The Boy in the Box
America's Unknown Child’s case is still active over six decades later.
A sketch of the boy via NCMEC
400,000 flyers were distributed around Philadelphia, hoping someone would claim the boy found in the box. Envelopes containing utility bills had the face of the child imprinted on the front, and police stations and post offices bore the details of his discovery, yet no one ever came forward. The case is still active 64 years later yet little more than theories have ever been investigated.
In the cold February of 1957, a boy in a cardboard box, that once housed a J.C.Penney bassinet, was discovered. The child was naked and had been beaten prior to his death, with fresh cuts to his face. The young man who found him didn’t report his finding to the police due to fear of his animal traps being confiscated but several days later, a student discovered the boy and reported it to the police.
Once the report has been received, an investigation was opened and the boy’s body was removed from the woods in Fox Chase. He was believed to be between three and six years old due to malnourishment, and he had numerous scars. There was one on his chest and another around his groin, and an L-shaped scar on his chin. He had a round scar on his left elbow and another on his ankle that was believed to be made to insert a needle for a surgical procedure.
Despite his appearance, the boy’s nails had recently been trimmed, he’d been wrapped in a blanket and he had remnants of baked beans in his stomach. His hair had been cut, badly, and there were long strands of hair found with his body. He had also been immersed in water shortly before his death, as his feet and hands were still wrinkly.
Nearby, a tan scarf and a yellow flannel shirt were found. Additionally, there were black shoes near the crime scene but they didn’t fit the child. The police fingerprinted the little boy, in the hope that someone would be able to identify him.
The discovery of the boy in the box gained huge media attention in Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Inquirer was the newspaper to print the 400,000 flyers. Hundreds of police recruits combed the area for clues relating to the child, but the discovery of a handkerchief led them on a fruitless journey that found them no closer to finding the boy’s or his killer’s identity.
A cap was also found at the scene that gave investigators a momentary lead. The blue corduroy hat with a leather strap was found to have been made by a shop in south Philadelphia. The owner remembered the man who bought it and said he was between 26 and 30 years old, but he was never located.
As the years went by, facial reconstructions of the boy were created and one was even made of his potential father, but no one ever came forward to claim the boy.
The foster home
A few years after the boy’s discovery, Remington Bristow, an employee of the medical examiner’s office in Philadelphia, went to the police with a new theory. He’d been at the estate sale of a foster home, located a mile and a half from Fox Chase, and noticed a J.C. Penney bassinet at the property. While a common item, Bristow also saw blankets that were drying on a clothesline at the home similar to the one wrapped around the boy. Bristow’s theory was that the child lived at the foster home and was the son of an unwed woman whose stepfather owned the facility. Whether the boy was accidentally killed or not, Bristow was adamant that he had lived there. However, no connection was ever formally made by police.
A woman named Martha
In February 2002, a woman came forward claiming to know the identity of the boy. She told police that her mother had bought the boy in 1954, and his name was Jonathan. She claimed that the boy had been sexually and physically abused during his two and a half years with the family, which eventually came to a head one evening over dinner.
Jonathan had vomited the baked beans that were put in front of him, and in a rage, Martha claimed her mother had beaten the boy and slammed his head into a door until he was unconscious. She said her mother then gave him a bath, where he died. To conceal the boy’s identity, the mother cut his long hair and forced Martha to help her dispose of his body in the Fox Chase area.
While putting his body in the car, a man stopped and asked if they needed help with the heavy box. While Martha stood in front of their license plate, her mother told him they were fine, and the man drove off. A confidential account was later given by a male witness in 1957, that allegedly verifies Martha’s story, but the video is no longer available on CourtTV.
Police tried to verify Martha’s story but the neighbours who lived next door to the family didn’t recall ever seeing a young boy at the property and told police that Martha had a history of mental illness, which was verified by medical reports. The investigation into the family went no further.
With advances in forensics beginning, the boy was exhumed in 1998, when DNA was extracted from one of his teeth and his body was moved to Ivy Hill Cemetery in Cedarbrook, where a plot was donated.
In 2008, a renowned forensic artist came up with a new theory; he believed that the boy in the box was in fact raised as a girl. Frank Bender, whose work in the facial reconstruction field helped identify mass murderer John List, considered that the hurriedly cut hair and the child’s plucked eyebrows were signs that the boy may have been concealed as female. “I’m almost certain that they’ve been missing the boat because they’ve been showing a boy and he is a boy, but the boy, I believe, was dressed as a girl.”
Bender later created a sketch of the boy as a young girl instead, hoping to ignite new information in the case.
Frank Bender’s sketch of the boy as female via the Doe Network
In 2016, two writers contacted investigators to request the boy’s DNA be compared to a person in Memphis, Tennessee. The family believed the boy could be a relative of theirs but in December 2017, the results showed that there wasn’t a connection between the two samples.
The boy’s grave is always surrounded by flowers and stuffed toys placed by locals and those who’ve heard his story. His headstone reads “America’s Unknown Child”, with a smaller inscription, “Heavenly Father, Bless This Unknown Boy”. To date, he’s received over 3,000 flower donations.
His gravesite via findagrave.com photo by Tanvir Ahmed.
The boy’s case has been reopened numerous times over the years, but his identity still remains a mystery. More information about this case can be found on the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children website.