Philadelphia March 25, 1998 (Far Northeast)

Searching for a name - 30 years later

By William Kenny
Times Staff Writer

He might be the most famous anonymous person in Philadelphia history.

In 1957, his visage seemingly was posted everywhere - in supermarkets, state liquor stores, government offices and private businesses. It was published in every newspaper, and even mailed to every customer of the Philadelphia Gas Works with the monthly bill.

The lifeless image of the 4-year-old boy with the bruised face and choppy haircut has been seen by literally millions of people in the Delaware Valley and beyond.

But to this day, not one person has come forward to accurately identify "The Boy in the Box" - the dead child found in February 1957 along unpaved Susquehanna Road in then-rural Fox Chase.

Over the years, the investigation has been taken on by both local and federal agencies that have dedicated thousands of man-hours pursuing dozens of promising leads, none of which has come to fruition. The investigation died and was reborn several times.

Solving the mystery became a lifelong obsession for one investigator from the city medical examiner's office whose personal pursuit lasted into his retirement and until his death in 1993.

Now an international organization of crime-solving experts based in Philadelphia is adopting the case. On March 19, retired police detective Sam Weinstein, active police homicide detective Thomas Augustine and longtime Daily News reporter Ron Avery detailed the gruesome discovery and ensuing investigation to a meeting of the Vidocq Society.

The society is a private, non-profit group whose members possess varied investigative expertise ranging from forensics to law. The society usually maintains confidentiality with its activities but decided to open its latest meeting - held at the Downtown Club in the Public Ledger Building on Independence Mall - to the press.

The decision was made "in hopes that someone will see the resulting publicity and finally step forward after all these years to help us solve a death that captivated headlines in America and across the world years ago," said Vidocq commissioner Bill Fleisher, a former Philadelphia police officer and FBI special agent.

A 26-year-old La Salle College student discovered the dead boy in a thickly wooded area near Susquehanna and Verree roads, next to Pennypack Park. The male student wandered into the woods to spy on the residents of the nearby Good Shepherd Home for wayward girls, then discovered the box.

Because of the seedy circumstances surrounding his discovery, the student did not immediately inform authorities. But a priest convinced the student to contact police the following day.

Weinstein was the second policeman to arrive at the scene that day.

"Going back forty-one years, it was an isolated wooded area," Weinstein said. "There were no homes, only the Good Shepherd Home. The (road) was only wide enough for one vehicle. The initial call to police radio said they found a cardboard box from JCPenney's and inside was a doll."

They soon confirmed that the boy was real and had been dead for between three days and two weeks. He was 40-1/2 inches tall and weighed 30 pounds. He had bruises from head to toe on both sides of his body, including prominent ones on his forehead and temple area. His hair had been chopped very crudely, but his fingernails were neatly trimmed. His naked body was covered by an Indian-style blanket.

The area of the discovery was used as a dumping site. The roadside was strewn with trash.

"It was sad because it was a dump and he was just dumped there," Weinstein said.

According to a chapter about the case in Avery's book City of Brotherly Mayhem: Philadelphia Crimes and Criminals, police expected to crack the case within a matter of hours or days. Occasionally, the book stated, a drifter would wander into the city, die, and go unidentified, but it was rare. For a child, it was unheard of.

As a participant in the original investigation, Weinstein heard all of the false early leads. At the Vidocq meeting, he told of one tip called in by a man who said he knew how to obtain a pre-mortem photograph of the boy sitting on an Indian blanket. Weinstein even received authorization from his commander to attempt to purchase the photo.

"But he said not to spend more than fifty dollars for it," Weinstein said. "I think I spent between thirty-five and fifty dollars."

The boy in the photo looked like the dead boy, and the blanket looked like the blanket found in the box. But after further investigation, Weinstein discovered that the boy in the photo was still alive and obviously not the one found in Fox Chase.

Investigators also pursued medical records for the dead boy, whose body had several small scars indicative of prior medical procedures. The boy also had been circumcised. Every physician in the area was sent a flier of the unidentified boy. The American Medical Association circulated a description of the boy across the nation. None of the doctors identified him.

The sources of the box - which originally contained a bassinet - as well as the blanket and a blue corduroy "Jeff cap" found next to the box were all checked out. But none of the retailers or manufacturers offered definitive information.

As leads wore thin and the months passed, authorities decided to bury the boy in the city's Potter's Field in Parkwood. So much attention and public sympathy were devoted to the boy that investigators were able to take up a collection for a tombstone. The epithet reads, Heavenly Father, Bless This Unknown Boy. It is the only grave at the site marked by a tombstone.

For years, the grave was mysteriously kept up and decorated with flowers. The saddened medical examiner's investigator, Remington Bristow, was the mystery caretaker. After his death, a grandson picked up the tradition of maintaining the grave.

Bristow spent 36 years on the case, often following leads to distant parts of the country, said Avery, an Oxford Circle resident who personally interviewed Bristow on multiple occasions. He went to his grave believing he knew where the answer to the mystery could be found.

In the book, Avery attributed Bristow's personal interest to the fact that a son of his own had died at a very young age.

Bristow believed the solution rested with a family that lived about a mile from the site where the boy was found. A psychic used by law-enforcement officials envisioned a house where the family ran a foster home; she led Bristow there on her only visit to Philadelphia.

"A psychic in North Jersey said to look for a house with children playing in it and with a log cabin," Avery told the Vidocq members. "About a mile-and-a-third away, he finds a large house which turns out to be a foster home. On the property is a log cabin."

The couple living there had five foster children at the time of the discovery, as well as a 20-year-old stepdaughter. The couple claimed to take only children of "school age." All five of the foster children were checked out and accounted for.

Bristow theorized that the dead boy was an illegitimate child of the couple's stepdaughter. He believed that the boy died accidentally, and that he was about to be buried when someone or something scared off the burial party.

"I've seen too many homicides not to know what they look like," Bristow was quoted as saying in Avery's book. "The body was washed. He had a fresh haircut. His nails were clipped. He was laid out for burial. They did everything but call the funeral director."

Bristow felt the death may have been accidental. He theorized that those who left the boy did not step forward because the death was ruled a homicide.

Avery disputes that part of Bristow's logic.

"He said whoever was going to bury (the boy) was scared away," Avery said. "But it was so close to the road. People don't bury there. It was a dumping area. In my unexpert opinion, he was dumped."

In 1985, Bristow located the foster home couple, who had moved to the town of Dublin in rural upper Bucks County. He unsuccessfully appealed to the man to take a lie-detector test.

Several weeks ago, Augustine was asked by a superior to look into the case with the belief that DNA evidence could be obtained from the stepdaughter of the foster couple and matched with the DNA obtained from a lock of the dead boy's hair preserved by the medical examiner.

Using a telephone number recorded by Bristow in a summary of his investigation, Augustine again contacted the man from the foster home. He discovered that the man's wife had passed away. The man had married again - to his stepdaughter.

"He didn't want to hear anything more about the 'Boy in the Box,'" Augustine said. "I asked him where was his stepdaughter. He said, 'She's right here with me. I'm married to her.' "

The woman admitted to having a son who died at the age of 3 in 1955, but that he was electrocuted along Frankford Avenue on a department-store amusement ride. She also told Augustine that she had three other children who were stillborn in the late 1940s and early '50s.

Augustine checked out her story. Everything, he said, could be confirmed.

"I think that's a dead-end street with that home up there, and with the psychic," he said.

Unfortunately, the police have exhausted every other lead as well.

"With most investigations, you can go back and say, 'What else could have been done? What should have been done?'" Augustine said. "Not this one. There are thousands of pages in the investigation. No one has ever come forth and said, 'That's my neighbor's kid.'

"They covered all the bases. If there was an Unsolved Mysteries (on television) at the time, he would have been on it."

Until the case is solved, Augustine said, there will continue to be public interest, amazement and sympathy.

"It really makes you sad," he said. "You read all these things, and nobody steps forward."

If The Northeast Times still offers a link to the Ron Avery sidebar that accompanied this story it can be reached by clicking here.

Avery's book, "City of Brotherly Mayhem," revisiting some of Philadelphia's most infamous crimes and criminals, is published by Otis Books.

vidocq note:

The Vidocq Society's March 1998 meeting featured the unsolved death of this unidentified, malnourished approximately-four-year-old boy whose battered body was found inside a cardboard box tossed onto a roadside trash heap in then-rural Northeast Philadelphia in 1957.

The past 41 years have done little to mute the memories and profound sadness surrounding a case which began when the small boy's body first was discovered in Philadelphia's Fox Chase section.  Philadelphia Police have never abandoned their investigation and almost everyone who lived in the Philadelphia area in the 50s recalls the sad story of the unidentified dead child.

The Philadelphia Homicide Division still hopes to identify the victim whose body now lies in the only marked grave in potters field.  Once the identification is made investigators then hope to be able to determine exactly how the boy received the brain injury from which he died.

Presenting the case for The Vidocq Society were Philadelphia Homicide Detective Thomas J. Augustine; Philadelphia Daily News reporter and author Ron Avery; and Sam Weinstein, a retired Philadelphia police intelligence officer. A rookie in 1957, Weinstein was the second cop to respond to the crime scene. Augustine, Avery and Weinstein described aspects of a case that many consider to be one of the most vexing in modern history for law enforcement in Philadelphia and the U.S.

Vidocq Society Commissioner William S. Fleisher, V.S.M. began the presentation by calling the unsolved death, "one of the most amazing cases in Philadelphia history," predicting that the case would be so compelling that, "you'll come away with a burning desire to have this mystery solved." Avery said the boy's death/dumping was "the greatest mystery in Philadelphia County in the last half century."

To anyone who lived in the Philadelphia area in the 1950s, the widely-distributed post-mortem photo of the blonde-haired boy is "a picture that is indelibly emblazoned in our memory," Avery said, recalling that the picture was "seen everywhere."

Gas stations, businesses, supermarkets, state liquor stores and newspapers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware were plastered with the dead boy's image in hopes of identifying the child and the person or persons who threw him away after he was killed.

 A complete account of the March presentation appeared in the May 1998 edition of The Vidocq Journal.

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