The Boy In The Box Mystery: The Story Of America’s Unknown Child

Over 60 years have passed since The Boy In The Box was discovered in the Fox Chase district of Philadelphia. The murder of a young child is always a terribly sad, heartbreaking and tragic occurrence, yet for some reason, I find this story even more upsetting than most. Here is the story of America’s Unknown Child.

the boy in the box
Facial reconstruction suggests this is what America’s Unknown Child looked like.

Not What He Was Hoping To See

On 23rd February, 1957 in the early evening a young man called Frederick Benonis went for a hike in the woods off Susquehanna Road.

This wasn’t a totally innocent hike. Benonis was making his way through the woods to the Good Shepherd Home. This was a school for troubled young women. The school was a regular spot Benonis would visit in his little hobby as a voyeur.

Whilst Benonis was on route to his peeping spot in the woods the young man instead came across a cardboard box. Benonis curiosity led him to take a peek inside. Chillingly the box had been used as a makeshift coffin as inside laid the corpse of a small child.

The Box, which had been used as a makeshift coffin for the tragic victim.

Frederick Benonis didn’t report the discovery immediately. The young man knew he would have to explain why he was in the woods and so due to the embarrassment and fear of what the police may do Benonis just drove away.

The day after Frederick Benonis confessed to a priest. The priest implored that the student did the right thing and inform the police. The next day Benonis did just that. The police were told a tale about how he was chasing a rabbit through the woods when he made the discovery.

The Boy In The Box

The Police visited the area Frederick had told them the box was located. Inside the box, officers confirmed the grisly tale as true. A young white boy had been dumped in the woods.

The child was naked but wrapped in a small blanket. Nearby police found a blue man’s cap with a trail of cut back weeds leading to the place the cardboard box and the boy in the box had been discovered.

The Autopsy

Dr Joseph Spelman performed an autopsy on the child. Spelman put the boy at somewhere between 4 and 6 years of age. The young boy was measured at 41 inches and weighed just 30 pounds, pointing out there was evidence that the boy had suffered from malnourishment.

The child was also detailed to have blue eyes and blonde hair, with Spelman noting that the hair had been cut in an unskilled manner. Spelman also discovered several old surgical scars including a scar near the groin, possibly from a hernia operation. Another surgical scar was on the left side of his chest.

Spelman also noted that the Boy In The Box victim had been the recipient of eye treatment recently. This was due to dye that was discovered in the victim’s eye which was used to treat eye problems.

Dr Spelman’s report put the cause of death as head trauma, possibly caused by a blunt object. The Doctor also noted that the boy had been the victim of a vicious beating. This was due to the amount of fresh bruising down the left-hand side of the child’s face and body. The final noteworthy detail from the report was that the victim presented signs that they had also been submerged in water either shortly before or after their death.

Tracing The Makeshift Coffin

The police decided that they would release an image of the child to try to get an identity. Officers dressed the victim and took a photograph of his beaten face. Hopes where now high that the victim could now be given a name.

america's unknown child image

To this day, some 60 plus years later, this tragically wasn’t to be the case.  The Boy In The Box would instead become heartrendingly known as America’s Unknown Child.

Detectives working the case discovered that the box in which the poor boy was found was sold at a JC Penney store. The box which would eventually be used as a makeshift coffin for a tragic victim started life as a box containing a bassinet.

The bassinet was one of twelve put on sale by the store in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. They cost $7.50 and where sold from the 3rd December, 1956 until the last of the dozen had been sold on 16th February , 1957. 

Records were not kept by the store on who had bought the bassinets as at the time they had a cash only policy.  However, investigators managed to track down 11 of the 12 bassinets that had been sold by the store. The box was analysed by technicians at the FBI. Unfortunately, the police were out of luck as no useful prints could be recovered.

A Potential Lead

The blue men’s cap police located near the discovery of the Boy In The Box was also traced. The cap had a label inside, giving the police hope of another lead.

Officers visited Robbins Bald Eagle Hat and Cap Company. Hannah Robbins, the owner of the store, informed investigators it was one of 12 such caps. Even better Hannah Robbins remembered this exact cap.

This particular cap was sold with a leather strap. The person who purchased it had then returned a while later for another strap to be sewn on. Hannah Robbins recalled to police that the man was in his late twenties and had blonde hair.

The police showed Hannah a picture of the Boy In The Box. Hannah stated there was a resemblance to the man who purchased the cap and the boy. Regrettably, no name or address was recorded and so police again had nothing they could really use to ID the victim.

The Blanket

Investigators turned there focus to the blanket found with the Boy In The Box. The blanket had been cut into two separate parts. One measured 33 x 76 inches and the other 31 x 51 inches. There was also a section of the blanket missing.

america's unknown child blanket

The blanket was sent for analysis by the police. Again this sadly didn’t give them the results the police were hoping for.

Police discovered the blanket was originally made in one of two places. Granby, Quebec was one option and Swannanoa in North Carolina the other. It was soon discovered however that the blankets were mass produced. For the police, it was almost impossible to track the store the blanket had been purchased.

Further Efforts

Police where desperately wanting to get an identification for the young child found murdered in the woods. The Philadelphia police department handed out thousands of leaflets with an image of the child. The department even sent over 10,000 leaflets to other departments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the hope of a lead. Sadly, none were forthcoming.

america's unknown child poster
One of the 1000’s of leaflets that were distributed.

In the FBI’s monthly newsletter, The Law Enforcement Bulletin, an article on the case was published. Yet again the Philadelphia PD gained little in the way of leads from the article.

Both The Philadelphia Electric Company and Philadelphia Gas Works posted flyers in their monthly bills. In total, some 300,000 leaflets were circulated. Amazingly the authorities were still unable to put a name to the tragic victim.

Some 5 months after the heartbreaking discovery of the murdered child, he was laid to rest. Buried in the potters field at Dunks Ferry and Mechanicsville Roads the Boy In The Box recieved the only headstone in the graveyard of the unknown. Officers working the case collected money to make the purchase. The Inscription read:

“Heavenly Father, Bless This Unknown Boy.”

DNA

The potter’s field where The Boy In The Box was laid to rest would remain the child’s resting place until 1998. Investigators exhumed the body in the hope of extracting DNA.

An initial attempt on the 4th November 1998 was unsuccessful. The DNA profile wasn’t strong enough to be used for comparison to potential relatives. Another attempt was made in 2000 but again was unsuccessful.

In April 2001 investigators finally managed to abstract some usable DNA from the child’s teeth. Despite the time that has elapsed, investigators hope this may still lead to the eventual identification of the Boy In The Box.

The Boy In The Box was reburied at the Ivy Hill Cemetery, Cedarbrook, Philadelphia. The plot was donated by the cemetery. The son of the man who buried the boy in 1957 paid for the coffin, funeral service and headstone. The grave has many visitors and is often surrounded by toys and flowers left in loving memory of America’s Unknown Child.

Suspects, Leads and ID’s

The Story of “M”

In 2002 investigators were contacted by an Ohio psychiatrist who said her client had information she wished to share. The client had originally told her psychiatrist her story some thirteen years earlier in 1989 but was unwilling to come forward until now.

The client, who would become known as “M”, claimed that the boys birth parents had sold him to her mother in 1954. The woman said that her mother was both physically and sexually abusive towards the boy for over 2 years. Eventually, the abuse reached its most extreme with disastrous consequences for the poor boy.

On the fateful night, the boy had vomited in the bathtub which enraged the mother. In a fit of violent rage, she slammed the innocent child on the floor, killing him.

The Interview

Detective Tom Augustine, along with Vidocq Society members William Kelly and Joseph McGillen, paid a visit to “M” in Cincinnati. In over three hours of conversation with “M” she recounted her story. “M” was brought up in Lower Merion, a well-off area of Philadelphia. Her mother was a librarian and her father a science teacher. She stated that her mother would frequently subject her to acts of sexual abuse.

When “M” was 10 years old she says her mother drove them both to a house. At the house, “M’s” mother handed over an envelope in exchange for a frail-looking young boy. Investigators were told by “M” that the boy could not speak and that he was mentally handicapped. The boy was called Jonathan by “M’s” mother, though she had no idea if that was his birth name or not.

During the next two years, Jonathan was treated horrifically. The child was kept hidden away in the basement, a floor drain for a toilet and an empty box among the coal bins as his bed. The outside world would never even know Jonathan existed as he wasn’t allowed outside, hid away whenever anyone paid a visit. Distressingly the young boy was also beaten and sexually abused by “M’s” mother.

The Dumping

On the night of the appalling murder “M” recalled how her mother had cut the boys hair in an attempt to hide his identity. The pair then wrapped the tragic victim’s naked body in an old blanket and put him into the boot of the car. 

The mother drove around looking for a good dumping spot, eventually coming across Susquehanna Road. At this point “M” stated that a passing motorist pulled over. A man got out of his car and asked if they were having car trouble. “M” and her mother ignored the man, making sure to block any view of their licence plate. Eventually, the man took the not so subtle hint and drove away.

After the man drove away “M” and her mother removed “Jonathan” from the boot of the car. There was a large cardboard box near where the mother had chosen to dump the body. The pair placed the murdered innocent inside and drove away.

The tale of the passing motorist is one of the most interesting from “M’s” account as it matched that of an anonymous witness from 1957. What makes it more interesting is that the statement remained confidential, so how would “M” know about it?

The Follow Up

Everything “M” had told investigators seemed highly plausible. With this in mind, Detective Augustine and his fellow investigators decided to launch an intense follow-up to “M’s” story. Although investigators were impressed with the details given in “M’s” account they remained sceptical. 

Investigators from the Philadelphia PD, the Vidocq Society and the Montgomery County DA’s office spent six months trying to verify “M’s” claims. Unfortunately, police were unable to do so. Despite leaving no stone unturned investigators weren’t able to corroborate any of the allegations made by “M”. 

The Airman’s Kidnapped Son

On 31st October 1955 in Long Island, NY, Steven Craig Damman, the son of an airman, was kidnapped from outside a supermarket. Steven was just 34 months old.

steven craig damman
Poster of missing child Steven Craig Damman. 

Steven Damman fit the age of “The Boy In The Box” and shared several similarities in appearence. Investigators were of the opinion there was a possibility the boys were the same person and so looked into it further.

Police sent copies of America’s Unknown Child’s footprint to be analysed and compared. The investigators also compared medical records and X-rays of the deceased child. After much testing, no matches were found.

It was determined Steven Damman was not The Boy In The Box. Steven Damman’s disappearance was never solved and so in 2003 the police re-examined the case. Police again looked into the possibility of the boys been one and the same.

Investigators found nothing to say the original investigation came to the wrong conclusion. However, police had one more thing to test to prove it once and for all. Police located Steven Damman’s sister and due to advances in DNA technology police were able to test her DNA against that of America’s Unknown Child. The test proved that Steven Damman was not The Boy In The Box. The kidnapping of Steven Damman remains unsolved.

The Foster Home

In 1960 a medical examiner’s office employee named Remington Bristow started his own investigation into The Boy In The Box Mystery. Bristow took the step of contacting a psychic based in New Jersey named Florence Sternfeld.

Bristow visited the psychic at her New Jersey home, taking with him two staples from the JC Penney box the boy was found in. Florence Sternfeld told Bristow to look for a large house that contained a log cabin within its premises. After searching the Fox Chase area Bristow eventually located a house matching the description.

The house Bristow found belonged to Arthur and Catherine Nicoletti. Catherine’s daughter from a previous marriage, Anna Marie, also lived at the home. The couple ran the house as a foster home, taking in young girls and boys from the state.

During the original police investigation in 1957 officers looked into the foster home. They found at the time the family had in their care three boys and five girls. Police found nothing untoward and no reason to suspect the Nicoletti’s of any involvement in the murder of the Boy In The Box at the time. 

Bristow Investigates

Remington Bristow brought the psychic Florence Sternfeld to the site where the unfortunate boy was discovered. The psychic claimed to have never been to Philadelphia before so in seeing Florence direct them straight to the foster home Bristow was more convinced than ever.

The following year, in 1961, the Nicoletti’s took the decision to leave the foster care business and move away. Bristow used the opportunity of the house sale to view the estate for himself.

Bristow claimed the home still had blankets on the clothesline and that they bore a striking similarity to the one found in the victim’s makeshift coffin. Bristow also discovered a bassinet that he believed to be identical to the ones sold by JC Penney.

Bristow’s Theory 

Bristow was now convinced that the Nicoletti’s were involved in the dumping of the boy’s body. Bristow theorized that the boy was the son of Arthur Nicoletti’s stepdaughter Anna Marie. Bristow believed the boys death may well have been the result of an accident but that they then covered up the death by dumping the boys body.

Police found nothing with which they could link the boy and the Nicoletti’s however. All the evidence Bristow had was merely circumstantial.

Over the years Bristow remained adament the Nicoletti’s were involved in the boys death. Through the years he tried to get police to reinvestigate them but his attempts failed. Bristow even went as far as contacting Arthur Nicoletti and asking him to take a lie detector. Arthur declined.

In 1989 Bristow had new hope. Whilst going over old police records he discovered that police had never interviewed the doctor used by the foster home. Bristow discovered that the doctor had since died. He tracked down the doctor’s wife hoping to find something among the medical records he had kept. Unfortunately, Bristow was out of luck. The wife explained to Bristow that she had burned the files some years earlier, after her husband’s death.

Four years later, in 1993, Reginald Bristow himself would depart this world. Up until the day he died, Reginald Bristow never doubted that the foster family had been involved in the tragic events that ended in the death of the Boy In The Box.

The Foster Family Link Revisited

In 1998 the investigation into the Boy In The Box case was reopened. Detective Tom Augustine was asked to follow up and reinvestigate the foster home lead and see if there was anything in it.

The Detective went to interview Arthur Nicoletti and Anna Marie. Anna Marie at this point was no longer Arthur’s step daughter, she was now his wife after the passing of her mother Catherine.

The couple was interviewed by Detective Augustine and several members of the Vidcq Society. During the interview, enough information was given that left Detective Augustine with the firm belief the foster family had no involvement in the murder case. DNA later also proved that Anna was not the deceased boy’s mother. The investigation into the Nicoletti family was deemed closed and no further investigation warranted.

Final Thoughts

If I’m been honest, after over 60’s years, it seems likely that America’s Unknown Child will forever hold that moniker. Hope hasn’t been lost entirely though. Almost everyone ever involved in the case is still following leads and doing everything in their power to give the boy his identity.

Yet another announcement, made in August 2018, gives more hope. Barbara Rae-Venter revealed an attempt is been made to identify the Boy In The Box using the DNA techniques she used to unveil the Golden State Killer/Original Night Stalker. I have my fingers crossed that this finally can give the boy a name.

As for who was responsible the fact is we will very likely never find out. Even if the despicable monster, or monsters, were revealed they themselves are likely to have died at this point. It is upsetting to think someone got away with such a heinous act but in this case that tragically what looks to have happened.

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