In late February 1957, a young man was checking his muskrat traps in the Fox Chase neighbourhood of Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania when he discovered the body of a young boy inside a box. Not wanting the authorities to confiscate his traps, he did not report the finding.
A few days later, at 3:45pm on February 25, 26-year-old Frederick J. Benonis, a La Salle College junior, claimed to be driving his car along Susquehanna Road when he saw a rabbit dash into a nearby thicket. Knowing there were animal traps in the area, he pulled over and went into the wooded area, where he too came across the body. The child had been wrapped in a blanket before being placed inside the box, and his head and shoulder were sticking out. According to Benonis, he believed the boy had actually been a doll and didn’t contact police about the discovery.
The next day, Benonis was listening to the radio when he heard a report about a missing 4-year-old girl. Believing what he’d seen the previous day was related, he contacted police. When asked why he’d waited a day to report the discovery, he said he’d been spying on students of the nearby Good Shepherd School and didn’t want the authorities to know why he was actually in the area. Unfortunately, the child in the box was not the missing girl, who was found deceased a week later in a vacant home, where she’d wandered to and died of starvation.
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 examined upon it being brought into the medical examiner’s office, where numerous things were noted. The first was that John Doe had appeared to have died as a result of blunt force trauma, as there were four round-shaped bruises on the forehead and his face was blood-drained. This appeared to have been an extension of what looked like years of abuse, as there were bruises all over his body, his lips were dry and bloody, and his body was so emaciated that his ribs were showing through his skin. Despite the amount of abuse he’d likely suffered, John Doe had not experienced any broken bones or deformities.
Around the time John Doe’s body was found, the weather had been cold and rainy, making determining a time of death difficult. In the end, the medical examiner estimated him to have died anywhere from a few days to two weeks prior, with leanings toward a few days, given the box the body had been in was dry amid a week of rain.
Other things were noted, including the fact that John Doe’s right palm and the soles of both his feet were rough and wrinkled, which indicated that those limbs had been submerged in water close to when he’d died. It’s also said that his esophagus contained a dark brown residue, indicating he’d vomited shortly before his death, despite not having eaten for two to three hours prior.
At the beginning, investigators were very optimistic that John Doe would be quickly identified. However, no one came forward to report their child missing and his description didn’t match that of any existing missing child reports. In the hopes of generating leads, his death was broadcast throughout the country via police teletype, leading to visitors from 10 states travelling to Pennsylvania in an attempt to identify him.
A request was soon sent out to residents of Philadelphia, child welfare agencies and other law enforcement groups, asking them to call in any information they may have regarding boys matching John Doe’s description who were known to have either recently disappeared or who were in the care of someone known to abuse them. Investigators also requested that the local media cover the case, resulting in the Philadelphia Inquirer printing 400,000 flyers that were distributed across the area and placed in gas and electricity bills. An article describing John Doe’s scars was also printed in a paediatric journal.
Despite the case receiving intensive coverage in Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley, the boy’s identity remained a mystery.
Police canvassed neighbourhoods and checked with every hospital, orphanage and foster home in the area, but found every child was accounted for. When they tried to compare his fingerprints and footprints, they found he was not registered at any hospital or in any national database, leading some to believe he was born at home and never reported.
It’s important to note that a strand of long, brown hair was uncovered at the scene, which didn’t belong to the boy.
Police then turned their attention to the box the boy was found in, which once held a white bassinet. A serial number on it allowed investigators to 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.
The crime scene was combed by 270 police academy recruits, which resulted in three items of possible evidence to be uncovered: a royal corduroy blue cap, a tan child’s scarf, and a handkerchief with the letter “G” in the corner. The cap, in particular, was of great interest to investigators, as it appeared in excellent condition and featured the manufacturer’s 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.
Despite visiting over 100 stores in the area, investigators were unable to find anyone who recognized the cap or the boy.
As they kept hitting dead ends in the investigation, a post-mortem photo of John Doe was distributed, showing him dressed and in a seating position.
Eventually, John Doe was 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.”
Between 1957 and 1958, believing John Doe may have been passed for a female whilst alive, a forensic artist drew an image of him as a girl. However, this produced no new leads.
Former medical examiner’s office employee, Remington Bristow, felt a personal connection to the case and worked hard to find a resolution. In the hopes of coxing the boy’s parents out of hiding, he published a fake story in the local newspapers, claiming his death had been an accident and that his loved ones had been unable to afford a funeral. Unfortunately, this tactic was unsuccessful.
Bristow also personally put up a $1,000 reward for information, and travelled to Arizona and Texas in the pursuit for leads. He was known to carry a mask of John Doe’s face in his briefcase.
There was some speculation that John Doe had died as a result of drowning, given the water-wrinkling on his skin, but police said his injuries didn’t correlate with such a manner of death.
The case was eventually featured on America’s Most Wanted, and while numerous people called in, no leads resulted.
In 1998, John Doe’s remains were exhumed in order to extract maternal DNA for testing. This was taken from the enamel from one of his teeth. The DNA was sent to the University of North Texas and entered into both national and local databases. Unfortunately, it produced no hits.
John Doe was 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.
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.
Recently, the Vidocq Society sent out an “urgent” request form, asking those aged 55 and older to see if they recalled a boy by the name of Jonathan who went missing within a 40-mile radius of Philadelphia in 1957. It also asked former physicians to think back and try to remember if they’d treated the boy for a possible medical condition, based on the scars that were present on his groin area and on his left ankle.
Over the years, the case has been reopened and closed numerous times. While new tips continued to be called in and followed, investigators have shared that it’s likely the person who murdered John Doe is deceased.
John Doe is described as white, with a pale complexion. He’s believed to have been between the ages of 3 and 6, meaning he was likely born in 1952. However, it’s important to note that x-ray imaging has shown that he’d suffered from “arrested growth”, most likely due to the malnutrition and abuse he experienced. He stood anywhere from 3’0″ to 3’4″, weighed 30 pounds and had blue eyes.
A lot of attention has been placed on his hair, which was a light brown-to-sandy blond colour. Prior to his death or shortly after, it had been crudely cut and buzzed, resulting in a bowl-shaped style. Strands of his har were present on his body.
John Doe 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.
It’s been noted that he did not have a vaccination scar.
John Doe 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.
What struck investigators as interesting is that his fingernails and toenails had been recently trimmed. It’s also been noted that his shoe size was likely 8-D.
John Doe had a full set of baby teeth and is said to have been slightly bucktoothed.
As aforementioned, the box he was found in was for a white bassinet that was sold by JCPenney. It was 15″ x 19″ x 35″ in size, and featured the words “Furniture, Fragile, Do Not Open With A Knife”.
The blanket John Doe was wrapped in was 64″ x 74″ and made of an inexpensive, well-worn cotton flannel. It had on it a faded design of diamonds and blocks the 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.
Research showed that the blanket 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.
Numerous items were located near the body, including a tan child’s scarf; a yellow boy’s flannel, size 4; a pair of black shoes, which did not fit the boy; the Ivy League-style cap made of royal blue corduroy with a 7 1/2″ leather strap and buckle across the back; and a man’s handkerchief with the letter “G” in the corner, which had on it strands of hair the did not belong to the deceased.
John Doe is regularly referred to as “The Boy In The Box”, “America’s Unknown Child” and “The Fox Chase Boy”.
There are numerous theories surrounding John Doe, many of which have been disproven on the basis of investigative measures and DNA testing.
1) One of the most thoroughly-researched theories in the case is the John Doe had been the child of a girl who lived at a foster home located 1.5 miles away from where the body had been found. This theory was one Remington Bristow heavily focused on, and he believed John Doe had been the son of Anna Marie Nicoletti, stepdaughter of Arthur Nicoletti, the man who ran the home. According to Bristow, Anna Marie, who is said to have been mentally challenged, had four children out of wedlock, three who had been stillborn and the other who had died after being electrocuted in 1955 outside a supermarket. It’s believed the boy’s death was accidental and the result of the family not wanting word to get out that Anna Marie was an unwed mother.
In 1960, Bristow contacted a New Jersey-based physic, who told him to look for a house that matched the description of the foster home. When he later brought her to the dumpsite, she led him directly to the home. Later, upon attending an estate sale at the home, he discovered a bassinet that resembled the one sold at JCPenney, as well as blankets that looked similar to the one the boy had been found wrapped in.
Investigators have looked at this angle numerous times over the years, but have found no evidence to support that the Nicolettis were involved in the boy’s death. DNA testing done later proved that he was not Anna Marie’s son.
2) Another prominent theory in the case is that he was a victim of human trafficking and suffered severe physical and sexual abuse. This came after a Cincinnati, Ohio-based psychiatrist contacted investigators after a patient by the name of either “M”, “Mary” or “Martha” told her she wished to speak with them.
According to “M”, her abusive mother had purchased John Doe from his parents when she was 11 years old, saying she distinctly recalled her mother handing his parents an envelope in exchange for the boy. After that, both he and she were subjected to years of sexual and physical abuse, which eventually resulted in his death. She shared that one evening, he threw up his dinner of baked beans, which led to him being beaten into a semi-conscious state. While his mother tried to clean him up in the bath, he died. In an attempt to conceal his death, “M” and her mother travelled to the Fox Chase neighbourhood in Philadelphia. When they were preparing to remove his body from the trunk of the car, a motorist pulled over, thinking they’d gotten a flat tire. “M” had attempted to conceal the car’s license plate, and upon her mother denying his request to help, the motorist drove away.
After hearing this story, numerous investigators were convinced of its plausibility, as “M” touched upon aspects only investigators were aware of, including a 1957 statement from a man who claimed to have witnessed a mother and her child pulled over in the area around the time the boy was found. There was also the fact parts of his body were water-wrinkled, which supported the idea he’d been bathed before his death. However, skepticism was abound, as a search of her home uncovered no evidence and interviews with neighbours revealed that no such boy had been living at the home during that time period.
Upon her name being released through a media outlet, “M” fled the country and police have yet to say where she relocated.
3) A third theory in the case is that John Doe may have been raised a girl. This is associated with the release of the 1957 sketch of him with long hair, and is supported by his unusual haircut and the strands of hair found on his body. According to reports, his eyebrows also appeared to have been styled.
4) A theory that was quickly ruled out surrounded the possibility that John Doe was a Hungarian immigrant, whose family came to the United States in the 1950s. This was seen as unlikely, as immigrants at the time were required to be vaccinated and John Doe did not have a vaccination scar, and the boy he was believed to be was located with his family in North Carolina.
5) 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.
6) Two authors have suggested that John Doe is the deceased brother of a man currently living in Memphis, Tennessee. After speaking to a Philadelphia resident, they learnt of a family who had rented a home from him. They had sold their son and suddenly left the area not long after news of the murder of John Doe broke, leaving behind items that were seen as necessarily for everyday life.
Philadelphia’s former assistant medical examiner was questioned about this and he noted that there were similarities between John Doe, his potential father and his potential brother, particularly in the nose, facial structure and the ears. He said these similarities alone were enough to warrant further testing.
DNA from the man in Memphis was obtained in 2014, but investigators stated they needed more evidence in order to have it tested. This finally occurred in December 2017, which confirmed there was no familial connection.
7) A quickly ruled out theory was that John Doe was the son of a New Jersey-based roofer. However, when his wife was shown an image, she didn’t believe him to be her son, who was later found with his father, watching TV and eating a sandwich.
8) Some have speculated 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.
9) A final theory is that John Doe was Steven Damman, a young boy who went missing from New Jersey on Halloween 1955. His mother, Marilyn Damman, had left her two children outside while she went into a grocery store, but when she returned, she found they were both missing. Her infant daughter, Pamela, was eventually discovered a block away, still in her pram, but Steven was nowhere to be found.
Given Steven shared similarities with John Doe – his hair and eye colour, age, and a matching scar on his chin – he was ruled out as being him, as he’d suffered a broken arm. DNA testing would later confirm this.
Steven has never been located.
CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:
John Doe’s DNA, dentals and fingerprints are available for comparison.
Those with information regarding the identity of John Doe are asked to contact the Homicide Division of the Philadelphia Police Department at 215-686-3334. Tips can also be called into the Philadelphia County Medical Examiner’s Office at either 215-685-7445 or 215-685-7458.
Image Credit: The Doe Network/NCMEC