All that remains of ‘America’s Unknown Child’ is a large plot in the Ivy Hill Cemetery in Cedarbrook, Philadelphia, surrounded by stuffed animals and other small gifts. Ivy Hill Cemetery employees meticulously care for the grave as if it was their own. Unfortunately, no name identifies who is buried below.
What happened to the child? How did they die? Why is it still known as ‘America’s Unknown Child’?
February 1957- A body dumped far off in a wooden area of Susquehanna Road was initially discovered by a muskrat trapper who did not report the scene believing that Police would confiscate his traps.
A few days later, on February 24, 1957, a college student chasing rabbits also found the body. Initially, he believed that the body was a doll, and it wasn’t until the next day when he learned about a New Jersey child who had gone missing that he decided to call law enforcement. February 25, 1957- Investigating officers were on the scene, and they found a gruesome sight:
A small boy’s nude body displays signs of severe malnutrition, hair haphazardly shaved, body showing signs of being severely beaten, and submerged into water for an extended period. The body had been buried in a J.C. Penny’s cardboard box and partially wrapped in a flannel blanket.
Further, according to the medical examiner, the victim had the body of a child who was just over two years old, and the X-rays showed signs of “arrested growth.” Examinations showed the medical examiner that the victim was about six years old, 40 inches tall and weighing only 30 pounds. He had undergone surgery on his groin and ankle and had a large scar underneath his chin. He was covered in bruises, his lips were dry and bloody, and he was so emaciated, his ribs were showing through his skin.
The cause of death was determined to be from multiple blows to his head. Unfortunately, the body had been left exposed to the elements anywhere from three days to 2 weeks. The medical examiner could not determine an exact time of death due to the cold winter weather.
February 26, 1957- The Philadelphia Police Department opened its investigation. Two hundred seventy police recruits were called in to process the area surrounding the body, finding very few clues to use- an Ivy League blue male corduroy cap and a white handkerchief with ‘G’ in the corner. However, investigators quickly took the Boy’s fingerprints believing that this vital piece of evidence would solve the case quickly because it was unlikely that a missing child would not be reported.
But, unfortunately, nothing came back.
What we do know about the scant evidence found was that the body had been buried in a bassinet box that J.C. Penney’s had sold and was one of eleven that had come from the Upper Darby location. Investigators located nine of the eleven buyers; however, all families were dismissed as suspects. Even the blue Ivy League corduroy cap was a dead-in- as the Robbins Bald Eagle Hat & Cap company had no individual records of buyers.
The Police Department contacted local media for help, 200,000 flyers with his likeness created by forensic facial reconstruction artist were distributed, even the gas and electric bills for the surrounding homes included images of the unidentifiable child.
The Press had dubbed him as ‘The Boy in the Box.’
Countless phone calls from parents of missing children flooded the Police Station; all concerned that this might be their child. Hundreds of tips from concerned citizens across the nation were received, resulting in hundreds of points of interest for the investigation. The local Police Department spent thousands of hours tracking down each lead.
And then the trail went as cold as a Philadephia winter.
When no one came forward to claim the ‘Boy in the Box,’ the Philadelphia detectives handling the child’s case paid for his funeral. They initially buried him in a Potter’s Field near Mechanicsville with a stone marker:
“Heavenly Father, Bless this Unknown Boy.”
The simple headstone also included the Boy’s date of discovery – February 25, 1957.
In 1998, nearly 41 years after the ‘Boy in a Box’ was discovered, local law enforcement obtained a court order to exhume the remains to get a D.N.A. test and sent the sample to a lab in Europe for processing. As a result, they now have his D.N.A. profile on hand. Still, no hits in the D.N.A. database have been discovered.
Nevertheless, four men would continue to look for the answers, never giving up the hope that they would be able to give the small Boy his name back.
William (Bill) Kelly, fingerprint expert; Remington Bristow and Joseph McGillen, investigators with the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office; and Sam Weinstein, the second policeman to arrive at the scene.
Remington Bristow, in particular, spent countless hours researching and investigating the death in his free time, spending thousands of dollars of his money as he relentlessly hunted down the killer until he died in 1993.
But what about those hundreds of leads that citizens called in? There are a few that were of particular interest.
Theory One: One of the most popular theories is that the Boy was an orphan who lived at a local foster home and had died accidentally by either falling out of a window or drowning in a lake. This theory was presented by a psychic to Remington Bristow, the medical examiner, and was the one that seemed to link all the clues.
Bristow alleged the Boy might have been the undisclosed son of the couple’s young daughter. When he died in some accident, they discarded his body because they didn’t want to be alleged of murder or have anyone find out about the presence of their illegitimate grandchild. Bristow questioned the husband and wife who ran the local children’s home out of a nearby mansion but found no further evidence at the time.
Then in 1961, he attended an estate sale at the home after the family moved away and said he discovered a bassinet in the house similar to the one that would have been packed in a cardboard box like the one the body was found in. However, nothing else was found that could link the family to the death.
Decades later, a detective followed up this lead and interviewed the woman Bristow thought was the Boy’s mother, only to find out that she did have a son who died in an accident in 1957. However, morgue records proved the ‘Boy in the Box’ couldn’t have been her child.
Theory Two: In 1961, Philadelphia investigators interrogated Kenneth Dudley and his wife Irene to determine if the Boy in the Box had been one couple’s ten children.
Mr. Dudley was a traveling carnival worker, so the whole household trekked up and down the east coast as he looked for work. However, the Dudleys came to the attention of law enforcement when one of their children – 7-year-old Carol Ann – died as a consequence of negligence, malnourishment, and exposure. Instead of burying their young child’s body in a graveyard, the couple covered their daughter in a blanket and placed her body in a wooded area in Virginia.
Authorities learned seven of the Dudleys’ 10 known children had perished due to malnutrition and neglect. None received appropriate burials, causing Philadelphia investigators to suspect the victim as one of their children. However, after questioning the Dudleys and examining their travels in 1957, Police determined the couple – while neglectful parents – were not linked.
Theory Three: On October 31, 1955, less than two years before the Philadelphia Police discovered the victim, an unidentified perpetrator, kidnapped a 2-year-old boy. Someone took Steven Craig Damman from a grocery store in East Meadow, New York. When authorities found the victim, people questioned whether he was Damman because of their comparable ages and bodily features.
Investigators followed up this lead, only to learn Damman had broken his arm before his disappearance, while the victim didn’t appear to have suffered the same fracture. In addition, their footprints did not match, leading examiners to conclude the victim probably wasn’t Damman.
In 2003, law enforcement compared D.N.A. taken from the victim with biological evidence collected from Damman’s sister, and they determined there was no connection between the two children.
After officials exhumed his body in 1998, they reburied him in Philadelphia’s Ivy Hill Cemetery with a new granite headstone: “America’s Unknown Child.” A bench, which the Vidocq Society contributed and the child’s original marker, is also at his gravesite.
Philadelphia has not given up. The community is still looking for answers.
As always my friends, I invite you to do some more research into this case, on your own. This is a truly sad story that I happen to run across and it was with a heavy heart that I wrote about it. However, it is important that we never forget and always keep looking for the truth. As long as someone is remembered- they are never truly gone.
And remember- Be Great at something you are Good at!
** According to The Vidocq Society Facebook page **
“The Vidocq Society was named in honor of Eugène François Vidocq, the brilliant 18th-century French criminal-turned-detective who founded and was the first director of the Sûreté. Members of the Society, mostly drawn from law enforcement and the forensic sciences, work pro bono and apply their collective forensic skills and experience to assist law enforcement in solving “cold case” homicides.
At monthly meetings held in Philadelphia, Vidocq Society Members (V.S.M.’s) evaluate, investigate, refocus, revivify and help the investigating police agencies to solve these cold cases.
V.S.M.’s are forensic professionals and motivated private citizens who, as a public service, donate deductive, scientific and other talents for the common good. A long-unsolved homicide or death is the focus of a Vidocq Society meeting during which the case and its evidence are dissected for members and invited guests, all with an eye towards rekindling or refocusing the investigation.
When cases meet Vidocq’s stringent criteria and the investigating agency seeks our participation, V.S.M.’s serve in the background at the pleasure and direction of law enforcement.
In our role as crime solution catalysts we are equally as satisfied when our participation in a re-investigation moves a case forward incrementally as we are when law enforcement wins the conviction of the person or persons responsible for the crime.