The Boy in the Box: Who is America’s Unknown Child?

It was a cold, drizzly day in Philadelphia. On February 25th, 1957, while poking around a portion of Susquehanna Road that was used as a dumping ground for garbage and old appliances, Frederick Benonis found what he originally thought was a doll, packed away in a bassinet box. As he had had trouble with the police in the past for his habit of peeping on girls, he didn’t call it in, but clearly he wasn’t convinced it was a doll.

The next morning on the radio, he heard a news report about a missing four-year-old girl. Was that the “doll” he had discovered yesterday? After consulting with several people, he finally called the police.

It wasn’t a doll.

Police officers examine the site, looking for clues

Wrapped in a cheap flannel blanket was a nude, badly injured boy. (The little girl would be found a week later – she had wandered into a vacant home near her own to play, got locked in a closet, and starved to death before she was found.) Police estimated the boy to be four to six years old, with a full set of baby teeth. Cause of death was determined to be severe trauma to the head, but his body showed signs of years of abuse. He was acutely malnourished; covered in bruises; had an L-shaped scar beneath his chin; and surgical scars on his ankle and groin.

Though the case was tragic, police figured it would be solved fairly quickly. At the very least, they thought the boy would be identified quickly. After all, a child rarely goes missing without someone noticing. But as the days and weeks went by, no one came forward to claim the body or even identify the boy. Following the discovery of the boy, hundreds of police academy recruits scoured the woods, looking for clues. The local paper distributed 200,000 flyers, even including them with gas and electric bills. The police even staged photos of the boy, dressed and posed as if he were alive. 

The boy posed in clothing in an attempt to make him more recognizable

To this day, the child has not been identified. He was simply referred to as “The Boy in the Box,” until 1998, when a segment on America’s Most Wanted led to a surge in interest in the case. His body was exhumed from a generic grave in a potter’s field in order to take a DNA sample. He was reburied in the Ivy Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, in a donated plot with a headstone that read, “America’s Unknown Child.”

This doesn’t mean there haven’t been theories and leads over the years. One suggested that the boy had been an immigrant, but all immigrants had to be vaccinated. The boy had not.

A number of people thought the boy was the son of a roofer in New Jersey. Authorities found the roofer’s estranged wife, who did not believe the child was her son. When the roofer was finally found, his son was eating a sandwich and watching TV.

Another possibility was that the boy was Steven Damman, a boy who went missing in New Jersey on Halloween 1955. Marilyn Damman left her two children outside while she went into the grocery store. When she returned, they were gone. The infant, Pamela, was found a block away, still strapped into her pram. Steven was nowhere to be found. He would have been roughly the same age, and blonde haired, blue eyed like the boy in the box. He also had a matching scar beneath his chin. However, Damman had broken his arm, and the boy in the box had not. The 1998 DNA test finally confirmed that the boy in the box was not Steven Damman, who was never found.

In 1961, a pair of carnies were arrested for the death of their daughter, who was found in the woods, wrapped in a blanket, and dead from abuse and malnutrition. The pair had ten children, and several were “missing.” It was eventually discovered that four of their other children had died due to neglect and abuse. None of their children was the boy in the box.

An informant remembered seeing a woman and a boy by the side of the road, unloading a box from the trunk of their car. When he stopped to help, thinking they may have had a flat tire, they didn’t say a word to him and seemed to move to hide their identity and the car’s license plate. Police couldn’t locate the woman or the boy. Several years later, a woman was arrested for throwing away the body of her three-year-old daughter. She fit the description of this woman, but after questioning, it was determined she had nothing to do with the boy.

In February 2002, a very promising lead came from a psychiatrist, who was calling on behalf of a woman who was known only as M. During a three-hour interview, M talked about her childhood. Her mother had purchased a boy in 1954 from his biological parents. She physically and sexually abused the boy, as she did to M. After the boy got sick in the bathtub, the mother became enraged and beat him to death. She wrapped the boy in a blanket, put him in the car, and took M with her to dispose of him. According to M, a man offered his help to the women, but when they turned away from him, he drove off.

M’s story seemed to match the informant’s story very closely. However, M suffered from serious mental health issues that made her an unreliable witness, and she didn’t provide any information that hadn’t been publicly available. Investigators found the house M used to live in, and found no corroborating evidence.

An investigator in the medical examiner’s office, Remington Bristow, would not give up on the case. He was so invested that he sought advice from a psychic from New Jersey, who said that the child came from a house which she described in detail, despite never having been to Philadelphia.

The cardboard box. Photo from the original case files

The house she described, less than two miles from where the boy was found, was a foster home, run by Arthur and Catherine Nicoletti. At any one time, the couple had up to twenty foster children living with them, as well as Catherine’s twenty year old daughter from a previous marriage, Anna Marie. Anna Marie was said to be mentally challenged, and had four children out of wedlock. Three were stillborn; the fourth was electrocuted to death in 1955 on an amusement ride. When the business shut down, Bristow attended a preview of the auction, and found a bassinet that would have come in the box the boy had been discovered in, as well as blankets similar to the one the boy had been wrapped in.

Bristow was convinced that the Nicoletti’s had something to do with the boy in the box. Police had investigated the foster home during the initial probe, and found no connection. But Bristow was adamant and in 1984, convinced the police to interview Arthur again. Again, they found no connection. When Arthur refused to take a lie detector test, Bristow was even more convinced he was involved. Bristow died in 1993, no closer to a solution. Detective Tom Augustine took over Bristow’s cause, and again interviewed Arthur in 1998. Once again, he found nothing to connect the Nicolettis to the crime.

What do you think? Were the Nicolettis involved? Could M’s memories be correct? Was this a horrible accident that his parents were too ashamed to admit to?

To this day, the boy in box’s case has not been solved. The boy in the box has never been identified. But investigators will not give up. For more information, or to send in your own tip, visit



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