmed this morning that it had found 55 graves in the cemetery.

I tried to provide the university with evidence of 55 graves at the cemetery, but its employees refused to meet with me.

For more than 18 months, I have indicated that I believed there were "approximately 53 bodies there" (quote from the Tampa Bay Times, 4/13/2013). On September 22 of last year, I provided the university's legal office with documentation of 2 additional deaths at the school from the years prior to 1906, bringing the total to 55. University researchers never responded.

Artifact left behind in tracks of USF vehicle.
In October of last year, at the request of individuals from the local historic preservation trust, I loaded my documentation up and carried it to Marianna so the team from USF could go through it. It included clear evidence of 55 known graves in the cemetery. Even though USF had requested that the local group provide it access to any information available on the cemetery, its researchers refused to meet with me or examine the documentation I was making available to them.

It raised a question that remains unanswered today. What kind of scientist or professional researcher, being paid with taxpayer money to find the truth about the cemetery, would not examine a box containing thousands of pages of documentation?  You can answer that question for yourself.

Today's announcement by USF confirms an article I posted here on December 29, 2013: No Mass Grave at Dozier School Cemetery. There was no mass grave at the Dozier School Cemetery. In fact, claims by one former student that more than 150 graves would be found there, the university's announcement now confirms, have been proved to be completely false.

Memorial at Dozier before its destruction by project.
USF today did not comment on the causes of death for the individuals it dug up, more than 80% of them without the permission of their families and next of kin, but we already know that answer too: they died of sickness, in a tragic fire, in a couple of accidents - or were murdered by other students.

I said in early 2013 that if no bodies of students murdered by employees - as some have claimed - were found at the school, then employees of USF would owe the people of Marianna and Jackson County an apology. I predict, however, that no apology from them will ever come.

They say they will continue to search and dig in what is now becoming a clearly desperate effort to find more graves. Let them dig, but in my opinion no more public money should be provided to them once they have finished spending the more than $600,000 they have already been given.

I hope they can find the families of those known to be buried in the cemetery. It would be a shame if  80% of the bodies they dug up without first taking the time to do so are just thrown back in a hole with nothing but a number.  How is that an improvement?  Regardless, hopefully they can find the families that do not know they need closure so they can "give them closure" as they have promised.

1947 map showing original cemetery fence.
The media continues to try to spin the story, but to its credit USF timed the press conference well. By tomorrow, most likely, the news about Dozier will be lost in coverage of tonight's State of the Union speech and the big winter storm.

The media also continues to show its inability to understand that the little area at the school with metal crosses and a cable around them was a memorial, not the actual cemetery. The actual cemetery - once surrounded by a wire fence, portions of which were found in spoil piles left behind by USF - enclosed a somewhat larger area of around 50 by 100 feet. All of the graves found were inside the line of the original cemetery fence, not "outside the cemetery" as some media outlets have already claimed today.

Apparently they either can't understand that simple fact or they are lying to save their reputations.

 As far as Marianna and Jackson County are concerned, our community has been vindicated. The media will never say that and USF will never say that, but we know it and we can hold our heads a bit higher today.

I wish only peace and happiness to all involved in this fiasco.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Dozier graves press conference set for tomorrow at USF in Tampa

The University of South Florida is hosting a press conference tomorrow on its exhumation of the graves of former students and employees from the known cemetery on the campus of the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

The following list is the one I assembled about known and potential burials in the cemetery. USF refused my offer to share with them the information I assembled on these individuals, a curious decision for scientists and researchers.

I will comment further after tomorrow's press conference, but if you are the next of kin of someone on this list and you have not heard from the university, you should make contact with them as they likely have dug up the remains of your relative.

Even though the graves were located in Marianna, USF is holding its press conference in Tampa.

Unless the university can locate the family members of the bodies it has exhumed - something I feel they should have done before digging them up - then they will have no way of identifying the remains and they will just be put back in the ground. That would be a shame after all the statements that this project was being done to "bring closure to families" (80% of which did not give their permission for the project).

Note:  Names with an * may or may not be buried at Dozier.  Names without one are known to be buried there. My list, which has been available online since last year, includes 64 names. I believe that 55 are buried in the cemetery, the others elsewhere.  USF expected to find 50 graves, based on use of ground-penetrating radar.

  1. Unknown, Student (died prior to 1906 of heart condition)*
  2. Unknown, Student (died prior to 1906 of exposure following escape)*
  3. Unknown, Student (died in 1911 of unknown causes).*
  4. Bennett Evans, Employee (died in 1914 dormitory fire).
  5. Charles Evans, Employee (died in 1914 dormitory fire).
  6. Joe Wethersbee, Student (died in 1914 dormitory fire).
  7. Walter Fisher, Student (died in 1914 dormitory fire).
  8. Clarence Parrott, Student (died in 1914 dormitory fire).
  9. Louis Fernandez, Student (died in 1914 dormitory fire).
  10. Harry Wells, Student (died in 1914 dormitory fire).
  11. Clifford Jefford, Student (died in 1914 dormitory fire).
  12. Scott Martin, Student (died of unknown causes in 1915).
  13. Granville Rogers, Student (died of unknown causes in 1915).
  14. Willie Fisher, Student (died of unknown causes in 1915).
  15. Sim Williams, Student (died of unknown causes in 1916).
  16. Tillman Mohind, Student (died of unknown causes in 1916).
  17. James Joshua, Student (died of unknown causes in 1916).
  18. Thomas Aikins, Student (died of unknown causes in 1918).
  19. Unknown, Female Employee (died of influenza in 1918).
  20. Lee Gaalsby, Student (died of unknown causes in 1918).
  21. George Grissam, Student (died of unknown causes in 1918).
  22. Wilbur Smith, Student (died of influenza in 1918).
  23. Willie Adkins, Student (died during influenza outbreak, 1918).
  24. Lloyd Dutton, Student (died during influenza outbreak, 1918).
  25. Ralph Whiddon, Student (died during influenza outbreak, 1918).
  26. Hilton Finley, Student (died during influenza outbreak, 1918).
  27. Puner Warner, Student (died during influenza outbreak, 1918).
  28. Joe Anderson, Student (died of unknown causes in 1919).
  29. Leonard Simmons, Student (died May 9, 1919 of unknown causes).
  30. Nathaniel Sawyer, Student (died December 12, 1919 of unknown causes).
  31. Sam Morgan, Student (died in 1921 of unknown causes).
  32. John H. Williams, Student (died in 1911, accidental death).
  33. Arthur Williams, Student (died February 26, 1921 of unknown causes).
  34. Schley Hunter, Student (died April 15, 1922 of pneumonia).
  35. Calvin Williams, Student (died December 31, 1922, of unknown causes).
  36. George Chancey, Student (died in 1923 of malaria).
  37. Clifford Miller, Student (died in 1924 of unknown causes).
  38. Charlie Overstreet, Student (died August 19, 1924, during a tonsillectomy).
  39. Edward Fonders, Student (died May 18, 1925, of an accidental drowning).
  40. Walter Askew, Student (died December 18, 1925, of unknown causes).
  41. Nollie Davis, Student (died February 8, 1926, of pneumonia).
  42. Robert Rhoden, Student (died May 8, 1929, of pneumonia).
  43. Samuel Bethel, Student (died October 15, 1929), of tuberculosis.
  44. James Brinson, Student (died in 1932 of pneumonia/influenza).*
  45. Willie Heading, Student (died in 1932 of pnuemonia/influenza).*
  46. Sam Nipper, Student (died in 1932 of pneumonia/influenza).*
  47. Jesse Denson, Student (died in 1932 of pneumonia/influenza).*
  48. Lee Underwood, Student (died in 1932 of Influenza).*
  49. Fred Sams, Student (died in 1932 of influenza).*
  50. Dary Pender, Student (died in 1932 of influenza)*
  51. Archie Shaw, Student (died in 1932 of influenza).*
  52. Lee Smith, Student (died January 5, 1932 in accident with mule).
  53. Joe Stephens, Student (died May 9, 1932 of influenza).
  54. Thomas Varnadoe, Student (died October 26, 1934 of pneumonia).
  55. Joshua Backey, Student (died 1935 of blood poisoning).*
  56. Richard Nelson, Student (died February 23, 1935, of pneumonia).
  57. Robert Cato, Student (died February 25, 1935, of pneumonia).
  58. Grady Huff, Student (died March 4, 1935, of acute nephritis).
  59. James (Joseph) Hammond, Student (died May 2, 1936 of tuberculosis).*
  60. Robert Seinous (Stephens), Student (died in 1937 after being stabbed by another student).*
  61. George Owen Smith, Student (Escapee, body found decomposed under house in Marianna on January 24, 1941).
  62. Earl Wilson, Student (Murdered on August 31, 1944, in severe beating given by 4 students.*
  63. Billey Jackson, Student (Died October 7, 1952 of pyelonphritis)
  64. Alphonse Glover, Student (died August 13, 1966, drowned in swimming pool).*
The following individuals are known to have been buried elsewhere or did not exist:
  1. S. Barnett  (allegedly died in 1914 dormitory fire, name was a media mistake that later was corrected).
  2. Louis Haffin (allegedly died in 1914 dormitory fire, name was a media mistake that later was corrected).
  3. Waldo Drew (initially thought to have died in 1914 dormitory fire, but later was found to have escaped.
  4. Earl E. Morris, Student (initially thought to have died in 1914 dormitory fire, but later was found to have escaped)
  5. Raymond Phillips, Student (escaped, actually shot and killed by deputy sheriff in Alachua County).
  6. Guy Hudson, Student, drowned while swimming with other boys in 1921, body returned home to Milton, Fla., for burial
  7. Oscar Elvis Murphy, killed in 1932 after being run over by a car in Hardee County, Florida.
  8. Lonnie Frank Harrell, died of tuberculosis in 1932, buried in Tampa.
  9. Eddie Albert Black, murdered by another student in 1949, buried in Escambia County, Florida.
  10. Clarence Cunningham, died in Tallahassee in 1954 due to "Mestastasis to Spinal Cord."
  11. George Fordom, Jr., died in Tallahassee in 1957 due to "sarcoma of lung."
  12. Edgar Thomas Elton, died in 1961 due to "acute dilation of the heart." Buried in Lake County, Florida.
  13. James Lee Fredere, died 1965 in an automobile accident in Volusia County. Buried in North Carolina.
  14. Martin E. Williams, drowned in the Chipola River in 1973 after falling from a canoe during a field trip, buried in Hillsborough County, Florida.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sopranos and soap opera stars join Marianna movie cast

Actors from the popular television shows The Sopranos, All My Children and Desperate Housewives have been named to appear in the new Marianna-made horror/action film, Sharkansas.

Serafin Falcon, who played Estaban in the popular tv series The Sopranos, will portray Mike in the new movie, which continues filming this week in and around Marianna.  He also has appeared as a sniper in the blockbuster movie Transporter 2, as a hitman in the tv series Graceland and in the TV series Burn Notice.

John Callahan, whose face is well-known to soap opera fans, will play Carl in the new movie. He played Dr. Baker in Days of Our Lives, and Edmund Grey in All My Children. He also has appeared as Edmund in Spin City, Stan in Desperate Housewives, Richard Porter in Watch Over Me, Bruce Donnelly in Cold Case, Eric Stavros in Falcon Crest, Craig Hunt in Santa Barbara, Leo Russell in General Hospital, a reporter in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Pete in Fantasy Island, Preston Howard and Garrett Harper in Fantasy Island and Detective Mackenzie Johnson in The Bay.

The third new name that surfaced over the weekend as a participant in the movie is Amy Rasimas Holt, who has appeared in The Unit, NCIS: Los Angeles and Dynocroc vs. Supergator. She will appear as Norma in the upcoming TV series Break a Hip.

 The three join Traci Lords, Dominique Swain and Christine Nguyen in Sharkansas, which tells the story of how a "fracking" accident causes the earth to crack and unleashes a swarm of prehistoric sharks into the area around a prison for women in Arkansas. The movie is expected to receive a PG or PG-13 rating.

Although the movie is set in Arkansas, all filming is taking place in and around Marianna due to the availability of caves, crystal clear spring waters and unique wooded and rocky terrain.

The total budget for the project is around $600,000 and the impact on the local economy over a three-week period is expected to approach or surpass $1,000,000.  While no extras are currently needed for the film, the movie company is contracting with numerous local businesses including restaurants, hotels, suppliers and for boats and other assistance from Cave Adventurers on Merritt's Mill Pond.

To read other updates on the film, please visit and scroll down the page.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Sharkansas movie filming continues in Marianna, FL

Film crew on location in Marianna, FL
Filming of the horror/science fiction movie Sharkansas Womens Prison Massacre continues in Marianna, Florida.

Most production work so far has taken place at Florida Caverns State Park where actors, actresses and production crew members have been on location for the last four days. Much of the work is taking place in wooded areas within the park.

As the production goes forward over the next two weeks, filming is expected to take place on Merritt's Mill Pond in Jackson County and at the historic Russ House in Marianna, which will double as a café or restaurant in the movie.

Lead actress Traci Lords (Cry-Baby and Zack and Miri) will arrive in Marianna next week to begin filming her scenes.

Actresses on location in Marianna, FL
Producers and directors of the film indicate that they do not have need for extras at this time, but they are contracting with numerous local businesses to provide services for the project. Edd Sorenson of Cave Adventurers confirmed yesterday that his company is providing boats and other services for the movie, parts of which will be filmed underwater and on the banks of Merritt's Mill Pond. Several Marianna restaurants are providing catering services and the crew and cast members are renting dozens of hotel rooms from Marianna area hotels.

Sources close to the production indicate the filmmakers are so pleased with the Jackson County area that they plan to return for a second production later in the year. Several other movie and television production companies also are considering the area at this time.

Sharkansas, which seeks to capitalize on the shark movie frenzy created by the film Sharknado in 2013, tells the story of an oil drilling company that accidentally creates a crack in the earth. The accident unleashes a swarm of gigantic prehistoric sharks from a lost underground ocean. As fate would have it, the sharks surface in caves and waters surrounding a prison for women in Arkansas.  Jackson County, which offers rocky cliffs, deep woods and clear springs and lakes, is doubling for Arkansas in the film.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Photos from Sharkansas horror movie filming in Marianna, FL

Here are photos from today's 2nd day of filming of the new horror movie Sharkansas Womens Prison Massacre.

The film stars Traci Lords (Cry-Baby, Zac and Miri), Dominique Swain (Face/Off, Lolita) and Christine Nguyen (Get Him to the Greek) and is being filmed at locations around Marianna and Jackson County, Florida.

The movie tells the story of a "fracking" accident during oil exploration that opens a crack in the earth. A swarm of giant prehistoric sharks come up from the depths of the planet and surface around a prison for women in Arkansas. The film obviously seeks to capitalize off last year's Sharknado phenomenon.

Crews were filming on location today at Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna. Thank you to Pam Fuqua, Director of the Jackson County Tourist Development Council, and Visit Jackson County, Florida for the photos!

Camera crew in place for production.

Actresses run from a prison van.

Crew members on scene.

Actresses and prison van.

Stars and Caves appear in Sharkansas, horror movie filming in Marianna, FL

Florida Caverns State Park
Marianna, Florida
UPDATED: 3:30 p.m.  Traci Lords to star in Sharkansas!

Filming of the horror movie Sharkansas Womens Prison Massacre moved into its second day with some of the lead actors and actresses now on set.

Sources close to the production confirmed this afternoon that actress Traci Lords will play a role in the film. Drawn into adult films by her mother's boyfriend when she was underage, Lords has spoken publicly about the exploitative nature of the porn industry. Since those days she has gone to acting school and proved herself to be an accomplished actress. She played opposite Johnny Depp in Cry-Baby, as Racquel in Blade and as "Bubbles" in the 2008 comedy Zac and Miri make a Porno. She also has appeared in a wide variety of TV shows, including MacGyver, Married with ChildrenThe TommyknockersHighlanderTales from the CryptMelrose PlaceRoseanneNash BridgesProfilerWill & Grace and Gilmore Girls.

Other announced celebrities taking part in the production include Dominique Swain in the role of "Honey" and Christine Nguyen as "Michelle Alika."

Best known for her performances in the the 1997 John Travolta/Nicolas cage film Face/Off and in the title role in the 1997 Jeremy Irons/Melanie Griffith film Lolita, Swain has appeared in dozens of movies and television shows. Her TV credits include Ghost Whisperer and JAG.

Blue Springs Recreational Area
Jackson County, Florida
Nguyen has appeared in the 2010 Jonah Hill/Russell Brand move Get Him to the Greek and the 2006 Comedy/Musical Ghost in a Teeny Bikini (note for its tagline, "If the Graveyard's rockin', don't bother knockin'!).

Merritt's Mill Pond
Marianna, Florida
Also starring in the film will be Jackson County's most famous landmark, Florida Caverns State Park.

A beautiful myriad of caverns that constitute Florida's only public tour cave, the cavers draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to Marianna and Jackson County each year.  Filming is now in its second day at the park, but is being scheduled around public activities so that no tours or other points of interest in the park are closed due to the film work.

Other locations to be used in the movie, which tells the story of a "fracking" accident that creates a crack in the earth and unleashes a swarm of prehistoric sharks into the vicinity of a prison for women in Arkansas, include Blue Springs Recreational Area, Merritt's Mill Pond and possibly the historic and haunted Russ House in Marianna.

To learn more about the movie, be sure to read yesterday's post: Hollywood comes to Marianna!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Hollywood comes to Marianna! Jackson County to double for Arkansas in new Horror Movie!

Russ House & Visitor Center
Marianna, Florida
UPDATE:  Day 2 Filming brings Stars

The prehistoric sharks are coming to Jackson County!

Marianna and Jackson County have been named as the film location for the new action/horror movie, "Sharkansas Women's Prison Massacre."

Directed by Jim Wynorski - best known for such horror and science fiction films as "Not of this Earth" and "Dynocroc vs. Supergator" - the movie is the latest in shark-related projects to enter production since the unexpected and phenomenal success of the low budget horror flick, "Sharknado."

Merritt's Mill Pond
According to the film's website ( the movie brings the shark horror genre to a whole new level by having sharks hunt their victims from just beneath the earth's surface. In this case, a "fracking" accident creates a crack in the earth that unleashes a swarm of monster prehistoric sharks from an ocean buried deep in the earth. The sharks just happen to pop to the surface around a prison for women in Arkansas, hence the title "Sharkansas Womens Prison Massacre."

The film is not likely to win any Academy Awards, but it does represent solid progress in the Jackson County Tourist Development Council's efforts to promote the area as a location for the movie industry. According to TDC Director Pam Swift Fuqua, representatives from two different film companies have visited the county since early December and her office has received email questions from numerous other movie and television production firms.

Florida Caverns State Park
The film industry database website already lists "Marianna, Florida" as the production location for "Sharkansas" and indicates the film has a budget of around $600,000.  While very modest in terms of movie production budgets, the money will have a significant economic impact on Marianna and Jackson County.

Tens of thousands of dollars are being spent locally for hotel rooms, supplies, food and services. According to Fuqua, Madison's Warehouse Restaurant on Madison Street in Marianna has landed catering services for the film and will be supplying its award-winning local cuisine to the various film locations throughout this month. She also indicated that the filmmakers are renting boats and other services from Cave Adventurers, the diving and boat company that operates on Merritt's Mill Pond. "They even needed local banking services," she noted.

Blue Springs
The director had visited Marianna and Jackson County several times in December scouting locations before selecting the area to begin immediate production. Locations he is known to have visited include Florida Caverns State Park, Blue Springs Recreational Area, Merritt's Mill Pond and the historic Russ House.

"Sharkansas" is the second full-length movie to be filmed in Marianna and Jackson County. The 1989 film "The Spring" was filmed in part at Florida Caverns State Park. It tells the story of two archaeologists searching for Ponce de Leon's lost Fountain of Youth.

TDC Director Fuqua hints that further projects may be in the works. "The efforts are coming to fruition from all angles," she said, noting that the TDC has been engaged in an effort to promote Jackson County, its people, scenery, resources and businesses across the state and nation. 

Crystal Clear Spring in Jackson County
The movie announcement comes just months after Fuqua and the TDC launched their new website,, and following a series of meetings and conversations with state officials.

"The response from the producers has been absolutely phenomenal," Fuqua said. "Everyone thinks Florida is just palm trees, but up here we have a great variety of resources.” It was those resources - caves, crystal clear water for filming underwater scenes, friendly people and availability of affordable hotels and services - that brought the movie and its hundreds of thousands of dollars in economic impact to Jackson County.

Chris Hawthorne, Park Manager at Florida Caverns State Park, has been heavily involved in arranging filming locations for "Sharkansas."  Edd Sorenson of Cave Adventurers took film crews to survey locations around Merritt's Mill Pond and is providing additional help as well. Chuck Hatcher, Jackson County Parks Director, is assisting with locations at Blue Springs.

The actors and production crews are expected to be in the area through the 28th of this month.


Thursday, January 2, 2014

Photos prove Dozier School Cemetery was never "hidden" or "clandestine"

A series of aerial and ground photographs and maps prove that the Dozier School Cemetery was never "hidden" or "clandestine," despite such claims by numerous media outlets and some - but not all - former students of the now closed reform school.

The most explosive word used by the media, particularly the Tampa Bay Times, to describe the cemetery has been "clandestine." Webster's Dictionary defines the word as meaning "conducted with secrecy; withdrawn from public notice, usually for an evil purpose." Related words, according to Webster's, include shifty, stealthy, sneaky, surreptitious, skulking, underhanded, etc.

The series of photographs and images presented on in this column, however, show that the cemetery was never "clandestine." In fact, they provide strong support for claims by former employees of Dozier and members of the community that the cemetery was maintained over the years it was actually used. The images also offer strong support for the conclusion of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) that there was "no evidence to suggest or support that the School's Cemetery was a 'well kept secret' hidden from the students."

Image One: 1940 Aerial Photo
This aerial photograph (Image One), for example, was taken in 1940. The red rectangle and arrows show the actual cemetery as it existed at that time. Close examination of the image reveals that a faint rectangle can be seen surrounding the cemetery. Those familiar with the use of aerial photographs indicate that such faint lines usually are indicative of fences, a strong indication that the cemetery was surrounded by a fence as early as 1940, seventy-four years ago.

Those with knowledge of interpreting aerial photographs also point out that the large trees seen growing within the rectangular area are consistent with the large oak and other trees growing at the site today and undoubtedly represent those trees as they appeared from above in 1940. The aerial photograph also clearly shows that the cemetery was in no way hidden, but in fact was surrounded by fields and pastures and would have been easily visible from nearby roads and the buildings of the school itself.

Image Two: 1947 Plat Map
The deduction that the rectangular area probably represented a fence around the cemetery is confirmed by this image (Image Two), part of a plan prepared of the school by the State of Florida in 1947.

Again, a red rectangle and arrows have been added to make the cemetery site clearly visible to the reader. Notice that the site is labeled "Cem." with a cross symbol to show that it was a cemetery. Based on the scale of the plat, the cemetery area was a little more than 100 feet long by 50 feet wide.

This seventy-three year old image proves that the cemetery was not "clandestine" or, to use one of the Webster's definitions, "withdrawn from the public, usually for an evil purpose." In fact, it was clearly labeled on the plat which was prepared for the Florida State Planning Board. If the State of Florida was including the cemetery in its planning documents seventy-three years ago, it clearly was not keeping it secret.

The 1947 plat also shows the cemetery as being surrounded by a rectangular fence. The fence was oriented roughly north and south and was about twice as long as it was wide.

Image Three: 1948 Aerial Photograph
The existence of this fence surrounding the cemetery - as well as the burial ground's open nature - is confirmed by this aerial photograph (Image Three).

Taken in 1948 just one year after the preparation of the state plat shown above, it shows the large oak and other trees growing in the cemetery that could still be seen until some of them were removed by the University of South Florida (USF) in 2013.

The photograph also shows dark "lines" surrounding the area. Again, those with experience in researching aerial photographs indicate these lines most likely indicate fence rows or fence lines. Close examination of the photograph reveals almost the complete outline of the fence that surrounded the cemetery.

The photograph also shows that in 1948, the southwest corner of the area still bordered open fields and pastures, although trees had begun to grow in other areas surrounding the cemetery.

By the time the aerial was taken in 1948 (sixty-six years ago), all but nine of the known deaths associated with school had already occurred. Of those remaining nine, two did not die at the school and five are known to be buried elsewhere. Only two additional graves are likely to have been prepared at the cemetery after the date of the photograph, indicating that it was at its largest known size when the image - an official document of the federal government - was taken.

The visibility of the cemetery from the campus and the fact that it was surrounded by a gated fence was confirmed by a former student who was sentenced to the school from 1951-1952. The student also confirmed attending a funeral in the cemetery and remembered that the body (that of Billey Jackson who died in 1952) was interred in a coffin.

Image Four: 1952 USGS Map
The next image (Image Four) is a section of the U.S. Geological Survey quadrangle map for East Cottondale, prepared in 1952. It clearly shows the Dozier School Cemetery as a rectangular area surrounded by open ground.

This was the same year that Billey Jackson, a student who died on October 7, 1952, was buried in the cemetery. School records verify his burial, as do the recollections of students who remember that he was buried in a coffin in the fenced area then known as "Boot Hill" Cemetery.

Jackson was the last individual recorded to have been buried in the cemetery, although it is possible that Alphonse (Alphonso) Glover, who drowned in the school swimming pool by accident while swimming with other students on August 13, 1966, may have been buried there. School records and the coroner's inquest report provide details on his death, but his burial location is not given.

Image Five: 1955 Aerial Photograph
The next image (Image Five), an aerial photograph taken in 1955 clearly shows the rectangular area or fence line of the cemetery.

Also a federal government aerial, the photograph shows that the trees had been maturing over the 15 years that had passed since the first aerial was taken in 1940, but that the fields and pastures surrounding the cemetery were even more open than they had been a few years earlier and that the burial ground would have been clearly visible from nearby roads, fields and the campus itself.

Again, as this photograph demonstrates, there is no indication of any effort to hide the cemetery or use it as a "clandestine" burial ground for evil purposes.  It was an open, visible cemetery surrounded by a fence.

Image Six: 1973 Aerial Photograph
The next aerial photograph (Image Six) was taken in 1973, a significant year because the school had been desegregated 5 years earlier.  Prior to that time the section of the school south of the cemetery had been used as a separate campus for African American students.

1973 was also the year of the last known death associated with Dozier School. Martin E. Williams, a student, died on April 28 of that year while on a canoe outing with other students and staff members. Williams drowned when he accidentally fell overboard after becoming scared of a snake seen in the Chipola River. His death was witnessed by students and employees and he was returned home to Hillsborough County for burial.

The 1973 photograph shows, as can be seen, that the cemetery area was still visible and still surrounded by open fields and pastures in almost every direction.

The series of images presented here show conclusively that the cemetery was never "clandestine" or hidden.  In fact, it was highly visible and throughout its years of use was surrounded by a gated fence.

The 1947 plat - confirmed by the 1948 aerial photograph - shows the fenced cemetery to have enclosed an area roughly 100 feet long and 50 feet wide.

This is consistent with the dimensions of the area from which USF exhumed the graves of former students and employees in 2013. Pieces of the old wire fence that surrounded the cemetery were visible in the spoil piles left behind after the university employees used heavy equipment to clear the cemetery site. (For more on the results of the exhumations, please see: No Mass Grave at Dozier School Cemetery: Media Falls Silent.

The historic cemetery fence and limits should not be confused - as many reporters have done - with the small memorial area that enclosed 31 crosses at the site.  The cemetery had been long abandoned by the time those crosses were placed.

The next post will focus on the actual history of the memorial crosses and will clear away many of the false statements made about them in the press.