Lost Boy, Still Needs Name

Baffling case demonstrates draw of certain cases that elude easy answers.

Posted Feb 25, 2017

 Philadelphia PD
Source: Source: Philadelphia PD

Today marks the 60th anniversary of a sad discovery in Philadelphia. I’ve written about it for the Vidocq Society, the group that persists in looking for a solution. I thought that by now it would be solved, given all the resources and publicity it has received, but it remains frustratingly open.

This story began on February 25, 1957, on the outskirts of northeastern Philadelphia. In a weedy, trash-filled lot, a man peered inside a discarded furniture box and was shocked to see the bruised body of a blond, Caucasian boy. The officers who arrived to investigate would be haunted by this case the rest of their careers.

The boy, estimated to be between the ages of 4 and 6, was malnourished, although someone had recently trimmed his hair and fingernails. He had died from severe blunt force head trauma. Nothing on him immediately revealed his identity.

Still, some items made identification seem likely: the box had held a bassinet purchased locally; a man's customized cap was found near the scene and traced to the seller; and the boy's nude body had been wrapped in two sections of a distinctive blanket. He had seven scars from medical treatments and eight moles. He might also have had an eye ailment. Perhaps a local doctor might know him.

One by one, each lead dried up. He remained an unknown boy. Days turned into months, and months into years with no resolution. The case went cold.

Some investigators continued to search on their own time and at their own expense. Remington Bristow, an employee at the Medical Examiner’s Office, never ceased to check information, even after he retired. The brutalized boy tugged at the hearts of many, and everyone wanted to give him justice and arrest the person who had killed and dumped him. 

In 1998, Philadelphia’s Vidocq Society, a group of forensic professionals, adopted the case. They rechristened the boy America's Unknown Child. Sam Weinstein, an officer who’d been at the crime scene, led their re-investigation, replaced later by former investigators Joseph McGillen and William Kelly. The boy's remains were exhumed to take DNA samples and then reinterred in a better location in Ivy Hill Cemetery.

That same year, America's Most Wanted aired a segment about the case, which inspired George Knowles, a private citizen, to get involved. When he was eleven, he’d seen a flyer at a local police station. He joined an Internet discussion group whose postings were monitored by the Vidocq Society. From these discussions, Knowles’ website was born (Americasunknownchild.net). It shows crime scene photos, morgue photos, and attempts to follow up. The updates go until around 2008, with the publication of a book, but the website seems to be languishing.

A psychic got involved in 1960, directing Bristow from the ME’s office to a foster home. It contained the right type of bassinet and blankets, but a full investigation that included a DNA analysis of the possible mother came up short. Several mothers of missing children called police, but the boy was related to none of them.

Some stories have had seemingly solid potential. In June 2002, Kelly, McGillen, and a Philadelphia homicide detective interviewed a woman whom they called “Mary,” who’d offered information through her psychiatrist. She'd lived in the area at the time and described an abusive mother who’d purchased a toddler in the mid-1950s whom they called Jonathan. Mary’s parents had kept Jonathan in a box in the cellar to use as a sex toy, and her mother killed him in a rage when she banged the boy's head on the bathroom floor. Mary recalled the distinct blanket in which they’d wrapped him and the box into which they’d had placed his body. She had trimmed his fingernails, while her mother had cut his hair. Her initial disclosures, the psychiatrist attested, had predated the AMW broadcast. 

The details were accurate, including mention of a possible witness at the dump site (there was one), yet while neighbors from her former residence remembered her, no one recalled the boy. They said her narrative was “ridiculous.” Nothing much came of her tale, because it lacked corroborating evidence, and she stopped cooperating. Some investigators still believe that she knew too much to have fabricated it.

A year ago, two authors insisted that they had a solid lead that would solve the case and give the boy his name. They have a possible father and brother whose DNA might break the case open. However, police want to fully investigate their evidence before going to the expense of DNA comparisons. At this date, they have not done so, in part because fresh cases take precedence over cases as old as this one. Still, one of the cold case officers is the son of an officer who was present at the original scene. There’s hope.

People still leave toys and other items at the boy’s grave.

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