If ever there was a child crying out to be identified, the “Boy in the Box” is the one. Also called “America’s Unknown Child,” the little boy was found deceased in a cardboard box in a debris-filled empty lot in northeast Philadelphia on February 25, 1957. Ever since, police and others periodically have assembled at the boy’s grave.
Today, as most of the original investigators have, one by one, passed away, the old guard has become considerably smaller. But sometimes the passage of time can be helpful as people once afraid to speak out are more likely to come forward, and new advances in technology bring new hope. Now, 64 years later, the boy’s identity is still unknown, but a Philadelphia CBS television reporter who attended a recent gravesite gathering announced that investigators are “closer than ever to figuring out who this boy is.”
A college student investigating some muskrat traps had found the boy’s body and called police. While officers searched for clues and detectives visited hospitals, orphanages, and private welfare agencies, reporters splashed the discovery of the child’s body all over the newspapers in the hope that someone would know the identity of the boy. But no one did. The only news came from the medical examiner who stated there were “bruises all over the boy’s body, particularly on his head, legs, and arms” adding, “The boy’s death is definitely due to a homicide, and that’s all that I can say at this time.”
A few months later, on a hot muggy day in July 1957, the boy was laid to rest in a Philadelphia cemetery designated for those who had been unclaimed or unknown. The Philadelphia Homicide Squad had raised enough money to buy the boy a small gravestone––the only stone in the entire cemetery, and it appeared that the bleak burial ground would be the boy’s final resting place. Under a few stylized flowers edged into the stone, the child’s inscription simply read, Heavenly Father, Bless this Unknown Boy, February 25, 1957.
At the time, Remington Bristow was one of several investigators in the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office. For a body with a name, his job included finding contact information for the next of kin. For one without a name—that is, an “unknown”—he was tasked with determining the person’s identity. The job of finding the boy’s identify became the investigator’s lifelong obsession that lasted for the next thirty-six years until the day he died. Bristow’s colleagues credited him with keeping the case open, and they acknowledged that without his personal crusade, the boy might have long ago been forgotten.
Also working with the technology of the time was William H. Kelly, supervisor of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Identification Unit, who inked the boy’s feet on the morgue table then methodically compared them with the footprints of babies born in the Philadelphia area. By the end of his search, the impression of the boy’s foot had been seared into Kelly’s brain, but none of the footprints matched. Other investigators followed leads that included reports of carnival workers thought to have neglected or disposed of their children while traveling from one location to another.
Meanwhile, a Philadelphia-based organization with the mission to assist law enforcement with cold cases –– the Vidocq Society –– took an interest in the boy’s case. And, in 1998, law enforcement had a new tool in its toolbox, DNA. Vidocq Society members arranged to disinter the boy’s remains, and the FBI assisted in the exhumation. The still-intact coffin was transferred, with its fragile contents, to a waiting ambulance. At the morgue, a medical examiner found a few teeth within a small pile of degraded bones. Fortunately, one of the teeth produced mitochondrial DNA. In those days, long before the introduction of genetic genealogy, all that was needed for an identification was for the unidentified person’s DNA to be matched with a family member. But, even after the case was featured on a segment on the television show “America’s Most Wanted,” no family member came forward for comparison. When the boy was reinterred, he was buried in a more dignified setting in Philadelphia’s historic Ivy Hill Cemetery.
One tip from the show, however, opened up a promising new lead. It came from a woman who, years earlier as a schoolgirl, knew another girl whose parents secretly kept a boy in their home. In 2000, two years after the first woman’s call, another woman (identified only as “M”) called police and told a horrific story of her own mother “purchasing” a little boy on the black market and sexually abusing him. Both stories referenced the same year, on the same street in the same suburban neighborhood. Unfortunately, in order to prove this scenario, the boy’s DNA was of little use to police as the boy had no biological connection to the women’s families.
Genetic, or forensic, genealogy is now the investigators’ current best hope. The word “forensic” simply means that the genealogical process can be used to support the legal identification of unidentified remains or the perpetuator of a violent crime. In this exploding new field, no immediate family member need come forward. Instead, the boy’s DNA can be submitted to GEDmatch, a genetic genealogy DNA database, where matches to even distant cousins could help to identify him.
Another reason for hope is that a new generation has embraced the boy. In June 2016, Boy Scout Nicholas Kerschbaum, from Troop 522 in Wilmington, Delaware, was in search of an Eagle Scout service project and placed a roadside historical marker at the site where the boy’s body was found. Whether identified or not, Kerschbaum states that the unknown boy is “a symbol of all murdered and abused children.”
About the Guest Blog Post
This “Boy in the Box” story is adapted from a chapter in the author’s upcoming book, COLD CASE CHRONICLES: Mysteries, Murders & the Missing (Lyons Press, to be released June 1, 2021).
The cases in this nonfiction narrative date from 1910 through the 1950s and include evolutions in forensics, as well as historical context in order to view the men, women and children through the lens of time. (The main photo on the cover shows police looking for clues in the case of the unidentified boy.)
I saw an overview of the chapters and this is a fascinating book. Important to Pettem is that we respect what investigators were able to do with the technology that was availavle to them at the time of the crime. She spends a whole chapter on the following questions:
- Did police and sheriff officials cover the basics?
- Did they leave any clues unexamined?
- Did they consider every conceivable option and make use of the technology then available?
- What would law enforcement officials do differently today?
About the Author
Silvia Pettem is a Colorado-based self-employed researcher, writer, and author with a passion for cold cases, unidentified remains, and long-term missing persons.
She contributed to the identification of “Boulder Jane Doe” (a murder victim), is an associate member of the Vidocq Society, and is one of the organization’s Medal of Honor recipients. She’s a volunteer in the Detectives Section of the Boulder Police Department, a NamUs instructor in classes sponsored by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, and a member of AISOCC.
Silvia Pettem is the author of more than a dozen books including The Long Term Missing: Hope and Help for Families; Someone’s Daughter: In Search of Justice for Jane Doe, and Cold Case Research: Resources for Unidentified, Missing, and Cold Homicide Cases.