The Boy in the Box: America’s Eeriest Enigma

In the Ivy Hill Cemetery in Cedarbrook, Philadelphia is a headstone that reads “America’s Unknown Child.” It belongs to a little boy, between the ages of two and five, who was found in a cardboard box in 1957. Detectives did their best to identify the child but to no avail.

The Boy in a Box / Kids in the forest / Parents crying / A missing child poster.
Source: Getty Images

This case has been stumping law enforcement for over 60 years now and has driven the public mad, causing new theories to pop up sporadically, leaving hundreds of questions unanswered. To this day, no one is even close to understanding what happened.

In the Winter of 1957…

On February 25th, police received a tip from an informant who came across a suspicious cardboard box that had been dumped on the side of a road near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In it, police officers discovered a horrifying scene that made them sick to their stomachs.

A dated photo of the traffic in Philadelphia.
Photo by Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images

It was the corpse of a young boy, nude and partially wrapped in a flannel blanket. The boy was covered in purple-blue bruises. It was later concluded by medical examiners that the young child had died after sustaining serious blows to the head.

The Boy in the Box

Investigators tried to identify the boy yet failed to do so. Eventually, the media came up with their own name for him – ” The Boy in the Box.” The public went wild over the discovery and demanded answers. Police didn’t admit it at the time, but they were terribly skeptical they could find any.

A picture of police officers at a crime scene.
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On the one hand, if a boy went missing in the area, surely people would be looking for him, right? But they would probably be after a well-cared for, healthy-looking kid. Sadly, the boy in the box was far from that. He was dirty, malnourished, and scrawny.

He Looked Abandoned

The boy’s hair looked like it had been recently chopped, as clumps of it were still scattered over his body. He was terribly skinny, his fragile body covered with surgical scars, mainly on his groin, chin, and ankle. Despite his shocking appearance, police still hoped for identification and fingerprinted him.

A simulation of the kids’ portrait.
Source: Pinterest

Sadly, no match was found. Over the next few years, 400,000 flyers were delivered around the Philadelphia area. Investigators formed a facial reconstruction, and drawings of the young boy were printed on all the posters. His face was all over post offices and police stations. Still, nothing came up.

As Cold as It Was in 1957

The crime scene itself, the area in which the cardboard box was discovered, was thoroughly scanned several times. However, apart from a few pieces of children’s clothes (none of them led anywhere), there were no other leads.

A dated photo of the forest at the time.
Source: YouTube

To this day, the case of the boy in the box remains a mystery. The young child’s identity is as much an enigma today as it was in 1957. But even though the case has run cold, people have never ceased to wonder about it. The interest of the public has led to some notable theories over the years.

Theory #1 – Someone May Have Bought, Abused, and Killed Him

Throughout their investigation, police received several tips from callers who claimed to know the boy’s true identity, as well as how he died. One of the calls came from a woman named Martha. According to her, when she was a little girl, her mom bought a child and brought him over to their home in Philadelphia.

A portrait of the boy from the box.
Source: Pinterest

Martha claimed that her mom named the boy Jonathan and that she kept him in their bleak and dirty basement for her sick enjoyment. Martha’s mom was allegedly molesting the kid. This wasn’t the first time she had done such a horrendous act.

Smashed His Skull Against the Floor

Martha told police that as for his death, the story went as such: Poor Jonathan vomited in the bathtub, and her mother apparently flipped out. So, she smashed his head against the floor, killing the child. Afterward, Martha claimed to have accompanied her mom to get rid of his body somewhere in Philadelphia.

An image of the boy is broadcasted on the news.
Source: YouTube

Law enforcement carefully listened to Martha’s story – which rolled into their station decades after the boy was discovered. But as much as they wished to find answers, they failed to find any evidence that corroborated the information she gave.

Theory #2 – Died in a Foster Home

Another theory about The Boy in the Box claims that the young child was an orphan and being cared for in a foster home when he accidentally died, probably by falling out of a window, or maybe even down a large flight of stairs.

A picture of a kid in a foster home.
Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This theory surfaced after a medical examiner named Remington Bristow was approached by a psychic who allegedly told him that the young boy passed away while living in an old, creepy mansion that was converted into a foster home.

They Tried to Get Away With Murder

Remington Bristow had talked to a husband and wife who ran a foster home out of a mansion. He also spotted a bassinet in their home like the kind that would have been packaged in a box just like the one carrying the boy’s corpse. Bristow connected a few dots and reached the crazy conclusion that the kid must have been their secret grandchild.

An image of nurses and children outside a foster home waving goodbye to a car.
Photo by Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer/Imperial War Museums/Getty Images

He assumed that the boy must have died in some sort of accident, and upon discovering him, they dumped him because they were worried about being charged with murder. Decades later, an investigator looked into this lead and interviewed the woman Bristow believed was the kid’s mother. She actually did lose a child in 1957, but morgue records showed that he couldn’t have been her child.

Theory #3 – He Drowned

Remington Bristow believed that the boy might have drowned in a lake. Even though the boy had multiple head injuries, the bottom of his feet and the palms of his hands were wrinkled and shriveled up, which made it seem like he had been in the water for a long period of time.

An image from a lake in Pennsylvania.
Source: Pinterest

Detectives failed to determine whether he had been submerged in a lake before or after his death, and according to their ruling, the cause of death was a blunt force trauma to the head and not drowning. Bristow wasn’t satisfied though, as the boy had clumps of hair stuck on his body, reinforcing the idea that he had been drenched at the time of his passing.

He Was Terribly Malnourished When He Died

Apart from finding proof that the boy had been submerged in the water around the time of his death, medical examiners spotted several chilling signs of prolonged abuse. By using X-rays, one doctor stated that the boy was probably between three and five years old.

A medical investigator shows a mold of the kid’s face.
Source: Pinterest

The little boy weighed around 30 pounds and was only 40.5 inches tall. According to the doctor, the Boy in the Box was suffering from “arrested growth.” He shuddered at the thought of the life he must have had before dying.

Protruding Ribs and Bruised Lips

The medical examiner came out with a harrowing report. The boy’s fragile body was dotted in black and blue; his lips were chapped and bloody; and his figure was so emaciated that his ribs were showing through his bruised skin.

A view of a poster published by police.
Source: Pinterest

The doctor also suspected a possible eye infection that might have been treated with medication a little before his death. Due to Philadelphia’s cold weather around the time the Boy in the Box was unearthed, the doctor wasn’t able to put his finger on the exact time of death. He concluded by saying it might have happened days or even weeks before the discovery.

Theory #4 – A Fatal Trip to the Hair Salon?

Detectives believe that someone likely chopped off most of the boy’s light brown locks around the time of his death because when they discovered the box, he had clumps of his own hair stuck to his body. But it appeared that the person who had chopped the boy’s hair was in a rush.

A picture of a kid getting his hair cut.
Photo by Nathan/Graphic House/Archive Photos/Getty Images

His hair was clearly cut in a haphazard manner. Four bruises on the boy’s forehead were also discovered, and more worryingly, there were signs of a cerebral hemorrhage. Police then came up with the theory that his death may have been accidental, caused by someone who had trimmed his hair.

A Barber Came Forward Shortly After…

Whoever cut his hair with clippers may have accidentally applied too much pressure while holding the boy’s head in place. Soon after this theory surfaced, a barber from Philadelphia came forward and stated that he was the one responsible for cutting the boy’s hair, around a week before he was discovered by the police.

An image of a barber at a hair salon.
Photo by Maurice Ambler/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The barber claimed that the child had come into his barbershop with his older sibling and that the treatment left him unharmed. He then directed the police to an area called “Strawberry Mansion,” claiming that that was where the child lived. Officers followed his lead but, sadly, it led nowhere.

Theory #5 – He Was Raised as a Girl

An additional theory about the Boy in the Box is that was raised as a girl, which is likely the reason that detectives had struggled to pinpoint his identity. One of the biggest advocates of this theory is a man named Frank Bender.

An image of a smiling young girl standing in a garden.
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Frank is a forensic artist and the co-founder of an underground group of professionals who are dedicated to cracking cold cases. According to Frank, the reason someone had chopped off the child’s hair near the time of his death was to hide the fact that he had been raised as a girl.

Someone Had Plucked His Eyebrows

Frank Bender also noted that photos taken of the young boy clearly show that someone had tweezed the child’s eyebrows either before or after his death – another indication that someone had changed the kid’s appearance to make him seem more feminine.

An image of a forest landscape.
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Frank then drew an illustration of what he believed the Boy in the Box would have looked like if he had long hair and bangs. With the help of the sketch, Bender believed police could better identify the kid if someone had attempted to misrepresent his gender.

Whoever Found Him Waited Before Contacting the Police

While police found the Boy in the Box on February 25th, 1957, the person who discovered him, Frederick Benonis, had found the dead body the day before. Frederick was a 27-year-old student who told the cops that he came across the box while chasing a rabbit.

A picture of police officers inside a patrol car.
Photo by Fred Ramage/Keystone/Getty Images

However, he didn’t call authorities right away because he assumed that the corpse was actually a doll. Frederick was so astonished by the finding that his mind simply brushed off the chance that it may have been a dead little boy.

He Was Considered a Suspect

Benonis eventually called the police the following day after hearing of a New Jersey boy who had gone missing (it was later proved not to be the same boy). Frederick’s 24-hour delay raised a few eyebrows. Several people grew suspicious…

An image of a forest.
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Detectives later learned that the reason Frederick didn’t immediately call the police was that he had been peeking on a few girls at a nearby school. He came up with the rabbit chasing story because he was, well…ashamed.

Theory #6 – He Was the Son of a Carnival Worker

In 1961, detectives approached the Dudley family. They interrogated Kenneth and his wife Irene Dudley to find out whether the Boy in the Box had been one of their children (they had ten in total). But…why did they approach them in the first place?

An image of a detective examining fingerprints.
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Kenneth was a carnival worker, so he had the whole family drive with him up and down the East Coast as he tried to find work. Police then learned that one of their kids, a seven-year-old girl named Carol Ann, had died due to neglect and malnutrition.

They Wrapped Her in a Blanket and Placed Her in the Woods

What police found out about Carol Ann was that instead of burying their young daughter’s body in a cemetery, Kenneth and Irene wrapped their child in a blanket and placed her in the woods in Virginia. Tragically, she wasn’t the only kid to go.

An image of police officers sitting in a patrol car.
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In total, seven of the family’s ten children died due to neglect and malnutrition. This gave way to the theory that the Boy in the Box may have been one of their children. But after thorough questioning, officials concluded that the Dudleys had nothing to do with the unidentified boy.

Theory #7 – He Was a Hungarian Refugee

Detective Bill Kelly, a fingerprint expert, came up with the theory that the boy might have been one of the Hungarian refugees who arrived in the States in the ’50s. It came to him after reading a newspaper article from 1956.

A picture of Hungarian refugees walking.
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The article was about immigrants who had recently relocated to America from Hungary and showed a picture of a few Hungarian refugees standing side by side. Bill found that one of the kids in the picture looked remarkably like the Boy in the Box.

The Reason They Couldn’t Identify Him…

Bill Kelly pushed his theory forward by claiming that the reason police couldn’t identify the child was because there were no records of him. He was an immigrant, Kelly insisted, hoping that the public would listen to his claims.

A simulated portrait of the unidentified kid.
Source: Pinterest

However, Kelly’s lead, like the others, was false. After looking at around 11,000 passport photos, Kelly managed to find the Hungarian boy from the ’50s article and found out that the kid was still alive and living with his folks in North Carolina.

Theory #8 – He Had Been Kidnapped Two Years Earlier

Less than two years before the Boy in the Box was discovered, in the fall of 1955, an unknown suspect kidnapped a two-year-old infant named Steven Craig Damman. Steven, who had blue eyes and blond hair, was snatched from a grocery store in New York.

A dated image of a road in Pennsylvania.
Photo by Heilman/ClassicStock/Getty Images

When police found the Boy in the Box, the public wondered whether he was Damman, due to their similar ages and physical appearance. For a while, this theory had the police’s hopes up. They were desperate to know the boy’s identity.

Their Footprints Didn’t Match

Unfortunately, despite Damman and the unknown boy’s similar appearance, there were several distinct qualities that differentiated the two. For one, Damman had broken his arm a while before vanishing, while the Boy in the Box’s arm seemed to be fine (apart from the bruises).

An examiner goes through different molds of feet.
Photo by Daniel Farson/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Moreover, their footprints didn’t match. And finally, years later, in 2003, authorities compared the Boy in the Box’s DNA with biological evidence, courtesy of Damman’s sister, and confirmed that there was absolutely no link between the two.

They Tried Their Best to Identify the Boy

After authorities discovered the Boy in the Box in 1957, they believed someone would provide them with the poor boy’s identity. However, when no one came forward and contacted them, Philadelphia officials exercised various different methods to try and crack the case.

An aerial view of a road.
Photo by Don Cravens/Getty Images

The police crafted a poster of the boy’s face, including details about his physical appearance and the items found at the crime scene. They distributed copies of the poster all across Philadelphia, giving them to people on the street as well.

He Was Exhumed in 1998

Over four decades after authorities discovered his abandoned body close to a road near Philadelphia, police exhumed the boy to collect DNA evidence. Incredibly, forensic experts managed to extract mitochondrial DNA from one of his teeth.

A picture of two young boys playing in the forest.
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They used this precious DNA profile to try and eliminate leads that centered around potential relatives of the child. After they extracted DNA from his teeth, officials were instructed to bury him at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Detectives Paid for His Funeral

On November 11, 1998, the Boy in the Box was placed once again, to rest in a casket. The Philadelphia investigators assigned to the boy’s case paid for his new funeral. Before exhuming him, he was buried in a potter’s field right by Mechanicsville.

An image of Philadelphia detectives working on a case.
Photo by Steve Liss/Getty Images

But after exhuming him, they reburied the boy in Ivy Hill Cemetery with a granite stone that reads: “America’s Unknown Child.” By his headstone sits a bench donated by the Vidocq Society and another marker that reads: “Heavenly Father, Bless this Unknown Boy” (this was written in his original stone marker).

Still Cold and Unidentified

While the Boy in the Box’s eerie case has sparked a host of promising tips and leads, no one has been able to identify him. However, despite not having an identification of the child, Philadelphia’s citizens and law enforcement haven’t forgotten about the child.

A police cordon surrounds a crime scene.
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

To this day, the Vidocq Society hosts an annual memorial to pay their respects to this abandoned young boy. In addition, a man from Philadelphia opened the website “America’s Unknown Child,” which is responsible for telling the boy’s story.

The Numbers Are Rising

The Center for Missing and Exploited Children in America states that there are between 1,000 and 1,300 unidentified dead children across the nation at any given time. Just like the Boy in the Box, these kids are abused and cast aside.

An image of a missing child poster.
Photo by Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

Just as the investigators working on this case believed they owed it to the anonymous Boy in the Box to put a name on his headstone, so do these other young victims. They deserve justice. Tragically, it seems like the number of missing kids is on the rise.

Startling Child Abduction Statistics

Here are some uncomfortable yet important facts we ought to know about our situation in the States. In 2019, 421,394 children in America were reported missing. However, some good news is that only 1 out of every 10,000 of them is found dead.

A photo of newspaper cuts and pictures of a missing child.
Photo by Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register/Getty Images

Another concerning fact is that according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in America, one child goes missing every 90 seconds. Also, 4,600 children are kidnapped by strangers every year.

Reasons for Missing Children

Some kids go missing for a day. Others disappear for months or even years. Distraught parents often seek the help of law enforcement; however, not all cases are solvable, and not all investigators manage to locate the missing children.

An image of a police patrol flashing lights.
Source: Pixabay

Missing children’s cases fall into several different categories. Some are endangered runaways, others go missing due to family abduction, others due to abductions by strangers or non-relatives, and others are simply abandoned minors.

35% of the Missing Cases Are Minors

The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) claims that there are a total of 87,438 active missing person cases. About 30,600 of these are children under 18. A lot of these missing children were miraculously found years later. However, others are still missing.

A picture of a police officer taking notes.
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Others were found dead, like Carlie Brucia, an 11-year-old child who was abducted on her way home from school. Five days later, her body was found. Luckily, since the kidnapping was recorded by a surveillance camera at a car wash, the abductor was caught.

The Three Strikes Law

In the ‘90s, one particular abduction case led to a new law in California – the three strikes law. It was the case of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, who was kidnapped right from the comfort of her home! The kidnapper was later found and arrested after he confessed to the crime.

A portrait of Polly Klaas / A photo of Polly Klaas abductor.
Source: Pinterest

After a long, painful, and grueling trial, Polly Klaas’ kidnapper was eventually sentenced to death for kidnapping and murder. This led to the three strikes law, which automatically gives a life sentence to felons who commit a grave crime for the third time.

More Than Half of the Cases Are Due to Abduction

According to studies on child abduction, every year, around 203,900 of the victims are a result of abduction. Even more concerning, is that most of the missing children were victims of abduction by their own family members. A lot of them involve divorced parents who lost custody of their kids.

A picture of parents crying.
Source: The Press Democrat

According to studies, about 35% of these abductions are of 6- to 11-year-old children, for periods that from one week to a whole month. Abductions by family members are often orchestrated to affect the custody battle. In more than half of these cases, the kidnapper was a male relative.

What About Strangers?

Every year, around 4,500 children are kidnapped by strangers. According to the National Center for Missing Children, of the abductions done by strangers, approximately 20% of them are found dead.

A photo of Polly Klaas’ memorial.
Source: Tumblr

Normally, the first contact between the kidnapper and the child is less than a mile from the victim’s home. This data is true for around 80% of stranger abductions. Most of the children abducted by strangers are girls.

What About the Rest of the World?

Every year, about 112,835 children are reported missing in the UK. Reports from the United Kingdom show that kids are more likely to be reported missing than adults. Studies found that one in every 200 children go missing, most of them due to neglect at home, a conflict between parents, and sexual exploitation.

A dated portrait of Polly Klaas.
Source: Pinterest

As for Europe, one child disappears every two minutes. The numbers are truly staggering, suggesting that about a quarter of a million kids go missing every year. In 2019, the highest number of missing children alerts came from Czechia.

In the East…

In India, one child goes missing every eight minutes. However, the painful truth about missing kids in India is that most of them don’t make it to the news. Millions upon millions of missing kids in India end up in forced labor, while others become sex workers.

A picture of kids in India.
Photo by Harsha/Pexels

In China, there are an estimated 70,000 children who go missing every single year. Many of them are either given away or completely abandoned. As in India, child trafficking is also widespread, in particular during the summer months.

In Africa…

The disappearing cases across the African continent are also terribly concerning. Of all the cases, about 45% of them are minors. Many of the cited reasons for disappearances involve conflict, migration, and climate shocks.

A photo of African kids.
Photo by Julia/Pexels

About 82% of cases in Africa come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Cameroon. Out of these countries, Nigeria takes the lead with about 23,000 people missing.