The Boy In The Box – America’s Unknown Child

Its 1957 in Philadelphia. The citizens would swoon over Elvis, Puxatawney Phil predicted a long winter, and they danced in the New Year with Mummers Parade, but nothing could have prepared the city for what they would discover on  February 25th. A muskrat hunter was checking on his traps he had setup near a park. As he was looking through the bushes he found an old JC Penney box. Inside of it he found a child wrapped up in a blanket. Fearing that the police would confiscate his illegal traps, he left and didn’t tell anybody about his finding.

A few days passed. This time, a college student was driving by the same area when he noticed a rabbit hopping through the field. He knew that there were traps there, so he stopped to make sure the rabbit was okay. He searched through the bush, checking for traps, when he found the box. He was also a bit apprehensive about informing the police, but he did the right thing.

This stretch of land was in northeast Philadelphia and known as Fox Chase. There were no houses in this area, but there was a compound for the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. They were a religious group that operated a home for wayward girls. The space right across from this group home was a wooded area  covered in thick underbrush. This was where residents would often throw out their refuse. And it was here, at the junction of two well-worn footpaths, that the boy was found.

Once the police had taken over, they estimated the young child to be around four to six years of age. He had a full set of baby teeth. The ultimate cause of death was said to be severe trauma to the head, but they could tell that his body had sustained years of abuse. He was 40 and ½ inches long and weighed 30 pounds. He was malnourished and was covered in bruises. The bruises were all sustained at the same time. He had a total of seven scars on his body. Three of the scars could have been caused by a surgical procedure. Two of these surgical scars were on the chest and groin. Both of these scars had healed very well, leaving behind only a faint line. Another scar was on his left ankle and appeared to be a “cutdown” incision. A cutdown was made to expose a vein to insert a needle into for a transfusion or infusion. A cutdown was typically done in emergency situations, and has since fallen out of favor for safer options.

There was also a 1.5 inch scar on the left side of his chest and a round irregular scar on the left elbow. He had a L-shape scar under his chin. He did not have a small pox vaccination scar and was circumcised.

The police assumed, considering it was a young child, that the case would be solved fairly quickly. At the very least, they figured they could find out the identity of the boy. After all, a child rarely goes missing without somebody noticing. But as the days turned into weeks, no one stepped forward to identify the boy or claim him as their own.

The body had been cleaned and dried. They had carefully folded the boys arms across his chest. And his fingernails and the toenails had recently been trimmed. His hair had also recently been cut, but in a crude and hurried way, as if they were trying to conceal the boys identity. There were clumps of cut hair on his body, which suggested that his hair had been cut while the boy was nude. This meant that is was likely cut shortly before or after his death.

The bottoms of his feet and the palms of his hands were wrinkled and rough-skinned, which the police called the “washerwoman” effect. This means that just before he died, his hands and feet had been submerged in water for an extended period of time. An ultraviolet light shone on the left eye shown a bright blue which suggested that a special diagnostic dye had been applied, possibly because of a chronic eye ailment. He also hadn’t eaten for two to three hours before his death. Due to the cold weather, they couldn’t tell exactly how long the child had been dead. It could have been a few days or upwards of a couple of weeks.

The only evidence they had was the box he was in, the blanket that was used to wrap him up, and a man’s cap. The box came from JC Penney’s, so the investigators thought they might be able to learn something from it. The box was stamped “fragile” and had held a bassinet. The box that held the boy was in decent shape. It was dry inside and slightly damp on the outside and appeared a bit weathered. The FBI analyzed the box, but nothing was found.

The cheap faded, flannel blanket the boy was wrapped in appeared to have been washed recently. At one time, the blanket had been mended using a home sewing machine and it had been cut in half. The blanket was sent to Philadelphia Textile Institute for testing. They determined the blanket had to have been made either at Beacon Hill in Swannanoa North Carolina, or the Esmond Mills at Granby, Quebec, Canada. However, they could not figure out the point of sale for this blanket because several blankets of that kind had been made and shipped throughout the country.

The man’s cap had been found about 17 feet away. It was made of corduroy and was blue with a leather strap and a buckle in the back. It was stuffed with tissue paper, just like a manufacturer would use to help it keep its shape. The FBI did not find anything of value on the cap. However, the label on the cap led the investigators to Robbins Bald Eagle Hat and Cap Company. They spoke with the owner, Ms. Hannah Robbins. She told them that the hat was one of 12 she had made from some corduroy remnants some time before May of 1956.

They found a few other pieces of evidence. A white handkerchief, a child’s tan scarf, yellow flannel shirt, black pair of shoes, a torn piece of blanket, and a dead cat wrapped up in a man’s sweater. The handkerchief did not supply them with any information. The scarf and shirt could have belonged to the boy because they were the right size for him. They had hoped the shoes were his as well, but when they put them on him, they were way too big. While they initially thought the blanket found with the cat was a part of the same blanket the boy was wrapped in, analysis proved that it wasn’t. There were no matches between the items with the cat and the boy.

Besides the bruises, there was not a lot of evidence on the body. There was a brown coating on his esophagus that they could not figure out what it was, but it is consistent with him having vomiting right before he died. They also took his foot and fingerprints to try and match them to hospital records. After an exhaustive search, they never found a match.

The local paper distributed over 200,000 flyers and they even stuffed the flyers into electric and gas bills. The police even tried staging the boy in a seated position to make him look more natural in the hopes that somebody would recognize him.

The first suspect was the 26 year old college student who told the police about the body, Frederick J Benonis. He called the police just after 10 in the morning on February 26th, and told them about the body he had found the previous day. As it turned out, he had not let the police know about the body on the day he had found it because he was in the habit of spying on the ladies at Good Shepherd School for Wayward Girls. What had changed his mind, though, was a radio broadcast about a missing child from New Jersey. The police questioned him extensively and he also voluntarily took a lie detector test, which he passed. This cleared him.

George Broomall, Marine Private First Class, had just recently returned from overseas. He told the police that he thought the boy was his missing eight year old brother. This belief was renewed after viewing the body in the morgue. George was one of 18 children. He had last saw his family when they were living in Phillie. During this time, they were getting ready to move to the West Coast, but the two younger children were left with one of the older brothers who lived in the Northeast area of the city. But, they eventually found the “missing” brother alive and well in California.

Steven Craig Damman was the son of an airman that was stationed in New York and was kidnapped outside of the supermarket on October 31, 1955 at the age of 34 months. Steven had blond hair and fit some of the similarities to the boy in the box. This led the investigators to send footprints to the Nassau police department in New York. They also took x-rays of the boy to try and find known characteristics that Steven had. But the x-rays and the footprints did not match up quite right, which created doubt that they were the same boy. The unknown boy did not have any healed fractures, but Steven would have had a healed fracture on his left arm. Steven also had a freckle on his right calf, which the boy did not have. What really proved they were not the same boy was the autopsy performed by Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Joseph W Spelman. Steven was being treated for a kidney growth problem, but the boy had normal kidneys. After conferring with the detectives from New York, it was concluded that the boy was not Steven Damman.

Kenneth and Irene Dudley were traveling carnival workers. They were arrested and jailed in Lawrenceville Virginia in 1961 after they caused the death of their seven year daughter from malnutrition, neglect, and exposure. After questioning, the Dudley’s admitted to allowing six of their ten children die from neglect and malnutrition. They had disposed of their bodies in many southern states. They tossed two of them into a lake and another had been dumped at an abandoned phosphate mine. The investigators did a thorough investigation of the Dudley’s and found that they had no connection to the boy.

Arthur and Catherine Nicoletti operated a foster home 1.5 miles away from where the boy’s body had been discovered. Another girl who lived in the house was Anna Marie Nagle, who was Catherine’s daughter from another marriage. There was some hearsay evidence that suggested that Anna Marie was mentally challenged. Catherine had given birth to four other children, three of which were stillborn, and one boy died tragically at the age of three after being electrocuted on a department store ride. The Nicoletti’s took in children from the state and city for weeks or years at a time. They typically had five or six at one time. At the time of the boy in the boxes discovery, they were caring for five girls and three boys. All of them were checked and accounted for. The police didn’t think that they were involved with the case.

Remington Bristow, in the 1960s, started investigating this case on his own. He wasn’t having much success, so out of desperation, he spoke with a New Jersey psychic, Florence Sternfeld. Florence said that she could identify the person if she could hold onto a piece of metal that was connected to him in some way. He took her some staples from the JC Penney box. Florence told him that he needed to look for a large house with a wooden railing and a log cabin on the property that children were playing in. Bristow searched the Fox Chase area for this house and finally found the foster home. The property had a log cabin in the back that the children slept in during the summer. Bristow returned to Florence and took her to Philadelphia. She claimed she had never been there before, and then she led him straight to foster home that he had found. This made Bristow believe that she had been right and these people were involved in the boy’s death. In 1961 the Nicoletti’s had left the foster care business and moved away. Bristow went to a viewing of the home with its furnishings and noticed a bassinet that was similar to the one sold by JC Penney. There were also plaid blankets on their clotheslines, and the blankets had been cut in half in order to fit into the cots for the children. They also had a duck pond on the property, which Bristow thought could have been where the boy’s hand and feet had been in water. Bristow felt for years that this family had something to do with the child’s death, but try as he might, he could not sway the detectives to reinvestigate the family.

Finally, in 1984, a couple of homicide detectives agreed to interview Arthur Nicoletti. The interview turned up nothing incriminating, surprise, surprise. Bristow was pretty upset by this and contacted Arthur himself and urged him to take a lie detector test. Arthur refused. This made Bristow believe that he had something to hide. Bristow still believed the Nicoletti’s had something to do with the boy’s death, and even theorized that the boy had been the illegitimate child of Anna Marie. This belief was reinforced when Arthur Nicoletti, now a widower, married his stepdaughter. Bristow was going through some old files in 1988 and found that the doctor who had checked the foster children had never formally been interviewed. Bristow hoped that the doctor’s files would contain something about the boy. He reached out to the doctors wife and she told him that she had, five years earlier, burned the doctor’s records. Until Bristow died in 1993, he never stopped believing that the foster family had something to do in the boy’s death. Unfortunately, he was never able to find the evidence to prove such a theory.

There were several other theories about the boy and his identity, but the next substantial lead they had happened in 2002. A woman who reached out to police through her psychiatrist. She claimed that her abusive mother had purchased the boy from his parents in the summer of 1954. She said her mother subjected him to extreme sexual and physical abuse for a couple of years and ended up killing him in a fit of rage by slamming him into the floor after he threw up in the tub. It’s believed that she told her psychiatrist in 1989, but was not willing to come forward for another 13 years.

In May of 2002 Augustine, along with two other detectives, interviewed the woman for three hours in her psychiatrists office. She said that in the 50s she had lived in Lower Merion and her parents worked in the Lower Merion school district. Her father taught science and her mother was a librarian. She said the boy’s name was Jonathan and described him as frail, mentally handicapped, and unable to speak. When she was ten, her mother took her to a house and picked up Jonathan. She said that her mother regularly sexually abused her that her mother wanted Jonathan in order to do the same thing to him.

Jonathan was mistreated for two and a half years before his death. When her mother killed the boy, she cut his hair, trimmed his nails, cleaned him up and wrapped him in a blanket. Her mother took her along with her to dump the body. Once they found an appropriate place to dump him, they got out and was getting ready to unload him from the trunk when a man pulled up and asked them if they needed help. They had turned their back on him and didn’t say anything, making sure to cover the license plate. This story matched very closely to a confidential testimony by a witness who had reported this incident to police back in 1957. After the man left, they unloaded the body and placed it in a box that they had found on the scene. There is no mention of her father in all of this, so what kind of role might he have played, and if her mother did do this, why didn’t he stop her?

The police felt the story was plausible, but they were also concerned with the fact that the woman had a history of mental health problems, so she could have fabricated the story. They launched into an investigation, but as of yet, they have not found any evidence that corroborates her story, but this theory has not be proven wrong.

Despite all of the leads, and anonymous tips that the America’s Most Wanted broadcast garnered in 1998, nothing substantial has come of it. The boy remains unidentified. There is quite a few more reports and leads that you can read about on Americasunknownchild.net. Could it have been the foster family or maybe that woman with the abusive mother is telling the truth. It’s very well possible that one of the leads we’ve talked about that the police didn’t think was a good lead could have been the killer. Will we ever find out the identity of America’s Unknown Child? Nobody knows.

To hear more about this case, theories, and my thoughts, be sure to check out the podcast episode.

2 thoughts on “The Boy In The Box – America’s Unknown Child

Add yours

  1. Great article. Poor little lad seemed to have suffered far too much. The lady who claimed her mother killed him didn’t explain the injuries and surgical scars the boy had. I’d be checking out the Good Shepherd’s sister situation as it seems to me they were closest to the body and the date is bizarrely linked to old Saturnia festival of the romans.

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