The Boy in the Box: America’s Unknown Child

Mar 6, 2011 - by Mark Pulham

Crime Scene Photo

Crime Scene Photo

In woods not far from Philadelphia, the body of a young boy was found in a box in 1957.  An autopsy showed the 4-to-6-year-old child had died from a blow to his head and had sustained numerous bruises.  A widespread, prolonged investigation failed to even determine the boy’s name. 

by Mark Pulham

It had rained heavily the night before, and there was still some rain and cloud cover that Wednesday morning. It was November

11, 1998, and a crowd of around a hundred had gathered at the Ivy Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia for the funeral service. Just in time, the rain cleared and the clouds broke apart to reveal the sun, leaving a blue sky for the ceremony.

The service began exactly at 11 a.m. A lone piper played “Going Home” from Dvořák's “New World Symphony” on the bagpipes.

Reburial of the Boy in the Box. November 11th, 1998

Reburial of the Boy in the Box. November 11th, 1998

The pallbearers were not family members or relatives, nor were they friends of the deceased, not in the common sense. Some were Philadelphia police officers, others were members of the Vidocq Society. The white casket was lowered into the ground on the corner triangular plot. One of the pallbearers, Sam Weinstein, a retired Philadelphia detective, sat on one of the chairs and wiped a tear from his eye.

Weinstein was there at the beginning, some forty-one years earlier.

In 1957, Fox Chase was still a rural district about eight miles north of Philadelphia’s downtown area. Remote and sparsely populated, Fox Chase had become an illegal dumping ground for trash.

It was Monday, February 25. Spring had yet to arrive, and it had been cold for that last week, the temperature dropping down to the 20s. Around 3:15 that afternoon, Frederick J. Benonis, a 26-year-old student from La Salle College, parked his car on the Susquehanna Road in Fox Chase. He got out of the car and went into the thickly wooded lot. Two weeks earlier, he had stopped at the same spot and chased a rabbit into the woods where he spotted a couple of traps set for small game. Benonis didn’t like the cruelty of these traps and sprung them. Now he wanted to check the traps again. They had not been reset.

As usual, garbage was strewn everywhere, including a large cardboard box partially covered with brush. It had not been there on his previous visit. Curious, he took a look inside and saw a large doll. It was very realistic. Too realistic.

Benonis rushed back to the car and drove away. He didn’t call the police; he knew what they would think. They had already talked with him about his habit of spying on the young ladies at the Good Shepherd Home for Wayward Girls across the street from the woods.

The next morning, as he drove to school, he heard a news broadcast on the car radio. A 4-year old girl named Mary Jane Barker had vanished from her home in Bellmawr, New Jersey, less than 25 miles away. Could that be Mary Jane’s body in the box? Is that what he had found?  He had to talk to someone. He told of what he had found to two counsellors and a priest. They told him to call the police.

Sergeant Charles Gargani was manning the station desk when the call came in at 10:10 that Tuesday morning. He ordered a radio message to officers to investigate a cardboard box off Susquehanna Road, saying it could be a body, or a doll. Shortly after, Patrolman Elmer Palmer arrived on the scene. It was drizzling and cold.

Sure that what he would find would turn out to be a doll, Palmer entered the wooded area. Soon, he found the box, which was about three feet long and stamped “Fragile-Handle with Care.” Palmer stopped. He could see the head and shoulder that were sticking out of the box, the rest wrapped in a blanket. This was no doll. He went back to his patrol car and reported what he’d found.

A second car pulled up on that rainy, foggy morning. Sam Weinstein had arrived on the scene. Weinstein looked in the box. He was no stranger to death, having served in the Pacific as a Marine in World War II. But this was different, this was a child. Weinstein would always remember the sick feeling he got when he saw the body, thrown away with the rest of the garbage. He would make a promise that he would never give up on this child.

Police at the scene. At the extreme left is Sam Weinstein. Next to him is Elmer Palmer.

Police at the scene. At the extreme left is Sam Weinstein. Next to him is Elmer Palmer.

Soon, more cars arrived, including one carrying Philadelphia’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Joseph W. Spelman. Weinstein reached into the box and lifted the small naked body from it. It was a boy, dispelling the notion that it was Mary Jane Barker. Mary Jane would eventually be found a week later. She had gone into a vacant house not far from home to play and had gone inside a closet. Once inside, she couldn’t get out. By the time she was found, it was too late. She had starved to death.

Spelman made a quick inspection. The boy was aged between 4 and 6 years old and had bruises on his face, legs, and stomach. His hair, light brown or blond, had been roughly cut, some of it still clinging to the body indicating the haircut had happened while the boy was naked, or at least shirtless. Was the hair cut off to make the boy less identifiable? Maybe it would delay identifying the boy, but once his picture was out, the detectives knew someone would come forward.

Nothing more would be known until after an autopsy, and the body was taken away by ambulance. In the meantime, there were other clues.

The box he was found in was large, 35-by-19 by fifteen inches. It was traceable, thanks to the shipping mark, to a J. C. Penney store some 15 miles from the crime scene. It had contained a white bassinet, the store confirmed, that sold for $7.95. It had been bought sometime between December 3, 1956 and February 16, 1957. As for who bought it, that was more difficult, this was long before the proliferation of credit cards. Maybe the killer had purchased the bassinet and used the box to dispose of the boy. Then again, with the area being a dumping ground for trash, maybe the box had nothing to do with the boy or his killer, it was just conveniently there.

The blanket the boy was wrapped in was distinctive. It was an Indian-style blanket, with diamonds and blocks, all in various colours, brown, white, rust colour and green. It was in two pieces, but it was clear that there was a third piece that was missing. The Philadelphia Textile Institute examined the blanket, and said it was made in either North Carolina or in Quebec, and was manufactured for only a few years. However, over one and a half million were sold across the country.

A corduroy cap, size 7⅛, was found 17 feet from the body. It was royal blue and had a distinctive leather strap with a buckle in the back. Inside the cap was a label. Robbins Bald Eagle Hat & Cap Company, 2603 South 7th Street, Philadelphia. It was a solid lead. Detectives interviewed the owner, Hannah Robbins. It was one of 12 hats made in the store. It was originally made without the leather strap and buckle, but, Mrs. Robbins stated, a blond man aged between 26 and 30 years old bought the cap and paid extra to have the strap and buckle added. She never saw the man again. Detectives visited 143 stores in and around the area, showing pictures of the boy and the cap, but no-one recognized either the boy or the cap.

On the evening of February 26, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin carried this headline on its front page: “Body of Boy Found in Box in Fox Chase. Victim 4 to 6, Appears to have been bruised.

The Boy in the Box. Post mortem photo showing bruises to the head.

The Boy in the Box. Post mortem photo showing bruises to the head.

A post-mortem examination later that evening revealed that the boy had died from a severe blow to the head. Along with the bruises on the body, it showed the boy had suffered from a brutal beating. There were several scars on the body, a few which may have indicated that he had had surgery. One scar on the left ankle looked like a “cut-down” incision, which is made to expose a vein for a transfusion. There was also an L shaped scar on his chin. Strangely, the child’s right hand and the soles of both feet were wrinkled in what police called a “washerwoman” effect. It looked as if they had been submerged in water either just before or after he had died. Another clue was found when ultraviolet light was shone into the boys eyes. His left eye fluoresced a brilliant blue. This may indicate that a special dye had been put in the eye to diagnose an eye ailment.

The time of death could not be established. The cold weather had made that impossible. He may have been dead only two or three days, but it was also possible that he died two or three weeks before.

Boy in the Box This poster appeared everywhere people gathered.

This poster appeared everywhere people gathered.

By now, photographs of the boy had appeared in the morning newspapers. Soon, thousands of posters would appear in post offices and liquor stores, and anywhere else the public gathered. Confident that the photographs would jog someone’s memory, the detectives knew it would not be long before someone stepped forward with information, and the identity of the boy could be established. It wasn’t long before people began to get in touch.

One informant told the police he was driving along Verree Road on Sunday, February 24, when he saw a middle-aged woman and a young boy aged around 12 or 14 parked on the side of Susquehanna Road, about 200 feet from where the boy was found. They were unloading something from the trunk of a car. The man pulled up and asked them if they needed help, thinking they may have a flat tire. He told the police that they didn’t say a word, and it seemed to him that they were standing in such a way as to purposely hide from him the license plate of the car. The police could not find the woman or the boy.

Soon, the Philadelphia police got a call from someone in Camden, New Jersey, certain that the boy was the son of a roofer named Charles Speece. Five more Camden residents contacted them with the same certainty. With that many people sure of the boys identity, an alarm was sent out. Find Charles Speece and hold him for questioning. They found Speece’s estranged wife, and she was brought in to view the body. Although it had been a year since she had last seen her son, she was certain this was not her son Terry. For one thing, Terry Speece was 8 years old. When Charles Speece was finally located, they found Terry Speece watching TV and eating a sandwich.

George Broomall, a Marine private, also came forward. He thought the boy may be his brother. Broomall was one of 18 children, and he had lost contact with his family when they still lived in Philadelphia. But, like Terry Speece, the lost brother was 8 years old. Eventually, the missing brother was found by detectives, living in California.

Sixteen months earlier, on October 31, 1955, Marilyn Damman went shopping in East Meadow, Long Island. With her were her two children, Pamela, who was seven months old, and Steven, who was just two months shy of his 3rd birthday. Marilyn went into a supermarket on Front Street, and left the two children outside. She was in there for 10 minutes. When she came out, both children, along with the carriage, were gone. A short while later, behind the rear of a store a block away, the carriage was found, with Pamela still strapped in. Of Steven there was no sign.

Police officers on Long island, reading the account of the boy in the box, wondered if this may be Steven Damman. He would have been roughly the same age, and he was blond. Steven was also blue eyed, as was the boy in the box. Steven had one more thing that linked him to the boy in the box. He had a similar shaped scar under his chin.  Detective Inspector James Farrell from Nassau County, Long Island headed to Philadelphia. Once he saw the body, he knew. This was not Steven Damman. An x-ray confirmed this, Steven had broken his arm, but the boy in the box had not. Both sides were disappointed, the Philadelphia detectives still didn’t have a name, and the Long Island detectives hadn’t found Steven. He remains missing to this day. This was not the only kidnapping lead to come in.

More tips came in, and each one was investigated. And each one resulted in a dead end. More flyers and posters were printed. Flyers were sent out with the gas bills by the Philadelphia Gas Works, 200,000 in all. The Philadelphia Electric Company also sent them out with their bills.

Although a house-to-house check had been done, Detectives Raymond Latchford and Edmund Repsch decided to do it again. This time, they came across 18-year-old high school student John Powroznik. He admitted that he had come across the body a couple of days before Benonis. He was so horrified by the discovery that he ran home, not telling anyone, including his parents, about what he had found. It was his traps that Benonis had sprung. His parents were Polish immigrants, whose fear of authority had no doubt passed on to him, and which probably kept him from coming forward. Still, although they now knew the boy was there a couple of days earlier than reported, it didn’t help any.

Dr. Wilton M. Krogman was a renowned anthropologist whose speciality was human growth. He also examined the boy. The body was 40 inches tall, which gave him a height age of three years and eight months. However, the boy only weighed 30 pounds, which was a weight age of only two years and two months. This discrepancy meant one thing, malnourishment. The bones would confirm this conclusion. Looking at x-rays, Krogman found scars on the long bones in the leg that indicated arrested growth. Also finding evidence of chronic ill health, the question came up as to why these conditions existed in the child. Krogman thought it may be representative of a family that is always on the move or maybe kidnappers who kept moving fearing being caught by the police.

The boy dressed, in the hope someone would recognize him. The boy dressed, in the hope someone would recognize him.

The boy dressed, in the hope someone would recognize him.

The police didn’t think it was kidnappers, the boy was, in other respects, kept very neat, with fingernails that were trimmed. Kidnappers would not do that. Krogman also suggested the boys’ ancestry. With his long narrow head and face, the boy was possibly of German, Scandinavian, or British stock. It didn’t help.

It did raise another possibility. Could the boy be Hungarian? Since the uprising of 1956, many Hungarians had fled to North America. But Immigration authorities deflated that idea. All the people who had come over during the Hungarian refugee program had received a vaccination. The boy in the box had not been vaccinated.

Still the leads came in, and still they led nowhere. The boy had been dressed and posed as though alive, hoping that someone would recognize him. No one did.

On July 24th, 1957, the boy in the box was buried in a potter’s field near Philadelphia State Hospital. Detectives and members of the public donated money for the funeral, as did the Funeral Directors Association of Philadelphia. A small tombstone, inscribed “Heavenly Father, Bless this unknown boy” was donated by a local monument maker.

But this was not the end. Like Sam Weinstein, others had taken a vow to continue the hunt for this child’s killer, and to give him a name. One was Remington Bristow. Bristow was an investigator at the medical examiners office when the boy was brought in. Bristow wasn’t so sure that the death of the boy was a murder, even though that was how it was being treated. He felt that this may have been an accidental death, and that those responsible would have stepped forward at some point if it had not been labelled a homicide.

Bristow also felt that maybe no-one recognized the boy because he may have had very long hair, and neighbours may have thought he was a girl.

Another who became involved was William Kelly. At the time, he was the head of the identification unit on the Philadelphia Police force. He had taken the boys prints that day. Like the others, he believed that the boy would be identified within a short while. When no-one identified him, Kelly began his own mission on his own time. He would spend a couple of hours of each day in the records department of hospitals, looking at the birth records. As each baby has his footprints taken at birth, maybe Kelly would come across the boy in the files.

Bristow and Kelly, two men on the same mission, would often meet to exchange information. They had both come to the same conclusion. The boy was killed by abusive parents or someone who was in charge of the boy. Maybe it was an accident, as Bristow believed. Maybe during bath time the boy had played up and had been given a beating, one that went too far this time.

As the weeks turned to months, and then to years, theories and leads turned up, and were shot down. Margaret Martinez, a 30-year-old mother of nine from Colorado, was questioned about the boy in the box. She had been arrested for throwing the body of her 3-year-old daughter into a trash can. Joseph Komarnicki, former head of the Philadelphia Detective Bureau’s Missing Persons Division, saw the report of her arrest and saw that she fit the description of the woman seen moving something from the trunk of her car near the site where the body was found. He travelled on his own expense to interview her. But no proof was found linking her to the case.

On February 9, 1961, the body of a girl was found in woods in Southern Virginia. She was wrapped in a blanket. It wasn’t long before police in Lawrenceville, Virginia, arrested Kenneth Dudley, aged 47, and his 44-year- old wife, Irene, who were itinerant carnival workers. They were charged over the death of their 7-year-old daughter, Carol Ann, who had died from malnutrition and neglect, with a broken leg as a contributing factor. Out of the 10 children that the Dudley’s were known to have, at least four others were missing. Two of them were thought to be about the same age as the boy in the box. The Dudley’s were questioned intensely and finally revealed a horrific story.

They had a son named Claude, who was born in March, 1955. When Claude starved to death in mid-November, 1958, they just dumped his body in an old phosphate mine in Florida. Their 10-year-old son, Norman, died from malnutrition and neglect on December 23, 1959, and two days later, his 8-year old brother also died. The Dudley’s drove around with their bodies for a few days before wrapping them in a blanket, weighing it with stones, and then dropping them into Lake Ponchartrain, Louisiana. When Debbie died just two months before her fourth birthday, her body was casually tossed onto a rubbish dump. Carol Ann was just the last in a line of victims. The Dudley’s were also suspects in the murder of two women in Onondaga County, New York. They would deny these murders, but would eventually confess to the murder of Mrs. Jean Valla in 1951, whose body was also dumped on a rubbish tip.

Despite the similarities between the boy in the box and Carol Ann, there was no connection. Once again, the boy in the box case had reached a dead end.

Remington Bristow would never give up. He had not been making progress and he was desperate. He turned to Florence Sternfeld, a psychic from New Jersey, who had worked many times with other police departments. Bristow travelled to Palisades Park to see the elderly woman. Florence was a tactile psychic, and needed something to hold, preferably metal. Bristow brought along some staples from the cardboard box. Holding the staples, Sternfeld described a house with a wooden porch and a log cabin nearby with children playing. Bristow returned to Philadelphia and spent some time driving around, eventually coming to a house that fit the description. It was about a mile and a half from where the boy was found. Bristow brought Florence to Philadelphia, the first time she had ever been there. She was taken to the spot where the body was found. She turned and led the detective to the house with the log cabin.

Remington Bristow at the 10th anniversary of the boy’s discovery.

Remington Bristow at the 10th anniversary of the boy’s discovery.

Bristow began to focus his attention on the house. At the time of the boys’ death, it was a foster home run by Arthur and Catherine Nicoletti, and Catherine’s 20-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Anna Marie Nagle, who was said to be mentally challenged. Anna Marie had given birth to four children out of wedlock, three of whom were stillborn, and the fourth electrocuted in 1955 while on an amusement ride at a department store at the age of 3. Although the usual number of children at the foster home numbered around six, there had been times when as many as 25 were there.

When the Nicoletti’s got out of the foster care business in 1961, the home was closed and put on the market. At a preview for an auction of the furnishings, Bristow saw a bassinet similar to the one contained in the box that the boy was found in. There were also blankets similar to the one the boy had been found wrapped in. They had been cut to fit into the cots that the children slept on.

Bristow was convinced that the Nicoletti’s had something to do with the death of the boy. For many years, he tried to persuade the Philadelphia police to investigate the foster home, even though they had investigated them at the time and determined there was no connection. In 1984, the police agreed to interview Nicoletti. Once again, they turned up nothing that was incriminating. Bristow was frustrated and telephoned Nicoletti. He tried to get him to take a lie-detector test, but Nicoletti refused. His lack of co-operation convinced Bristow even more that Nicoletti had something to hide.

Bristow continued his investigation, using his own time and money, and even offering a $1,000 reward, for information that would lead to the solution. Remington Bristow died in 1993, having spent thirty six years of his life devoted to finding the answer to the boy in the box mystery.

William Fleisher. Founding member of the VSM.

William Fleisher. Founding member of the VSM.

By this time, the investigation had been taken over by Detective Tom Augustine. As an 11-year-old boy, Augustine had seen the photos of the boy on posters that were displayed throughout Philadelphia. In February, 1998, Augustine followed up on the investigation into the foster home, started by Remington Bristow. He interviewed Arthur Nicoletti, whose wife Catherine had died, and who was now married to Catherine’s daughter, Anna Marie Nagle. The Nicoletti’s were more forthcoming on this interview, and answered many questions. But the interview confirmed that they had nothing to do with the boy or his death. Only a few months later, Arthur Nicoletti died, and his wife entered a nursing home.

In 1998, the Philadelphia police requested that the Vidocq Society accept the case. The Vidocq Society is an organization devoted to solving cold cases. Its members are professionals from the world of forensics and investigation, including former FBI Special Agent Robert K. Ressler, who coined the term “serial killer,” and renowned forensic artist Frank Bender, whose bust led to the arrest of John Emil List. Bender is one of the founding members of the Vidocq Society. Another founder of the Vidocq Society is former Philadelphia police officer and FBI Special Agent William L. Fleisher, who was 13 when he saw the photographs of the boy.

Sam Weinstein wipes away a tear at the 1998 reburial. Photo by Alejandro A. Alvarez/ Philadelphia Daily News.

Sam Weinstein wipes away a tear at the 1998 reburial. Photo by Alejandro A. Alvarez/ Philadelphia Daily News.

Another member of the Vidocq Society was Sam Weinstein, now retired from the police department. After his retirement in 1985, he felt he would never be involved in the case again, but now, he was back investigating. He would be joined by William Kelly and Joe McGillen, who had been an investigator with the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office.

In late 1998, the body was exhumed. Science had come a long way in the intervening years, and now, DNA evidence could be extracted. Although they could not get any nuclear DNA from the body, mitochondrial DNA was obtained from the teeth. It would be useful to confirm or rule out any genetic relationship. It did finally confirm that it was not Steven Damman.

On October 3, 1998, the Boy in the Box case was presented on the television show “America’s Most Wanted.” It would generate new interest in the case, and more than 150 new tips. George R. Knowles was 11 when he saw the posters in New Jersey, when he went to a local police station to register his new bicycle. He had not thought about the mystery for years until that October night when he saw it on the television. It brought back memories, and he was determined that he should help in some way. By 1999, Knowles had created the website Americasunknownchild.net. Visitors to the site number in the millions, with hundreds of tips and theories that have been passed on to the police. Unfortunately, none of them have moved the case any further. A second television program, CBS’s “48 Hours” also had a segment on the mystery in May, 2001.

George Knowles (left) creator of the America’s Unknown Child website, and Elmer Palmer (in red), first patrolman on the scene in 1957.

George Knowles (left) creator of the America’s Unknown Child website, and Elmer Palmer (in red), first patrolman on the scene in 1957.

Then, in February 2002, Tom Augustine got a phone call from a psychiatrist from Cincinnati. One of her patients had called the night before and demanded that she call the Philadelphia police. It concerned the boy in the box. Augustine, along with Joe McGillen and William Kelly, drove down to see the patient, a woman identified only by the initial “M.” For three hours, M talked. She told of how her mother, a librarian, had purchased the boy from his birth parents in the summer of 1954. M’s mother was abusive, and kept the boy in the basement, where he was physically and sexually abused, as was M herself.

The end came when the boy, whom M had called Jonathan, vomited in the bathtub. Her mother, in an angry rage, slammed him to the floor, killing him. She cut the boys hair and trimmed his nails, all in an effort to hide his identity. The boy, after being wrapped in a blanket, was placed in the trunk of the car and they drove to Susquehanna Road. M recalled that as they were getting ready to remove the body, a man drove up and asked if they needed any help. They turned away, blocking the man’s view of the license plate. After a short while, the man drove away.

The tale was compelling, but as M had a history of mental problems, there could be a chance that she was making the whole thing up. A thorough investigation of her story began, and although some of it could be corroborated, most could not. Many of the details that M supplied were public knowledge. The house in which she lived was located, and when investigators finally got permission to examine the basement, they could find no trace evidence to show that the boy in the box had been kept prisoner there. Two former neighbours were also found, and they said that no boy was kept in the basement. They frequently visited the home and were able to go to the basement freely. Another neighbour said the claims were preposterous. Once more, a promising lead came to an end.

The identity of the boy in the box and what happened to him remain a mystery. But the case remains open. The boy in the box case became a life’s work for some of the investigators. Sam Weinstein, involved from the beginning and who lifted the boy out of the box for Dr. Spelman to examine, passed away on May 16, 2004. He headed the Vidocq Society’s investigation into the case from 1998 to 2000. Sadly, Elmer Palmer, the first officer on the scene and who visited the boy’s grave whenever he could, passed away on January 10, 2011.  Along with Remington Bristow, their dedication to this case is inspiring.

It is almost 54 years since the boy was found. Maybe it will never be solved. But, as investigators retire or pass away, others carry on the hunt for the truth, and to give a little boy a name.

Investigators at the 2000 Memorial to the Boy in the Box: From left to right: William Kelly, VSM; Joseph McGillen, VSM; William L. Fleisher, VSM; Sam Weinstein, VSM; and Elmer Palmer.

Investigators at the 2000 Memorial to the Boy in the Box: From left to right: William Kelly, VSM; Joseph McGillen, VSM; William L. Fleisher, VSM; Sam Weinstein, VSM; and Elmer Palmer.

If anyone has any information, please contact any of the following:

Philadelphia Police Dept. Homicide Unit, 215-686-3334 / 3335 / 3336. police.homicide_unit@phila.gov

The Vidocq Society: 215-545-1450 (voice) or 215-545-1773 (fax). vidocq.society@vidocq.org

The FBI - Philadelphia Field Office: 215-418-4000. philadelphia@fbi.gov

America's Most Wanted: 1-800-CRIME-TV. http://www.amw.com

 

My thanks go to William Fleisher VSM for permission to use the photographs.

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