Cold Case | “America’s Unknown Child”

Who was “America’s Unknown Child”?

It is no secret that true crime is not for everyone. For me, however, I like to take my fascination for it and turn it into something more than the tragic, unanswered questions within so many of these cases. One such example that has stuck with me since I first learned of it is the case of the “Boy in the Box.” As a case with more questions than answers, this case still deserves the closure that has eluded the grasps of investigators for over six decades and counting.

Who was “America’s Unknown Child”?

A nightmare to stumble upon


On February 1957 in Fox Chase, Philadelphia, the body of a John Doe was discovered naked with bruises all over, wrapped up in a blanket and inside a large cardboard box in the woods off of Susquehanna Road. The box itself was traced back to a brand of baby cradle which sold only at J.C Penny. Before the discovery could get to the attention of the authorities, at least two people had come across the body but failed to report on it.

The boy was found in one of twelve boxes which contained cradles and were shipped to a J.C. Penny store in Upper Darby, PA.

The first person to come across the corpse was a young student who was in the area checking on his muskrat traps. Since he feared that his traps would get removed if he summoned the police, he decided against doing so. A few days after this, the second person to come across the body was a college student by the name of Frederick Benosis.

According to Benosis, he stumbled upon the body when driving through the woods and spotting a rabbit running into it. In his words, he was aware of the traps in the area and, feared the safety of the rabbit, and so got out of his car and attempted to follow it when he came across the body. Initially, he was reluctant to report his finding (apparently it was because he got nervous at having to explain to the police that he was actually in the area to spy on girls from a nearby school), but by the following day he had changed his mind and did so. He was questioned as a possible suspect and ultimately ruled out after passing a lie detector test.

The age of John Doe was estimated to be between the ages of 3 to 7 years old and had several scars. One of the scars was shaped like the letter “L” and located under the chin. The other scars appeared to have surgically done, with one located on his ankle and another in the groin area respectively.

Appearance-wise, his hair seemed to have been crudely cropped recently as clumps of long, light-colored hair were found still clung to him. Also, he appeared to have been in a state of severe malnourishment. Aside from the malnutrition, scars, and bruises over much of his body, authorities physically described the boy as having blue eyes, medium to light brown hair with the noticeably crude haircut, a fair complexion and even his nails appeared to have been neatly trimmed.

The Investigation


On February 26, 1957, the discovery of the body in a discarded box led to the opening of an investigation into the matter at hand. They had his fingerprints taken to check their database, hoping it would quickly find a match. The initial optimism that the case would be solved soon waned, much to the frustration of all involved as the realization later hit the investigators. Unfortunately, no one ever came forward with any successful tips to date as the identity of the young John Doe and the motive for the crime against both remain unknown and unsolved.

Since the beginning of the case, the investigation did receive widespread attention in Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley. Investigator put much effort into identifying the boy, including The Philadelphia Inquirer pressing out 400,000 flyers with his likeness.

Another method investigators, at a later point, tried in hopes of eliciting leads, was in creating a bust in the likeness of what the Boy in the Box’s father might have looked like:

The bust created of the possible likeness of the Boy in the Box’s biological father.

The police thoroughly and repeatedly searched the crime scene for whatever clue they could find, with 270 police academy recruits involved. However, the only traces that they found were that of a child’s blue corduroy cap, a child’s scarf, and a handkerchief, all which unfortunately all led nowhere. Once their earlier efforts proved fruitless, the police decided to distribute a postpartum photograph of the boy dressed up and in a seated position, to make him appear as if he was alive in the hopes of generating new leads. Unfortunately, despite all of the publicity and attention the case did receive over the year, the boy remains unidentified and his case still unsolved to this very day.

On March 21, 2016, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children released a facial reconstruction of the boy and added him to their database.

In August of 2018, Barbara Rae-Venter, the genetic genealogist who helped in the identification of the Golden State Killer using a DNA profiling technique, stated that she was using the same method in the hope of establishing the identity of the boy in the box.

The facial reconstruction of what the boy may have looked like in life.

Other interesting pieces of evidence to note include


  • The boy may have had a chronic eye ailment.
  • He had not eaten within 2–3 hours before his death.
  • His cause of death was multiple blows to the head.
  • The faded cheap flannel blanket he was found wrapped in was made in either North Carolina or Quebec, Canada. It was also massed produced and shipped to multiple locations.
  • His esophagus contained a dark, brown residue. This possibly indicates that he had vomited shortly before his death.

The Theories

While there have been many theories over the decades, the dismissal of most of them over the years left, while two did hold the most weight but ultimately dismissed as well.

Theory One


The foster home

The foster house (Image credit: Jim Harper)

During the investigation, a foster home was located approximately a mile and a half from the location of the body.

Three years after the discovery in 1960, an employee of the medical examiner’s office named Remington Bristow, who pursued bringing closure to the case up until his death in 1993, contacted a psychic from New Jersey who informed him to look for a house that ended up resembling the foster house. Upon being later taken to the location of where body’s discovery, the psychic brought Bristow to the foster home.

Now looking into the foster home, Bristow attended an estate sale at the house and discovered a baby cradle similar to the one that was sold only at J.C. Penny at the time. Furthermore, he also noticed several blankets hanging on a clothesline that were all similar to the one found wrapped around the boy’s body. Bristow speculated that the boy must have belonged to the stepfather of the man who ran the foster home (a man named Arthur Nicoletti) at the time. He elaborated further that they might have gotten rid of the child to prevent his stepdaughter from getting exposed as an unwed mother. He added his belief to this theory that the boy’s death was the result of an accident. Interestingly, the psychic who led investigators to the house had never visited the area before, despite the foster family ultimately being ruled out.

Ultimately, this theory could not be proven correct despite the circumstantial evidence, because the authorities never found any definitive links tying the foster home to the boy. At the time, eight foster children were residing in the house, and all were accounted for and soon ruled out.

Thirty-eight years later, a Philadelphia police lieutenant named Tom Augustine, put in charge of the investigation at the time, and a known group of retired policemen and profilers (known as the Vidocq Society) did interviews with the stepfather and stepdaughter (whom they have since married). They concluded that neither the stepfather nor the stepmother was involved in the murder. Furthermore, a D.N.A test confirmed that the stepdaughter and the boy were not biologically related. As a result, the investigation into the foster home theory could finally be ruled out.


Theory Two

The woman known only as “M.”

In February of 2002, another theory came about by a woman identified only as “M,” and while her story seemed plausible, her history of mental illness greatly affected it. “M” made claims that her abusive mother had purchased the unknown boy (whose name she claimed was Jonathan) from his birth parents during the summer in 1954. According to “M,” her mother had subjected the boy to severe physical and sexual abuse for almost three years.

Additionally, “M” described the boy as being handicapped and unable to speak.

“M” had further elaborated that on one evening, the boy had gotten sick and vomited up his dinner, which resulted in a severe beating by the abusive mother. Following the beating, “M” alleged that the boy was bathed afterward, during which he apparently died. The details she gave did match the information collected by the police in the original investigation, in which the contents of the boy’s stomach matched with what “M” had said he had had for dinner that evening. Additionally, his fingers had gotten wrinkled from the water exposure.

The woman went on to add that her mother then cut the boy’s distinctively long hair, (which the police accounted for at the time of the initial investigation, in an elaborate attempt to conceal the child’s real identity. She then allegedly forced “M” to help her dispose of the body in the area in which he would ultimately be found in when their efforts were interrupted by a passing male motorist who, upon seeing them, pulled offer and asked if they needed any help.

According to “M,” she was made to stand and block the motorist’s view of their license plate while her mother politely convinced the motorist that they did not need any help. The man eventually drove off. This aspect of “M’s” claim was corroborated by then-confidential information that was given by a male motorist back in 1957, who added that the body got placed in a box which had discarded at an earlier time than that day.

Despite the incredible plausibility in “M’s” claims, the police were not able to verify them as true. Furthermore, neighbors of “M” who were familiar with her living arrangements disputed her claims of any children living in her house in the timeframe she claimed, going as far as dismissing them as ridiculous.

A third theory posed during the investigation was that someone was raising the boy as a girl before his death, which was developed by a forensic artist named Frank Bender. The child’s crudely cut hair, which served as a basis for the theory, in addition to the notion that the child’s eyebrows had apparently been “styled.” To further lend credence to this theory, an artist’s sketch was made to reflect the child as having the same brown-colored hair as was found on his or her body.

Another theory developed in 2016, when two writers, Jim Hoffman from Los Angeles, California and Louis Romano from New Jersey, both explained how they had come to the belief that they may have uncovered the possible identity of the boy in the box. They elaborated on the discovery of a possible identity from Memphis, Tennessee and that D.N.A was requested to compare between the family members of the individual and the unknown boy.

A man from Philadelphia initially uncovered this theory, where it then developed and finally got presented to the Philadelphia Police Department and the same group of retired policemen and profilers in early 2013. In January of 2014, a D.N.A sample was taken to compare between the boy and this Philadelphia man through the Philadelphia Police Department, although the D.N.A comparison got delayed when local authorities wanted to do more research into the circumstances of Memphis link first. Ultimately, in October of 2017, the D.N.A comparison concluded that the man from Memphis was not a biologically related to the Boy in the Box.

Burial

Initially, the unidentified young boy was buried in a Potter’s field, though he got exhumed in 1998 to extract D.N.A from a tooth. He was subsequently reburied on November 11, 1998, at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Cedarbrook, Philadelphia.

Moreover, every part of the second burial, from the headstone, funeral plans, and the coffin were all donated from the son of the man from the original burial in 1957. Additionally, a website was also created to help keep him from forgotten and as a source for people to leave new leads.

Significant public attention and media coverage took place at and during the reburial, and to this day, residents continue to leave flowers and stuffed animals. To this date, the headstone still reads: “America’s Unknown Child.”

Media Coverage


The television series America’s Most Wanted profiled this case on two occasions. The first was on October 3, 1998, and the second was on July 12, 2008. In addition to being featured on America’s Most Wanted, the case served as the basis for fictionalized instances on various fictional crime procedurals such as Cold Case, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Furthermore, a reporter named Mitch Blacher of NBC 10 Philadelphia aired an investigative piece on the case on March 2, 2016, on NBC 10 Investigators.

Last Thoughts


Despite the fact that this case is still unsolved even after sixty-plus years and counting, everyone involved in the investigations since the beginning still refuses to give up on getting this case to close. After all, this child still deserves to have his name known and remembered so let’s all hope that one day it will.


Anyone with any information on this case is encouraged to use one of the contacts below:

Contact:

Agency Name: Philadelphia County Medical Examiner’s Office
Agency Contact Person: Seth Ditizio
Agency Phone Number: 215–685–7445 
Agency Case Number: 57–863

Agency Name: Philadelphia Police Department, Homicide Division 
Agency Phone Number: 215–686–3334


References:

America’s Unknown Child

Jim Harper article

Tommy Rowan article

Find a Grave

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

NamUs

The Doe Network