Unsolved Mysteries: Who Was the Boy in the Box?

Brutally Murdered and Seemingly Forgotten, Who Was America’s Unknown Child?

Michael East
Oct 21, 2020 · 12 min read

To some, 1950s America was a classic time of wholesomeness. A time when children could play outdoors, mothers baked apple pie and fathers went to work in their smart suits, never without a hat. However, for one little boy, this experience was a world away. Cast aside like garbage, his life went unremembered and unclaimed. But just who was America’s Unknown Child, and who brutally murdered him?

It was in February of 1957 that a man checking muskrat traps in the woods off Susquehanna Road in Fox Chase, Philadelphia, made a horrific discovery — the corpse of a young child discarded in a cardboard box, cast aside amongst the rusting appliances and garbage. He didn’t report the discovery, fearing the police reaction to his muskrat trapping. Days later, a passing La Salle College student saw a rabbit in the area and, knowing there were traps, followed. While he too was reluctant to approach police, he finally reported the discovery the following day. Police would later discover he was a peeping-Tom who was often to be found spying on young women at the Good Shepherd School for Wayward Girls.

Box containing the body of an unidentified child. | Philadelphia PD, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The coroner’s report makes for grim reading, with one seasoned captain said to have been sick at the scene.

Aged somewhere between 4 and 6, the boy was 40 inches tall and weighed just 30 pounds. He was of a fair complexion, had blue eyes, light brown hair that had been cut crudely, possibly post-mortem given clumps of hair that were on the body. There were existing surgical scars to the boy’s ankle and groin, plus an L-shaped scar under his chin. The bruises that covered his naked corpse and severe malnourishment suggested extensive abuse. The injuries had been long and sustained, covering much of his tiny frame, including his face. He died from massive head injuries. His body had been wrapped in a cheap rust and green coloured Indian-patterned flannel blanket and placed inside a corrugated J.C. Penney’s bassinet box. It was marked “Fragile, Handle with Care.” While it was likely coincidence, the phrase seemed a mockery.

Philadelphia Police Department opened their investigation on February 26, 1957, and took the fingerprints of the boy, being confident that the case would be resolved quickly. While they had little to go on beyond the box in which the remains were found, few believed it likely that a missing child could go unnoticed and unclaimed.

The news featured prominently in local media across Philadelphia and into the Delaware Valley, with the Philadelphia Inquirer printing 400,000 flyers with his likeness. The images were posted across the area and included with every gas bill sent out in the city. Newspapers quickly dubbed the victim as “The Boy in the Box”.

Police visited every children’s home, foster home and hospital in the area, ensuring that every child was accounted for. The scene of the find was scoured by 270 police recruits to ensure that no clue had been missed. They discovered a man’s blue “Ivy League” corduroy cap, a child’s scarf, and a man’s white handkerchief with the letter “G” in the corner. They received tips and enquires from concerned parents across the country, all wondering if the boy might be their missing child. The wealth of information seemingly produced hundreds of tantalising points of interest.

That was until the trail went cold and the leads vanished into the cold winter air.

“At first we figured the boy’s family would come forward, say his death was an accident and offer some sort of explanation, but that didn’t happen. Days and weeks passed, and still, he wasn’t identified.”

William H. Kelly, then a fingerprint expert for the Philadelphia Police Department.

The police tracked down the origin of the bassinet box to Upper Darby J.C. Penney, discovering that only 11 had been sold at $7.50 apiece. In a fantastic piece of detective work for the age, they managed to track down 9 of the 11 purchasers. Differing accounts state that there were 12 sold and all but one was traced. Unfortunately, all those idenditified were dismissed as suspects. So too, the blue cap was found to be a dead end, with the Robbins Bald Eagle Hat & Cap company having no records of any note.

The box containing the body | Philadelphia PD, Public Domain

No relative, neighbour, friend or acquaintance of the boy ever came forward. It was as if he had never existed at all. The boy was buried in a potter’s field, in a far corner of Northeast Philadelphia. Inscribed on his headstone were the words, “Heavenly Father, Bless This Unknown Boy.”

The case may have ended there, one of the thousands of cold cases resting in the files never to be opened again. However, the brutality of the killing inflicted on such a defenceless child profoundly affected many of those working on the case. Four in particular would take up the mantle, fingerprint expert William (Bill) Kelly, Remington Bristow, an investigator with the Medical Examiner’s Office, Joseph McGillen, an investigator with the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office and Sam Weinstein, a former detective and the second policeman to arrive at the scene in 1957.

Bristow spent countless hours pouring over the matter in his free time, spending thousand of dollars in the process as he dedicated himself to the case until he died in 1993. His workspace was covered in photos from the dump site alongside newspaper clippings, both new and old. He was searching for that one clue that might point him on the right track, one thing missed in 1957.

“Rem Bristow was single-handedly responsible for keeping the case in the public eye”

Joseph McGillen, Bristow’s former colleague at the Medical Examiner’s Office.

Bristow’s favoured theory was that the child had been at a foster home 25-miles from where the boy’s remains were found. Owned by the Nicoletti family, the home had been dismissed in 1957 after police found all the children were accounted for. While some are quick to dismiss the theory as it originated with a psychic, there is some circumstantial evidence that backs Bristow’s idea.

The family that ran the home consisted of Arthur and Catherine Nicoletti and Catherine’s daughter from a previous marriage, Anna Marie Nagle. There was gossip that Anna Marie had developmental disabilities, with men seemingly taking advantage of her. She had already given birth to four children out of wedlock, a situation that society frowned upon in the 1950s. Three of these babies were sadly stillborn, while tragedy took the fourth following an electrical accident on a department store amusement ride in 1955.

Attending an estate sale at the home in 1961 when the Nicolettis moved, Bristow discovered a bassinet similar to the one sold at J. C. Penney, with blankets hanging on a washing line also appearing identical to the one that the Boy in the Box was found in. Arthur Nicoletti was interviewed by police in 1984, yielding no information. He refused Bristow’s demand for a lie detector test.

The bassinet and blanket as depicted by Philadelphia PD | Philadelphia PD, Public Domain

Nicoletti would go on to marry his own step-daughter Anna Marie after the death of his wife and Bristow believed she was the true mother of the Boy in the Box. Investigators in 1957 were only looking to ensure children enlisted at the home were all present and correct, never thinking that the child may in-fact have been Anna Marie’s.

However, while it might sound plausible on the surface, a bassinet and blankets are not uncommon things to find at a children’s home. While Nicoletti’s marriage to his step-daughter is undoubtedly out of the norm, it is a leap to conclude his morality descended to murder.

Bill Kelly, with who Remington would often confer on the case, was similarly determined to get answers and likewise believed that a parent or guardian was responsible for the killing. Yet he dismissed the foster home theory, considering his colleague had become too desperate to find a solution.

In the 1960s, the duo had wondered about the lack of vaccination scars on the boy. They speculated that he had lived off the grid and perhaps belonged to a family of carnival workers. Speculation soon turned to the possibility that he had been a recent immigrant, with newspaper sources revealing that there had been an influx of Hungarian refugees in 1956. The duo checked an amazing 11,200 passport photos. Despite believing they may have identified the boy through a photo accompanying the media stories, the lead was again a dead end. The boy was very much alive.

Kelly would spend countless hours in hospital records departments and unheated warehouses, trawling through thousands of maternity files to check the boy’s footprints against records.

In 1998, Kelly, McGillen and Weinstein had all joined the Vidocq Society, set up in 1990 to further the resolution of long-unsolved homicides. Weinstein joined after being informed that the Boy in the Box case was being presented at the society’s next meeting, Kelly joined after seeing a TV presentation that focused on his self-debunked Hungarian angle.

The trio set to work knocking on doors and posting flyers, reopening their own investigation into the case. They successfully ensured that the remains of the boy were exhumed for DNA testing, something unavailable in 1957. After the exhumation, they also ensured that the remains were removed from the now derelict potters field and given a fresh reburial at Ivy Hill Cemetery.

In 2002, a new lead emerged when a woman identified only as “Martha” made a startling claim to have witnessed the entire murder and dumping of the body. Calling from Ohio, a psychiatrist revealed to the Philadelphia PD that one of his patients had asked him to call the police after reporting a murder, The Boy in the Box.

Over two years of correspondence, utilising the psychiatrist as an intermediary, Martha claimed to have grown up in Lower Merion as an only child, being regularly sexually abused by her mother. When she was 10, she accompanied her on a trip to a neighbourhood she didn’t recognise. There, Martha witnessed her mother hand over an envelope of money to purchase a toddler. Once home, she shut the boy in the basement and never allowed him to leave the house. The basement was filled with trash with only a drain for a bathroom. Martha says he never spoke and she believed he had been intellectually challenged. He would go hungry and was also regularly abused by her mother.

The child’s name was Jonathan.

After Jonathan vomited up a plate of beans, Martha’s mother exploded in rage, dragging him upstairs (causing the bruising to the legs) and throwing him into a bathtub. She beat him and smashed his head on the tiles as Martha watched on from the toilet. The scream of the boy was the only sound Martha had ever heard him make. After he was dead, Martha’s mother would cut Jonathan’s hair to ensure police didn’t realise he’d been kept a prisioner. Her mother would then pack her into their car as they went to find a suitable spot to dump Jonathan’s body. A confidential witness at the time of the murder, the so-called “Good Samaritan”, stated that he had spoken to a woman and child near the scene. He added that the body had been placed in a box previously discarded at the site, not brought there in that way. Martha told the same story.

Kelly and McGillen attempted to verify as much of Martha’s story as possible, with sceptics questioning the validity of the account given her history of mental illness. They confirmed that the route she described from her former home in Lower Merion and the dump site was totally correct. They reinterviewed the Good Samaritan. A former college roommate of Martha confirmed that she had once said her mother was a murderer. The autopsy revealed that baked beans were in the stomach of the child and the condition of the fingers suggested he’d been partially submerged in water.

Importantly, Martha’s psychologist believes that Marta’s experience was a real one, her story never changing once during treatment. While nobody in the neighbourhood remembers the boy, they are unlikely to have done so if he’d been a prisoner for the entire time.

However, Philadelphia PD disagrees, noting that most of the significant points of the tale are matters of public record, with no way of checking the validity of the rest. With neither Martha nor her mother being blood relatives, DNA is useless. The name Jonathan was of little use and may not have been the boy’s name when handed over.

The willingness of the establishment to disregard Martha’s story as a hoax through her mental illness frustrated Kelly and the other investigators. Given her years of abuse and being a potential witness to a horrific murder, her troubles are all too understandable. Sadly, this is not unique to the Boy in the Box case, with victims frequently dismissed as being of unsound mind, allowing abusers and even murderers to walk free from justice.

“She had more to lose than to gain. This woman had a good job, a PhD, it wasn’t like she was some loony. We sat across the desk looking for any telltale signs of deceptions, and we saw none. She was articulate, very literate and believable.”

William H. Kelly, then a fingerprint expert for the Philadelphia Police Department.

The Philadelphia Inquirer | Sun, Jan 12, 2003

While the investigators believed that the solution to the case had been found, they were still determined to put their conclusions beyond any doubt.

“I’ll be working the case as long as I’m physically able. I just wish I had another 50 years to keep doing so.”

William H. Kelly, then a fingerprint expert for the Philadelphia Police Department.

Sam Weinstein passed away in 2004 after a lengthy illness. William H. Kelly died in 2014 at the age of 86 and Joseph McGillen passed away in 2015 from of congestive heart failure, he was 89. They never stopped in their search for the truth.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says that there are between 1000 and 1200 unidentified dead children across the United States at any given time. Just like “Jonathan”, they are abused, cast aside, treated as refuse. As Barstow and Kelly believed they owed it to the Boy in the Box to finally put a name on his headstone, so too do these innumerable other victims deserve justice. The legacy of Kelly, Barstow and all those involved should serve as an inspiration.

The Boy in the Box, perhaps “Jonathan”, sits astride two worlds, the one of American innocence and our more modern brutal world. Maybe it exposes the truth that that innocence never really existed at all. The case is a tale that leads readers to question their fellow human beings. One where a small child, seemingly abused throughout his life, is discarded as if they had been worth no more than the garbage strewn all around. A life that apparently went unmissed, with nobody to remember his all too brief existence. Yet, in the aftermath of this monstrous crime, we see the good in ourselves. We see individuals such as Bristow and Kelly, determined in their quest for truth and justice, determined to be the ones who remember.

While we may never hold a concrete answer to the mystery, let us all ensure that we remember the Boy in the Box.

I am a freelance long-form writer who writes on true crime, politics, history and more. I am entirely self-funded and if you liked this article, please consider a donation via Patreon as a token of appreciation or directly via PayPal. You can join my mailing list for the latest articles and also like my Facebook page. I’m also active on Twitter. I can be contacted for projects through my website MichaelEastWriter.com where you’ll also find lots more content.

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Michael East

Written by

Freelance writer. Writing on true crime, mysteries, politics, history, and more. | https://linktr.ee/MichaelEast

The Mystery Box

A publication about unsolved mysteries from the deep ocean to space and from antiquity to present day.

Michael East

Written by

Freelance writer. Writing on true crime, mysteries, politics, history, and more. | https://linktr.ee/MichaelEast

The Mystery Box

A publication about unsolved mysteries from the deep ocean to space and from antiquity to present day.

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