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My Time at the Florida School for Boys 1957-1958
My name is Jonathan Coker. I arrived at FSB in July of 1957; I was fourteen and had been declared incorrigible for not being under the control of my parents and fighting with my Dad. I had spent several weeks in the Bay County Jail and was driven up with another boy from Panama City who had been there several times before.
When we were being processed at the office I made the mistake of sitting in a chair without being asked which was considered a major breach of manners, I was corrected instantly but I think this made Mr. Hatton remember me and consider me a "wise guy".
I was assigned to Monroe cottage # 6 with Carlos Smith as the cottage father. He had an assistant named Bull York who was a bully and was known for punching and slapping around the boys who displeased him.
After a week of so on the "yard crew" I was assigned to the Auto Mechanics shop and worked under Mr. Lewis. This was across the highway from the colored section where almost all the job training, on the white side we had training in the skilled crafts which might be of some use when you got out. The black’s side did mostly farm work.
Monroe cottage was filled with the larger boys, the person I arrived with was sent to a different cottage I think because he was smaller than me. We went to school one day and worked one day and were divided into groups of "even" and 'odds" in order to maintain this schedule.
There was a pecking order among us which had the larger and more experienced boys, many second timers at the top and it worked down to the smaller and weaker boys who were often harassed by the larger ones. There were always some who would bully those who couldn't protect themselves for amusement. There were some boys who were bullied by everyone for no real reason and were truly miserable.
I remember one incident when one of these unfortunates was trapped in a hall with 8 or 9 boys passed by with each of us kicking him in the shins or giving him a knee strike to his legs as he was pinned against the wall begging us to stop. None of us were what I considered chronic bullies but the pack mentality was at work and if we had passed him as individuals nothing would have happened. These were daily, common incidents that would occur when conditions were right. He knew better than to say anything. I can still remember the expression on his face.
In order to gain the respect to make life bearable you would be tested by the bullies who would look for any sign of weakness. You would probably have a fight or two and then you would be left alone even if you lost, since to be caught fighting was always a paddling offense which took all the fun out of it, otherwise you could be tormented the rest of your time at FSB. If you complained to the staff you would be branded a “puke" or "snitch" and you would be despised by the other boys for the rest of your time in Marianna. The only exception was if someone was talking about running away which was never successful and resulted in the entire cottage losing all privileges for a month. A boy considered a “puke" could have a blanket thrown over him at night and get the crap beaten out of him by 5 or six boys who he could not see. Staff would attempt to find out but if no witness came forward and told there would be no action.
Your place in the "pecking order" was clear at meals.
At meals we all sat usually eight to a table and the servers would bring the food from the kitchen and give it to the person who was the head of the table. He would take the best and then it would work its way back and forth across the table until everyone who had been served with the unlucky person at the bottom getting the dregs. The head of the table could decide the seating order. I don't remember how one got to be head of the table but they were the bigger and tougher boys.
Things like butter would never make it far past the first three or four people nor would any of the best pieces of chicken or ham or other desirable parts of the meal. The person at the bottom often would get nothing but a chicken neck or some pieces of fat. It is good we usually had enough vegetables. This was often a source of amusement to those closer to the head of the table.
I remember boys’ complaining that they were being starved by the others and there was some truth in this. I watched boys lose weight after their arrival if they sat near the bottom. We were all muscular, medium build or skinny, there were no fat boys at FSB that I remember.
Staff had a separate dining hall and different food that we only heard about from the kitchen boys.
Meat was mostly chicken and pork. Ham was served with the bristles still on it and called "hairy ham" but on weekends for the evening meals we were served hot dogs, bread and a dish made of peanut butter and cane syrup called "state peanut butter." Like a lot of the food it took some getting used to.
After a month or so I had made the adjustment and a few friends and was promoted from ”rookie" to " explorer" and had a visit form my family, during which time we were allowed to drive around the campus. I got my father to allow me to smoke a cigarette or two and since he had a carton in the car to give me two packs which I put in my socks.
Arriving back at the cottage Bull York must have smelled smoke because he took me to the locker room and strip searched me and found the cigarettes. I knew I was in a lot of trouble because of the way everyone acted.
I was broken to "grub' but I had to wait almost a week for my "spanking" since it happened on a Sunday.
Routine spankings were normally done on Saturday morning, so I reported to the office with the rest and I was in the first bunch and know I was the first boy to be paddled that day. Sometimes there would be 20 or more boys and spankings would go on all morning with different staff members working in rotation. Usually we would be taken from the office to the Whitehouse in groups of 4 with two or three staff members and returned the same way, usually limping and they would pick up the next group.
Mr. Hatton told me to lay on the bed in the little room on the left side while the others waited on the other. I heard the fan turned on and received the first blow shortly after. The power of it was completely unexpected as it actually drove my whole body down on the cot. There was a delay of 20-40 seconds and another blow stronger than the last. I could hear him winding up like a baseball pitcher, his foot scrapes, and the strap hit the ceiling and then me. I knew it was important to "hold the bed" but was having trouble at about 5 licks. I counted 26 licks and at the end I was just seeing huge flashes of light and pain like I have never experienced before or since. The intervals between blows seemed like an eternity and were an important part of the punishment making each blow a separate experience and much more painful than the last. I thought it would never end.
Mr. Hatton’s spankings were not over quickly, I think my beating took about 10-12 minutes at least from start to finish. This gives you a chance to feel the full extent of the fear and pain and also doesn't wear out Mr. Hatton’s arm too soon. He was a very powerful man and had been doing this long enough to make himself a real expert.
After the return to the cottage I was amazed at the damage that had been done to my buttocks, both cheeks were beaten black and "busted in five or six places with blood running down my legs. As I was all wobbly I was having trouble bending my legs to get the underwear off and some one helped into the shower and we took them off there.
I remember Mr. Smith looking at it and shaking his head. Most of my friends felt it had been an unusually severe spanking. The next few days were a hell of pain every time I moved and gradually over the next two weeks turned blue, green and yellow as it healed.
I had heard about the spankings and that Mr. Hatton was known to brag that he could "bust the skin" in 3 licks and was famous for his ability. I found it hard to believe that the state would allow this to be done to children and wondered what else could be done... I think this would have happened around the end of August, I never saw the strap this time. I now know it was made of two pieces of leather belting with a steel insert. it seemed to have a good deal of weight to it.
My next "spanking" was about 2 weeks later.
The mechanics shop where I worked was down by the highway across from the colored side was where the fire engine was kept and it always had the keys in it. I made a joke about stealing the fire engine and using it to run away to another boy I worked with. In a couple of hours 2 men came to the shop and took me up to the office where Mr. Hatton asked me about talking about running away. I attempted to explain that I was just making a joke and didn't intend anything but his response was running away is nothing to joke about and we would see how funny I thought it was when he was finished. Anything I said made him angrier and so I shut up. I could tell he intended to teach me a lesson and knew I was really in for it.
After sitting in the office for the rest of the afternoon at the end of the day he and 2 other men walked me over to the Whitehouse and I told to get on the cot and the fan was turned on and He took the paddle from under the mattress gave me my paddling which was like the one before except for being much more painful as my bottom had not healed and was still tender. I lost count at 29 licks and may have passed out as I had to be helped to my feet and made to walk around to be sure I was OK. I was crying a little and had chewed up my lip some. This time when I got back to the cottage my butt was in worse shape than ever with the old wounds reopened and busted in many more places and everything black and more bleeding so had to go in the shower and needed help to get the underwear off. The soreness was much worse than before which I didn't think possible. They did remove the keys from the fire engine.
My third and last "paddling" was about a month later and resulted from some horseplay at work that resulted in my being charged with fighting and disrespect. When washing down an area with a hose at work I gave another boy a squirt, since he didn't have a hose he came over and tried to grab it from me resulting in a struggle with both of us getting wet. Mr. Lewis felt this was fighting and when I told him we weren’t fighting but just fooling around he felt I was showing disrespect and I was written up for fighting and disrespect. I tried to take the blame but we both wound up getting paddled for it.
While waiting I was almost decided to try to run away to avoid another paddling but I knew of no one who had succeeded and they had all received severe spankings for their efforts. I also had no place to go and no plan to get there. I decided to try to grit my teeth and get though it.
Next sat I reported to the office and was taken down to the Whitehouse and got to listen when one of the younger boys could not hold the bed after about 12 licks and had to be sat on by the two others boys and received another 5 licks while screaming and crying. I guess he was about 8 or 9 years old.
I was the last to be paddled this time and was grateful that Mr. Hatton was not there for some reason and I was paddled by Mr. Zitch who was our school principal and also had a reputation as a bad paddler but I would have preferred anyone to Mr. Hatton.
Mr. Zitch had only one leg and could hit pretty hard but not like Mr. Hatton, his aim was poor and you would be hit anywhere from the bottom of the buttocks almost to the small of the back. He would sometimes turn the paddle edgewise so the effect was more like being hit with a club and I remember one blow up high felt like an electric shock and caused me to jerk in reflex. I think I got about 20-25 licks that time with the usual effects except for the welts caused by the blows with the strap turned edgewise.. I had lower back pain for a month or two and have been bothered on and off with it all my life.
That was my last paddling and I came to understand how easy it was to get in trouble at FSB and became more careful but was always seeing the results of those who weren't. Once I loaned my camera to take pictures of someone's bad spanking and the film was supposed to be given to his parents to be developed and sent to a State Senator but never heard anything more about it. That would have been in late 57 or early 58.
Generally the worst paddling’s were reserved for those who ran and they were often allowed to rest for a day in the infirmary and always received severe beatings, but it was possible to get equally severe beatings for lesser offences. The most important thing was who was doing the paddling and not just the number of blows alone. In my time the most feared was Mr. Hatton, but there were others that found pleasure in this way and they competed with each other. I think they were all volunteers for this duty.
Habitual runaways disappeared and we were told that had been sent a place with a fence such as Appalachee , but we must remember that the staff had absolute power over us boys and would be protected in the event of any trouble in order to protect the reputation of the school and State of Florida.
There were stories about some black boys that had broken into a staff member’s house and were beaten to death in the Whitehouse. After my first spanking I quickly I realized that if they wanted to kill you here they could do it and get away with it.
Another explanation for the graves is that over the years tens of thousands of beatings such as mine and much worse took place and it is probable that some would have been given to kids with preexisting conditions which could cause death. It seems possible a blood clot could form since the muscles of the buttocks were beaten to a pulp and cause death in that way. Any medical care would have been delayed and rudimentary and the school would have gone to any length to conceal this. Thirty nine graves do not seem like a large number in this context. To me the mystery is why they are marked.
FSB was not only a reform school but also functioned as a orphanage and a great many kids were there just because they had been rejected by their families and had no place to go,.. There were also boys who had done everything short of murder such as robberies and serious assaults and were dangerous criminals and could be real predators. But I think most of us were just scared, lonely, unwanted kids from failed families away from home for the first time. There were also kids who could never adjust to the discipline the school required and kept getting into trouble and would be sent home on a "must" which meant that for minor infractions that would normally result in a demotion, they would receive a spanking instead and keep their rank and be released Many would go to a home which might be worse than the school.
An "Ace' could get out in 71/2 months, a "Pilot" in 81/2, a "Pioneer" in 91/2 , but during my period 18 months was the maximum you could stay and many of these boys were up there every Sat morning for a spanking for a minor offense. I left as a "Pioneer" after about 10 months.
I was told average stay was about 11 months.
I would have to say life in the school brought out the best and worst in people, but mostly the worst and overall was a brutalizing experience that you never recover from and produces permanent changes in your personality and attitude towards life. It is hard to see the world as a kind & friendly place after one of the "spankings ' the staff was so free with or to see people as basically good when your main emotions are anger and fear. We all lived in some degree of fear all the time .This leads to trouble later and closes lots of doors regarding jobs and family unless you are able to overcome it. There is no doubt I came out an angrier and meaner person than I went in.
It took time to learn to survive in this environment, it changed my personality so that in order to ignore your own pain, you became indifferent to the suffering to that of others, any displays of weakness or sentiment invited ridicule or even a fight so you learned to suppress your emotions which could cause problems in later life even such as problems showing affection. There was also the generalized anger and quick temper that I concealed but never quite learned to control and a difficulty in the ability to trust others.
I am 66 now so these my experiences took place 52 years ago. Remembering them instead of repressing them has been like opening a can of worms or pulling a scab off of a wound attempting to heal and the memories just come rushing back like yesterday. They are as vivid and painful as ever. I have been as accurate as I can with my recollections, of this period in my life and though I think it diminished my life and set me up for many problems later I try to avoid any bitterness.
I returned to FSB sometime in the 70"s and things looked much the same, I entered at the mechanics shop entrance and drove up around behind the dining room, past the Whitehouse , around to the school and down past Monroe cottage and out the other entrance. I think I saw a new administration building with R.W. Hatton's name on it but may have been mistaken. I didn't stop and was overwhelmed with images from the past and wanted to leave as soon as I could. I have never been back.
I have never forgotten the date of my release, May 6th 1958. Actually I have been unable to ever really forget any of it. It will always be a part of me.
I certify this is a true account to the best of my knowledge