September 24, 2020

Nickel’s secret cemetery: the mass grave of more than 50 children | Babelia


Even dead they created problems, boys.

The secret cemetery was on the north side of the Nickel campus, on an acre of rough weedy ground between the old stables and the landfill. Those were pastures when the school had a dairy farm and sold milk to local customers, one of the ways the state of Florida eased the tax burden of supporting the boys. The planners of the business park had reserved the land to make a restaurant area, with four architectural fountains and a bandstand for the occasional concert. The discovery of the bodies was a costly complication both for the real estate company that was waiting for the approval of the environmental study, and for the state prosecutor’s office, which had just closed an investigation into the alleged attacks. Now they had to start new inquiries, establish the identity of the deceased and how they died, and know when that damned place could be razed, cleared, and cleanly erased from history. The only thing that everyone was clear about was that it was going to last.

All the boys knew about this abject place. It had to be a student at the University of South Florida who brought it out to the public several decades after the first boy was thrown into the hole in a sack of potatoes. When asked how she discovered the graves, the student, Jody, replied that the terrain “looked weird.” The earth like sunk, the weeds scattered badly. Jody and the rest of the university archeology students spent months digging in the official school cemetery. The state of Florida could not dispose of the farm until the mortal remains were properly relocated, and archeology students could do well to do internships to get credits. Armed with stakes and wire, they parceled out the search area and dug with shovels and heavy material. Once the floor was sifted, the student trays became an indecipherable display of bones, belt buckles and soda bottles.

Image of the old Marianna public reformatory in Florida.
Image of the old Marianna public reformatory in Florida.

The Nickel boys called the official cemetery Boot Hill, a name that had its origins in Duel at the OK Corral and the Saturday movie sessions they used to enjoy before being sent to reformatory, depriving them of such hobbies. The name was kept for generations, even among students at the University of South Florida, who had never seen a Western movie. Boot Hill was on the other side of the long hill, on the north side of campus. On bright afternoons, the sun reflected off the white-painted concrete Xs that marked the graves. Two-thirds of the crosses bore the name of the deceased; the rest were blank. The identifications were not easy, but they were working at a good pace thanks to the competitive zeal of the young archaeologists. The school files, although incomplete and somewhat chaotic, facilitated the identification of one willie 1954. The charred remains belonged to the victims of the fire that occurred in the dormitory in 1921. DNA matches with relatives still alive – those whose The archeology students tracked their whereabouts – they reconnected the dead with the world of the living, which had gone on without them. It was not possible to identify seven of the forty-three bodies.

The students piled up the white concrete crosses next to the excavation site. One morning when they got back to work, someone had torn them to pieces.

Boot Hill was releasing his boys one by one. Jody was delighted when, hosing down various artifacts found in one of the trenches, found their first human remains. Professor Carmine told him that the flute-shaped bone in his hand must have belonged to a raccoon or other small animal. The secret cemetery redeemed her. Jody found the ossuary while wandering the compound looking for cell phone coverage. Carmine backed up his hunch based on the irregularities they had seen before: all those fractures, the sunken skulls, the ribs riddled with pellets. If the remains found in the official cemetery were already suspicious, what would not have happened to those in the clandestine grave? Two days later, dogs trained to find bodies and radar images confirmed the suspicions. No white crosses or names: just bones waiting for someone to find them.

“And they called this school,” said Professor Carmine. In half a hectare of land you can hide almost everything.

The writer Colson Whitehead.
The writer Colson Whitehead.

One of the boys, or one of their relatives, gave the tip to the media. The students, after so many interviews, already had a certain relationship with some of the boys. These reminded them of the typical curmudgeon uncle or tough characters from their old neighborhoods, guys who could soften once you got to know them but never lost their inner toughness. The archeology students told the boys about the discovery of the second cemetery, and they also told the relatives of the boys they had unearthed, and then a Tallahassee channel sent a reporter to investigate. Lots of guys had talked about the secret graveyard before, but, as was always the case with Nickel, no one believed them until someone else said so.

The national press echoed the report and people began to see the reformatory with new eyes. The Nickel had been closed for three years, which explained the jungle state of the compound and the classic teenage vandalism. Even the most innocent scene – one of the dining rooms or the soccer field – looked sinister without the need for photographic tricks. The sequences in the movie were unsettling. Quivering shadows appeared on the periphery, and every spot, every mark, seemed like dried blood. As if the images recorded by the video equipment emerged with all its dark nature exposed, the Nickel that one could see when entering and the one that could not be seen when leaving.

If that happened with harmless spaces, what would other more sinister places look like? Nickel boys were, as they used to say, cheaper than a dime dance where you dance longer than you paid for. Not many years ago, several of the former students organized support groups through the internet. They would meet at a restaurant or McDonald’s, or around someone’s kitchen table after driving for an hour. Together they carried out an exercise in spectral archeology, digging into the past and bringing the fragments and artifacts of those years to light again. Each with its own pieces. “He would tell you: I’ll come see you later.” The shaky steps that led down to the basement of the school. “Noticing blood-sticky toes in sneakers.” Putting these fragments together served as confirmation of a shared darkness: if it is true for one, it is also true for someone else, and thus one stops feeling alone.

Big John Hardy, a retired Omaha carpet salesman, was busy posting the latest Nickel boys news on a website. He kept others informed about the request for a new investigation and the negotiations on a formal letter of apology from the government. A blinking digital meter kept track of fundraising for a potential memorial. You could email the story from your Nickel era and Big John would upload it to the web along with the sender’s photograph. Sharing a link with your family was a way of saying: This is where I was made. An explanation as well as an apology.

The annual meeting, now in its fifth call, was as strange as it was necessary. The boys were already older men with women and ex-women and children with whom they spoke or not, with grandchildren who sometimes were brought and wary around there and others whom they were forbidden to see. They had managed to get ahead after leaving the Nickel, or perhaps they had failed to fit in with normal people. The last smokers of tobacco brands that are no longer seen, lagging behind the self-help regime, always on the brink of extinction. Dead in prison or rotting in rooms rented for weeks, or dying of hypothermia in the forest after drinking turpentine. The men gathered in the conference room at the Eleanor Garden Inn to catch up before processioning to Nickel for the solemn tour. A few years you felt strong enough to walk down that concrete path knowing that it led to one of the bad places; other years, no. Depending on your reservations that morning, you avoided looking at a specific building or did so without being daunted. After each meeting, Big John posted a report on the website for those who were unable to attend.

In New York there lived a Nickel boy named Elwood Curtis. Sometimes he had to do an internet search on the old reformatory to see if there was anything new, but he did not attend the meetings and did not add his name to the lists, for many reasons. What for, after all? Full grown men. What are you going to do, pass a tissue to the one next door, take the one that he gives you? Someone posted a post about the night he was parked in front of Spencer’s house for hours, staring at the windows, the silhouettes inside, until he ruled out taking justice into his own hands. He had his own leather strap ready to poke at the superintendent. Elwood didn’t understand; if it had reached that extreme, why not continue to the end?

When they found the secret cemetery, Elwood knew he would have to go back. The cedars looming over the television reporter’s shoulder brought back the sensation of heat on his skin, the screeching of dry flies. It wasn’t that far. It never will be.

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