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Ben J. Elder
I read your personal accounts of Marianna and after overcoming my initial reaction and my own emotions suppressed for 50 years, I decided to write my story. However, when I attempted to upload the file, the Web site wouldn’t allow it. I am attaching it to this e-mail for your benefit and in hopes you can get it uploaded. The victims of those animals, both dead and alive, scream out for justice. We are no different than the victims of the holocaust or of the pedophile priests who also sought justice and received it.
I honor your courage and your persistence over the years in getting this story out and seriously want to contribute to the effort.
I would appreciate very much hearing from you.
I don’t know when it was that my life began to change direction. When it began to sink in that it was not me against the world. I know it was in my early twenties that some measure of clarity returned to my thinking and I realized that no matter how much I fought, I couldn’t win and that if I were to have any success and stability I needed to select a different opponent because my foe was not the world or the people in it, the foe was in my head. But at the time the foe was not imaginary. It was very real. Beat into me in Marianna, FL at the Florida School For Boys, a place born of good intentions but morphed into a place of torture to satisfy a few sexual and sadistic deviates who got off to beating young boys to within an inch of their lives, and some more than that who are probably buried there like one buries a stray dog. Boys as young as 8 or 9 whose only crime was running away from an intolerable home situation or skipping school or other childhood pranks. Nothing they had done, or would every do, could justify the punishment inflicted in the infamous “White House”, a building reserved solely for the purpose of state sanctioned beatings, torture, and death.
No judge sentenced us to what we were to receive. They sent us to FSB for the purpose of rehabilitation, and schooling. And in my case, to remove me from a home based on alcoholism and abuse void of parental intervention and control. My father died when I was 4 and Mother married four more times to men she met in bars who were drunks like her. Some were mean drunks and one was particularly vicious. His name was Grady and he was a large man at 6 feet 4 inches. I caught him dragging my mother across the kitchen floor one night by the hair with his pants down around his knees and I probably would have beat him to death with a tire iron but my mother pulled me off him before that happened. Never-the-less, it served the purpose because I hurt him bad enough that he never returned to our house.
A small woman, she was able to drink a 5th of cheap liquor every day and still go to work as a manicurist at a barber shop. To this day, I don’t remember anyone in my house without a drink in their hand. I was 14 at the time and sure, I had run away from home. It was my only escape. But I continued to go to school every day. I slept under a blanket behind some bushes at the park and did my homework under a street light. I fed myself by selling newspapers on Orange Avenue in Orlando, FL. That was nothing new; I had been feeding myself since I was 8. I pushed an ice cream cart, collapsing in the middle of an intersection from a heat stroke, mowed lawns with a push mower for a dollar each, and picked oranges. Not what you would call a life of crime or a threat to society.
Looking back now, what I really needed was a strong father figure with decent values to mentor me. I was trying to do the right thing but absent a mentor or a positive role model, what I got was a leather strap with sheet metal sewed in it that split my butt open on the first lick. It’s difficult to describe the pain you receive from 42 licks from that strap. Every lick sounded like a gunshot. Even worse was after your blood soaked clothes dried and you couldn’t remove them without soaking in the shower and then only with considerable pain. The boys in our cottage showered together so you could always see who had just “been down”, the term used for going to the “White House.” There were always boys with scabs and bruises on their backs, butts and legs since it took a couple of weeks for the healing to take place. God forbid if you went down again before healing. The man I feared the most was Tidwell the man we nicknamed “Slot Machine” because he had only one arm. That arm looked huge for a boy who barely weighed 125 pounds. Mr. Tidwell had a lot of strength in it and would put every bit of it into each lick of that leather strap.
I found it impossible to count the licks past 10 or 12 because the pain was so excruciating. We would count for each other as we waited our turn in the other room. The waiting was mentally excruciating, especially if you had been down before and knew what was to come. I was beaten by Mr. Hatton also and felt at the time he did it for the sheer enjoyment of it all. You could see the auto-erotic pleasure in his eyes as you struggled to get up from the cot and he called for his next victim. He looked like a mad man and had I possessed a gun at that moment I would have taken pleasure in shooting him in a way that would cause a painful slow death. I am sure the thought of killing them crossed the minds of everyone who survived the “White House”. I still feel it today. It is probably why, on those times when I have driven past the Marianna exit on I-10, I’ve not turned off to see what it looks like today. The curiosity is not strong enough to overcome the memories of those beatings.
I left FSB at the age of 15 and I was far worse off than I went in. My home situation had not changed and now I was filled with rage and resentment. The “system” had convinced me that I was alone in the world and the world was against me. Well, if they wanted to beat me into submission, I would fight back. I would take them all on if necessary. I would rather die than go back to the “White House.”
It wasn’t long before I was in the county jail. Because I was under age I spent 18 months in solitary confinement before being sent to the local chain gang to finish out two years. It was called “Pittsville” after the man who ran the camp. A square facility with a courtyard in the middle, one side housed the white prisoners and the one opposite was for the “colored people” and was labeled so. The back wing was the kitchen where we ate breakfast and dinner and where our lunches were prepared and put into containers for loading onto our work trucks, which were nothing more than steel cages on the back of flatbed trucks with a smaller cage on the rear where the shotgun guards would sit. The front of the building was where we entered and exited and the part facing the courtyard had a machine gun nest above the entrance but we never saw anything other than a shotgun guard. It was divided in half. There were picnic benches on each side, where we sat on the weekends, reading, playing cards or dominoes. We were not allowed to speak to the blacks even though they were only six feet away. Early each morning we lined up behind our boss man and were marched out to our truck. We worked along the roads digging drainage ditches and cutting grass by hand with a sling blade called a “yo-yo”. I was 17 at the time and we worked 8-10 in a line with a shotgun boss on each end and a walking boss with a pistol on his hip going up and down the line checking our work. I remember one day a water moccasin caused me to jump out of the knee deep ditch we were digging and immediately both shotguns were trained on me. One move and I would have had my head blown off. I yelled; “Snake Boss Man, snake.” His reply was;” Get back in that ditch Boy. Ain’t no snake going to bite a convict!” I did and he was right because the snake moved on. Our bathroom was a tarpoleum. If you had to use it you first had to yell; “Using the tarp, Boss Man!” Only after receiving a “Yup” from one of the bosses did one dare move out of line. When finished, yelling “Moving back in line, boss man”, was necessary before leaving the tarp area. We wore heavy denim uniforms called “stripes.” They were hot in the Florida sun but durable.
After spending so much time in solitary I was not in good shape physically and the hard work on the road took its toll in the early goings. On the third day, I was sun burned and my hands were blistered. They had cracked and were bleeding. As Capt. Pitts inspected us that morning, I asked if I could have my family send me some gloves. His response was; “Piss on them and rub ‘em in your hair Boy! Just give me more dirt on that shovel.”
We would stop once each day and sit in the shade, if there was any, for a lunch of white beans with rice and corn bread. It was served on a metal plate. A trustee would fill our metal cups with water from a bucket with a ladle. We all thought about running but that meant you had to “beat the gun”. And if you managed to survive the shotgun blasts, you had to beat the dogs that were employed to track you. And if you beat the dogs, there were several law enforcement agencies to contend with. It was difficult to conceive that anyone could be successful but conditions blurred rational thought. The guards often bragged about how no one had been successful and everyone who attempted and survived the gun, was captured and brought back to spend a month in a metal box out in the sun with nothing to eat but a small bowl of peas and carrots each day. You could see the box from the cage we slept in each night and being only 3 feet high it was shaped like a large casket with holes cut in the sides but without the ability to stand up or move around. I remember seeing people get out of the box and none could stand up or walk without help.
I remember the day I beat the gun. I was almost waist deep in a ditch digging it a foot deeper. The water was muddy which made the bottom impossible to see. The walking boss who was inspecting how much mud I had on my shovel asked; “Are you sure that bottom’s level boy?” My response was; “Sure, boss man! I waited a long time to run. The conditions had to be favorable to live through the first minute or two. I waited for a time when we were working close to bushes and trees heavy enough to stop the shotgun pellets. I spotted a path carved out by deer going through the heavy underbrush that was close to where I was working, I hit the bush so fast it took everyone by surprise. By the time I heard the shotgun blasts I was 20-30 feet into the thick palmetto bushes and pine trees which protected me.
For the next 3-days, through the Florida swamps and orange groves, I beat the dogs and everyone else who was on my trail. The months of working on the chain gang had gotten me into the kind of shape that lends itself to running what amounted to three marathons. For the first time in the history of Pittsville, someone had made it. And to this day, I have never been back. Screw you, Capt. Pitts! Rub that in your hair!
I came upon a car with the keys in it and sold the spare tire for enough gas to get me to the TN state line. After many miles though the woods on foot, I found a truck and did the same until I abandoned it in Winston Salem, NC. I got a room in a boarding house and the next day found a job with an insulation company. We were removing all the old asbestos insulation and replacing it with fiberglass. No one knew back then what breathing the asbestos would do to us. I was more bothered by the constant itching from the fiberglass and found a job selling shoes in a shoe store. I was on my way to a new life when two months later; two men walked in and asked me if my name was Ben Elder. When I said yes, they slapped on the handcuffs and took me to jail. I knew I was going back to Pittsville but least it was not as bad and going back to FSB. Instead, my luck changed and the federal government charged me with car theft and sent me to a federal facility in St. Petersburg, VA for six months to six years. This was under the Youth Corrections Act, where everyone gets the same sentence and when completed successfully, it is erased from your record. The problem I had was that the “rabbit” that was still in my blood from my prior experience. All I thought about was running away and when the administration figured out how much of a threat I was to do so, they sent me to a higher security facility in Chillicothe, OH. But getting there took a few months. I was on a bus with many of the prisoners from Alcatraz as they were just shutting down the place and we were all being transferred to different facilities. They used the same buses for everyone. Our destination was Lewisburg, PA, a maximum security facility where Jimmy Hoffa did his time. Although I came in with the Alcatraz transfers, I was kept in solitary confinement for a month or so since I was underage until I was transferred to Ohio.
In Chillicothe, I wound up working as a clerk in the furniture factory for a wonderful soft spoken man named Joseph Cuddy. He turned out to be the mentor and role model I had needed all those years and I finally began to see life as it really was rather than as I supposed it to be. He was a big Paul Harvey fan and I remembering listing to him every day on the radio. I could not hear Paul Harvey today without thinking of Mr. Cuddy. He was Catholic and I remember him at his desk crying the day John Kennedy was shot.
I was paid $.60 per hour and without the ability to spend much of it except in the canteen on Saturdays; I was able to save a sizable amount over the next 18 months and used the money to get the escape charges dropped back in Orlando. When I was released I went to Columbus to work for my uncle who owned a company that made stained glass windows for churches. After a while, I got a day job as a clerk in an auto parts mfg. plant and at night worked at a shoe store. Finally, after all those wasted years, I was being left alone and could build a future for myself.
I started my own business and I was a millionaire by the time I was 25 years old. Not knowing how to handle success, I went bankrupt. But I learned from the experience and I managed to claw my way back to the top and I’m now a successful businessman who has built a two million dollar home and spends summers in Italy. I’ve achieved the success I always was willing to work for. But I’ll always wonder where I would be if I had been able to finish high school and go to college. That opportunity was taken away from me by my experience at FSB. The 7 years of turmoil was a direct result of my time there and the mental attitude the sadists of the White House beat in to me. My wife of 30 years wonders about that also. I have four wonderful daughters, all well educated and with beautiful children of their own.
Grandchildren will show you what unconditional love is all about because that is what you willingly give them and they return it.
I’m 67 now and I work because I want to and because I have the opportunity to be a mentor to many. Helping others prevent making the mistakes one has made is fulfilling. The most difficult part is getting them to listen, believe, and then act on your advice. The work I do with children and young people is rewarding but also a little selfish. By doing it, I am able to experience the childhood I never had.
My son-in-law and my daughter, both successful lawyers, feel the survivors of Florida’s death camp at Marianna, should file a class action lawsuit against the State and the survivors will only be made whole when presented with a check for our pain and suffering. I would support such an effort.
As far as those perpetrators who still live, like Troy Tidwell, they should be punished just like the perpetrators of the holocaust. They were found and prosecuted many years later. Why not these people? They were just as brutal and deserve no less. And like the pedophile priests they should be made to pay for crimes against young children for they are no different.
Ben J. Elder