Who is The Boy in the Box?


In 1957 on a chilly February day in Philadelphia, the body of a naked and beaten male child was found in a box.  As of July 2021, the child has never been identified and is often referred to as the ‘Boy in the Box’ or ‘America’s Unknown Child’.  The case is still being investigated to this day.

The boy was discovered in a park in the Fox Chase section of the city by a muskrat hunter named John Stachowiak who had set out to check his traps.

As he moved through the brush, he came across a box laying on the ground.  He looked inside and saw the body of a child.  He did not report his finding to the police as he did not want to get into trouble for laying traps, so he left the box and moved on.

A few days after the muskrat hunter came across the body, at 3:45pm on February 25, 26-year-old Frederick J. Benonis, has said he was driving along Susquehanna Road when he saw a rabbit dash into the brush.  His story was originally that he knew there were animal traps in the area so he pulled over and went into the wooded area, where he too came across the body. 

Frederick did not report his finding to police at the time.  It eventually emerged that he had actually been in the area spying on students at a nearby school.  He saw a news report the next day about a 4 y/o girl that was missing and it was then that he thought he had better call the police.  (The child in the box ended up being male, and the missing girl was found one week later and had died from starvation in an abandoned house).   

Frederick finally reported the body to police and they began to investigate.

The area where the unidentified child was found is located in the 700 block of Susquehanna Road, near Verre Road and Pennypack Park, within northeast Philadelphia.

The body was found in a box that had once contained a bassinet and had been sold by JC Penney. It was 15″ x 19″ x 35″ in size, and featured the words “Furniture, Fragile, Do Not Open With A Knife”.

The boy was found wrapped in a plaid blanket.  I have read some reports that say the blanket was ‘Native American’ style and had been cut in half.

The blanket was 64″ x 74″ and made of an inexpensive, well-worn cotton flannel. It had on it a faded design of diamonds and blocks were green, white, brown and red in colour. It appeared to have been recently washed. An additional piece of it was found inside the box, smeared with automotive grease, and a third 31″ x 26″ piece was missing.

The boy was described of white and pale.   He’s believed to have been between the ages of 3 and 6, meaning he was likely born in 1952. He stood anywhere from 3’0″ to 3’4″, weighed 30 pounds and had blue eyes.

His hair was matted and seemed to have been recently cut as clumps of it still clung to his body. His body was severely malnourished and covered with surgical scars, most notably on his ankle, groin, and chin.The hair was light brown to sandy blonde coloured.

He was also covered in bruises which indicated that he had been abused before death.  His body was so wasted away that his ribs were showing through his skin.  Despite all this abuse, there was no sign of any broken bones.  

The child had seven scars, three of which indicate possible surgical procedures. Two of them were on his chest and groin and appeared to have healed well, leaving only a hairline trace, while the third one was on his left ankle and looked to have been a cut-down incision made to expose a vein, so that a needle could be inserted to give a transfusion or infusion. The other scars included a 1/2″ one on the left side of his chest; a round, irregular-shaped one on his left elbow; and a well-healed, “L”-shaped scar on his chin that was a 1/4″ long on each side.

No vaccination scars were found on his body.

The child’s right palm and soles of his feet were round and wrinkled which may indicate that he had been submerged in water around the time he died.  His esophagus also contained dark brown residue, which meant he had vomited prior to death.  

The ME determined that the child had likely died from blunt force trauma – there were four round shaped bruises on his forehead and his face was blood drained. 

The ME conducted x-ray imaging  and that showed that he’d suffered from “arrested growth”, most likely due to the malnutrition and abuse he experienced. 

Police fingerprinted the child and cross checked his footprints in the hope of finding a match, but nothing ever eventuated from that.  This led them to believe that he was possibly born at home and not in a hospital, as no records could be found. 

It is believed that the child appeared to have possibly suffered from a chronic eye ailment or infection before he died, which had been treated with medication. He had also been circumcised, and had numerous small moles on his body: three on the left side of his face, one below his right ear, three on the right side of his chest, and a large one above his right wrist.

Despite all the abuse suffered by the child, someone had kept his fingernails and toenails trimmed.  

His shoe size was 8D.

John Doe had a full set of baby teeth and is said to have been slightly bucktoothed.

The weather in February in Philadelphia was cold and rainy, which made it hard to determine a confirmed date/time of death.  In the end, the Medical Examiner estimated him to have died anywhere from a few days to two weeks prior to being found.  It is thought that it was likely to have just been a few days, as the box was dry and it had been raining in the weeks before.

The Philadelphia Inquirer printed 400 000 flyers with the boy’s likeness on it and they were distributed across the area.  A flyer was also included with every gas bill.   270 police academy recruits combed through the crime scene – they discovered a man’s blue corduroy cap, a child’s scarf, and a man’s white handkerchief with the letter “G” in the corner.


The cap was interesting to police as it seemed to provide some possible leads.  It was in great condition and had a manufacturers stamp in the lining – which read, “Robbins Bald Eagle Cap, 2603 South 7th St., Philadelphia, Pa.” When they questioned the shop’s owner, Hannah Robbins, they learnt that it had been customized for the man who had bought it. According to Mrs. Robbins, he’d been between the ages of 26 and 30, with blond hair and no identifiable accent. After purchasing the cap with cash, she never saw him again.

The cap

None of these clues ever provided anything to advance the investigation though. 

A strand of long brown hair was found at the scene and this did not belong to the child.

The boy’s case was broadcast throughout the country via police teletype.  People travelled from 10 states to Pennsylvania in an attempt to identify him.

An article describing the boy’s scars and injuries was also published in a paediatric journal, just in case any physician had treated a child with similar injuries.

Police went around neighbourhoods and checked with every hospital, orphanage and foster home in the area, but found every child was accounted for.

They also looked more into the box that the child was found in.  This info comes from a great article by Stories of the Unsolved :

A serial number on it allowed investigators to trace the box to a JCPenney store in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, located at 69th Street and Chestnut Street. It had been sold between December 5, 1956 and February 16, 1957 for $7.50. A search of records showed that only 12 were sold, and while police were able to track down eight of the purchasers, the lead turned cold.

Detectives also tried to track down info based on the blanket that the boy was wrapped in.  They discovered that it had been made in either Swannanoa, North Carolina or Granby, Quebec. However, as thousands had been produced and shipped across the United States, investigators were unable to pinpoint where it had been purchased.

The child was eventually buried in a potter’s field in Holmesburg, Pennsylvania, next to Mechanicsville and Dunks Ferry Road. His tombstone read, “Heavenly Father, Bless This Unknown Child.” 

For anyone who does not know what a potter’s field is – a burial place for paupers and strangers.

After nothing came from the media attention given to the case, the police went down the route of having a sketch of the child as a female drawn up.  They believed that the boy had possibly been made to look female while alive.  

The child’s unprofessional haircut, which appeared to have been quickly performed was the basis for the scenario, as well as the appearance of the eyebrows having been styled.

They also released a post mortem image of the child dressed and in a seated position, in the hope it would jog the memory of someone who knew him before death. 

A Medical Examiner employee, Remington Bristow, took to this case personally.  He published a fake story in a newspaper, indicating that the boy had died as the result of an accident and that his loved ones had not been able to afford a funeral.  He hoped that this would coax someone out of hiding in relation to the case, but this was not successful.  He also personally put up a $1,000 reward for info in the case and travelled to many states looking for more info.

Theories about who the Boy in the Box is

1 – The first theory is about a foster home, that was located around 1.5miles from where the body was found.

In 1960, Remington Bristow contacted a psychic who told him for a certain house and when he did, he found it to be a foster home.  He also brought the psychic to the crime scene and she then went straight to the same house.

The foster home was run by Arthur and Catherine Nicoletti and Catherine’s daughter from a previous marriage, Anna Marie Nagle.

Bristow went to an estate sale at the foster home and discovered a bassinet which would have been similar to one housed in the box.  He also discovered blankets hanging on the clothesline that were similar to the one in which the boy’s body had been wrapped in when they discovered him. 

Bristow’s theory was that the boy belonged to the stepdaughter of the man who ran the foster home, and that they disposed of his body so the stepdaughter would not be exposed as an unwed mother.

Despite all this circumstantial evidence, the police could not find any solid links between the Boy in the Box and the foster family.

In 1998, Philadelphia police lieutenant Tom Augustine, who was in charge of the investigation, and several members of the Vidocq Society (a group of retired policemen and profilers), interviewed the foster father and the stepdaughter (whom he had married). The foster home investigation was closed.

2 – Info from Martha or M

In February 2002, a woman came forward with a story about the boy.  “M” claimed that her abusive mother had “purchased” the unknown boy (whose name was Jonathan) from his birth parents in the summer of 1954.Subsequently, the boy was subjected to extreme physical and sexual abuse for two and a half years. One evening at dinner, the boy vomited up his meal of baked beans and was given a severe beating, with his head slammed against the floor until he was semiconscious. He was given a bath, during which he died. These details matched information known only to the police, as the coroner had found that the boy’s stomach contained the remains of baked beans and that his fingers were water-wrinkled.

“M”‘s mother cut the boy’s distinctive long hair (accounting for the unprofessional haircut which police noted in their initial investigation) in an effort to conceal his identity. “M”‘s mother forced “M” to assist her in dumping the boy’s body in the Fox Chase area. “M” said that as they were preparing to remove the boy’s body from the trunk of a car, a passing male motorist pulled alongside to inquire whether they needed help. “M” was ordered to stand in front of the car’s license plate to shield it from view while the mother convinced the would-be Good Samaritan that there was no problem. The man eventually drove off. This story corroborated confidential testimony given by a male witness in 1957, who said that the body had been placed in a box previously discarded at the scene.

In spite of the outward plausibility of “M”‘s confession, police were unable to verify her story. Neighbors who had access to “M”‘s house during the stated time period denied that there had been a young boy living there and dismissed “M”‘s claims as “ridiculous.

Police have said that M’s story is plausible but they are also wary as the person had a history of mental illness.

3 – David Stout, author of The Boy In The Box: The Unsolved Case of America’s Unknown Child, has theorized that John Doe’s parents were likely poor – possibly carnival or migrant workers – who would have been able to travel without a paper trail.

This theory is supported by the 1961 arrest of carnival workers Kenneth and Irene Dudley after their 7-year-old daughter was found deceased in a wooded area in Virginia, wrapped in a blanket with signs of abuse and malnutrition. 

Several of their children had also gone missing, with many having passed away as a result of neglect and abuse, but none of them were found to have been the unidentified boy.

4 – Some people have theorized that Frederick J. Benonis, the college student who discovered the body and reported it to police, was involved in John Doe’s murder. While he voluntarily took a lie detector test and was cleared by investigators, proponents of this theory cite the unreliability of polygraph testing.

Recent Updates – 

In 1998, the body of the child was exhumed to obtain DNA from the enamel of his teeth. The DNA was sent to the University of North Texas and entered into both national and local databases.  Unfortunately no hits came from this.

The Boy in the Box was then re-interred in a grave marked “America’s Unknown Child” in Ivy Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. The cemetery donated the plot, while the son of the man who buried John Doe in 1957 donated the coffin, headstone and money for the funeral service. The service garnered significant public attention, and residents continue to keep the grave decorated with stuffed animals and flowers.

In 2016, two writers, one from Los Angeles, California (Jim Hoffmann) and the other from New Jersey (Louis Romano), explained that they believed they had discovered a potential identity from Memphis, Tennessee, and requested that DNA be compared between the family members and the child. The lead was originally discovered by a Philadelphia man (who introduced Romano and Hoffmann to each other) and was developed and presented, with the help of Hoffmann, to the Philadelphia Police Department and the Vidocq Society in early 2013. In December 2013, Romano became aware of the lead and agreed to help the man from Philadelphia and Hoffmann to obtain the DNA from this particular family member in January 2014 – which was sent quickly to the Philadelphia Police Department. Local authorities confirmed that they would investigate the lead, but said they would need to do more research on the circumstances surrounding the link to Memphis before comparing DNA. In December of 2017 Homicide Sgt. Bob Kuhlmeier confirmed that DNA taken from the Memphis man was compared to the Fox Chase boy, and there was no connection.

On March 21, 2016, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children released a forensic facial reconstruction of John Doe and added his details to their database.

In August 2018, the genetic genealogist who helped identify the Golden State Killer announced they would be using DNA profiling in order to try and identify the boy through familial DNA.

There was an article by CBS Philadelphia in April this year and it says:

Philadelphia homicide detectives two years ago got an order to exhume the remains of the Boy in the Box. What they were able to retrieve this time for DNA purposes was sent to a lab in Europe that now has given them their biggest break yet.

“This is the closest, this is the closest we have gotten,” Homicide Captain Jason Smith said of being able to find out the boy’s name.

Police now have a DNA profile they hope leads them to family members of the little boy. Investigators say this gives them a new direction.

“Might there still be witnesses around? There could be,” Smith said. “Absolutely. Might there still be a perpetrator around that’s still alive? Possibly. Could be.”

Sources –

4 thoughts on “Who is The Boy in the Box?

  1. I pray someone is able to identify him someday. If for no other reason then to give him a name. God bless his innocent soul ❤️

    • I was just thinking the same thing. That they should of gave him a name to put on his head stone. Not “boy in the box” or “Americas unknown child” or even “John doe” they never called him that, but just saying if they would have. Since 1957 they had called him “boy in the box” I get why they called him that at first, but after this many years this boy has touched a lot of ppl. even hit the medical examiner hard he took this case really personal. I don’t get is why they changed his head stone from “boy in the box” to “America’s unknown child”? When they could of simply gave him a name instead. I do love the fact that the towns ppl still to this day visit his grave to put fresh flowers & even put stuffed animals on his grave. That’s very sweet! What happen to him was horrible, but ppl haven’t forgot about him. The town kind of became his family…

  2. well, after 65 years of this unsolved case investigation the police came to the conclusion after finding the boy’s parents that the child’s name was John Augustus Zarelli. Now we know his name and since this day the real name can be put on his head stone. But the investigators keep who the boy’s parents are and why didn’t they come to the police after their child was missing a secret due to the privacy they asked for. I’m still very curious about who they are and why didn’t they reveal themselves after all these years? and who was the child’s murderer after all? are they still alive or is already dead though?

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