• search-icon

The Boy in the Box: Philadelphia’s Decades-Long Child Murder Mystery

They called him "America’s Unknown Child."

They called him "America’s Unknown Child," the unidentified boy in the box whose body was found in a cardboard container in the woods off the Susquehanna Road in the Fox Chase neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on February 25, 1957.

It was a junior at La Salle University who made the call. He had been checking rabbit traps, or maybe he just minding his own business, depending on whom you ask. The area near Susquehanna Road was used as a dumping ground, littered with trash and old appliances. Among them, thrown out like trash, was the box. At first, the college student thought it was a doll poking out of the container. 

He called the police, and officer Elmer Palmer drove through the drizzling rain to check it out. It wasn’t a doll.

The box was meant for a white bassinet—the kind you could buy at J. C. Penney. Now it held a much grislier cargo. The boy’s body was wrapped in a blanket, his head and shoulders poking out of the box. By the time he was discovered, he had already been dead for several days or even a couple of weeks, the chilly weather helping to preserve the body.

The boy in the box was between four and six years old, towheaded with blue eyes. His body was nude, save for the blanket. In a flyer distributed by the Philadelphia police department in 1957, the description of the boy is laid out in simple yet chilling detail. “Full set baby teeth,” the flyer poignantly states.

Cause of death was determined to be trauma resulting from blows to the head, but that wasn’t the whole story. The boy’s body was covered in bruises and showed signs of severe malnutrition. There was an L-shaped scar under his chin and surgical scars on his ankle and groin. His hair had been inexpertly cropped, probably post-mortem as bits of shorn hair still clung to his body.

“There were bruises all over his body,” Bill Bass told the Philadelphia City Paper. Bass was a doctoral student at Penn State at the time, and later a leading expert in forensic anthropology at the University of Tennessee, where he founded the Body Farm, an institution still used by the FBI and others to study decomposition.

Related: 9 Murder Victims Whose Names Are Unknown 

“I kept wondering how someone could do that to another human being,” Bass said, “to such a small child. It was unthinkable.” Though Bass saw more than 2,500 cases in his more than fifty-year career, he told the paper that he still had trouble with the memory of the unknown boy in the box.

Police found the body on Tuesday, February 26 in 1957. They assumed the case would be solved by that time the following week. “At first we figured the boy’s family would come forward, say his death was an accident and offer some sort of explanation,” William H. Kelly, then a fingerprint expert for the Philly PD, later told the City Paper. “But that didn’t happen. Days and weeks passed and still he wasn’t identified.”

creepiest wikipedia pages
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As the case dragged on with no suspects and no answers, 270 police academy recruits combed the woods near where the body was found. The Philadelphia Inquirer voluntarily printed 400,000 flyers showing the boy and discussing details of the crime scene. These were posted throughout the region and included with every gas bill in the city.

“It is requested that citizens and law enforcement, welfare, and child caring agencies supply information concerning boys of this age and description, known to be in the custody of persons who would abuse them,” the flyers pleaded, “also the disappearance or absence of any child answering this description.”

Related: Death in Wisconsin: The 94-Year-Old Unsolved Murder Mystery of Little Buddy Schumacher, Jr. 

Those with information pertaining to the case were encouraged to notify the homicide unit “at any time, day or night, in person or telephone.” In desperation, the police even staged a photograph of the boy’s body—fully dressed and posed as though he was sitting, attempting to approximate, as closely as they could, how he might have looked in life—and distributed that as well.

Still, weeks then months then years passed with no answers. The recruits who scoured the crime scene discovered a blue corduroy cap, size seven-and-a-half, in “excellent condition.” They also found a child’s scarf, a dead cat wrapped in a sweater, and a white handkerchief with the letter G on one corner—but none of these clues produced any leads.

In 1965, investigators, noting the absence of vaccination scars on the body, assumed that the boy’s parents may have been itinerants of some kind, or recent immigrants to the country. They found a newspaper article about Hungarian refugees and, with it, a photo they thought may have been of their unidentified boy.

With the help of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, they had gone through more than 11,000 passport photos before finding one that matched. They tracked the family to North Carolina, where state troopers found the boy from the photo playing in the yard. Another dead end in a case that seemed to be filled with nothing but.

Related: The Disappearance of Charley Ross 

More than half-a-century later, we still don’t know who the boy in the box was or what happened to him. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t theories, however.

Remington Bristow was an employee at the medical examiner’s office in Philadelphia when the unknown boy’s body was brought in. For years, he relentlessly pursued leads in the case, even long after it had gone cold.

In 1960, Bristow contacted a psychic in New Jersey named Florence Sternfield, who was renowned for being able to identify an individual by holding a piece of metal that belonged to them. Using two staples removed from the bassinet box, Sternfield directed Bristow toward a foster home about a mile-and-a-half from where the boy’s body had been found.

The home had already been investigated, but armed with his new knowledge, Bristow attended an estate sale there, where he saw a bassinet similar to the one on the box in which the boy’s body had been found. He also spotted blankets hanging on the line that he said matched the ones in which the unknown boy had been wrapped.

Arthur and Catherine Nicoletti owned the large stone house, where they lived with anywhere from five to twenty foster children, as well as Catherine’s adult daughter from a previous marriage, Anna Marie Nagle.

Related: The Mysterious Disappearance of the Beaumont Children 

Before the discovery of the boy in the box, Anna Marie, who was only 20 years old, had already had four children out of wedlock. Three of them were still alive when the police came to question the family, while another had reportedly been electrocuted at an amusement park in 1955.

Over the years, Bristow became convinced that the unknown boy had been a ward of the Nicoletti family. He believed that the boy had been another unwanted child of Anna Marie’s. When Catherine Nicoletti died years later, Arthur married his stepdaughter, Anna Marie, leading some to speculate that the boy in the box may have been the secret offspring of Arthur and Anna Marie.

However, in spite of his years of dogged investigation, Bristow was never able to generate more than circumstantial evidence to support his suspicions. He died in 1993, convinced that he had solved the case, but unable to prove it.

In 1998, a Philadelphia police lieutenant, accompanied by several members of the Vidocq Society, a Philly-based amateur crime-solving group of retired police officers and criminal profilers, interviewed Arthur Nicoletti and Anna Marie. 

As one member of the Vidocq Society later wrote on a website dedicated to solving the mystery, the family was “thoroughly investigated and cleared of any involvement in this crime. No further investigation of the foster family is warranted.”

For former fingerprint expert William H. Kelly, the investigation into the death of the unknown boy became a lifelong pursuit, and not long ago he encountered a startling new lead—"the best lead in 50 years" as he put it. It came in the form of a woman identified only as “Martha” or “M,” who told her psychiatrist that she had been there when the boy was killed.

Related: A Body In the Water: Who Killed Little Lord Fauntleroy? 

According to M, the murderer was her own mother, a schoolteacher in the township of Lower Merion, in Philadelphia. M said that her mother had purchased the child in the summer of 1954. What followed were years of physical and sexual abuse from the mother until, one afternoon, the boy vomited up a meal of baked beans. M’s mother threw the boy into the bathtub and beat him until he stopped moving.

At the time, M was only 13 years old, and she witnessed the murder, and helped to cover it up. She said that she went with her mother to the dump site off Susquehanna Road where they placed the boy’s body inside a bassinet box that was already there.

Kelly and others met M in Cincinnati in an attempt to corroborate her story—and came away convinced that she was probably telling the truth. “This woman had a good job, a Ph.D.; it wasn’t like she was some loony,” Kelly later told the Philadelphia City Paper.

However, M also had a history of mental problems, and she wasn’t entirely forthcoming with all the details of her story, leading some to suspect that there was more to it than she was telling. “She’s given enough detail to make the story titillating, to increase the probability so that it isn’t completely coincidental,” William Fleisher, a former Philly police officer and FBI agent, told the City Paper, “but until she tells the whole truth—and I believe she knows more than what she’s telling—we’ll never know if this is anything more than a manipulative power game.”

boy in the box
  • The unknown boy's final resting place.

  • Photo Credit: Find A Grave

While M’s story, which confirmed many details known only to the police, may be impossible to corroborate in a court of law in its current form, it has been enough to convince some of the people still working on the case—if unofficially—that they have found at least a few of the answers to the questions that have plagued them for more than fifty years.

In 1957, the body of the unknown boy was buried in a potter’s field. On October 3, 1998, America’s Most Wanted did an episode on the mystery. The resulting surge in interest in the case led to the boy’s remains being exhumed for DNA testing, which was extracted from the enamel on a tooth. 

When it came time to put the boy back into the earth, Ivy Hill Cemetery in Cedarbrook, Philadelphia donated a plot, while the cost of the funeral service, as well as the coffin and headstone—which read “America’s Unknown Child,” beneath a picture of a lamb—were paid for by Craig Mann, the son of the individual who had first buried the boy back in 1957.

Related: 21 Chilling Horror Novels to Read on Your Summer Vacation 

In the years since that 1998 reburial, people have regularly left toys and flowers at the grave of the unknown boy. Sometimes these are the investigators of the case, but other times they are simply citizens, strangers who come by to mourn a child they never knew.

According to Sabrina Rubin Erdeley, writing for Philadelphia Magazine in 2003, William Kelly always said the same prayer over the boy’s grave. “Guide me where to seek, that I may find the identification of the little unknown boy. Or, as I’ve come to call him, Sean. Thy will be done.”

In 1986, when Kelly’s daughter became pregnant with the sixth of his ten grandchildren, she told him that she was going to name her new son Sean. A few years after that, thanks to the story of M, Kelly had another name to call the young unknown boy. While M said that she had never known the boy’s full name, his first name had been Jonathan.

After that, Kelly called the boy Jonathan when he spoke to him at his gravesite. In 2018, Barbara Rae-Venter, a genetic genealogist who helped to identify the Golden State Killer suspect, expressed an interest in using the same technique to identify the boy in the box. Perhaps one day soon, “America’s Unknown Child” will finally have a full name to mark his resting place.

Featured photo: Adam Moss / Flickr (CC) and Wikimedia Commons

Published on 22 Aug 2019

scroll up